Arts & Culture

  Classical Music
  Carnatic Music
  Hindustani Music
  About Raga
  About Tala

Indian Classical Music 

"Nature has endowed this universe with many beautiful life forms, of so many different shapes, sizes and abilities. Most animal forms have the ability to produce sounds and some of them even have the capability to communicate using varied sounds. Man is unique in that he can express his thoughts using sound.", says Swami Jayendra Saraswathy, the Sankaracharya of Kanchipuram. The ability to express thoughts through sounds has evolved into an art which we call music. Music can thus be defined as an art form that arranges sounds in a fashion that follows certain natural principles and provides that special inner feeling of happiness and contentment.

The origin of Indian music is said to be rooted in the Vedas. It is said that God Himself is musical sound, the sound which pervades the whole universe which is called as  Nada-Brahma. The origins of Indian music are therefore considered divine. It is said that the musician has to cultivate an attitude of self-abandonment, in order to fuse with the Supreme Reality, Brahma.

Brahma is said to be the author of the four Vedas, of which the SamaVeda was chanted in definite musical patterns. Vedic hymns were sung in plain melody, using only 3 notes. 

It took a long time for music to come to the form found in present-day India. The most important advance in music was made between the 14th and 18th centuries. During this period, the music sung in the north came in contact with Persian music and assimilated it, through the Pathans and the Mughals. It is then that two schools of music resulted, the Hindustani and the Carnatic. Hindustani music adopted a scale of Shudha Swara Saptaka (octave of natural notes) and Carnatic music retained the traditional octave. During this period, different styles of classical compositions such as Dhrupad, Dhamar, Khayal, etc. were contributed to Hindustani music, along with many exquisite hymns, bhajans, kirtans, etc.

The Tradition of Music

The music of India is a pervasive influence in Indian life. It pervades the big and small events of Indian life, from child birth to death, religious rites and seasonal festivals. Originally, not all developments of music were reduced to writing. To keep their traditional integrity, they were imparted orally from teacher to pupil -- the Guru-Shishya tradition. In the past, there used to be a system of Gurukul Ashram where teachers imparted knowledge to deserving students. 

Swara - The note 

The most basic unit of music is the swara (or note) which simply indicates the position occupied by a particular sound in the audible spectrum. This is also referred to as the Pitch of the sound. Actually, the spectral position is better described as swara-sthana (the position of a note). Inherently, certain sounds 'go together' and certain others do not. This property was realized by man thousands of years ago and is indicated by the term harmony.

Pitch is the musical name for the scientific term Frequency. It denotes the sound of a particular frequency. Since, all musical sounds (of a given pitch) actually constitute a combination of several frequencies, Pitch is more accurately, the predominant frequency of a sound. Given two sounds of two frequencies, the way we hear them comparatively has more to do with the ratio of their frequencies, rather than their difference i.e. we deal with geometric progressions. For e.g. two frequencies which are exact multiples of two (i.e. ration of 2:1) have the highest consonance i.e. they make a pleasing sound together. In fact, in any natural sound, we not only get a fundamental (or dominant) frequency, say x, but also frequencies which are integer multiples, 2x, 3x, 4x etc, usually with decreasing intensity. This series of integer multiple frequencies are called overtones or harmonics (from which words like harmony and harmonium come). Also, the predominant frequency and its second harmonic (i.e. 2x ) are said to be an octave away from each other. Similarly a ratio of 10 is called a decade. The human audible range is usually given as 20Hz to 20,000 Hz, though with age it becomes difficult to hear the highest frequencies. Here, 20Hz and 40Hz are an octave away. 20Hz and 200Hz have a difference of a decade. 20Hz to 200Hz is called the bass decade (or just bass, pronounced base), 200Hz to 2000Hz is the middle decade and 2KHz to 20KHz is the upper decade. The middle decade is the most important part of the spectrum as for as human audibility goes.

Saptaka - The Octave 

A note is a sound of a definite pitch. It is also sometimes called a tone. The Indian name for a Note is Swara (or svara). An Octave refers to a range of notes, with the highest one being two times in frequency compared to the first. Traditionally, in both Indian and western music, music is thought to be made of seven notes. The note after that, i.e. the eighth note would be double in frequency compared to the first. That is the reason for the name Octave (Okt- the root meaning eight in Indo-European). The Indian name for the range of frequencies forming one octave is Saptak i.e. made up of seven notes. Other names for saptak are Sthayi (Sanskrit) or Mandala (dravidian).
Just a note and its overtones can't be used to create music. We need a series of notes. The series of notes have to be such that when used with each other, a pleasant experience results. This series of notes is called a scale, or more correctly, a series of notes differing in pitch according to a specific scheme is called a scale. Traditionally, the Octave is made up of, or divided into, 7 basic notes, the Indian name being Sapta Swara (sapta - seven, swara-note). They are denoted as Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni. After Ni comes Sa', this time, double in pitch compared to the first Sa i.e. an octave higher. Usually three octaves are recognized. The middle octave, most used, is called Madhya Saptaka. The lower octave is called Mandra Saptaka and the higher one Taara Saptaka. So, for e.g.., if the basic reference note Sa is at 240Hz, Mandra saptak would be 120-240 Hz, Madhya Saptak would be 240-480 Hz and Taara Saptak would be 480-960 Hz.

Number Name Called Symbol
1 Shadja or Shadjama Sa S
2 Rishabha  Re/Ri R
3 Gandhara  Ga G
4 Madhyama  Ma m
5 Panchama  Pa P
6 Dhaivatha  Dha D
7 Nishada Ni N

Shruti & Saptaka 

The Indian musical scale is said to have evolved from 3 notes to a scale of 7 primary notes, on the basis of 22 intervals. A scale is divided into 22 shrutis or intervals, and these are the basis of the musical notes. The 7 notes of the scale are known to musicians as Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha and Ni. These 7 notes of the scale do not have equal intervals between them. A Saptak is a group of 7 notes, divided by the shrutis or intervals as follows  

Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

The first and fifth notes (Sa and Pa) do not alter their positions on this interval. The other 5 notes can change their positions in the interval, leading to different ragas.

Raga - The Soul of Classical Music 

A raga is identified by specific tonal material consisting of a particular combination of musical phrases that gives it its distinctive melodic character which is very pleasing to the ear. The number of tones it possesses is fixed; these pitches can often be presented in the form of ascending and descending scales. Many ragas are associated with certain standard musical phrases. It is this trait that most closely ties the raga concept to the ancient Samaveda. Many of these standard phrases are so well known that the informed listener is able to tell immediately which raga is being performed. Regardless of whether the raga performance is vocal or instrumental, a drone (a sustained tone of fixed pitch) is invariably heard in the background. The drone instrument is usually the tambura, which has a long neck and four strings tuned to the basic tones of the raga. Each raga creates an atmosphere which is associated with feelings and sentiments. Any random combination of notes cannot be called a Raga. 

Raga is the basis of classical music. A raga is based on the principle of a combination of notes selected out the 22 note intervals of the octave. A performer with sufficient training and knowledge alone can create the desired emotions, through the combination of shrutis and notes. 

The raga forms the backbone of Indian music, and the laws laid down for the ragas have to be carefully observed to preserve and safeguard their integrity. 

The following points are required in the construction of a Raga  

1. Thaats or sequence of swaras or notes, 
2. Jaatis or classification 
3. Vadi , Samvadi and Vivaadi , the sonent, consonent and dissonant notes
4. Aroha and Avaroha , the ascent and descent of the notes
5. notes that are clustered in a specific way 
6. Shruti, the tone or pich (specific frequency) 
7. Speed. 

Some Important points about Raga

  • Every Raga is derived from some Thaat or Scale. 
  • Ragas are placed in three categories
    • Odava or pentatonic, a composition of five notes 
    • Shadava or hexatonic, a composition of six notes
    • Sampoorna or heptatonic, a composition of seven notes
  • Every Raga must have at least five notes, starting at Sa, one principal note, a second important note and a few helping notes. 
  • The primary note, is the note on which the raga is built. It is emphasized in various ways, such as stopping for some time on the note, or stressing it. The second important note or the secondary corresponds to the primary as the fourth or fifth note in relation to it. 
  • The aroha (ascent) and avaroha (descent) of the notes is very important in every raga. Some ragas in the same scale differ in aroha and avaroha. 
  • In every raga, there is an important cluster of notes by which the raga is identified.
  • There are certain ragas which move in a certain pitch and if the pitch is changed, the raga fails to produce the mood and sentiment peculiar to it. 
  • The speed is divided into three parts : Vilambit (slow), Madhya (Medium) and Drut (fast). 

Another aspect of the ragas is the appropriate distribution in time during the 24 hours of the day for its performance, i.e. the time of the day denotes the raga sung a particular time. Ragas are also allotted a particular time space in the cycle of the day. These are divided into four types 

1. Sandi-prakash ragas or twilight ragas when the notes re and dha are used -- such as Raag Marwa, Purvi. 
2. Midday and Midnight ragas which include the notes ga and ni(komal). 
3. Ragas for the first quarter of the morning and night which include the notes re, ga, dha and ni(komal). 
4. For the last quarter of the day and night, the reagas include the notes sa, ma and pa. 

All the ragas are divided into two groups -- Poorva Ragas and Uttar Ragas. The Poorva Ragas are sung between 12 noon and 12 midnight. The Uttar Ragas are sung between 12 midnight and 12 noon. The variations on the dominant or ``King" note help a person to find out why certain ragas are being sung at certain times. 

The beauty of the raga will not be marred by the time of the day it is sung. It is the psychological association with the time that goes with the mood of the raga. The object of a raga is to express a certain emotional mood and sentiment without any reference to time and season. For a student of classical music, this classification may give an idea as to how to base his reasons for the traditional usage of ragas. 

Another division of ragas is the classification of ragas under six principal ragas -- Hindol, Deepak, Megh, Shree and Maulkauns. From these six ragas, other ragas are derived. The first derivatives of the ragas are called raginis, and each of the six ragas have five raginis under them. Further derivatives from these ragas and raginis resulted in attaching to each principal raga 16 secondary derivatives known as upa-ragas and upa-raginis. 

All the ragas are supposed to have been derived from their thaats. Every raga has a fixed number of komal(soft) or teevra(sharp) notes, from which the thaat can be recognised. In other words, a certain arrangement of the 7 notes with the change of shuddha, komal and teevra is called a thaat. 

Tala - Rythmical Grouping of Beats 

There is a perfect balance in the universe. This balance is the essence of Tala and therefore Tala is in classical music is an important factor. The Tala is the theory of time measure. It has the same principle in Hindustani and Carnatic music, though the names and styles differ. The musical time is divided into simple and complicated meters. When accompanying the dance, vocal and instrumental music, the Tala maintains the balance which is the most essential function of music. Tala is independent of the music it accompanies: it has its own divisions. It moves in bars, and each beat in it is divided into the smallest fraction. 

Rhythm has three aspects: Tala, Laya and Matra. Tala is a complete cycle of Metrical phrase composed of a fixed number of beats. There are over a 100 Talas, but only 30 Talas are known and only about 10-12 are used. 

The Laya is the tempo, which keeps uniformity of time span and it has 3 divisions -- Vilambit, Madhya and Drut. 

The Matra is the smallest unit of the tala. 

Tala is the most important aspect of classical music, and it can be considered to be the very basis or pulse of music. To appreciate the structure of simple and complicated divisions, the improvisations of Tala and its theory, one should listen to an accomplished solo drummer. A classical drum player requires at 8-10 years of methodical training and another 4-5 years of hard practice.

Music of the North India 

The raga and tala are realized within distinctive musical forms. Although a number of these are prevalent in both north and south India, the major types of each region have certain traits in common. The northern classical music (Hindustani music) usually opens with a prelude, the alap. Here only the soloist and the drone instrument are heard; the drum is silent, and the rhythm is free (there is no tala). The purpose of the alap is to explore the essential features of the raga--the important tones and the characteristic phrases--and to establish the appropriate mood. After the alap a short song is sung or played, and here the drum enters for the first time with the tala. The rest of the performance varies, depending on which formal type is being employed. But usually a great deal of improvisation is interspersed with recurring material from the song. The speed gradually increases, often leading to a rousing, extremely quick conclusion. In the north the chief melody instruments are the sitar, a stringed instrument with a body usually made of a gourd split approximately in half, a fingerboard about 1 m (3 ft) long, and seven main strings; the sarod, a stringed instrument about 1 m (3 ft) long, made of wood, with a metal fingerboard and six main strings; the shahnai, a double-reed wind instrument about 0.6 m (2 ft) long with seven finger holes; and the sarangi, a bowed stringed instrument used both for solo playing and for accompanying vocal music. The most common drum in the north is the tabla, which is actually two small drums, each having a single head (membrane).

Music of the South India

The music of southern India (called Carnatic music) is also based on the concepts of raga and tala, but the style of singing and playing and the musical forms are different from those of the north. South Indian music is often dance like in character. Southern ragas are not equivalent to those of the north, and the manner of performing them is characterized by much ornamentation. The talas also are different, and they are performed on a different kind of drum--the mridanga, a cylindrical barrel drum about 0.6 m (2 ft) long with two heads. The principal southern forms begin with a rhythmically free introduction called alapana, which is followed by three main sections: pallavi, anupallavi, and carana. The pallavi melody serves as a refrain throughout, intermingled with a great deal of melodic and rhythmic elaboration and improvisation. The major melody instruments of the south are the vina, a stringed instrument similar in shape to the sitar of the north; the venu, a wooden transverse flute; the nagasvaram, an outdoor double-reed wind instrument with a conical bore, flared bell, and seven finger holes; and the Western violin.

home      contact us