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Music

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Music (vādita) is the making of sounds in a structured manner for the purpose of creating a pleasing effect. The two fundamental characteristics of Indian music were and remain mood (rāga) and rhythm (tālāvacana, D.II,159) and the elements within it were the notes (sāra), the scales (gāmā), the tones (mucchanā) and the pauses (ṭhānā). During the Buddha’s time, refined music was played by orchestras of five instruments (Th.398). The most popular instrument in the orchestra or played solo was the lute (vīṇā). It consisted of the sounding board with a parchment stretched over it (cammapokkhara), the belly (doṇi), the arm (daṇḍa), the head (upavīṇā), the seven strings (sattatantī) which were plucked with the fingernails (agganakha), and the plectrum (koṇa), usually made of ivory (Ja.II,252; IV,470; S.IV,197).

The Buddha commented that such lutes in the hands of skilled musicians could produce music that was ‘captivating, melodious and enchanting’ (S.IV,197). He had a deep knowledge of and appreciation for fine music, probably as a result of his princely upbringing. He mentioned (Ja.II,253) that a lute had to be tuned to the high pitch (uttamamucchanāya mucchetvā vādesi), the middle pitch (majjhimamucchanāya) and finally with slack strings (sithila). When he heard Pañcasikha sing to the accompaniment of his lute he commented that ‘the sound of your strings blends well with the sound of your voice and the sound of your voice blends well with the sound of your strings’ (D.II,267). However, he also knew that a transformed mind could offer far more joy than any song or symphony. The Theragāthā says: ‘Music from a five-piece orchestra cannot arouse as much delight as having a one-pointed mind with perfect insight into things.’ (Th.398).

One of the eight Precepts is to avoid playing or listening to music, no doubt because it hinders the development of mental stillness and peace (A.I,212). Music or singing has never been used in the pūjās of the Theravāda Buddhist tradition although in Sri Lanka people sometimes do what is called the Hevisi Pūjā, the offering of sound, which includes drumming. The music of trumpets, drums and cymbals is an essential part of most Tibetan pūjas while gongs and bells are used in Chinese Buddhism. See Chanting.

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