Third Ear Music

We usually listen to music in an active way, reaching out, linear. Certain types of music, however, require a different kind of listening for their appreciation. On Saturday night I went to see Ustad Habib Khan, playing the sitar, and Swapan Chaudhuri on the tablas, at the Vedic Cultural Center in Berkeley, in a performance of ragas, traditional music of India…


To the physical ears this is music that is melodically and timbrally foreign.

I have found that it is possible to listen to this music in another way, not as much physically listening as hearing in a subtle way, a mixture of feeling and hearing.

The musical form itself, a raga, is an extended improvisation by either the flute, sarod, or the sitar, both string instruments. This is usually accompanied by two small pitched drums called tablas, playing complexed improvised rhythms, and by another stringed instrument called a tambura providing a drone background.

Just as listening to certain forms of Western music takes practice, listening to the feelings evoked by non­ Western musics takes practice also, and is equally rewarding, if in a different way. The music that is heard in this “non-physical” way, if you will, felt more than heard, I refer to as “third ear music”. The ragas are especially suitable for this.

On Saturday evening I found myself confronted with the fact that Indian music can be listened to in at least two ways, and I found myself shifting back and forth from one mode of listening to another. Outwardly, the sounds produced by the sitar cover a wide range, from warm and crying sounds, produced by bending or pulling the strings in and out of pitch, to a thin tone that may perhaps seem brittle or harsh to the physical ears. The melodic improvisation is quite interesting in itself.

Inwardly however, I found myself allowing conscious­ ness to drop down beneath the music, so that the physical sounds were on the periphery, and there was then a sense that the im­provisation took place over a steady underlying theme. To me, this is the life of the music that is revealed through the playing .

Each raga began with a solo introduction by the sitar, generally playing slow and expressive lines, and building in momentum. The solo would conclude and at that point all three musicians would continue within the same movement of music that carried the introduction .

As improvisation, the ragas have much in common with other forms of inspired or improvised art, be it jazz music or free form dance. These other forms can also be listened to with the third ear. The performer is drawing closer to expressing the character of the music and gradually merging with the spirit, until the musician or dancer disappears, and the theme, the dance, the art itself alone remains.

Mr. Chaudhuri and Mr. Khan played off or each other’s improvisation quite a bit, and while their interplay had warmth and humor, they were provoking each other to go more deeply into the music. Mr. Chaudhuri was amazing. He played the tops, sides, and center of the tablas to bring out different tones. Mr. Khan would answer at times in call and response fashion and at other times the unison playing showed their intuitive connection. It was a joy.

As I followed their feelings, it appeared as if it took awhile for them to get into the flow of the music, but shortly before the mid-point of the concert they were truly taken by the music.

I inwardly followed the musicians’ immersion and as a natural result, I was no longer listening to the outward form of the music. It was still there, but I had gone with them into the music.

When the performers, the music, and audience are joined­ in the moving soul of the music, there is really no separation, and I believe this is what people come to experience when they listen to any inspired music. I noticed again on Saturday that listeners will often approach Indian music in a devotional way.

The same could be said for the young adherents of some new wave music. They go to participate in the music much more fully than if they were to sit back expecting to be entertained, while rationally dissecting the elements of the music. The listeners come to throw themselves into that current that lies beneath the music and become a part of it. They are much like the faithful that go to ritually bathe in the Ganges.

Much is missed if this music is only physically listened to. This is true also for certain 20th century forms of abstract music, forms that avail themselves well to third ear listening. Active listening is reaching out to follow, and this definitely has its place. In a receptive approach much more is literally taken in. Following Indian music in a receptive way, as I rediscovered last Saturday, leads to an inner quiet in which the Music is heard.

Afterwards, I felt like a river had passed through me, but I also felt the limitation, the inadequacy of words to express this. It is formless and so simple. There is inspired sound above an Indian river, uplifting. There are two worlds, cheek to cheek.