I’ve always heard told and I’ve always told others that you should listen to AR Rahman’s albums multiple times to actually enjoy it. Many people, especially older people who enjoy lamenting the sad state of Indian music these days, have said this makes no sense and the mere fact that we need to listen to it multiple times shows the drop in quality. Recently, after watching a documentary about the way a human brain works and thinking about my thesis it suddenly struck me of why this is the case and as I now like to say how my thesis is connected to Rahman’s music!
TO understand what I mean, let me first explain the basic idea of the documentary and how the human brain works. While we have 5 sense organs which are helping us constantly sense the world around us our brain does not process everything that we see or hear. This manifests itself in various ways. When you’re immersed in reading a book or looking at some thing you might not hear someone calling you. This is also the basic way in which a magician pulls of his illusions by misdirecting our attention. There was an interesting video in the documentary of a guy presenting a simple magic trick which the viewers were asked to watch carefully. While watching the man do his trick, neither me nor my friend who was watching with me saw a 6 foot tall bear, rabbit and gorilla walk behind the magician. Apparently , even if our brain doesn’t receive all the information obtained by the senses, it still creates a complete and comprehensible picture of the world for us. It is not like we saw a hole in the world where the animals had come.
So how does the brain determine what information is to be processed? While the exact mechanism is not known, there are a few theories that explain how we process information. Firstly there is the concept of “chunking”. Chunking refers to the process by which we group together similar information into “chunks”. Chunking information can be thought of as the brain trying to compress more information into lesser space. The original revolutionary paper by Miller that proposed this idea suggested that humans can process 7 +- 2 such chunks of information. More recent studies suggest that we can cognitively process only 4+- 2 chunks of information at any given time. The other important idea is that the brain processes information that it believes to be most relevant or important to the task currently being undertaken. This is why, while reading we see the words clearly while we don’t hear someone calling. This is also why we are so easily fooled by a good magician.
Bear with me for one last interesting and relevant idea which is easier to explain with an example. Have you ever noticed that as soon as you learn a new word and its meaning, we start noticing it everywhere. It’s only recently I learned the singlish word ‘ang mo’. Since then I’ve been hearing all the local singaporean taxi drivers and hawker stall uncles use the term. Obviously, I’ve just not been listening to that word even though I’ve been hearing it. Though I don’t have references for this I think this can be easily explained. When we learn something new our brain learns to associate that “something” with other things and thus it can more effectively make it a part of some pre existing “chunks” and encode the information for storing. Basically, the brain finds efficient ways to encode information so that it can work around its limited capacity.
So how does all this relate to a Rahman song? Well, I’ll need one more example for this. When trying to sing a song, a trained singer will be more easily able to grasp the notes and the tune because he is able to understand and identify the notes better. An untrained singer might be able to sing just as well but he will most probably have to listen to it a few more times to ascertain the notes, the subtleties and the intricacies in the music. Finally, what’s so special about Rahman’s music? More often than not, a lot of his songs are very complex with multiple layers to the music. This means that when we hear the song the first time our brain only processes some of these “layers”. But on listening to it a second time, since the “layer” that we have heard before is already familiar, our brain manages to encode it efficiently which frees up space for us to take in more “layers”. Don’t think it makes sense? To take a recent example consider the song “hawa hawa” from the movie Rockstar. It is unlikely that a person hearing the song for the first time will hear the intricate music being played on the violin (or is it some other string instrument?? ) in the background. So only after listening to the songs a few times are we able to process all the different instruments and the subtleties in the music and finally hear it in all it’s glory…