Composing Music with Meaning – Whats the go with Hare Krishna chanting?

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There are some types of music that just go deeper. This is one of them

I just spent the morning working in a house where the cleaner scurried around from room to room trailing a very unique sound emanating from her phone wherever she went.
It happened to be a recording of a Hare Krishna Kirtan. This is where Krishna devotees get together and chant to music. It can’t be mistaken for any other type of music, it’s so unique.

Such a simple form and instrumentation, and yet, after listening for only a short time, this simplistic music seems to drill down into your very soul. You can’t get it out of your head.

What’s with that?

Let’s have a closer look at this ancient chanting music.

The basis for this music is a constant chordal Harmonium, Indian style Mrdanga drums and Constant hitting of Karatalas, (which are little brass cymbal shaped things that you hit together). This instrumental landscape is sung over using a call and response theme, almost always using the words of the Krishna chants. “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare. Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare” First a solo singer sings this phrase to a tune (often with an Indian flavour) then a bunch of devotees sing the exact same phrase back.
This is a way they worship Krishna.
It’s sacred music.
Also, they love partaking in it and they seem to have alot of fun singing it.
Composing music with meaning - Krishna chantinThese Chants are sung at events called “Kirtans”. This is where a bunch of people cram into a Krishna temple and sing these chants for 8, 10 or even up to 24hrs in one continuous session.

I’ve been to one of these as a recording engineer helping a good friend out. Big shout out to Ekendra.
I got the biggest headache that the world has ever seen.
8 hours of constant Karatalas finally got the better of me.

However, that being said, this musical chanting is by far one of the most emotionally effective forms of music in the world.
After listening to this music for a while, you can’t help but feel a sense of calm, peace and ascension.
Not sure if this is a spiritual thing, (Krishna devotees will assure that it is,), it might just be another emotional effect of the music communicating directly to the heart and bypassing our conscious brains.

Composing music with meaning - George HarrisonGeorge Harrison, (need I say it, but, one of the Beatles) said this about Krishna chanting in an interview in 1982.
“Prabhupada, acarya (spiritual master) of the Hare Krishna movement, told me once that we should just keep chanting all the time, or as much as possible. Once you do that, you realize the benefit. The response that comes from chanting is in the form of bliss, or spiritual happiness, which is a much higher taste than any happiness found here in the material world. That’s why I say that the more you do it, the more you don’t want to stop, because it feels so nice and peaceful.”
You can read the whole interview here.

Here’s what the ‘International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)’ says about Krishna music.

composing music with meaning - Street Kirtan
The Krishna Consciousness movement has spread all over the world through the musical chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra:

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare

Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu popularised the chanting of the holy names of Krishna all over India. The maha-mantra is a transcendental sound vibration which awakens love of God in our hearts and minds.

Hare Krishna devotees are seen chanting, singing and performing music in cities and towns all over the world. As with all other activities, music is considered a sacred offering to God.

Although devotees today use many different musical styles, originally devotional music was based on Indian musical concepts of Rag and Tal. Rag is the melodic form while Tal is the rhythmic form.

Rag is derived from a Sanskrit root meaning ‘to colour’. The underlying idea being that certain melodic shapes and scales produce an emotional experience and ‘colour’ the mind.

Tal is best described as time measure and has two main constituents; the duration of the time measure and the distribution of stress within the time measure. Tal, like Rag serves as a basis for composition and improvisation.

Devotees most often use the mrdanga (a drum), harmonium (a hand organ), and karatalas (hand cymbals). Lord Krishna is often depicted playing the flute. For more details have a look at the Devotional Instruments section.

Since ISKCON has had a worldwide following, some devotional songs have been popularised by western artists including George Harrison and more recently Kula Shaker.

Why do they chant in this way?

As mentioned above, Krishna devotees believe “The maha-mantra is a transcendental sound vibration which awakens love of God in our hearts and minds”
That’s why it hasn’t changed in the centuries that it’s been practiced. It has been modernised, but the format and intention still remains.

How would we compose Hare Krishna music?

The first thing to be well aware of is that you may offend Krishna devotees if you do compose this music.

Their belief is that this music is not entertainment, nor is it music for setting a scene, (ie: underscore) but it’s purely for devotion. For worship of Krishna.

With that in mind, and with all of your bases covered and permissions asked, you’ll find it very easy to use some of the methods used here to start composing music with meaning.

Just think – REPETITION

First, have a listen to some traditional Hare Krishna music here.

Once you’ve had a bit of a listen to that example, feel free to search for some more examples. Most traditional Kirtan’s are so similar.
Dynamics are very very constant. Not much variation there at all.
Rhythm is constant
Melody is sung in call and response format and the response is all in unison.
Basically, the whole thing is designed with a couple of important factors in mind.

1 – It’s got to be easy for everyone to sing together.
2 – It has to be easy to keep going on for a long, long time.
3 – It has to be easily heard in the ruckus of a hyped up Krishna temple. Loads of people dancing, singing, talking, etc. The acoustics are usually pretty crap in that situation too, so flat dynamics, constant rhythm and simplicity seem to be the key.

Instrumentally, the foundation of all of this music is the Harmonium.

composing music with meaning - Harmonium playerActually, more accurately, it serves to paint a landscape background for all other instruments to sit over. It’s played with the right hand while the left hand pumps the air through it. (it’s essentially a hand organ. Similar to a piano accordion only less refined.) What the right hand plays is mostly chords with a bit of melody in there to make it interesting, however there doesn’t need to be any melody.
This instrument is the basis for the ‘Rag’ (colour)
The Harmonium fills the acoustic spectrum in one foul swoop preparing the musical space for any other instrument to fit just beautifully.

The next most important instrument (Musically speaking) is the Mrdunga

(or Mrdanga or even Mridunga.)
composing music with meaning - MridungaThis is a double ended hand drum designed to be rested horizontally over the lap while sitting cross legged or carried horizontally using a strap around the neck.
If the Harmonium created the background landscape, the Mrdunga fills it with the trees, rocks, valleys, creeks, etc.
If you try to replicate this using virtual instruments, you would be a genius. The complexities of the rhythms played by this drum are quite vast utilising every part of the drum skin including using the palm to adjust the tension of the skin to create a kind of ‘whuuaap” sound. Kind of like a slowed down drop of water. This type of drumming is very common and very important in indian traditional music. It is the “Tal” of the music. (rhythm)
Honestly, you’d be better off either using sampled rhythms or getting someone to play live and recording them in the studio.

Karatalas are the brightness of the mix.

composing music with meaning - KaratalasThey’re played in a constant, repetitive simple hitting pattern.
‘ting ting ting … ting ting ting … ting ting ting … ‘ That sort of thing.
They accentuate the high end of the spectrum and in a way, represent light, starts, transcendence, etc.
They can be small little hand cymbals or can be the size of plates. They’re quite heavy duty and put out a very loud and high pitched metallic sound.
They’re very penetrating and yet so simple and constant that, although they sound goes straight through your skull, you tend to forget it’s there after a while.

Next come the Vocals.

composing music with meaning - VocalsThere will always be a soloist. This is often a bloke and he sings a line which moves around the scale more in steps than leaps. (They’re easier for everyone else to follow) After he sings his line, a large crowd of mixed men and women, repeat in unison the line the soloist sang.
As I mentioned earlier, the traditional lyrics are
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna (Crowd repeats)
Krishne Krishna Hare Hare (Crowd repeats)
Hare Mare Hare Mare (Crowd repeats)
Mare Mare Hare Hare (Crowd repeats)

Pretty basic, yeah?

Of course, not all Hare Krishna music has these exact lyrics but a large majority does. You would be on safe ground using these.

Other instruments

Composing music with meaning - Krishna FluteAlthough you don’t need them other common instruments are the Electric Bass, Trumpet, and the flute. The flute is considered by Krishna devotees to have special significance because it was the musical instrument depicted in the scriptures played by Krishna himself.

These instruments are there to add colour and individuality to the music. Done well, they work quite nicely. Done poorly, they don’t seem to take away too much from the feel of it either.

So, what is it with this music?

It is ancient, traditional and used by very devoted people to worship their deities. As such it has developed over centuries and changed very little.
Basically, they’ve found their groove.
They’ve figured out what works really well and gone with that … over and over and over again.
When you listen to it for only a short while, you know it.
Whey you listen to it over a long period of time, (providing you don’t get a gigantic headache like me) you feel it.
When you witness a live performance of it, you see it.

Hare Krishna chanting music is very clever music indeed. Some would say, inspired.
It is definitely one of the most effective genres at bypassing the brain altogether and going straight to the heart.

Perhaps try using these ‘repetition’ and ‘call and response’ principles in your own style music and see what effect you get.