Indian Music and Meditation

I have frequently been told by (new) listeners of Indian music, especially North Indian music of how soothing it is to their ears, how meditative the experience is, and how it makes them feel as though they can concentrate and focus. Contrary to what most performers willl feel about this after having sung a long and serious rendition of a Bihag, for example, these listeners, of course, mean it is a huge complement. Even educated listeners of different kinds sometimes collapse the many moods and functions of indian music into what is first available from its form.

Understandably, this can become frustrating. If the form (the structure) of a piece of music is inseparable from the functions, but the form occludes the function, it is hard to get involved in the properties of the function afresh. Different ragas in Indian music are meant to evoke and represent emotions ranging from happiness in the monsoon, to sensual interaction with the beloved, to righteous anger, to supplicating devotion. How does the walk from these intended emotions to one ‘meditation’ affect take place?

I have thought of some properties in the structure and presentation of Indian music, that might just be a challenge to grasp, way before moving on to the functional nuances:

  1. The Tanpura Drone, and the sounds of the overtone
  2. Fixed tonic position
  3. Long open vowels (for vocal music)
  4. Beginning and exposition in an extremely slow tempo
  5. Absence of rhythmic repetition for a large part of the performance
  6. Melodic detail (which is sometimes easy to miss because of intricacy and speed)
  7. Getting used to feeling the differences of minor variations on the mood
  8. Not understanding the language

At first brush it is clear that this music is not meant to dance to, not dance in the club sense. It offers one or two memorable lines at most. There is no refrain, no bridge, no return section – all the structural markers are missing. It is difficult to understand and get into a new melodic ‘mode’ with new intervals, as their functions are unclear. A very good question to ask is especially for ragas is the range of mood that people can identify as being different between ragas that are even close to each other, such as bhairav and kalingada. What, also, makes the moods of faraway ragas seem similar for untrained audience. Also, if the intended emotion is not universally comprehensible, what prior experience is required to understand the nuance? Is this prior exposure sufficient if its only in the sense of musical training, or does linguistic and prosodic nuance add up?

I guess several of these are straight up research questions / might be hard to answer even if data is present. But what I want to say is this: No type of music is meant for one thing alone – never for one type of musical affect. Once we can get over the form and structure of any genre, then there are things to see, outside is only an aura, a farce, and no nuance.

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Groups of Ragas (Thaats) and Altered Notes

The reason because of which Indian music sounds exotic to the western listener are the different tuning and scales. The term Indian Classical Music encompasses two individual but related traditions. The Northern Indian tradition is called the Hindustani tradition. The Southern Indian tradition is called Carnatic. (As with many Indian words, there are a variety of spellings in common usage in English, including Karnatak and Karnatik.) Both traditions demonstrate a parallel approach to music and music theory, but the terms used are often different. For instance, where the Hindustani tradition has thaat, the Carnatic has mela. The following discussion focuses on the Hindustani tradition, as it is more familiar to the rest of the world.

Thaat: Classifying Ragas into Families

To create more interest, a raga is often generated by dropping certain notes of a that, where a raga consists of five, six or all seven notes of the that. A that can create more than three ragas. To make things more confusing for a novice listener, the two traditions use same names for two completely different ragas.  There can often be disagreement even within a tradition as to the name or proper execution of a particular raga. Ragas may be invented, combined, borrowed from other traditions, or dropped from the repertoire, so the tradition itself, including the theory, is in many ways more fluid and more varied than the Western tradition.

It is also important to understand that a raga is not just a collection of the notes that are allowed to be played in a piece of music. There are also rules governing how the notes may be used; for example, the notes used in an ascending scale (aroha) may be different from the notes in a descending scale (avaroha). Some notes will be considered main pitches, the “tonic” or “most consonant” in that raga, while other notes are heard mostly as ornaments or dissonances that need to be resolved to a main note. Particular ornaments or particular note sequences may also be considered typical of a raga. The raga may even affect the tuning of the piece.

Harmonic and melodic rules differ in case of major and minor scales. Indian music is analogous , only difference being it contains many more scale types. Also , the variations are melody based nuances as opposed to harmonic.

Pitches, and Solfege in HCM

All forms of music in the world have two essential components – pitch and rhythm. Music is incomplete without the presence of pitches and durations. In Indian Classical music too, these two elements are most essential in theory.

Indian Music is even more specific regarding the pitch, also called the sur or the swara. In Indian music, different intonations of the same note are used when sung in different ragas. Since the tonic doesn’t change, it is easy to establish greater consonance between the pitches. Let us look at how an octave is described in Indian theory.

1. Indian music is based on relative pitch; which means that there are no modulations. Everything in music happens on the basis of one tonic, and keys aren’t changed in the middle of a piece. This tonic is called Sa or Shadj. Every other tone in the octave is established on the basis of this Sa. There can be no Raga which omits this note. It is always an important note, irrespective of what is being sung.

On a C, it looks like this:

सा     रे    ग    म     प    ध    नि   सा

sa    re   ga   ma   pa  dha  ni    sa
C     D    E     F    G    A    B     C

2. The basic scale in Indian music is the Natural scale. There are said to be 7 Natural tones, and 5 modified tones or accidentals. Thus there are 12 total tones in Indian Music.

They are:

Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni.

They have longer names as: Shadj, Rishabh, Gandhar, Madhyam, Pancham, Dhaiwat, Nishad.

Out of these, the tonic and the P5 (Pa) are fixed. The remaining 5 also occur in altered forms.

The notes, Re (2nd), Ga (3rd), Dha (6th), and Ni (7th) have a Flat or Komal form.

They also appear as Komal Re (Flat 2), Komal Ga (Flat 3rd), Komal Dha (Flat 6th), and Komal Ni (Flat 7th).

The note of Ma (P4) also has a sharp or Teevra form.

Teevra Ma is the same as an augmented fourth or a diminished fifth (Tritone).

The tonic and the dominant, however, cannot be altered in Indian music.

3. The concept of microtones or Shruti is inherent to Indian music. There are 22 microtones in an octave as described in Indian Theory. Shruti, which literally means the smallest division that can be perceived, are essential in further describing the 12 tones of music precisely.

Most ragas use the consonances of the Tonic and M3, Tonic and P4 or Tonic and P5. These tones are 5, 9, and 13 Shrutis away from each other; respectively.

4. Mixing and matching the 12 notes can produce several patterns of sound, but not Ragas. A key element of the Raga form is its ability to communicate a mood or a feeling.

There are some rules for Ragas:

a) There must be at least 5 notes present in a Raga.

b) Altered notes cannot be used one after another in a Raga. eg. Use of m2, M2, m3 in a sequence is prohibited.

c) Sa can never be absent from a Raga (the tonic)

d) Either a fourth or a fifth have to be present in every raga.

Listening to Indian Classical Music – Part II

The Raga: Melody and the Mood

Melodies and harmonies of western classical music are determined by major and minor scales. The resulting melodies and harmonies of major and minor keys are different. However, it is easy to transpose a major key melody to another major key and vice versa with the minor key melodies. There is however modal music in Western tradition with pentatonic, blues and twelve tone scales to name some. Vast majority of common practice music though, can be categorized as minor or major.

The melodies of music in Indian tradition are Raga based (or Ragam in South Indian tradition), which are basically lists of notes used in  a particular piece of music, similar to scales. However as opposed to the relatively less number of scales, there are hundreds of ragas. These are a result of differing number of notes, note intervals and even tuning, making it impossible to transpose a melody from one raga to another. Ragas not only have specifications on the notes that are used, but on how to use the notes. Certain combinations of movement are allowed and disallowed in variations on the raga.

Much like the different moods affected by major and minor key music, ragas are associated with particular moods. The association of ragas with specific seasons and time of the day has begun as a result of the tradition of playing ragas for festivals, seasons and times of the day. The moods are however, also tied to associations with particular times similar to that of western traditions where it would be considered to perform sad music at a wedding, for instance. In Indian tradition It is the responsibility of the musician to create the proper mood with the raga.

While Western music boasts of a complex and ever changing harmony, Indian music’s approach is different. Melodic scales and rhythms are much more complex in Indian tradition than that of Western music, but the harmonies are much simpler, usually in the form of an unchanging drone as that of a Tanpura, which is kept at a perfect fourth or fifth. The tanpura is a very long instrument with four strings which are plucked one after the other, continuously throughout the music. While the drone itself is constant, the complex interaction varying harmonic strings during the cycles, create a shimmering buzz unlike any western musical instrument.

The tuning used is just intonation instead of equal temperament, in order to better fit the pure interval of the drone. The tuning of other notes of the drone can be varied to suit specific ragas.

Rhythm – Taala

In Indian music, rhythms are organized into long rhythmic cycles called Talas, instead of short measures. There are about 100 different Talas which are often made up of quite long and complex rhythmic cycles. Carnatic tradition displays this trait more so, since it includes some of the most complex and sophisticated rhythmic structures of any tradition. One way of looking at a taala is like a hypermeter – a combination of metric units of different lengths. Usually every taala has a sam-khaali polarity. The accented beat is as important as the accented first bar, and the weak beat (which usually occurs halfway in the tala cycle) is the release.

In Indian traditions, it is common for some sections to be in free rhythm, with Tala being introduced in the middle of the piece. These free form performances lack pulsating beats, and are central in understanding and appreciating Indian music.

Recognizing Indian Classical Music

Instrumentations such as the distinctive drone of the Tanpura, Expressive rhythms of the table are the easiest clues for a Western listener for identification of Indian music. This is aided by the un-Western timbres of vocal and instrumental soloists.

Very leisurely, free rhythm openings tend to signal North Indian music, while short pieces with very complex rhythms often belong to South Indian music.  However, if there are simple driving rhythms and shorter forms, sometimes with functional harmony, it might be Indian pop music, which is also very influential in the world music scene.

What to Listen for 

It is possible for a listener educated in Indian classical music to identify the Raga and tala by listening to the music. This however is almost an impossible feat in case of a beginning western listener. The focus of the western listener should be on the sections of the music, slow revelation of raga, slow build up and release of tension in both melody and rhythm, and the rhythmic excitement of final section.

One can try and get into the mood of the piece, which may be hinted at by the performer or program notes. Quite often the raga is appropriate to the season of the time of the day, even during a concert, so one can meditate upon relevant moods. People who are ear trained can try and identify scale notes, their relationship to the drone notes, and the number of beats in the tala. While it is impossible to tap one’s foot to this music, listening to the ebb, flow and development of  the phrases leads to appreciation of the form.

The Sam or the first beat of a Taala cycle forms a very important part of the development of a Khyal. The melodic movement and variation is directed towards coming back to the Sam at the right time. The performer’s calculations have to be right, else the sam can pass and that is where the performer must return.

This Sam is identified by performers by gesticulating on the accented beat. Many times, the audience also participates in this gesture, which is a universal of HCM.

Listening to Indian Classical Music

Indian classical music consists of two distinct traditions – the North Indian and the South Indian, which share many similarities.

The exoticness of Indian music to the Western listeners stems mainly from the differences in tuning and scales from that of Western music. Both South Indian (Carnatic, Karnatak or Karnatik) and the North Indian (Hindustani) traditions share many similarities in terminology and concept – the Raga (mode + motif), Tala (hyper-rhythm), and the dominant presence of theme and variation, are basic concepts in both traditions. The following discussion is an exclusive and basic overview of both the traditions. However Hindustani music forms the major part since it is the more famous form of Indian classical music.

History and Geography

The two musical traditions seem to have branched out of a common ancestor. The Carnatic tradition, as it stands today has three revivalists – Muthuswami Dikshitar, Shama Shastri and Thyagaraja, – whose work has been seminal in creating the repertoire and the form as it exists today.

The northern branch of the tradition, Hindustani music, which is also performed in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh – has been influenced by persian and mughal influences.  The dominant form of the tradition, the Khyal, is supposed to have found its roots in the mughal courts.

The predominant difference between the traditions, textually speaking, is the dominance of religious and prayer-related material in the carnatic form. The modern khyal was born as a new idea of having compositions that are still based around Raga, and improvisation that is set to the particularities of each ‘khyal’ or idea.

Raga and Tala which affect the melody and Rhythm respectively are the building blocks of any classical Indian piece of music. However, the approach towards other basic elements such as tuning, texture, harmony, timbre and improvisation against composition differs from that of western tradition.

Most Indian classical music is improvisational unlike the Western classical tradition. A musician improvises upon the basis of raga and tala of his choice, based on pre-composed material, which is sometimes compared to jazz standards.

Some things to know:

The performance of classical music is called a ‘Baithak’, literally means a ‘sitting’ of music. This term is literal in its concept – it’s a group of people sitting together to enjoy music. This is different from the other polar concept of a great performer entertaining somebody. The experience of a performance is shared amongst the people through physical as well as musical engagement. The relationship between the audience and the performers is not as hierarchical as in the western tradition, and the audience is often even encouraged to participate.

Khyal – is a performance of a raag. Literally, it means an idea – it is an idea in the raag. There are two forms – Bada / big, and Chhota / small. Bada comes first, chhota comes later. Bada khayal is slow moving, and sets the mood. Chhota is fast, shows the technique and skill of the singer, broadly. The poem has about 4 – 10 lines.

Alaap – Slow improvisation.

Taan – Fast improvisation.

Dhrupad – A singing style ancestral to both Hindustani and Carnatic music. Sung with long phrases, prosodic syllables.