Indian Classical Carnatic Music. Part 1

A basic Introduction to a form of Indian classical music played in south India.

Music is an extremely subjective, aural experience. Some sounds are perceived by us as pleasant and some others as unpleasant. What is considered pleasant or unpleasant can be quite personal, based on our specific culture, exposure to particular kinds of music and perhaps even on what our parents told us. A song could be a major hit in one country and could be completely disliked and ignored in some other country. Our musical tastes are indeed developed. As we grow up, and discover music from other cultures or newer musical styles, our tastes too change. Sometimes, we even discover a pleasant piece of music purely by accident - because it simply happened to resonate with our inner sensibilities. Oh, nothing like self discovery! So how do we make sense of sound and music? Let us try to answer this by examining some simple concepts first. Our high school physics tells us that sound has several features - such as pitch, intensity, quality and duration. The pitch is just the frequency of the sound vibration - given in hertz or cycles. The musical term for frequency is 'tone'. The audible frequency range extends from about 25 Hz to around eight or ten thousand hertz, although it depends entirely on the individual. Children can hear much higher frequencies. At the lower end of the range, even if we may not 'hear' ultralow frequencies, we may 'feel' the vibrations as a tactile sensation The other attribute of sound - duration - is self-explanatory. It is simply the time during which the specific frequency or 'tone' lasts. The term 'quality' is more difficult to understand. It is simply a signature of the source of the sound. It is a term which explains why a violin sounds like a violin and a drum sounds like a drum. This attribute is precisely the reason you can make out your mother's voice over the phone even if she has a horrible cold. The bottomline is, when you or an instrument produce sound, you not only produce one frequency, but also produce a spectrum consisting of several 'overtones'. This is variously referred to as 'timbre' or 'tone color'. This constitutes the 'Quality' of that sound.

Basics Of Carnatic Music

Unlike western music in carnatic music ther are 22 notes in an octave( as compared to 12 in the west). Using vibratos, you can achive the extra notes on a giutar. We noted that in carnatic music it is not enough to produce just twelve or even twenty two 'tones' in an octave. One ought to produce even the intermediate frequencies. These intermediate frequencies, which do not have any keys to produce them, are called 'microtones'. The Indian word for the 'microtone' is 'gamakam'. (of course, 'gamak' in hindi) It is often very difficult to explain this concept clearly and precisely. If the C key produces 240 Hz and the C# key produces 254 Hz what intermediate frequencies are we talking about? Does Indian music use sounds produced at 247 Hz? Treatises have been written in India about such microtonal apects of music. Suffice it to say that microtones or gamakams tend to be clustered around the primary key frequency, although this need not always be the case. In the Indian system, we do not use alphabets to label notes. Instead, we use short, meaningless (please don't beat me to death on this - I know there are etymological reasons for choosing these set of syllables) syllables which go - Sa ri ga ma pa dha ni. These seven syllables are actually mnemonics to represent the 'notes' or 'Swarams' in Indian music. They are referred to as the 'Saptha Swarams' or 'Seven Swarams'. So, confusing as it may sound, in Indian music, we use the 'notes' to represent the 'tones'. Even in case of Indian music, we can extend our labeling of the keys to other octaves, much like in the Western system. In Indian music, the main octave is called 'Madhya stayi', the octave above it (higher) is called 'tara stayi' and the octave just below the Madhya stayi is called 'Mandra stayi'.(by the way the key of g and g# are the commonly used ones in carnatic music.)
Sa   Ri1 Ri2 Ri3 Ga3 Ma1 Ma2 Pa  Dha1Dha2Dha3Ni3 Sa
        (Ga1 Ga2)                   (Ni1 Ni2)
 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10   11  12   13
 S   R1  R2  R3  G3  M1  M2  P   D1  D2  D3  N3

Scales (ragams)

Now, in carntic music the scales, I.e.ragams are infinite in number(though only some 279 are actually used ). Out of these the most prominant ragams are the Melakarta ragams, which are exactly 72 in number, and have infiite sub- ragams.(sub ragams are generally ones in which a few notes are xlded completely, though normally atlest 5 notes are there, some are played differently while coming up I.e aroham and coming down ie avroham) The melakarta ragams are dveloped according to the following method:
  • Rule 1: always select The 'Sa'.
  • Rule 2: always select the Pa . This is a convenient midpoint of the octave, sort of.
  • Rule 3: select one of the two Ma keys (Ma1 or Ma2 )- Once selected, this key is your 'Ma'.
  • Rule 4: select any two out of the four notes in the lower tetrachord. (From notes 2, 3, 4 and 5) Once selected, the first of these two notes will be your 'Ri' and the second your 'ga'.
  • Rule 5: select any two notes out of the four notes in the upper tetrachord. (From notes 9, 10,11 and 12) Once selected, the first of the two notes will be your 'dha' and the second will be your 'ni'. This rule is exactly like Rule 4. Thus they are:
     #  Name                   Ri ga Dha ni #  Name                Ri ga Dha ni
        Suddha Madhyamam (M1)                  Prati Madhyamam (M2)
      1 Kanakanki              R1 G1 D1 N1  37 Salagam             R1 G1 D1 N1
      2 Ratnangi               R1 G1 D1 N2  38 Jalarnavam          R1 G1 D1 N2
      3 Ganamurti              R1 G1 D1 N3  39 Jhalavarali         R1 G1 D1 N3
      4 Vanaspati              R1 G1 D2 N2  40 Navaneetam          R1 G1 D2 N2
      5 Manavati               R1 G1 D2 N3  41 Pavani              R1 G1 D2 N3
      6 Tanarupi               R1 G1 D3 N3  42 Raghupriya          R1 G1 D3 N3
      7 Senavati               R1 G2 D1 N1  43 Gavambodhi          R1 G2 D1 N1
      8 Hanumatodi             R1 G2 D1 N2  44 Bhavapriya          R1 G2 D1 N2
      9 Dhenuka                R1 G2 D1 N3  45 Subhapantuvarali    R1 G2 D1 N3
     10 Natakapriya            R1 G2 D2 N2  46 Shadvigamargini     R1 G2 D2 N2
     11 Kokilapriya            R1 G2 D2 N3  47 Suvarnangi          R1 G2 D2 N3
     12 Rupavati               R1 G2 D3 N3  48 Divyamani           R1 G2 D3 N3
     13 Gayakapriya            R1 G3 D1 N1  49 Dhavalambari        R1 G3 D1 N1
     14 Vakulabharanam         R1 G3 D1 N2  50 Namanarayani        R1 G3 D1 N2
     15 Mayamalavagoulai       R1 G3 D1 N3  51 Kamavardhini        R1 G3 D1 N3
     16 Chakravaham            R1 G3 D2 N2  52 Ramapriya           R1 G3 D2 N2
     17 Suryakantam            R1 G3 D2 N3  53 Gamanasrama         R1 G3 D2 N3
     18 Hatakambhari           R1 G3 D3 N3  54 Viswambhari         R1 G3 D3 N3
     19 Jhankaradhwani         R2 G2 D1 N1  55 Syamalangi          R2 G2 D1 N1
     20 Natabhairavi           R2 G2 D1 N2  56 Shanmukhapriya      R2 G2 D1 N2
     21 Keeravani              R2 G2 D1 N3  57 Simhendramadhyamam  R2 G2 D1 N3
     22 Kharaharapriya         R2 G2 D2 N2  58 Hemavati            R2 G2 D2 N2
     23 Gourimanohari          R2 G2 D2 N3  59 Dharamavai          R2 G2 D2 N3
     24 Varunapriya            R2 G2 D3 N3  60 Nitimati            R2 G2 D3 N3
     25 Mararanjani            R2 G3 D1 N1  61 Kantamani           R2 G3 D1 N1
     26 Charukesi              R2 G3 D1 N2  62 Rishabhapriya       R2 G3 D1 N2
     27 Sarasangi              R2 G3 D1 N3  63 Latangi             R2 G3 D1 N3
     28 Harikambhoji           R2 G3 D2 N2  64 Vachaspati          R2 G3 D2 N2
     29 Dheerasankarabharanam  R2 G3 D2 N3  65 Mechakalyani        R2 G3 D2 N3
     30 Naganandini            R2 G3 D3 N3  66 Chitrambhari        R2 G3 D3 N3
     31 Yagapriya              R3 G3 D1 N1  67 Sucharitra          R3 G3 D1 N1
     32 Ragavardhini           R3 G3 D1 N2  68 Jyotiswarupini      R3 G3 D1 N2
     33 Gangeyabhusani         R3 G3 D1 N3  69 Dhatuvardhini       R3 G3 D1 N3
     34 Vagadheeswari          R3 G3 D2 N2  70 Nasikabhusani       R3 G3 D2 N2
     35 Sulini                 R3 G3 D2 N3  71 Kosalam             R3 G3 D2 N3
     36 Chalanattai            R3 G3 D3 N3  72 Rasikapriya         R3 G3 D3 N3
    And finally here is a confusing possibility. There can be two Ragams(sub ragams) which have identical Arohanams and Avarohanams, but different microtonal associations or Gamakams! The only way to tell these two Ragams apart is to sensitize your ears to the differences to the Gamakams. So now choose a ragam you like and improvise on it. More later. Till then here is a song.

    Sree Gananatha (lambodara)

    Ragam: Malahari 
    AROHAM: S R1 M1 P D1 S||
    AVAROHAM:     S D1 P M1 G3 R1 S||
    Composer: Purandaradasa
    Arohanam : S R1 M1 PD1 SAvarohanam: S D1 PM1 G2 R1 S
    In this ragam Ma ,Dha and the higher Sa are played with a vibrato.(very aggressive). Also the tempo will be about 90bpm. (f- full beat, h-half beat ,d- double beat) Also in most carnatic music the root note of the ragam( i.e. sa) is echoed by another instrument called tanpura. so wherever sa is played, let it ring.
     f f f f  f f f f  f f f f  f f f f  f f f f  f f f f
     d f f f f  f f f f f
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      dont listen to the morons here what u wrote was far more complex than anything anyone here has ever learnt so its a great thingie u did !!agli baar thoda asaan lesson likhna !! ciao
      thats awesome im very glad you posted that... i would love to use the indian style and our western style of rock to make a truly awesome and diverse song
      I wish I was born Indian and learned this as a kid. I think it is way harder for Western people to learn this than the other way around.
      carnatic's basic is gamakam or heavy one can master that thru this lesson..crap a video on gamakam and show it to us *****..dont just **** some scales..anyone can play scales...**** those frets and create a simple mohanam gamaka...i can..i can tap slide too in carnatic...i can send it to u some recs if u wan some...
      Indian music is very very complex. To master it takes years and years. Our system believes in Guru-shishya(Hindi) form of imparting knowledge.Atleast in the Neo Classical era of india, a shishya(learner of classical music) would devote his life to the guru(the teacher, the one who knows everything) to learn music. The Guru would 1st test his dedication by giving him say just one scale to practise for a period ranging from 1yr to 2 yrs. If the shishya passed the test, he would be indoctrinated over the years with the most complex form of music. (correct me if i am wrong)
      Very good article now if you want to understand just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the subject of rhythm and percussion then go over to the only guy really to my knowledge that's been successful at taking the basic concept of Indian rhythms/ percussion and applying it to modern/western style drumset drumming. Would it not also be helpful to learn about at least practicing guitar over basic tabla/indian rhythms? There is a section of Peter Lockett's site that explains how to make a basic tabla/indian midi loop in Battery 3 / sequencer. Start getting familiar with poly rhythms and the like for thats the very very basic foundation in my faint attempt at trying to interpret this stuff as a westerner. The funny thing is that I had the opportunity to chat with this tabla player once and he actually found western style drumming / percussion to be complicated in the same way most of us find Indian music/theory as such.
      It must be pointed out that some main ideas you present here about carnatic music are vaguely simplistic, bordering on incorrect even. First off, there used to be a system of 22 notes in an octave in the ancient system, intervals of which were defined in multiples of the 'shruthi' (similar to a semitone). But the medival and modern era in which the majority of carnatic compositions were made and that which you follow today has only 12 notes in an octave each note having a counterpart in the equal tempered western chromatic scale. Second, the number of ragams are not infinite in number. In fact there is a mathematically elegant formulation that leads to 72 melakartha ragams and their derivations or Janyas which are not infinite either, and must be borne in mind that mathematical jugglery alone doesnt create ragams. If infinite ragams or scales were possible, then it is certainly not unique to carnatic music and would be true of any musical system. The reason why an octave is precisely divided into 12 results from years of experimentation and experiences. For all reasons practical, does it matter to us that there are theoretically infinite shades of a specific color? You're right though about the 'gamakams' which truly forms the essence of carnatic music. gamakams along with swara phrases occuring in particular sequences define the signature of a ragam and therefore carnatic music itself, and it is this that probably most differentiates it from various other musical systems. Ultimately our auditory systems process sound in a logarithmic manner and music is broken down in the same way in whatever scale or system you present a melody in - with gamakams it adds a whole new dimension thats all. In associating mysterious or esoteric significance to something we forget the underlying nature which in this case happens to be - all music boils down to a certain ratio of frequencies sounded in sequence or together and their harmonic consonance! This I mention generally speaking not with reference to this article Having said all of this, neat article though!
      Ok, for people who are confused, use this as ref(point out any mistakes as well): S- C R1-C# R2(G1)-D G2(R3)-D# G3-E M1-F M2-F# P-G D1-G# D2(N1)-A N2(D3)-A# N3-B S-C Note that the similar notes like R2 and G1 won't appear in the same raga. Thank you. I really hope it helps. Sorry for any possible mistakes that might've crept in.
      anybody know of a good book that explains this stuff for stupid people out there like me, I would like to know if such book exists. Thank you
      wow, wonderful the people who need to learn this? contact my no 8903274276 (india)
      10/10 just for the intro. Fantastic lesson, its nice to have a change from learning only Western Music. Really a well thought out article. Great job.
      i was looking for something like this....i dont know of u know this but.....motherjane a indian progressive rock band uses karnatic influences...the lead guitarist is know for it!...
      Good lesson. Yo Ram-overdrive, you're right, the lead guitarist of Motherjane (one of the best bands in the world at present) called Baiju, uses all these in his music. He does some wicked slides. They are one phenomenal band. I was looking for a good lesson on Carnatic music. One reason is that I'm Indian and the other was my idol the late great Shawn Lane's fixation with Indian music towards his last days. Thanx for the lesson bob, keep them coming.
      Wow, Indian music is soo complex. It's refreshing to see,rather than 12 notes and 4/4 time all the time.
      Jeez it is a mixture of a guitar and a Hindi language lesson But really really neat one!
      Really interesting article, there is so much more to music than our Western version. Kudos to the first paragraph
      I love Indian music. I try to learn the ones I like. I have never seen it described like this. Listen and learn. Never mind learning hindi. This is simplicity, overthought.
      Amazing!!! That was very educative and informative. Could someone also give some tips on Tuning as to these notes are based on normal tuning such as EADGBE or some other such as DADA tunings etc. appreciated.
      Jimmy Hendrix...Doesn't learned all this shit/ become genius....go get some lesson from Joe Satriani before posting any shit..:-P
      very nice lesson. Well done on bringing it to our attention. I've always had fun in using 1/4 note bends in getting the eastern feel. I read an indian music book a long time ago where they mentioned their scales, up one way and down going some other path. once again, great lesson