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.