Sunday, November 16, 2008

Beginning with the basics

Ranjayate Iti Räg:’ (meaning – that combination of musical notes which pleases or appeals to mind is a raag) is one simple definition of a raag in Indian music tradition. The musical notes – we call them Sä, Re, Ga, and so on while Western music has Do, Re, Mi, etc – are nothing but frequencies and the system of twelve musical notes, seven flat (shuddha) and five sharp (teevra / komal), is universal. It is only the interpretation and system of its usage that creates various musical traditions.

If we consider the mathematical permutations and combinations enabled by these twelve notes, the number of raags that can be constructed can be huge. But there are some basic rules governing the architecture of raag such as, minimum number of notes in a raag, their placement, the ascent (äroha) and descent (avaroha) from (the base-note), typical phraseology (chalan) within its framework, etc. Taking into account all these rules and the basic principle of the ‘pleasing / appealing nature of the combination’ embodied in the definition, the number of valid raags that can be derived comes down to a few hundred. This is the main body of the wealth in Indian Classical music.

A musical tradition derives its strength from three basic components – Swara (the note), Laya (tempo) and shabd (lyrics). Different musical traditions give different importance and prominence to one or more of these components and evolve separate styles known commonly as ‘gharänä’ in musical parlance. The musical systems world over have numerous such traditions and each is beautiful and pleasing in its own way. The West has its Jazz, Pop or Blues while we, in India, have North Indian (Hindustani) and Carnatic as two basic styles and various traditions such as Gwalior, Kirana, Mewati, etc as gharänäs in Hindustani music.While it may sound very simplistic speaking about basics of music in such short paragraphs, we must appreciate that each and every style of music, however small or insignificant, has been a creation of a genius mind and has probably taken ages to perfect and perpetuate.
Taking this line further, we must appreciate that there’s a fundamental difference in musical approach between Indian and Western styles. While Indian music has always relied on ‘melody’, the Western focus is on ‘harmony’ where multiple voices and/or instruments play together, at times in different notes, to create harmonic soundscape. This difference leads to evolution of contrasting styles where one seeks congruence in diversity while the other seeks one-ness in everything associated with it.

Another important difference between these styles is that the Western scale (system of twelve notes to an octave) is ‘fixed’ or ‘standard’. But Hindustani system not only uses all twelve notes from an octave, but also employs the frequencies in-between them. These half or quarter notes are called ‘Shrutis’ and are unique to Indian music. The use of shrutis enables us to present a note differently in different raags and project different moods and soundscapes. An apt illustration of this premise can be found in the audio clip by Shri Vijay Koparkar attached here in the form of a hyperlink.
One more difference is that the Western music is, most often, written, i.e. the progression through various notes, rhythm patterns and instruments is written down in the form of a ‘musical score’ by a composer and the scope for improvisation or different interpretation available to a performer is extremely limited. Indian raag system, on the other hand, lays down a framework of notes, their passage through the octave and typical phrases associated with specific raag leaving the presentation to the performer. A performer, therefore, has freedom to interpret the raag according to his creativity and present it. Hindustani music has, therefore, been termed as a ‘fountain of spontaneity’ where one raag may be presented by different artists in their individual styles and flavours.
For example, a symphony composed by Beethoven, the celebrated German composer-organist, has been performed for past couple of centuries in the same fashion by various orchestras because it has been written down. While Raag Yaman, on the other hand, has been played by generations of artists with interpretations changing with times. This system, due to its inherent freedom, allows for individualistic expression and a unique experience with each performer. The freedom of expression may even go to an extent where the interpretation of a raag by one artist may change from one moment in time to another and the listener will be treated to a different picture of a raag.


  1. To be very frank I do not understand indian or clasical music but the article rellay gave a good insight abaout the technical asspects of singing. Thanks.

  2. Very Informative, Never came across such a good writing about technicalities in music. Now I know Ninad's passion for music has been inherited!! Thanks a lot!