A Modern Introduction to Music – 12

By Anjum Altaf

We concluded the last installment with an explanation for why there are 12 and not 7 swaras in a saptak. We will take a breather in this installment going over the names of the new swaras thereby completing our knowledge of the alphabet of Indian music. This would prepare us for a perspective on music as a language.

Recall from the last installment that the sequence of swaras in a saptak now appears as follows:

S * R * G M * P * D * N S

The asterisks denote the five new swaras added in the saptak (the black keys on a keyboard – note the characteristic 2-3 pattern mentioned before). The convention adopted in naming them is not to give them independent names but to treat them as altered or vikrit swaras that are auxiliary to the seven principal swaras (in Indian music these are caled the pure or shudh swaras).

In the Indian tradition, the first two auxiliary swaras are treated as variants of R and G; the third as a variant of M; and the fourth and the fifth as variants of D and N. This leaves S (the reference swara) and P (the swara at an interval of 3/2 to S) as fixed or achala swaras with no variants. In introductions to Indian music it is invariably pointed out that S and P are fixed swaras. You know now that this is just the outcome of an arbitrary naming convention that acknowledges in this way the relative importance of the reference swara and the swara at the most fundamental interval to it (generated by the ratio of the smallest integers possible). P is said to divide the saptak into two halves – the lower and upper halves of the saptak.

We proceed now to the names of the five auxiliary swaras: those that are a half-step below a shudh swara are called the komal or soft variants of the respective shudh sawaras. Those that are half-step above a shudh swara are called tiivra or sharp variants of the respective shudh swaras.

A look at the sequence above shows that in the Indian tradition there are four komal swaras and one tiivra swara, as follows:

S, komal R, R, komal G, G, M, tiivra M, P, komal D, D, komal N, N, S

In notation form these swaras are denoted as follows:

S r R g G M m P d D n N S

And this gives us the alphabet of the language of Indian music. We are now in a position to discuss the unique characteristics of this language and how the knowledge helps us in both appreciating and learning music.

Consider languages like Hindi, Urdu or English. Each consists of over two dozen letters in its alphabet. Sometimes the letters are given a name (as in Urdu and English) and sometimes not (as in Hindi) but the key function is always to associate a basic sound with the shape of a symbol. For example, the baa sound is associated with the shape B in English and Hindi and Urdu have their own symbolic equivalents.

In these languages each distinct symbol is associated with a different sound (with some exceptions that are not important here). But each sound can be emitted at the same amplitude and the same frequency – one can use a flat and level voice to read out the English alphabet from A to Z.

In the language of music each of the twelve letters (S to N) is associated with the same sound (the sound aaa if vocalized or the sound produced by the plucking of a string or the blowing of a flute). Each of these sounds can be of the same amplitude but, and this is the crucial difference, each has to be at a different frequency. Reading out the alphabet S to N in a flat and level voice can be alright for expositional purposes but would be wrong musically.

If the alphabet of music has to be expressed correctly, by the time one gets through from a lower S to a higher S, the frequency at which the swara is pronounced has to double. And given the selection of the fundamental swara S, each subsequent letter has a precisely defined frequency. Recall that the frequency of P is one-and-a-half times the frequency of S.

Now we come to an important juncture. If we can learn languages with over two dozen letters in their alphabets, why can’t we learn a language with an alphabet comprising less than half the number of letters? All we need to keep in mind is that instead of associating a sound with a shape we are associating it with a pitch.

People will invariably tell you that it is very difficult, that only people born with the gift can do it, and so on. The truth is that it only as difficult as learning any other language. No one needs a special gift to learn his or her mother tongue and children born in households of musicians pick up music the same way. And therefore, when we start to learn music as adults we learn it exactly the same way as a native speaker of Hindi or Urdu learns English as an adult.

One can do so with the help of a good tutor, or by practicing by oneself on a keyboard (because the keys are already tuned to the correct intervals), or by using a software like Tune!It. In the last two cases it really helps to know the theoretical foundation that we have been developing. The software can be used to both train the voice (vocalizing the different frequencies) and the ear (learning to distinguish the different frequencies).

In my own case, I used Tune!It like a video game where you can get obsessed with the challenge of passing one level in order to move to the next till you win the game. I can guarantee that it takes less than one month to be fully conversant with the language of music. After a month of the video game-like challenge, one can both articulate the different swaras and be able to tell them apart when they are articulated by the software, an instrument, or another person.

And once you are conversant with the language it would be a lot more enjoyable to begin discussing ragas and what distinguishes one raga from another. After a brief detour we will soon be moving on to this next stage of the musical journey. Till that time I would urge you to play around with the swaras. Focus initially on just the seven shudh swaras (if you go back to the schematic of the piano keyboard in the last installment these will be the keys marked 1 through 8 – note that if you choose the key marked 1 as the fundamental frequency you can go up and down the scale using just the white keys alone). You can find a basic lesson on YouTube here. Once you start you can find many other samples there. Search and locate one that makes the most sense to you.

More soon.

Note 1: The naming conventions for the auxiliary notes mentioned in this post pertain to the Hindustani variant of Indian classical music. The conventions used in the Carnatic variant are different.

Note 2: Not all languages are like Hindi, Urdu and English in which frequency is irrelevant in associating a sound with a symbol. For example, there are tonal languages like Chinese in which the same sound can have a rising or falling inflexion and the associated symbols are different in each case. It is said the native speakers of tonal languages are generally better at recognizing the different notes of the musical alphabet because of this early exposure to distinguishing frequencies associated with sounds.


  • Vinod
    Posted at 02:56h, 24 August Reply

    You have no idea how thrilled I am to be reading this stuff. I’m going to dig into that TuneIt stuff.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 08:50h, 24 August Reply

    I don’t think I have become much wiser. I generally had some idea about what you have described here though a few misunderstanding have been clarified. The point is if I skip keys, I still hear it as ‘s r g m p d n’. So the fact remains that I can only differentiate if the swar is going up or down in frequency. If someone is singing I just can not tell if his swar goes up from s to r or g or even m etc except that it is going up in frequency. If this differentiation is not understood then how a language even if it is of seven letters can be conquered?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 13:36h, 24 August Reply

      Anil: This requires a little bit of training. With a software like Tune!It or with a key board, if you alternate S R and S G for an hour or so you will be able to pick up the difference. You can vocalize and train your voice or play the notes and train your ear. This is just like the homework you have to do when you learn a new language. In a month you should be able to tell all the notes apart. The best way is to start with notes that are further apart like S P S (of the higher saptak). When you are comfortable then work with the notes that are closer together in the two intervals.

      I wish people could do all this without training but then there would be no need to “learn” music. The real point of this series to clarify what it is that one is learning. It cannot be a substitute for doing the homework and putting in the time.

  • sakuntala
    Posted at 02:52h, 27 August Reply

    Just one point — you say there are “four komal and one tivra swaras” in Indian music. That’s true, semantically, only for Hindustani music (because by definition, the notes taken by Bilawal are named as “suddha” and the Ma in Eman is named “tivra”) But in Carnatic usic (which is also very much part of Indian music) the lower notes are all called komal (except that in the case of Ma we call it Suddha madhyama and the upper variety as prati madhyama) So, shuddha gandhara of Hindustani music is NOT the same as shuddha gandhara of Carnatic music ! A bit confusing perhaps, but as long as one does not get too distracted by names, it should be all right….Also, if one wants to stick to just one system, north or south, there is no problem….

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 03:22h, 27 August Reply

      Sakuntala: Thanks for reiterating the point. You are right, I am referring exclusively to the Hindustani variant of Indian classical music and should make that clear in the text where ever there is a chance for confusion. For the benefit of readers could you mention what the equivalent of shudh gandhar in Hindustani music would be termed in Carnatic music?

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