Sound of music: With inadequate arrangements at Indian classical music concerts, what's lost in transmission?

“Come, watch me wrestle with the sound system,” grinned my friend as she invited me to her Carnatic concert.

The inadequacy of sound arrangements in our classical music concerts is a fact reinforced too often.

In a recent concert at the Music Academy, after rendering the first piece, sisters Ranjani-Gayatri tossed the question to the audience – “Is the sound OK? Are you able to hear properly?” There were mixed answers since most don’t know how it should sound — beyond the need for a certain level of audibility, most of us have no clue about the various parameters for an optimal sound output. Some in the audience were unhappy with the sound, though they could not say what exactly about it was dissatisfying. The sisters agreed saying that they too were not happy. This must be quite unprecedented – performers and audience having an exchange about the sound output in a concert at a prestigious venue. But then an Indian Classical Music performance can never be absolutely formal and sanitised of other activities. That is one of the endearing things about it.

Sound of music: With inadequate arrangements at Indian classical music concerts, whats lost in transmission?

Representational image. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

As a performer who has had her own share of trouble and frustrations with the “sound system” in the various venues that I have performed, this seemed to me a novel way of tackling the “sound issue”. Since, typically, we don’t conduct a sound check before the concert, performers need someone in the audience to monitor how it sounds in the hall during the concert. However, listeners, even close relatives of the performers, are rarely willing to make a scene by asking the “mic man” to “do something” about the sound, because they don’t know what specifically they must ask him to do. So the sisters’ open question to the entire audience was rather a stroke of genius — only it is not clear it helped.

The underlying reason for the pervasiveness of this problem is simply that sound set up is a specialised skill and we don’t have skilled, knowledgeable people working the sound systems in sabhas. It seems like it is a set of cables connecting the mics to a console and a matter of adjusting the height of the mics and twiddling some knobs. And, in fact, that is all the attention it gets. But it is a much more complex affair. Beginning with the kind of mics, to the placement of the speakers, the acoustics of the hall, not to speak of the intricacies of the equaliser, there are many parameters that need to be brought together with skill and artistry.

The typical scenario in our classical music concerts is that the musicians start off with the sound levels that the sound man sets, stop after the first piece and ask for the sound to be “adjusted”. Sometimes a rudimentary sound check is done just minutes before the concert begins, though again, since everyone is clueless and since it is hastily done, it is only by fluke that things might settle into a tolerable state.

And then we have the stage monitor – today’s performer “cannot” function without “feedback”. But the monitor’s placement and adjustment are again fine skills that elude all concerned.

It has been pointed out that great masters of the past have sung and sung memorably without ever fussing over the sound system, the monitors etc. They never asked for “feedback”. And there is truth in this argument. If one wants to perform, one can — under the direst of circumstances — and perhaps even deliver supreme music. The Srinivasa Sastri Hall in Chennai or the earlier hall of the Dadar Matunga Cultural Centre, in Mumbai, are acoustical horrors. But great concerts have taken place here.

All this is a matter of a luxury becoming a necessity. When mics first came into classical music, there were concerns. Mridangam maestro Palghat Mani Iyer famously refused amplification. His argument was that it would reduce the intensity of the concert experience – the audience would then slack off and not pay unhindered, undivided attention to the music. I have heard stories of Musiri Subramania Iyer’s performance at the Tyagaraja Aradhana at Tiruvaiyaru when he would face a thronging crowd of thousands on the sands — micless. There would literally be pin drop silence as the audience strained to catch every nuance of his santamu leka in Sama. There was doubtless something lost in the quality of the listening experience with the coming of the mic. Just like recording: there are people fervently opposed to the idea of recording concerts. The music is a live, ephemeral thing – catch it as it comes, for it is gone as it comes.

Today both performance and listening attitudes, the energies that are brought to bear upon them, are defined by sound technology. The need is to refine our use of it. Prior sound check is the norm in most professional music shows. Performers coming in hours before the concert to work out the sound levels and balance is ideal, but unlikely to become a reality in Indian classical music for many reasons, the main one being its financial non-viability. Most such concerts are low budget events; sabhas rarely can afford a qualified sound specialist. And, even when they can, they don’t care enough because awareness is low.

Musicians themselves could do well to arm themselves with basic knowledge of sound parameters and then there might be an impact enough to get organisers to acknowledge the need for specialists or at least minimally knowledgeable technicians to work the sound systems.

Generally speaking, there is a casualness about the presentation of our classical music concerts. Little care goes into it. While the ethos of our concerts is casual and informal, and we must cherish that, this does not excuse or warrant insensitivity to basic parameters of the experience.

Our classical music deserves better.

Dr Lakshmi Sreeram is a Carnatic and Hindustani musician and researcher. She writes about art and culture using myth, story, philosophy, and everything in between. Write to her at

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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2019 10:11:51 IST

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