A Conversation with Nitin Sawhney CBE on Why We Make Music.

Nitin Sawhney CBE

Nitin Sawhney CBE, recipient of the Ivor Novello 2017 Lifetime Achievement award, is one the most distinctive and versatile musical voices around today.

Sawhney has recorded multiple albums, film soundtracks and compilations, encompassing over 60 film and TV scores and is established as a world-class producer, songwriter, touring artist, BBC Radio 2 and club DJ, multi-instrumentalist, theatrical, dance, videogame and orchestral composer and cultural/ political commentator.  He holds 6 honorary doctorates from various UK universities along with 2 fellowships and works as Ambassador for/sits on the board of multiple charities. He has received over 20 major national and international awards for his work and is a member of the academy of motion picture sciences (Oscars), BAFTA and the US recording academy (Grammys).

Sawhney is also the new Chair of the PRS Foundation, the UK’s funding body for new music and talent development.   Sawhney’s keen interest in science and maths has led to appearances with Brian Cox for the Infinite Monkey Cage, with Chris Packham for a natural history documentary, various TEDx talks about music, physics and maths, and appearances at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the Stanford Linear Particle Accelerator (with whom he collaborated) and a VIP visit with actor, the late John Hurt to the Jet Propulsion Laboratories at Pasadena. 

In this exclusive interview, I spoke to Nitin Sawhney CBE on the fundamentals of why we make music.

Q: Why do we make music? 

[Nitin Sawhney]: Music is woven into the fabric of the universe. As far back as Pythagoras and Kepler, scientists were writing about the fact that music was intrinsic in the planets… part of the harmonic series in sound. Pythagoras wrote Music of the Spheres and Johannesburg Kepler wrote Harmonices Mundi, addressing the fact that music is an intrinsic part of the way the universe is. We also have a whole branch of knowledge called zoomusicology, which shows that an appreciation of music and sound is a part of nature, not just unique to humans. In his book The Greater Animal Orchestra, Bernie Krause Writes of the geophony and the fact that animals use music all the time for communication, survival and reproduction. We now know that Whales have complex music that appears to have a tradition, birds like nightingales use song to attract a mate and that chimpanzee brains are capable of oscillatory phase-locking enabling them to hear musical intervals in a very similar way to humans, and to experience displeasure at awkward musical intervals.  Animals also respond to beats through a process called entrainment.There’s a Sea Lion called Ronan and a Cockatoo called Snowball who scientists showed responding to beats. In the wild this makes sense; animals need rhythm to survive- peacocks dance a certain way to impress their mates- and we (as human beings) need sound to move in certain ways. I do believe we have an intrinsic affinity with music, with musicality… something that isn’t just about an intellectual understanding, but which goes back to how we look at scales, and how we’ve evolved music for pleasure. Music is built into our neurology, our survival instincts and our communication.

Q:  What is the link between music and culture?

[Nitin Sawhney]: Music is part of culture, we use it to establish our identity in tribal ways, and that tribalism can play-out in through genres. Back in the 1960s you’d have rockers and mods attacking each other who felt affiliated to their group through a type of music. We feel a tribal connection with the music that we listen to in groups, we connect to people that way. When the Southall riots happened in the UK in the 1970s, Bhangra became something that a lot of young Asians felt was an emblematic sound for them… they used this music from the Punjab region of India to say, ‘this is who we are, this is how we identify ourselves!.’

The connection between music and identity makes sense. Music allows us to express our soul and feelings in a way that’s very difficult to replicate with words. I’ve spent more of my life playing music than I have speaking, and I find it a much more effective way of communicating my feelings and thoughts than words have ever been.

Q: How do you begin a creative process?

[Nitin Sawhney]: If you’re an artist, you start with catharsis. You have to express your own feelings. If you’re collaborating with people, you may talk about having feelings, thoughts or opinions in common that may reflect your interactions with society…

I’m always trying to find music that expresses the deepest aspects of my soul and what my emotional state might be, but which also might be bothering me at any given time. As artists, we all have a symbiotic relationship with society, politics and everything going on around us. It’s very difficult to make music in isolation. You could argue that the purest art is the individual making music in the corner of their room, alone, without an audience- but ultimately artistic expression is shared, and so it’s important to engage with the world.

For me, I think of music as being an expression that I’m creating authentically on a given day. I genuinely believe that if music comes from your heart and soul, that people will hear that and will be able to connect with the truth of it. For a musician, that’s really important- you have to be true to yourself and to the feelings you have when you make music. If I start playing a piece of music, I start from a feeling… I’ll close my eyes and start playing. Yes, I’ve had lots of training as a classical musician but that’s never my starting point. I never start by thinking intellectually about what I want to create, it always starts from a place of feeling.

Q: How do you know when you are happy with a piece of work?

[Nitin Sawhney]: ‘Happy’ is a very difficult word for me to navigate, particularly in these times.

In terms of music- it’s like a picture… it feels painted when I don’t feel I need to add anymore to it… when it feels like something I would listen to or respond to. Sometimes I’ll walk away from a piece of music for a day or two, and I’ll come back to it, listen to it, and think ‘well, I enjoyed that… It elicited the kind of response in me that I want it to elicit in others perhaps…’ As an artist, you have to go with your intuition as to when the right time is to let go, otherwise you end up working on things forever. Every picture could be added to, but not necessarily improved… the instinctual piece is that which tells you that a picture is now where you want it to be.

I’ve always regarded making albums or pieces of music like diary entries. They are a way to get across something I’m feeling at the time. They’re not things I judge too much because I recognise that they are of the moment…. Spontaneous expressions of feelings in response to a time.

Q:  What does the craft of musicianship add to an understanding of life? 

[Nitin Sawhney]: Music leads you to a greater understanding. Einstein said that relativity came to him through musical intuition- he was a great violinist, and was also Chair of the Princeton Orchestra. Bach had a phenomenal, and intuitive, understanding of mathematics too. If you look at his Fuge Compositions, you can actually see fractals emerging. Indian classical music works in time cycles. You have to be able to calculate- spontaneously- from wherever you are in a given time cycle (which could be 17 beats or 11 ¾ beats), how to get a phrase to fit perfectly three times landing on the first beat at the beginning of the cycle. It’s incredibly complex.

Music is also incorruptible in many ways. I can hear when music isn’t authentic, or when it isn’t coming from the heart and soul. I think a lot of us are equipped with that ability to hear authenticity in music, and it’s perhaps easier to hear in music than it is in the world of words where people are very efficient at deception and manipulation.

Music is a pure, universal, language that can transcend boundaries at a time. Particularly now, when politicians are using semantics to erect more boundaries, music continues to be more and more relevant to give us a deeper understanding of what is happening in our world.

Q: Does music connect with spiritual and transcendental experiences?

[Nitin Sawhney]: If you look at the origins of music, it’s almost exclusively been devotional and associated with spirituality. Whether we look at the spirituals, gospel music, or Sufi ghazals and Quawalli’s you see this. In early western civilisation you see the link too with Gregorian chanting and the fact that Bach himself was a church organist, deriving his musicianship and composition partly through his spiritual understanding or transcendence. Beethoven transcended geographical and cultural barriers when he was 46 years old (in 1816), copying down notes from Sanskrit, Hindu Scriptures. At this point in his life, he’d become totally deaf and was looking for inspiration from spiritual sources rather than the world of sound- and it’s interesting that some of his greatest work came from that time.

Transcendence of the physical constraints and boundaries of our existence, and of sound itself, can be achieved through music. It’s an interesting contradiction, right? That music can help you transcend everything, even sound…

Q: What separates the great pieces of music? 

[Nitin Sawhney]: I don’t think there is a formula, or any single factor involved in creating music that appeals to people at different times, or which has a sense of artistic immortality. Music will touch people in different ways, it’s about empathy and relevance. The best music for me captures a zeitgeist, captures something of the time and something of what we feel. That’s why- and how- we can empathise. At its best, music is empathic… we can relate to it… it moves us and makes us feel connected.

Q:  What do you hope your legacy will be?

[Nitin Sawhney]: It’s nice when you go to another country and you suddenly hear some of your music or realise that it was played at someone’s birth or wedding. Over the years, that idea that I’ve created music that’s been present at people’s epiphanies and key moments is very humbling. At the same time… I don’t think ahead to that. My hope is that I can try to help and inspire young musicians to make the best of what they have and find a career in music the same way that I have been very blessed to. I try and work with charities and organisations to mentor young musicians and artists too… for me, that’s where the legacy is… not in a narcissistic, ego-trip, way but in a very real way. I think it’s dangerous to think of legacy in terms of ego.

I do hope that people listen to my music in years to come, but more than that I hope that I’ve had an influence on young artists and helped them develop their careers, and their lives.


Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.

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