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Indian Music Theory

Modern Indian Classical Music (and Dance) theory had its beginnings at least five thousand years ago. Across the intervening centuries it has evolved into a complex system based in rhythm and melody.
Melody is perhaps the most critical element of Indian music. A system of melodic ideas called
RAGA drives musical compositions. Each RAGA can be thought of as an 'individual' with its own 'personality'.
It is helpful, in appreciating
RAGAS, to understand how the Indian equivalent of Western 'scales' work. The ways the pitches of scales move up and down shapes the 'profiles' of each RAGA.
The OCTAVE comprises twenty two equal divisions called SRUTI. These may be combined and re-grouped into twelve SWARA which may be similar in the ways they move to the twelve semitones of Western scales. Like those of Western scales too, seven are regarded as being 'primary' while the other five the 'flats' and 'sharps' of the seven primary SWARAS.
The seven primary SWARA are illustrated here in Hindi script. They are SA for SHADAJ, RE for RESHAB, GA for GANDHAR, MA for MADHYAM, PA for PANCHAM, DHA for DHAIWAT, and NI for NISHAD.
The distance between a basic pitch or shadaj and that created by doubling its frequency (or 'vibrations') is called an octave in west-centric music. In Indian music this octave is divided into twenty two smaller intervals of roughly equal size each called sruti.

Sruti are grouped together unequally to form, in diverse combinations of sruti, twelve basic pitches called swara. Seven of these, the shuddha swara, predominate and together form the basic scale called saptak. These correspond loosely to the seven basic pitches of the major scale which most west-centric musicians are familiar with.

The names given successively to the shuddha swara are: shadaj (sa), reshab (re), gandhar (ga), madhyam (ma), pancham (pa), dhaiwat (dha), and nishad (ni).
The remaining five swara are variants of some of the seven shuddha swara. They are called vikrit. When the full scale is notated in succession fall as follows:

Hindi notation for twelve semitones

Here re, ga, dha and ni are lowered pitch-wise and me is a raised variant of ma. Sa and pa are never changed.
For the sake of making comparisons in future discussion and because they correspond roughly:
  • SA will be treated as being like DOH in Tonic Solfa
  • RE will be treated as being like RE in Tonic Solfa
  • GA will be treated as being like MI in Tonic Solfa
  • MA will be treated as being like FA in Tonic Solfa
  • PA will be treated as being like SOH in Tonic Solfa
  • DHA will be treated as being like LA in Tonic Solfa
  • NI will be treated as being like TI in Tonic Solfa

The twelve swara are used in diverse combinations to create special scale structures called thatt . Two rules govern the construction of thatt :
i] Sa and pa must be included and cannot be sharpened or flattened.
ii Five of the ten remaining swara must be used.

In this way thirty two thatt are possible. Beginner musicians are usually taught ten of these first, in this order:

4. SA RE ga MA PA DHA ni
5. SA re GA MA PA dha NI
6. SA re GA me1 PA DHA NI
7. SA RE ga MA PA dha ni
8. SA re GA me1 PA dha NI
9. SA re ga MA PA dha ni
10. SA re ga me1 PA dha NI
Bilawal thatt
Khammaj thatt
Yaman thatt
Kafi thatt
Bhairav thatt
Marwa thatt
Asawari thatt
Purvi thatt
Bhairavi thatt
Todi thatt
Each thatt is more than just a scale; by the manner in which it is used it becomes the basic melodic foundation for each raga.

The raga is the melodic tenet which maintains Indian classical music's melodic identity. The following rules inform raga:
  • Each raga is derived from a thatt .
  • Several raga may be based on one familial thatt.
  • Sa must always be included.
  • Either ma or pa (or both) must be included.
  • A shuddha swara and its vikrit are not normally performed one after the other.
Five or more fixed pitches may be played in each direction when the music rises or falls in pitch. Those played going up are not necessarily the same as those played descending.

A raga is not just a 'key' but an emotion, mood or feeling expressed in sound. The laws outlined above help to give each raga its own profile}{ much in the way that our facial profiles make each of us appear individual and unique. This profile or contour is called parakh.

Although there were once almost twelve thousand different raga, now only one hundred and thirty two are considered to have real artistic potential. These are each designed for a specific context, such as for seasons or for times of the day.

Linked with the raga in tempo and rhythm are the tala. Because they are much less numerous one can 'support' several raga. Tala are important in many other ways, since the essence of Indian music is both rhythmic and melodic.

  Last revised: August 09, 2004