Indian Music

Learn About Classical Indian Music : The baby steps

15 Comments 12 November 2011

Learn About Classical Indian Music : The baby steps
So, today we start our journey, a journey  in which I hope I will also learn to understand and appreciate Indian Music more.Music as I had mentioned before is a collection of sounds and silences. But it is not as random as it seems. Sound is, as our friend wikipedia says, a mechanical wave that is an oscillation of pressure transmitted through a solid, liquid, or gas, composed of frequencies within the range of hearing and of a level sufficiently strong to be heard. So basically, sound is a frequency. Hence music is directly a collection of frequencies. (Silence is zero frequency!!:-)In western music, people assigned names to particular frequencies. The frequency of 440Hz was chosen and named A. Why this frequency is beyond the scope of this blog, but more information is available in this, this and this page. Now, only 12 fixed frequencies (notes) were assigned names and they are
A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#.A# is pronounced Yay-Sharp and likewise the others and they are called semitones. The mathematical relation between the notes and the frequencies and music is given in thispage. Its a nice read!! :) These 12 notes repeat in both directions i.e lower and upper and are called octaves. So its like this…..D . D# . E . F . F# . G . G# . A . A# . B . C . C# . D . D# . E . F . F# . G . G# .A . A# . B . C ……
If the A is the 440Hz frequency, then the notes below are the lower octave notes while those beyond G#are the higher octaves.Well, now after that head-reeling para, we will start with how notes are described in Indian music. Here too, we have the same 12 basic notes. you may think, “Hey, but we have always heard of the saptaswara!!!” OK! There are seven notes called swaras. They are
S  – pronounced as Sa
R  – pronounced as Ri
G  – pronounced as Ga
M – pronounced as Ma
P  – pronounced as Pa
D  – pronounced as Da
N  – pronounced as Ni

Just like the A, B, C, D, E, F, G!! Got it?? yup!! The rest five are the semitones :-D

But unlike the western music structure, the Indian music notes are floating!! Yea, music does makes you fly sometimes but this is not that floating!! One can understand this with the concept of the XY-axis plane. Well, without throwing more such jargons, in simple words I will try to explain that. :P

(If you take your computer screen and assign that the left bottom corner is the Origin, then we can identify every point on the screen as a distance travelled to the right and then above. This is basically me trying to explain the XY plane. Please don’t take offence.)

Anyway, in Indian Music, this origin has to be defined. Take one of the western music frequencies and assign it as origin and all the notes then get fixed according to that. So let us say we assign A to be Sa then we have

A – Sa
B – Ri
C – Ga
D – Ma
E – Pa
F – Da
G – Ni

You may use the above to play and get a feel of the sound :)

Similar to the western notes, the Indian Music notes also have the higher and lower octaves. The thing to be noted is that the frequency assigned to Sa is not fixed to 440Hz. If C was assigned as Sa then the same table would look only a little different.

C - Sa
D - Ri
E - Ga
F - Ma
G - Pa
A - Da
B - Ni

Ok but what about the semitones?? Here the beauty of Indian Music starts. When Sa has been fixed, I had mentioned all the other notes are fixed. Well, always in Indian Music, for starters, we can have only 7 swaras defined. So somehow the semitones also have to be assigned with the same swaras. So how to do this?? Its done as follows. We assume that A is Sa.

A    A#     B       C      C#     D     D#      E     F      F#       G       G#
                           Ri3                                                            Da3 
Sa  Ri1   Ri2   Ga2   Ga3  Ma1 Ma2  Pa  Da1  Da2   Ni2    Ni3
                Ga1                                                           Ni1   

and we are done!!! :-P

So we see that there are more than one Ri, Ga, Ma, Da, Ni but Sa and Pa  are only one in number. The names of the different Ri Ga and so on, I feel are not essential for appreciating Indian Music. And so, we will have the same notation hence forth in all our discussions i.e with numbers as Ri1, Ga2 etc.

We also can see that Ri2 = Ga1; Ga2 = Ri3; Da2 = Ni1 and Ni2 = Da3. And these are not some mathematical equations :-P

So with A as Sa, when we play A B C# D E F# G# A’ where A’ is the higher octave we have the following tune. *

(*thanks to Srinivasan for correcting my error here!! ABCDEFGA’ gives the minor Natabhairavi scale :-D)

ABC#DEF#G# (this is the major scale in Western classical)

And when we play all the 12 notes finished with A’, we have


We will quicken our pace a bit. A raga is a combination of the aforementioned swaras (per se, but there is more to it which we will see in subsequent posts). In particular, the ABC#DEF#G#.mp3 we had seen before is the A-Major scale, the raga ShankarAbharanam of the South Indian Classical Music.

A look above and one can see the huge number of possible combinations. Generally a raga is supposed to have atleast 5 swaras.

A raga has ascending and descending scales (called Arohanam and Avarohanam). Each direction can be comprised of atleast 5 or more swaras. For example, the raga Mohanam is

S R2 G3 P D2 S’ in the ascending scale or arohanam
S’ D2 P G3 R2 S in the descending scale or avarohanam

and when we play S R2 G3 P D2 S’….S’ D2 P G3 R2 S, we hear the following tune.


Tala is the basic rhythm period. We will not go too much into the intricacies of Tala as it has a direct relation to Mathematics and I do not want you guys running away once such a discussion starts!! ;-) So the thing to remember about tala is that it is a rhythmic pattern on which a song is based. One can have a period of 3,4,5,7…beats. (6 beats is similar to 3, and 8 to 4 and likewise). The periodicity generally is maintained throughout in a song. More intricacies about the tala if necessary would be discussed when necessary!!! :-D

In the subsequent posts, we will take up different Ragas one by one and compare the ways different composers both in classical and in semi-classical and film music have handled them. I hope if you have taken the pain to read till here, you would really like the posts that are coming!! So keep up your enthusiasm to know more about Indian Music.

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Your Comments

15 Comments so far

  1. Karthik vazhkudai says:

    Really enjoyed your intro to carnatic music. Please come them coming for sake of people like me who want to appreciate it more but lack the background.

  2. Rakhi Sharma says:

    This is awesome..looking forward to more posts like this one :)

  3. gururaj says:

    accidentally got connected to this site.Oh what an experience.browsing this site will be my daily routine.

  4. Veena says:

    Simply awesome!!! A deed indeed :-)

  5. neha says:

    I don’t know anything about music,but Ilike to listen indian music.I know that they have seven surs(words)such as sa,re,ga,ma,pa,dh,ni,sa something like that.
    By knowing something new about music it’s feel good.Now I am more curious to know about indian music.

  6. RDC says:

    Thank you :) a lot for this precious information.
    After reading this I got new birth.
    Please! keep sharing your love to the music.

  7. Amit says:

    You are awesome. Made it really simple

  8. Aditya Samitinjay says:

    Hey there,

    Thank you so much for this intricately detailed post. Being a self-taught player, when I first picked up the guitar, everything was greek and latin, now too to some extent.

    I just wanted to know the formula of the major scale in Indian music. Turns out, it is the same WWHWWWH.

    I really love Indian music, intrigues me a lot and it’s great that I learned a good chunk about it from this post. Thank you so much for that.

    It’d be really great if you do a post on beats or talas as you mentioned. I usually have a tough time staying in rhythm.

    Thanks anyway for this helpful post.


  9. heonkook says:

    It’s really really really helpful for me bucuz I’m interested in Composition of Indian Music!!!

    And I have a question.

    I’m not sure but I’ve understood relationship between ‘swara’ and note on western music system.

    If Sa is assigned to ‘A’, then rest are R1 is A# and Ga2 is C according to above.
    Then how can we know that R1 is A# and A2 is B from the fact Sa is assigned C?

    Maybe the things like R1, R2, Ga2, Ga3 are just distances of semi-tones right?

    And if it is right, how we can get the pitch from swaras quickly? Is there any shorcut?


    • True, In my opinion, the 12 basic swaras which I had listed could be understood based on the Equal Temperament Tuning Ear training would help in identifying and pitching a swara/note given a tonic. I do not know any shortcut per se other than practicing by listening and imbibing the nature of a note. :-) I hope it helped.

  10. Ulissa says:

    Thank you so much for this superb article! I am very interested in Indian music and really want to understand it and play it too. The problem is that I play Celtic lever harp which is based on Equal Temperament, of course and can only get flat tones by tuning before playing. But levers can be used to get sharp tones. So i don’t really know how i can get all those swaras.

  11. Ulissa says:

    If you could help me find any ragas adapted or written for harp, i would be ever so grateful! So far i have only got Prelude for South Indian Raag by Biji Thomas. And any advice on composing Indian music for harp would be so very helpful! Thanks a lot,

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