Talkin' About Indian Classical Music Theory

Nov 18, 1997  from

  While we're on the subject of Indian music. Can anybody explain what ragas are and how do they differ from scales?

Hi. This is my first post on the list, I've been lurking for a month or so. I'm a fan of JMCL, and also a big fan of Classical Indian Music. I've seen Zakir twice(classical settings) , and I try to play the stuff as well. (I play the hammered dulcimer-- called Santur in India, and also the Tamboura, the drone instrument). I don't claim to be an expert, but here is the crash course on Indian music. If anybody knows better, please speak up-- I don't mind being corrected. I might even learn something. A raga is essentially a scale, but may doesn't always have 8 notes. Some Ragas have a different form ascending or descending, and others are crooked, you need to repeat a series of notes as you go through them. A raga is genereally associated with a mood and a time of day for playing. Each raga has a dominant tone (first note of the scale) and a subdominant (often the forth or fifth). These tones are emphasized during the Raga, and are also used to construct the drone. One thing that makes many Ragas sound non-western is that they are not as likely to contain a fifth interval in them. If you see the word Misra in front of the name of the Raga, it means that the soloist is allowed to add accidentals judiciously. One of my favorite Ragas is Malkuans. It is a simple pentatonic scale. C#-E-F#- A-B-C# for example. You can get another cool one (whose name escapes me) by taking a Major scale and flattening the 2nd and 6th notes. One thing we lose out on in western music is that we use equal tempered, as opposed to natural tuning. Although this makes us able to change keys gracefully, it robs some of the harmonic richness when you're playing in one scale. The typical drone instrument is the tambura. It looks vaguely like a sitar without frets. The unique buzzing sound comes from placing tiny threads under the strings at just the magical part on the bridge. Once you get the tambura tuned, you just pluck the strings, and let it do the work. Performance of a Raga generally takes three musicians, the soloist, the drone player, and the tabla player. (I'm assuming you all know the tabla-- the twin hand drums, one of which can be tuned to a certain pitch). The performance is divided into three parts: (The Tamboura player plays the Tamboura the whole way through, but you don't really notice him after a while) Alap: The tabla player sits out. The soloist starts working through the scale very slowly and delicately in free meter. This is usually the part that it hardest for westerners to sit through. Consider it an excersize in meditation. Jor/Jahala (sp?) The Tabla player still sits out. The soloist, however, now plays off the scale to a clear rhythm, keeping time on a drone string. This starts at a slow tempo, but the soloist may chose to escalate the tempo later. Once he builds things to a fever pitch, he gives the Tabla play the cue. Gat: This is the part most people remember from a Classical Indian concert. The soloist introduces a melody based on the scale, and trades variations with the tabla player. It is often divided into three sections-- slow, medium and fast tempo. Some notes about performance. First, these things go long. It is not unusual to have a single piece go two hours or more. Second, the soloist often tunes during the performance, and the other players can "cover for him". Third, the basic goal is to continually build the tension and frenzy, so the tempo and complexity increase throughout the piece. Notes on Time: Indian music has many elaborate time schemes. Common ones include those of 7, 10, 12, and 16 beats. (The latter, called teental, is probably the most common.) Each rhythmic cycle has notes which are accented, and also notes which receive a negative accent. (They are not played, and the player swishes his hand in the air instead of striking the instrument.) For Teental, the emphasis is on notes 1, 5, and 13, and the 9th note gets the negative accent. The best way to get the feel of Indian rythm is to try to set a metronome to an album as it is playing. (Also, try the slower sections, not the one where Zakir is going nuts.) If you want to get into some Indian music, the cheapest way is to buy cassettes at Indian grocery stores. (If you can get past all of the cheezy disco stuff). If you are willing to drop more money, there is some good stuff on CD. My favorite artists are Shivkumar Sharma-- Santur Player: This guy revolutionized the playing of the Santur, and if you like percussion, he and Zakkir have some amazing duels. The album with Raga Madhuvanti is commonly available (Nimbus Records?) and has two killer performances. Ravi Shankar(Sitar) : He's not my very favorite sitar player, but a lot of his stuff is available. Also, his touch and phrasing on the Alap is incredible. Viliyat Khan(Sitar): He's sort of the inverse of Ravi. His playing is a bit more terse and percussive. He is unreal on the rhythmic portions, however, and really tears on the Gat. Hariprasad Chaurasia : Flutist, I think he was with JMCL at the Indian 50 thing thing, wasn't he? Great, haunting player. Bismallah Khan: Sheenai-- plays a horn-like instrument. Very good. There is an acoustic guitar player I like whose name keeps escaping me. He plays a western guitar with his fingers, but it sounds like a slide. He does a lot more with sustain than JMCL on his Indian flavored acoustic work, and also takes the time to really develop the Alap. Finally, there is an album called Call to the Valley which is supposedly the best selling Indian album of all time. (I understand there will be a sequel). It has santur, flute, guitar and tabla, and the pieces are fairly short. It would be a good place to start. (A full length Raga can really tax your attention span until you get the hang of it.) Well, I'm supposed to be working, so I'll go ahead and post this. Sorry about the mispellings, but I'm doing this from memory.