Archive for June, 2010

Ragas in Indian Music – FAQ2

June 16, 2010

Ragas in Indian Music

1. What defines music?

Music is any sound that is pleasant.

2. What is sound?

Sound is a set of vibrations produced in the air. It may be produced by clapping two solids together, or a flowing liquid, or a blowing air. The vibrations are a set of several frequencies with which air vibrates. Contrary to this there are sounds which dominantly have only one frequency, like plucking the strings of a Tanpura or Vina. There are sounds which are of instant duration (clapping your hands) compared to others of longer duration (striking a gong). There are sounds which are produced repeatedly on regular intervals (running train) or irregular intervals (car horns during traffic jams). From the above we instantly recognize the sounds that are pleasant – a) sounds which are dominant on single frequency, b) sounds which are of some discernable duration and c) sounds which occur at regular intervals. These are the sounds known as notes and beats in music. They give rise to melody and rhythm.  

3. When does the sound become music?

Many times we listen to sounds from one, two or more sources, simultaneously or in quick succession. If the two sounds are of same dominant frequency, they produce unison (resonance); if they are of two ‘agreeable’ frequencies they produce harmony (consonance); if they are of two ‘acceptable’ frequencies they produce assonance (musical); otherwise they produce dissonance (unmusical, noise). In Indian musical parlance, we may say, Vadi, Samvadi, Suswaram, Apaswaram, respectively. A sound with a dominant frequency is generally referred to as a ‘swara’ or ‘note’. A melody is produced if a set of ‘acceptable’ notes are sung or played in any instrument, in an ordered sequence. A harmony is produced if a melody is accompanied by another one or more in a way to produce a consonance. Both melody and harmony can be further enhanced by setting them to a rhythmic pattern of beats produced by other instruments. 

4. What is a Raga?

Raga in Indian Musical system is a defined melodic pattern of notes. Indian classical music heavily depends on melody unlike western classical music which depends on harmony. There are many aspects which define a Raga. They are typically:

–         acceptable set of notes (loosely called as scale)

–         Rules of usages of these notes in ascent and dissent

–         Frequent or rare usages of a few of these notes

–         Staying on and/or glancing over a few specific notes

–         Use of a ‘foreign’ note in a highly specific sequence

–         Flatness of a note or gliding and waving over specific notes   

These characteristics of ragas are evolved over a long period of practice of these ragas. Many of these definitions cannot be codified in any form except by listening and absorbing. Hence these ragas continually evolve over time. In carnatic music, we are lucky that these raga forms and definitions are preserved in the form of thousands of compositions. In major ragas there are umpteen numbers of compositions which preserve these ragas very effectively over centuries.

5. What is a scale?

As our ancient music evolved there were attempts to integrate them under a common grammar. Our first grammarian was probably Bharata Muni, though there could have been other contemporary grammar texts like Silappadikaram of Tamil origin. But Bharata Muni in his Natya shastra could have integrated other existing texts also in his treatise. Several of these texts mention 22-sruthis as the basis for our music. ( These 22 shrutis were grouped into 7-unequal intervals in two different ways called as gramas, namely shadja grama, and madhyama grama:
Shadja grama:  S  4  R  3  G  2  m  4 P  4  D  3  N  2
Madhyama grama:  S  4  R 3  G  4  m  2  P  4  D 3  N  2

The melodies existing in those times were probably classified into these basic groupings by adopting modal shifts known as murchanas. These gramas may be loosely called as scales. But they are very different from present day scales.

The concept of present day scales has been imported from the western music. In the West an octave of eight notes are defined starting from a note of a specific frequency to its resonant note of double the frequency. This octave (set of eight notes) was divided into 12 equal intervals to give us 12 semitones as they call it, thus sacrificing some amount of consonance and assonance between notes. This system was called ‘equi-tempered’ as opposed to another system called ‘just-tempered’ which takes care of consonance ratios. These notes are denoted as

C, D1, D2, E1, E2, F1, F2, G, A1, A2, B1, B2, C

Still we have only seven notes; C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. Except the 1st and 5th note (C and G), all other notes have variations. Using these notes scales were created. Western musical instruments are tuned accordingly.

Somewhere in the 17th century this concept of scale was adopted by theoreticians of carnatic music. They were also influenced by the keyed instruments of western music like piano and harmonium. Hence attempts were made to fit our ancient musical system into the keys of the above instruments. At this point scales were introduced in carnatic music, to group all the notes used in a raga.    

It is in this period that a new factor called ArOhaNa-AvarOhaNa came to be incorporated as a characteristic of a rAga. Prior to this the ArOhaNa-AvarOhaNa, in the manner of a formula, had not been mentioned in any works. The incorporation of ArOhaNa-avarOhaNa as a lakshaNa of a rAga influenced the definition of scales. Though our ancient musical system is based on 22 Sruthis (or even more), the scales were defined using only the 12 notes as above as:

Sa, ri1, ri2, ga1, ga2, ma1, ma2, Pa, da1, da2, ni1, ni2, Sa.

Our ancient ragas like Varali and Nattai used notes that could not be accommodated in this scheme. Hence, as an approximation, 16 swarasthanas were defined among these 12 notes as:    

Sa, ri1, (ri2/ga0), (ri3/ga1), ga2, ma1, ma2, Pa, da1, (da2/ni0), (da3/ni1), ni2, Sa.

The swaras ga0 and da3 were required to accommodate ancient ragas, like Varali and Nattai respectively. Using these 16 swarasthana, 72 basic scales were ‘created’ in carnatic music as ‘Melakarthas’, though most of these scales did not exist in actual practice. The ragas existing prior to this period were forcibly fitted into this scheme. New ragas were also created. Saint Thyagaraja and Mutthu Swamy Dikshatar composed  krithis to popularize these newly ‘created’ scales/ragas.

Thus in carnatic music theory, we obtained 72 basic scales.

(For more on this please refer to FAQ-1 on the subject by clicking on the following link) 

6. Will you say that scale is not important for a raga?

Scale, if it is meant to list the notes used in a raga, it is useful. But it can never be a unique definition of a raga. There may be two or more ragas using the same scale: (eg) mayamalavagowla and nadanamakriya. These ragas are very different in their moods and ranges. Conversely there are ragas which cannot be bound to any specific scale as we know now: (eg) Anada Bhairavi and Natakurinji. There are some features of ragas which cannot be codified into any scale. Any attempt to do so will only restrict their range and application. Such defining features are: 

Vakra prayoga: where notes of a scale are used in a non serial fashion – like pGmrs in raga Kanada.

Varjya proyogas: Skipping over a note of a scale in some phrases – (eg) skipping ma in Todi

Bhashanga swaras: Taking in a foreign note outside the scale in some prayogas – (eg) both Nishadas in Begada. 

7. What do you say about the ragas created based on the 72 scales?

Even though initially these 72 scales were called melakarthas, gradually people started setting them up as ragas. Similarly new ragas were created from these scales using sampoorna/shadava/audava combinations of 7/6/5 notes in the arohana/avarohana. All these ragas are heavily dependent on the scale and many times sound similar in some phases. Most of them have failed to evolve their own unique characteristics apart from the notes they use. However, at least some of these ‘created’ ragas have evolved into unique raga patterns.

I quote Professor N.Ramanathan ( 

  •            rAga is not a tune, melody or meTTu. There may be more than two tunes in a rAga.
  •            The notion of rAga is not based merely on the svara-s or on the svarasthAna-s.
  •            The behaviour or the manner in which the svara-s move about and their sancAra-s, bestow the individuality to a rAga.
  •             A rAga consists of svara-s some of which are very strong or profuse in the melodic movements while some others are relatively weak or rare.  

8. I have gone through your earlier note on Swaras, Swarathanas and Sruthis. I have somewhat understood the derivation of 22 Sruthis as proposed in the above note. Do you mean to say the Melakartha scheme has ended our concept of 22 Sruthis? 

No. Not exactly. Neither that was the intention. Melakartha scheme has actually achieved quite a few things: i) it has enabled our classical music to be played on keyed instruments like harmonium, though not perfectly, ii) it has enabled new scales/ragas to be developed and evolved, iii) it has enabled better codification of our musical scripts. 22-sruthi concept was expected to survive this development, at least through the ancient (pre-melakartha) ragas existing before this development (16th Century).

9. What are these pre-melakartha ragas? Do they retain there original forms? 

As per Mr. Ramanathan, there were only about 67 numbers of naturally evolved ragas existing at the turn of 15th Century. Some of them have evolved from Tamil musical system of PANN’s; some more of them from other hymns and folk music systems. Some of them existed in Hindustani system. A few came from other countries. Many of them still retain their original forms, thanks to the multitude of compositions in these ragas. Some of these ragas have changed forms but still retaining there micro tones (nutpa sruthis). But lighter forms of these ragas used in devotional and light music are now following the 12-notes pattern as dictated by keyed instruments like harmonium. This may eventually lead to some loss of nutpa sruthis, which is unfortunate.

 10. What about the ragas invented based on melakartha scheme? 

Prof Ramanathan calls them as created ragas. As per him, many of them are yet to evolve their distinct features. These created ragas are all defined more by their scales than by their sancharas and prayogas. 

Let us continue our discussions in the next blog.