oral transmission: motivation and memorization

Allen Thrasher athr at loc.gov
Wed Jun 11 23:16:26 UTC 1997

On Thu, 12 Jun 1997, S Krishna wrote:

> In South India, Carnatic music was( and is) still taught as an oral
> tradition.This style of music emphasizes Bhakti and it is not uncommon 
> to meet people who can remember the lyrics of 150+ Krtis.( Of late there 
> has been a profusion of books and other aids, but the traditionalists 
> stick to the oral tradition). I must contrast this
> tradition with the other tradition of singing "film-songs" or
> "love lyrics" or whatever. No musician worth his or her name will
> ever sing from memory...A tattered and torn , yellowing note book
> ( with the lyrics) seems to be a sine qua non, irrespective of
> the quality of singing.(I've seen people of the level of  
> S.P.Balasubramaniam and K.S.Chitra all the way to our ex-neighbour
> sing film-songs the same way;-)).

Could the behavior of the filmi geet singers be because they have to
produce a much larger  number of songs than the Carnatic classical
musicians, and a lot of them are in many ways very much like each other,
and the audience will not accept 'contamination' of one song by another as
audiences of traditional _folk_ songs will, so they have to rely on the
written or printed word to make sure they get the lyrics word perfect?

If the audiences do want word perfect repetitions, this may be in part
because they have access to printed versions of the lyrics and to audio
recordings, which of course always repeat the same lyrics.

Another feat of memory (not relative to the above particular point),
belongs to an Irish-American traditional accordianist in Chicago I have
heard of.  His practice consists of going through a 3-inch spring binder
of single spaced lists of _names_ of tunes and playing them off.

Finally, on the possibility of the vik.rtis having been devised without
the use of writing, it occurs to me that some evidence for its possibility
may be lent by the children's practice of indulging in various kinds of
regular transposition of syllables or phonemes, in "double-Dutch" or "the
nines" as they were discussed here a month ago.

Allen W. Thrasher

The opinions expressed do not represent those of my employer.

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