A Modern Introduction to Music – 4

By Anjum Altaf

I feel I should explain once again why we are proceeding slowly with this introduction. It is because we are not trying to learn to perform music. We are trying to learn to understand music. This is a difference that people are often impatient with but it is a fine difference. In music, it is possible to learn to perform without understanding the underlying theory. But, quite clearly, understanding becomes severely limited in the absence of knowledge of the basic principles. It is my belief that if we learn to walk right, we will be able to run much faster in the future.

This can seem abstract so let me illustrate with an example. A number of the readers of this series are more familiar with Carnatic music about which I know relatively little. In order to be able to continue the dialogue I looked for an introduction to Carnatic music and turned to Rajan Parriakar’s site which I consider among the best online resources for advanced students of North Indian music. There, for his readers, Parrikar has included an introductory series on Carnatic music. I will use that to explain the point that I am trying to make.

The series is written by a performer who can be considered a prodigy; she is described as one who, when barely three years old, was able to identify more than 200 Ràgas and the 175 Tàlas, besides answering numerous technical questions pertaining to Carnatic music. The series begins with a traditional Overview which states that “Carnatic music, like other important music systems of the world, has the basic elements of melody and rhythm” and concludes with the promise that “in the coming weeks, we shall go into the details of each aspect of Carnatic music.”

Let us now move to the first article in the series. Here is how it proceeds:

Any lover of Indian music would have definitely come across the word Raga. Needless to say, this concept is a very ancient one. But what exactly is it and how did it evolve? Before we go into it, we need to know some basic stuff. Let’s start with the skeleton of the Raga, which are the notes or swara-s, as they are called in Indian music.

Well, like most systems of music across the world, Carnatic music also has seven basic notes, the Sapta (seven) Swaras (notes) in an octave. They are Shadja (Sa), Rishabha (Ri), Gandhara (Ga), Madhyama (Ma), Panchama (Pa), Dhaivata (Dha) and Nishada (Ni). While Sa and Pa are the constant notes that remain fixed in any given pitch, the rest of the five notes have variable values of two each. That gives us a total of twelve notes or swarasthana-s in the octave (sthana literally means place or position). Isn’t it amazing that different civilizations across the globe have arrived at the same results through the centuries?

Anyway, here’s what makes Carnatic music different. Although there are twelve swarasthana-s, they are called by sixteen different names. This obviously means that there is some overlapping of the notes. This probably happened only to accommodate peculiar ragas like Nata or Varali which already existed before all these theories were propounded. So it was not with a view to be different that this idea was conceived, but only to properly classify these differences. Here’s a table of the sixteen notes with their Hindustani equivalents…

You can go ahead and look at the table but let me pause here. This approach is perfectly alright if you already know quite a bit about music but if you don’t you will just as quickly get lost. This will not serve as an adequate introduction at all.

Almost all introductory texts about Indian music follow this pattern and whenever I used to read them a set of questions arose in my mind: Why do most systems in the world have seven notes? What exactly is a note? What is the place of a note? What is the relationship between the seven notes? What do we mean by constant and variable notes? Why do the variable notes have only two values each? What is pitch? Why if there are twelve notes they are called by sixteen names in Carnatic music? If different civilizations across the globe have arrived at the same results through the centuries there must be some very fundamental relationship or truth underlying music. What is that relationship? And so on…

Now, in the Indian system if you are learning to perform you need not know any of this. When I despaired of the books I turned to the gurus and found myself sitting in front of a teacher who pressed a key on the harmonium and told me that was Sa; then the next which was Re. Then I learnt to imitate him as he went from Sa to Ni and back down again. After a few months I became quite adept at going back and forth between Sa and Ni and was ready to progress to learning Ragas which are particular combinations of the seven notes.

I could have become a performer but I would not have learnt what Sa is and why all civilizations have discovered the same seven notes. If I had looked up Swara in a glossary like the one on the Sangeet Research Academy site, it would have told me that a Swara is a note which would not have left me any wiser. This is something I would have had to take on faith as most of every generation has done in our oral tradition.

I would have been fine as a performer had I wanted to be one but as one trying to understand and appreciate technique or explain it I would have had a very shaky foundation to my edifice. A Raga made up of Swaras is like a structure made up of bricks. Imagine describing the intricacies of the structure without knowing much about the nature of the bricks, why there are seven types and how they fit together. Had I persisted, I would have ended up speaking a lot about things that were not at all clear in my mind.

Overcoming this limitation is the task I wish to address in this series. I know there are people who are interested in music but not excited by the thought of answering such questions. And there are many people who already possess this knowledge. For them sites like those of the Sangeet Research Academy and Rajan Parrikar would offer a much more rewarding experience. For the rest, which may be a small group, this series can try and provide some food for thought.


  • Arpita Chatterjee
    Posted at 17:42h, 30 July Reply

    As has often happened, I just had to respond and I might be repeating myself, if you’ve read my earlier responses, but I am doing it to bring clarity to what follows.

    I’ve had music training from early childhood – which I believe makes life a lot easier. I look at music as a means of communication – just like any other language. I love teaching children (they are generally more open to creative ideas than adults) and I wish our system of education (I live in India) was more creative in its approach and music training was available for all students. Having said that, here is my response, which owes a lot to my gurus Mrs Dipali Nag, Pandit T.L.Rana, Mrs Aparna Chakravarti, Dr Vidyadhar Vyas and my ex-colleague Dr Ranjan Sengupta, who till recently headed the Scientific Research Department of the ITC Sangeet Research Academy.

    Here’s something that might interest you. It was put together a while ago. I do hope you find it useful. Incidentally, please remember that all animals communicate with sounds (dhwani). Sounds are of two kinds – musical (naad) and non-musical (kolaahal).

    What is music?
    The singing of the birds, the sounds of the endless waves of the sea, the magical sounds of drops of rain falling on a tin roof, the murmur of trees, songs, the beautiful sounds produced by strumming the strings of musical instruments – these are all music. Some are produced by nature while others are produced by man.
    Natural sounds existed before human beings appeared on earth. Was it music then or was it just mere sounds? Without an appreciative mind, these sounds are meaningless. So music has meaning and music needs a mind to appreciate it.
    Music therefore may be considered as a form of auditory communication between the producer and the receiver. There are other forms of auditory communication, like speech, but the difference is that music is more universal and evokes emotion. It is also relative and subjective. What is music to one person may be noise to another.
    How did music originate?
    Music seems to be present in all cultures, and it appears to be very deep-rooted in the human psyche. There are many theories regarding when and where it originated. Historiographers point out that there are six periods of music and each period has a particular style that greatly contributed to what music is today. We know that music is a perceptual entity and is controlled by our auditory mechanisms. Music affects emotions and mood. It makes people want to dance. It is intensely connected to memories. People can remember song lyrics from decades ago without any effort. The emotional content of music is very subjective. A piece of music may be undeniably emotionally powerful, and at the same time be experienced in very different ways by each person who hears it.
    The material essence of music lies in its melody, harmony, rhythm, and dynamics. Melody gives music soul, while rhythm blends the expression of harmony and dynamics with the tempo of the passage. All of these are necessary to create a recognisable pattern known as a “song.”
    Rhythm is, by its simplest definition, musical time. The origin of the word is Greek, meaning “flow.” Rhythm is indeed the embodiment of timely flow. Rhythm organises music in much the same way as meter regulates and pulsates a poem. The regular pulsations of music are called the beat. Stronger beats are referred to as “accented” beats. Measures of music divide a piece into time-bound segments.
    Indian Music
    The 3000-odd year old Indian genre of music is basically melodic. It is based on the principle of resonance, shruti, and laya, regarded as ‘mother’ and ‘father’ respectively. It is impossible to perceive any musical piece without their intermingling. Shruti, the very backbone of Indian music, plays a vital role in rendering a specific identity and individuality to a raga that distinguishes it from an ocean of ragas.
    Brahma is said to be the author of the four Vedas, of which the Sam Veda was chanted in definite musical patterns. Vedic hymns were sung in plain melody, using only 3 notes. It took a long time for music to come to the form found in present-day India. The most important advance in music was made between the 14th and 18th centuries. During this period, the music sung in the north came in contact with Persian music and assimilated it, through the Pathans and the Mughals. It is then that two schools of music resulted, the Hindustani and the Carnatic. Hindustani music adopted a scale of Shudha Swara saptaka (octave of natural notes). During this period, different styles of classical compositions such as Dhrupad, Dhamar, Khayal, and others were contributed to Hindustani music, along with many exquisite hymns, bhajans, kirtans. Bharat’s Natyashastra, is the first treatise known for laying down the fundamental principles of drama, dance and music. Around 1900, Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande consolidated the musical structures of Hindustani classical music into 10 thaats (classes based on allowable sequence of notes).
    The Indian system of music is an individualistic, subjective, and spiritual art, aiming not at symphonic elaborations but at personal harmony with one’s own being. Indian music reflects the delightful blend of the knowledge of the Vedic Aryans, with the emotions, prevailing in the sub-continent’s music for millennia before their arrival. Spontaneous and intuitive improvisations in melody as well as rhythm constitute the sublime underpinning of the Indian ness characteristic in Indian music.
    While the western classical music system insists on precision in determining frequencies for its notes, its Indian counterpart, shows a liberal and human approach while dealing with the rendering of swaras in raga elaboration. Raga is determined not by a sonic meter but by the human experience. According to a definition of raga by Matanga (the 7th century author whose work Brihaddesi described raga in its technical sense for the first time), what is pleasant alone can be a raga. Raga, referred to as the ‘miracle of microtones’ is built by a choice of a minimum of five and maximum of seven swaras in an octave. The selected ones show a sustained quality of a definite single frequency or a combination of related frequencies, aesthetically suitable to the human voice range, ears and heart.
    In Indian music, the concept of rhythm is called ‘tala’. Rhythm as in Western music is a very simple way of progressive, cyclic measurement of tempo. In Indian Music this measurement of tempo is very complex. There are more than 20-25 popular and regularly used rhythm patterns and approximately 50-60 rare rhythm patterns in Hindustani music.
    Melody and rhythm are the common grounds for music, be it Western or Indian. Indian music is essentially monophonic (single melody format or homophonic) while Western music can be polyphonic (multiple notes played or sung in harmonised unison), monophonic or a combination of both. Western classical music is based upon the equal tempered scale, and rests upon melody, harmony and counterpart while swara and tala are the two basic components of Indian classical music. Swaras are the twelve notes, while a tala is a cycle of beats, starting with a stress point called the sam and with a release point called the khali. It is this (the sam & khali) that brings life to a tala.

    I’m looking forward to some feedback.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 11:06h, 31 July

      Arpita: This text is good. The question is where does it fit in the pedagogical sequence? Would this be the opening section of an introduction to Indian music or would there be something that precedes it?

      I hope other readers provide you with the feedback you have asked for.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:41h, 05 August

      Arpita: I would like your feedback on the dilemma that I perceive with an introduction to Indian music that begins from this point. If the reader has some familiarity with Indian music, the introduction is too simple. If the reader has no familiarity with Indian music, the introduction is not simple enough. There are too many undefined terms that the unfamiliar reader can not be expected to know. So, the introduction falls between two stools. Because this happened to me repeatedly, I spent time thinking about what could be done. The only way I could think out of the dilemma was to first define the terms that would be used and the concepts needed to understand the terms. Of course, this could become tedious unless it is done in a way that retains the interest of the reader/listener along the way. This is a difficult task but not an impossible one. After all there are teachers who fascinate students and others who turn them off for life from subjects like mathematics, economics and physics. The same must be the case with music.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 05:58h, 31 July Reply

    Some readers would know that one of the spirits inhabiting this blog is that of Ghalib – as reflected in the Ghalib Project. Ghalib was not a trained scientist but he had the sensibility of one – he never took anything on faith or for granted and his curiosity was without limit.

    This post immediately brought the following couplet to mind:

    sabzah-o-gul kahaaN se aai haiN
    abr kyaa chiiz hai hawaa kyaa hai

    greenery and roses – where have they come from?
    what thing is a cloud? what is wind?

    (Translation by Frances Pritchett)

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 12:02h, 31 July Reply


    Congratulations! You have nailed my problem. I have never understood what exactly is sargam. They were always just sounds, sa re ga ma……. . When I uttered them after the experts, these blokes mocked me but they were never able to explain why they are different from A B C……

    Therefore I never progressed beyond the beginning.

    Let us see if you can crack the conundrum.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 12:31h, 31 July

      Anil: Now I am excited. I feel I finally may have located a kindred spirit. I am going to argue that music is like a language but I intend to explain very very precisely the difference between Sa Re Ga and A B C. You will have to be patient though. I would rather not tell you; it would be a lot more enriching if I could help you discover it for yourself.

  • Sohail Kizilbash
    Posted at 15:06h, 31 July Reply

    These are exactly the questions which have always popped up in my mind but no one could answer them satisfactorily. Your approach is excellent.

  • Sohail Kizilbash
    Posted at 15:23h, 31 July Reply

    I am sure Arpita is a good musician, a lover of music and a good teacher. However, her “shortcoming”, if it can be called by such a rude word, is that she has had music training since childhood. Some of the concepts are just natural or too obvious for the experts. Just like children need no grammar to help them speak a language correctly. However adults do. Your approach of dealing with the subject from a real non-musician’s angle is most suitable for persons like me and Anil.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 01:04h, 01 August

      Sohail: You have hit upon the right analogy – the difference between the first language acquired in childhood and the second language learnt in adulthood. If you ask me, I would love to have had the advantage that Arpita has had. There can be nothing like the experience of being able to feel music in one’s bones and to be able to make music. But given that I was not so fortunate I have tried to salvage something from my disability. The focus of my effort is to make the learning of the second language as easy and interesting as possible, reproducing, in essence, my own experience for people like me.

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