What’s Unique to Western Music

When I was a boy, I trained as a pianist. At age 15, I wanted to become a professional pianist, but my father would not agree. I was furious: I gave up music and took up Judo instead. Still, I can say that I knew about Western music. But when I first went to Japan, I had a surprise. I got to know an old Japanese lady, who had two daughters. Both played the piano, and when I went to their house, they invited me to play the piano. She would listen to that without saying anything.

Sometimes they put on a gramophone record of an orchestra. Usually then the mother would go out of the room. I asked her once, ‘Don’t you like the Western music?’ ‘I don’t like the orchestra music’, she said. ‘It is all so high up: i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i. And she waved a hand high above her head. How ridiculous! But later, I thought about her remark. For the first time I realized that indeed most Western music has the melody high.

Our famous women opera singers are sopranos, who sing mainly at least an octave above middle C. On a violin only the lowest string can sound a middle C. It is true that the orchestra has cellos which play deep notes. But they rarely have the melody. On the piano, most notes of the melody are played by the little finger of the right hand, which sounds the highest note. Pianists have a very strong right-hand little finger. They can rest the hand on a table and hit it strongly with the little finger without moving the others. It makes a powerful rap.

The Japanese lady was right. I had never noticed that Western music is high. And curiously, the older a classical composer became, the higher his music became. It is clearly heard in later Beethoven and Wagner.

Still, her remark did not make me change my appreciation of Western music. Unlike children’s beliefs, the fixed idea had been reinforced by long practice and gone very deep. Theoretically I recognized that she was right. Western orchestral music has slipped higher and higher up the scale and is unbalanced. But it did not lessen my appreciation. When I went to live in India, I became interested in Indian music, which is in a lower register. (In Japan I was always so occupied with Judo, the Japanese language and Zen Buddhism that I had no time to learn any Japanese music.)

Physical training of Budo tries to get rid of the limiting habits we are born with. A strongly right-handed or rightfooted man must develop both sides. Similarly, the inner Budo training must overcome inner habits, for instance, of always being on the attack or always defending and waiting to counter. The compulsive attacker must learn to wait; the compulsive defender must learn how to be a whirlwind.

This principle of learning is hinted at in many of the old Budo traditions. The serene warrior of yin must be able to imitate the raging warrior of yang, though remaining inwardly calm.

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