A song is a journey of one musical note

Written by Krishnan Sivaramakrishnan on 09 May 2020

“Any composition is a journey travelled by one musical note”, says Shankar Mahadevan, singer, musician, and co-founder of Shankar Mahadevan Academy

These 10 words of wisdom were spoken during Milan360™, held on April 18, about a fortnight ago. Milan360™ is the meeting of minds – and of melodious voices – set up on the cloud every month by the Academy. It’s a time when the students of the Academy, handpicked by their teachers, perform a short online classical music concert, one after the other. Shankar Mahadevan tunes in, too, routinely, to offer his keen ears and encouraging words. 

Most students who tune-in come from different time zones, a fact that never fails to excite Shankar Mahadevan. “Milan360™ is a place where morning meets evening”, he once joked. And, by extension, where morning ragas meet evening ragas.

The April 18 edition of Milan360™ was special. It was exclusively devoted to featuring original compositions by the senior students of the Academy. The young artists were Nikita Shanbag (from Dubai, UAE), Himangi Vishwaroop (Pune), Snigdha Prakash (Pasadena, USA), Kushala Prasad (Bengaluru), Anupama Roy (Netherlands) and Arnab Chakraborty (Mumbai). They felt boosted in no small way by the gracious presence of their teacher and mentor, Chaitra Sontakke (Bengaluru), the Academy’s Curriculum Coordinator for Hindustani Vocal Music.

Now, back to those 10 words of wisdom – the point of this story. That one sentence reveals the whole plot of a complex story called song-composing. 

How that one note travels, what routes it takes, what paths it crosses, what pace it goes at, what rhythm it keeps... All of these choices are up to the creator of that composition – the artist.

It’s a journey where no particular destination may be in the mind of the artist, no roads may be in her sight. She stands in the middle of nowhere with no map in her hand. Uncertainty is her constant companion. There’s only a voice in her head that can guide her to where she wants to be – with her composition. 

Indeed, composing a song is the art of finding a place around where to put your foot next, asking just one question as you do that – is this where you want your note to be next? And keep doing that all the way until you sense a place where your note ends its journey.

Artists who’ve started out on this journey are, often, full of questions about how song-composing works – questions that don’t let them rest until they find answers. 

Milan360™ offers an unhurried space for such questions after the participating students have all presented their compositions. And the answers come from Shankar Mahadevan. 

Some such questions cropped up in this conversation on April 18 between four students and Shankar Mahadevan. They tell him of things that block their way when they compose a song. Or when they work with a producer or an engineer to arrange a music score for that song. And he draws from his journeys and shares his wisdom on how they can find the way forward.

We present this conversation in four parts: 

When you work with melody and rhythm.

When you join two parts of a song with a melody.

The fine line between imitation and inspiration.

When you arrange music for a song you’ve created.

Each part, we believe, is a big piece of that wondrous puzzle called song-composing.