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Doe (Do), a deer, a female deer
Ray (Re), a drop of golden Sun
Me (Me), a name I call myself
Far (Fa), a long long way to run !

I am sure most of you recognize this song from the classic movie – “The Sound of Music”. The song tells about the seven musical notes used in western classical music – do re mi fa so la ti do.  Here, in this gentle introduction to Indian classical music (ICM) I am going to tell you about another set of 7 notes, sa ri ga ma pa da ni –the very same notes as they are known in India.

Indian musical traditions date back to several thousands of years. Around the 13th -14th century AD, it started splitting into two streams. Both these systems are in vogue today. The basics of the two systems are the same, but there are differences in style and presentation. The system prevalent in most of the northern India is called by the name Hindustani, or uttarAdi (northern music). This had an influence from Persian music during middle ages. The music in the south retained more of original elements of Indian music, is called Karnataka or dakshinAdi sangeeta (literally, southern music).

I will compare and contrast Indian music classical with western classical music to make this an easy learning experience. Just keep in mind that whenever I refer to western music or Indian music, they refer to the classical variety.

Let me first tell about the similarity. Both western and Indian music are based on an octave with 7 notes and 12 semi-tonal intervals. A note is called svara in Indian music. The 7 notes are shadja, rishabha, gandhara, madhyama, panchama dhaivata and nishada. Don’t worry about the complicated sounding names – These are always represented by the solfa syllables -sa ri ga ma pa da ni while singing.

There are some key differences that can make Indian music almost alien sounding to an ear trained to listen to western classical music. The first difference is that the notes in Indian music are seldom played or rendered plain at their nominal position. The notes generally descend from a higher note or glide from a lower note or oscillate around the nominal value. This is called gamaka , and this technique of singing a note is employef commonly in Indian music.

The second difference is the floating key used in Indian music. The compositions in western music are set in and are always performed at a certain key. There is no such hard and fast rule in Indian music. A performer uses a pitch in which he or his instrument sound best. This is normally set by the sound of a drone, called the shruti. In a performance, all the singers and the instruments set their pitch to the shruti set by the main performer.

Coming to the next difference, harmonic elements are almost absent in Indian music, while western classical music has abundant harmony. In western classical, you will find combination of notes that sound nice when played together form chords. You may also find different instruments, or vocals singing a different note blending very harmoniously. On the other hand, Indian music most of the time does not use of playing or singing different notes at the same time. Indian music a melodic system, where compositions are set in different melodies, called raagas. The term rAga actually means color, and indeed is a true representative of Indian music. There are hundreds of raagas which have individuality by the notes they use, the sequence of notes, and also the gamaka or the variations on the notes in the raaga, and the mood they create.

Last, but not the least is the importance of improvisation. In a western music scenario, most of the pieces you would get to listen in a performance are pre-composed. The performers may also have the notation in front of them when they sing or play. On the other hand, in an Indian music concert, there is heavy emphasis on improvisation and elaboration. There are compositions, but the artist would augment it with his own imagination and explore the contours of the raaga he is performing.

There is a saying: “Shrutih mAtA, layah pitA” – Being in tune(key), and keeping a good rhythm are like parents to have good music. There is a well defined rhythmic system in Indian music. It can be as simple as keeping the rhythm by hand or use a plethora of rhythmic instruments.

To conclude here are the key take-away points. Indian musical system is based on the same 7 notes and 12 semitones as the western music. However, absence of harmony, increased use of melody, the glides on the musical notes and the emphasis on improvisation make it distinct.


p.s: This is a speech I gave at my Toastmasters Club


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