Four of the swaras are mutable in a flatted version. For example,
you can see by the diagram that the space between Sa and the
second note, Re, has three possible steps, or three microtones.
Any sound played in these three microtones will be named komal Re (Re flat).
The choice of how much to flatten the Re is up
to interpretation by the musician in accordance with the raga
he is playing or singing. For example, as described and sung
by Sayeeduddin Dagar in a vocal class I attended, if it is
an early morning raga which always features a komal Re, and
the sun has not quite risen, the komal Re will be struck or
sung closer to the Sa, say at microtone #2. As the sun rises,
the artist will actually adjust this komal Re accordingly to
the #3 or #4 tone. We are talking very subtle here, but once
you tune into it and hear a master doing it, you will begin
to deeply appreciate this ancient musical culture. It may move
you to tears of rapture. The other notes that can be komal are Ga, Dha and Ni.
The only note that can be made sharp is
Ma, the 4th. Called tivra Ma, it will usually be at the #12
tone, but it of course can be “bent” by the musician
to give additional emotion or meaning
The thing about Sa is that it does not represent a specific
universal pitch. Sa is the first note of your scale, the home
pitch of the raga, but it is not necessarily, for example,
the note “middle C” on the piano. I have to bring
this up because it seems to confuse and alarm non-musicians
when I tell them Sa can be any note. I think it
is generally regarded that “Do” represents middle
C on the piano, thus the diagram for the Western chromatic
scale gave you the letters associated with that system.
The reality is that the sitar and the sarod sound best in
the pitch of C#, so Sa becomes C#. With bamboo flutes, the
longer the bamboo, the lower the pitch, but as far as the human
body can stretch, there is no way you could play a bamboo flute
in middle C. The bamboo flute Hariprasad Chaurasia plays is
in E, so for him Sa is E. Sachdev’s flute is in F, so
his Sa is F. Female vocalists generally sing in a range which
puts their Sa in A, male singers anywhere from C to F. The
rest of the scale is built from Sa.
Just sing a comfortable note right now with your full voice
and hold it for a few seconds ... that is probably your personal
Out of these seven basic elements of Indian music, including
the komal (flat) and tivra (sharp) variations, ten parent scales
called taats (also spelled thats) have been born. Some of the
taats are exactly the same as some of the Western scales, particularly
the jazz scales, but some you may never have conceived of.
From these ten taats literally thousands of ragas are created.
A raga is the form of Indian music, the blueprint, sort of
like the form of a sonata in Western music. It is built up
in stages, like movements, from slow to fast, andante to allegro
to presto. However one should be careful not to draw too deeply
a comparison with the Western form. The raga is truly sophisticated
in its originality and basically is incomparable.
The form of raga begins with the alap, a note by note revelation
of the raga without rhythmic accompaniment which is an introduction
not only to the raga but to the musician’s inner feel
of it, and moves on to the gat, the composition of the melody,
and then on to increasingly faster tempos including rapid melodic
riffs known as taans, and usually ending with a thrilling rhythmic
section called jhala.
The ten parent scales, or taats, in Indian music and the jazz
modal counterparts are:
( ’ means tivra - sharp, underline means komal - flat)
BILAWAL S R G M P D N S (Mode I: Ionian)
KALYAN S R G M’ P D N S (Mode IV: Lydian)
KHAMAJ S R G M P D N S (Mode V: Mixolydian)
BHAIRAV S R G M P D N S (Mode III: Phrygian)
PURVI S R G M’ P D N S
MARWA S R G M’ P D N S
KAFI S R G M P D N S (Mode II: Dorian)
ASAVARI S R G M P D N S (Mode VI: Aeolian)
BHAIRAVI S R G M P D N S
TODI S R G M’ P D N S
(No Indian scale equal to Mode VII: Locrian)
From these ten scales, which are the notes of the ten basic
ragas, many variations are made, each variation becoming a
specific raga. Each raga invokes a certain mood, a time of
day, a feeling. Some of the variations are made by deleting
notes from the scale. There are 5, 6, and 7 note scales and
sometimes that applies only to the ascending or descending
half (the Sa is only counted once, the octave of Sa is included
here to complete the sound of the scale). Each raga lays emphasis
on one main note, called vadi, has a second most important
note, samvadi, and may have an excluded note, a note that is
never played, vivadi.
An example of a variation on the Kalyan taat is Raga Hindole.
While the basic Raga Kalyan is a peaceful raga played after
teatime near sunset, Hindole is a springtime raga with a bright
and lively, upward lifting energy. The scale is: S G M’ D
N S .
Another variation on Raga Kalyan uses both the tivra Ma and
the natural or shudh Ma. Two other favorite variations on Kalyan,
both 5 note or pentatonic scales, are Raga Hans Dwani (the
sound of the swan): S R G P N S and Raga Bhupali: S R G P D
S. If you can sound out these scales, you can see how changing
just one note changes the whole feeling of the scale. This
would give you a glimpse of the diversity and complexity of
I said earlier that Indian music does not use harmonies like
chord structures. It does make use of a resonating drone sound,
however, which gives immense body to the melody line. The instrument
used for this drone sound is the tamboura, sometimes spelled
tanpura. It is made of a 30" to 42” wooden stem fitted into a big, round-shaped dried gourd. It has 4 strings, which are most often tuned to the notes:
Pa (5th) Sa (octave) Sa (octave) Sa (tonic). The strings rest
on the curved surface of the bridge where
pieces of thread are inserted to create the buzz of the rich
overtones. The inner surface of the tamboura is intricately
carved to enhance the resonance within the gourd.
To play the tamboura hold it upright and place one hand parallel
to the strings. Using the middle finger for the first string
and the index finger for the rest of the strings, slightly
depress the strings while sliding the finger sideways across
the strings in a continuous cycle.
The constant drone of the tamboura helps the musician find
the precise intonation and strangely enough it also helps to
find the mood, inspiration and emotion of the piece. It is
the ultimate trance instrument.
There are variations in the size of tambouras, which allow
for the different pitch for Sa, and some tambouras have 5 strings.
The rhythms in India are another story entirely. I can only
offer here a brief glimpse. My experience, as with any beginning
classical Indian music student, was to have lessons not only
in my chosen instrument, but also in vocal, in precision tuning
and playing of the tamboura, and in the basics of tabla playing.
The tabla is a set of two quite sophisticated hand drums used
exclusively in the classical music of northern India.
The first tal or beat pattern that is taught is a 16 beat
rhythm called teen tal. You have to play it and repeat it until
it gets in your bones. Over and over, the 16 beats with their
natural break points, pulses into your body until you no longer
think about it, the rhythm takes you over.
Teen tal is broken up into four 4-beat patterns with two clearly
defined halves, sum (beat 1 represented by +) and kali (beat
9 represented by o). If you have ever attended Indian music
concerts, you may have noticed either the musicians themselves
or, most likely, fellow audience members clapping their two
hands together on the sum and turning one hand palm upward
to make “the sound of one hand clapping” on kali.
Tals have words which go with each beat, in imitation of the
actual sound the tabla produces. Teen tal goes like this:
One of my favorites is a seven beat tal called rupak, divided
into one pattern of 3 beats and two patterns of 2 beats. The
melody, or gat, of a raga I know in rupak tal begins on the
4th beat, so even the tals can have variations. Rupak tal kind
of swings. Can you feel it?
Listening to Indian music is healthy and relaxing. I hope
you enjoy your exploration.