All posts by Nitin Amin

Scales : Natural and Tempered

I will touch upon just one more topic before we get on with the khayal performance. And that is the matter of scales: Natural and tempered.

The keys of the piano (or even a harmonium) look as shown below. The base octave is played with 12 keys, consisting of 7 white and 5 black ones. The keys are denoted from C to B as shown. These octaves would be repeated one after the other, starting from a very low register to higher and higher.

tempered scale





Western Music, as we saw earlier, is symphony based, which means a lot of instruments would be playing at the same time. Also, the base note could keep shifting within the composition.  This necessitates standardization of different pitches, with absolute frequencies defined. This also poses another requirement within the octave, in that the distances between all the successive notes have to be equal. This is possible only if the scale is divided into twelve equal parts from the Sa to the taar Sa. This is exactly what is done, and is known as tempering of the scale. In this scale, you can start with any note as the base sa, and play the whole octave. For standardization, the A key of the middle octave is tuned to a frequency of 440 Hz. All the rest of the 11 keys would just follow mathematically.

Consider Indian music on the other hand. If we imagine the C to be the Sa, then the white keys would all play shuddha swara, while the black ones would be the komal swaras and the teevra madhyam, giving the entire saptak. The natural scale would have the exact positions of the shuddha swara arrived at through the harmonics of the Sa. These positions do not coincide with those of the tempered scale, and there are variances, ranging from very minor to considerable from note to note. Another problem is, the komal swara positions are raga specific, and could be many within the space between two shuddha swara.

Till the harmonium emerged onto the scene about a century ago, sarangi was the only accompanying instrument, besides the tanpura. This posed no problem at all, as the sarangi could be tuned to any note, and can also produce any notes within the continuum of the whole saptak. The singer thus can tune the tanpura and the harmonium to any point of his convenience, tune the tabla to the same note, and go!

With the harmonium, however, it became necessary to tune the tanpura to any one particular key. The singers hence started denoting their scales in terms of the keys of the harmonium, such as a safed 2 or a black 5 etc. In the last few years, however, with the electronic tanpuras and the software appas around, present day musicians have started using the western language of denoting the scale in terms of a C# or an A etc.  Further, the western octave is divided into 1200 equal parts, called cents. This makes the distance between any two successive keys equal to 100 cents. So we now have a unit for fine tuning in terms of cents, e.g. 20 cents above E etc.

Tempering was done about three centuries ago, and our ears have become accustomed to the approximation, which was particularly easy in case of symphonic music. However, even within western classical music, the symphonies are composed for and always played in a particular key, where they sound the best.

For raga sangeet however, which is purely monophonic, the tempered scale does not work. An Indian classical musician is constantly in pursuit of becoming one with the natural harmony, and relies completely on the tanpura for his guide. The harmonium used for vocal accompaniment tries hard to meet up with special tuning of the instrument for particular base notes, and we have come to accept the approximation over the last century.

The Tanpura

Any discussion about the swara will be incomplete without understanding the significance of the tanpura. This age old instrument provides the background screen of swara for the artist, almost like the canvas of a painter.

This string instrument, which generally looks like the sitar, has four strings. These strings are normally tuned to the mandra pancham, shadja, shadja and the kharja shadja respectively. The first string could be tuned to the madhyam ( or nishad) depending upon the raga. There are two separate mechanisms to tune the pitch of each string, one for coarse and the other for further fine tuning. The overtones of each string can also be adjusted by a deceptively simple mechanism, controlling the harmonic content. This is known as adjusting the Javari, which can be khuli, i.e. open, enhancing the higher harmonics; or Bandh, i.e. closed, suppressing the higher harmonics.

The strings are plucked one after the other at a defined tempo, forming an awartan, which is repeated continuously. The resultant is a screen of multiple notes, rich in harmonics. Various other notes emanate out of the harmonics, besides the four basic tuned swaras. The Pancham gives out the Rishabh and Shuddha Nishad, while the kharja Sa gives Gandhaar and the komal nishad. The artist thus actually hears all these notes, which are purely of natural origin, and which the artist uses as a reference for tuning himself. For an artist, the tanpura is his Guru in his quest for the perfect swara, and becoming one with nature.







Tuning the tanpura and playing it properly is in itself an art, which at least every vocal artist learns and tries to master over years of training. The hardness or softness of the pluck, as well as the tempo and spacing of the plucks can vary the harmonic content.

Over the last few years, we have seen the emergence of the electronic tanpura (and now computer programs and mobile apps). This was initially developed for riyaz accompaniment, but now seems to have found its place on the stage during performance too. Even with all the technological prowess at hand, the tanpura is an extremely complex instrument to replicate electronically, and the various models available in the market are mere approximations, some good ones, others not so. These machines are so very handy and convenient to carry, and user friendly due to its one touch tuning,  that they have become quite popular. The down side of all this development is that an average beginner does not get the chance to really go through the process of understanding the tanpura, and learning to tune and play it.

The Gandhar or the rishabh or pancham emanating out of the tanpura belong to what we call the natural scale, as these are purely a part of the harmonics of the base sa. These are the notes we use to form the saptak of the seven notes from the sa to the higher sa.

Is this the scale that the entire music world uses? We will go on to find the answers…..

Harmony and Melody / Symphony

Before we get on with the khayal performance, I thought we should touch upon a few other topics. One such is the Melody and Symphony, and thereby generally the comparison between Hindustani and Western music.

We have seen earlier that harmony literally means agreement, which in case of music s the agreement of pitches. It is the sounds of different pitches placed at different points in time, which create music. Now this can be done in innumerable ways, but mainly can be categorized in two.

In the first, there would be only one sound or note at a given point of time. Thus, notes of various pitches, and varying duration will follow each other on the axis of time, creating a string. This string is the melody. A melody is said to be monophonic, meaning one note at a time. The melody would generally sound good, if the relationship between successive notes is harmonious, and hence soothing to the ear.

On the other hand, different notes, in harmony with each other, could also be placed at the same point of time. And such combinations could continue on the axis of time. These notes played on different sounding instruments would add colour due to the variety of tones. Such an arrangement is the symphony. Symphonic music is also said to be polyphonic, meaning many notes at a time. The symphony would sound good if the use of instruments is right, with the timbres and tones complimenting each other. If you look (hear!) carefully within the symphony, we can actually make out different melodies, created by some of the instruments, placed over each other. A good trained ear can easily decipher and follow a few melodies at a time.

Hindustani classical music is monophonic, and hence mostly presented solo. The Tabla accompaniment is giving only the base shadja, while the harmonium or the sarangi is mostly just repeating whatever the lead performer does. The tanpura in the background though is providing a full screen of quite a few notes, but is used only as a reference, and does not contribute to the melody.

While we say that Western music is polyphonic, it is not sans the melody. In fact you would notice that the most popular songs or even classical movements have a very strong melodic content. There would be no recall value without the melody, and no popularity without the recall value.

Today, we classify music into popular and art music. Technically, monophony would be restricted only to Indian classical or art music today. Most popular music, across the world, seems to be using the so called western music as its ingredient. So the Indian popular music would use the basic central line of the melody in the Indian way, supported by the screen of a western symphony using western instruments. In fact, the Hindi film music perhaps is the first and the best example of the fusion of these two streams of music.

There are questions raised about the effects of westernization of the other forms of music on the raga sangeet, particularly with reference to the correctness of notes etc. We will go on to take a brief look at the musical scales, tempering etc..

Laya as Tempo

How slow is Vilambit? And exactly how many beats per minute is drut?

There is no such standardization when it comes to the terms vilambit, madhya and drut. And then we can also have the Ati-vilambit and the Ati drut!

The clip below will give some idea as to these three tempos…


We have seen earlier that the artist looks at the space within the matra, while working in the vilambit laya. Wecan generally say that he is at least required to imagine the matra divided into 4 equal parts for the purpose. So quite simply, the laya remains vilambit till you can easily do this. When the count of four per matra becomes difficult, we are entering into the Madhya Laya.

And how does an artist choose how vilambit he would go? The slower the tempo goes, the more it would suit the alaap. There have been examples of artists who have gone Ati- vilambit on the khayal, which helps them focus on the sur and the alaap. And they have had their due criticism too, as the laya or the taal aspect remains completely out of focus, except for the last fraction of a matra for the mukhada. On the other hand, if an artist wants to focus on the laya aspect, then he would begin at a crisper tempo, so that he can then relish the play with the laya, and show the structure of the taal.

So the choice is made by the artist depending upon his preference, or lean towards the swara or the laya. And here is one of the factors at the root of the emergence of gharanas.

We move on to the Madhya laya, at a slower pace, the dheemi Madhya laya. This laya provides a beautiful platform to present the bandish with focus on both the swara and the laya aspects, and still presents some scope for alaap. As the tempo increases, the musical material starts shifting towards the taan.

So we now see a continuum emerging on the laya scale too, right from the ati vilambit to ati drut. And numerous bandishes in a raga are available to the artist. Each bandish is best rendered at the laya it is composed for, and hence it is better to change the bandish rather than stretching the same bandish from say dheemi Madhya laya to drut and beyond.

Another peculiarity of Indian music is that the laya once increased to a certain tempo would not be brought down during a performance, and has to keep going up, if at all.

Lastly, while different taals can be used for the choice of presentation, a special mention must be made about Jhumra and Tilwada, comprising of 14 and 16 beats respectively. These are used only for vilambit khayal compositions, and hence should be called just thekas, and not taals really. You will not find a tabla player playing solo in these!!

I think we now have covered enough ground to actually get into the presentation, and how different kinds of musical material is created….

Tala and Theka

The Tabla (and the harmonium or sarangi) accompaniment to a khayal vocal presentation is known as saath. While the harmonium provides the swar accompaniment, generally re-producing the phrases which the singer sings, the tabla provides the frame of awartan. The tanpura in the background is constantly providing the canvas of the shadja and many more sur (the tanpura sound is called as drone by the western world, which I do not really like, as it reduces the tanpura to a mundane boring sound).

What is played on the tabla is the theka of the tala chosen. The term theka is applied only in reference to khayal accompaniment, for singers or those instrumentalists (violin/ sarangi  or the flute) who use the khayal form. This is not used when the tabla accompanies instruments playing the alaap/jod/jhala form, or a dancer. The same goes for pakhavaj accompaniment for dhrupad, or the mridangam in the carnatic music.

So what is so special about the khayal form? What are the demands of the khayal when it comes to the laya aspect?

As we saw earlier, a khayal singer looks at the tala as divided into larger sections, the khand, which are comprised of more than one matra, and hence smaller in number than the matras. This gives a gross or macro view of the tala, providing a better platform for creating raga phrases. This suffices for him as the sole purpose of his presentation is to reach the mukhada and thence the sama, beautifully. But this does not mean that he does not see the laya at the micro or subtle level. Whatever he does during the awartan from the last sama to the mukhada happens at the subtlest level, with a beautiful interplay of laya and swara. He does this by dodging, but still showing the individual matra beats during the development, finally arriving at the mukhada in perfect laya and swar. The theka accompaniment on the tabla compliments this beautifully, by stretching certain bols, making maximum use of the aas or sustain of the dagga, and /or filling in more bols at a faster laya within the space of a matra. The singer and the tabla player thus are moving in tandem, going around the actual matra demarcations, following parallel routes, and converging beautifully at the sama. And this continues awartan after awartan, bringing tremendous joy for both the performers and the audience.

I have so far refrained from giving any examples of artists and their music, strictly sticking only to the explanation of the concept. But here, I can not resist giving the example of Pt. Ulhas Kashalkar accompanied by Pt. Suresh Talwalkar, both complimenting each other beyond comparison. Mind you, this may not be compared with the so called jugalbandi between an instrument and the tabla. The patterns there relate and cling more to the matra beats.

All of the above of course becomes more apparent in the vilambit laya, or the slower Madhya laya, rather than the drut laya. This also brings us to the question of how to define what is vilambit and what is not.

We will go on to explore the laya as tempo…

Within the Tala

Khayal uses the concept of the awartan, with its recurring mukhada and the sama, for developing the raga. Hence, just like a musician develops the ability for effortlessly producing the raga phrases, he also needs to develop the ability to know where he is within the awartan.

Using specific Tabla Bols for specific beats gives the Tala its unique structure. We can see that there are mainly two kinds of bols played on the tabla. The heavy ones, where the Baanya or the Dagga is used, such as the Dha and Dhin. When you take the weight of the Dagga out, you have the corresponding lighter ones, the Ta and Tin. And then you can also combine two bols to make one joint bol, such as DhaGE, TirKIt etc. Using different sounding bols in succession creates a sort of a lilt, almost melodic, which becomes the audio guide for the cycle. This is what helps an artist develop the ability to know, or to “feel” where he is within the awartan.

The tala also can be visualized as groups of Matras, which are known as the khand. For example, teen tala consists of four khands of 4 matras each. Particularly in the khayal presentation, the singer uses the khand for development, rather than a single matra. This helps create patterns which, besides keeping in with the Raga chalan, also are true to the tala structure.

within the tala








You will also notice that the tala is divided into two parts. The first part generally uses the heavy bols, and is known as the Bhari of the tala. At around the mid point of the awartan, the weight goes out, and the Khali, or the lighter part of the awartan begins. This then proceeds on towards the Sama, to begin another cycle. The Sama normally happens to be a heavy bol, such as the Dha or Dhin. Tala Roopak with seven beats is of course an exception, where the sama and the khali coincide, on the first beat, which is Tin.

The Khali Bhari division of the awartan provides that very useful aesthetic principle of symmetry.  This divides the tala into matching bol phrases on either side of the middle axis, which is particularly useful during tabla solo presentation. In case of the Khayal accompaniment, the khali becomes the audio clue that the awratan is halfway, and the singer then can start winding up the developmental pattern of that awartan, and prepares himself to glide seamlessly into the mukhada, towards the Sama.

We saw earlier how the laya, like the swara, is seen as a continuum, and the entire space besides the beat strokes is musically utilized. To help achieve this during a khayal performance, the accompanying tabla player provides the awartan with longer and sustained sounds ( the Baanya becomes particularly useful for this), and additional bols, rather than just giving short staccato punctuating beats. This would become much more relevant at slower tempo, or vilambit laya. This is known as the theka.

More about that, and the different tempos of laya in the next post….

Laya to Tala

Having seen how the Raga comes into being, let us now see how the other element of music, the Laya, transforms itself into the Tala. The Tala, just as the Raga, is also unique to Indian music.

On a very basic level, the clip below should explain how Laya is processed for the purpose:


I think the fundamental principle underlying the making of a Tala is that of Awartan. The Hindu philosophy generally believes in cyclic happenings, things coming back to where they started. Like the cycle of life and death, beginning with the birth, the life and then the death, only to be reborn again. The point of death also happens to be the point of birth of another life.

The Tala is such a cycle, or Awartan of beats. The end point of this awartan also becomes the starting point of the next awartan. This point assumes tremendous significance musically, and is called the Sama.

Teen Tala





As you can see here, the matra is the space between two beats, the tabla bols, which themselves are two separate points. So the Sama is the starting point of the first Matra, which is also the starting point of the awartan, and also the end point of the last matra of the Tala.

The most important thing the Awartan does is to provide a platform for repetition. The Bandish, which is a musician’s tool for presentation, is possible only because of the Tala awartan. The Mukhada of the Bandish, which generally occupies the last few Matras of the Tala, repeats itself in every awartan. The musician builds other supporting material in the rest of the space, and reaches the Sama through the Mukhada. We have seen earlier, that how an artist does this gracefully and with variety, awartan after awartan, decides the class of his/her music.

It is the length of the Matra, or the distance between two beats, which will basically define the tempo (now this is also known as the laya!), of the Tala. The length of the awartan will also depend upon the number of beats chosen. So if we have a Tala with ten beats ( Jhaptaal) instead of the 16 of the teen taal, the length of the awartan will obviously be smaller for the same laya. Taal roopak happens to be the smallest cycle with 7 beats. And then there are various Talas composed with different number of beats, the most commonly used being 9 ( Matta Tala), 12 ( Ek Tala), 14 ( Ada Chautaal)  and the teentaal with 16 beats. Dadra with six beats, and Keherwa with 8 beats, are known as Chhand-talas, as they offer an easy to count meter. This is also the reason for their being used in the popular and the semi-clasical forms of music.

We will go on to look within the Tala, to understand how the cycle is structured to provide aesthetic values during presentation…


Raga: Chalan

We  now come to the most decisive characteristic which gives the raga its unique structure, the chalan.

We have seen so far how a set of swara are chosen to form a Raga. To give the Raga its unique melodic theme, these swara need to be rendered in a specific manner. This specific manner is called the chalan of the Raga.

Various factors which collectively go on to specify the chalan are:

1.  The sequence in which the swara are taken.

The chosen swara can be connected in various ways. In one straight line, one after the other, or jumping over the next one, coming back and retracing the line in a circular manner. The swara lines which are thus created actually become the basic melodic design, or the theme of the Raga.

2. The manner in which the successive notes will be connected.

Successive swara in a design could be connected with each other in different ways. They could be joined smoothly with a long glide ( known as the meend), or with short straight lines, or then just as discrete points in a staccato manner. This further helps complete the picture of the Raga, which can actually be visualized.

3. The time dwell for each swara.

This picture is drawn on the canvas of time. So we have to look at this element closely, and consider the time given to each swara. At one end, a swara could be just touched upon fleetingly, or then at the other extreme, it could be used as a resting place, with long dwell. The dwell could again be different while going up in the aroha, and while coming down in the awaroha.

4. The Vaadi and the Samvaadi swara, the focal points.

Finally, this picture is provided with two focal points, the vaadi and the samvaadi swara. These two normally are in the opposite parts of the saptak ( If the vaadi is in the poorvanga, then the samvaadi is in the uttaranga, and vice versa). They also have by default a Sa-Pa or a Sa-Ma relationship between them. What this means is, if we make a small design around the Vaadi, we can compliment it with a matching design around the samvaadi. A seasoned musician keeps on exploiting this throughout his development.

The clip below should further help understand the concept.


So finally we have a well defined structure, which has a good amount of objectivity, enough for a musician to have an image. This image is strong enough to be almost the same for all the musicians, and to be propagated from generation to generation, with a good amount of fidelity. Thus, when different musicians present a particular Raga, it is as if they are describing the same person.

Let me say once again, that the Ragas have evolved over centuries. So the melodies came first, the rules followed, just inferred and put down as the common thread across these. So when an artist learns the chalan, he doesn’t go by the rules, but rather follows the Guru, and internalizes it. The long process largely goes by negating and avoiding what is not correct, rather than trying to understand what is right.

I am aware that this topic deserves a lot more explanation. We will definitely come back to this again at a still finer level.

Swara to Raga

We saw earlier that a Raga is a melodic theme, made of a set of swara. Let us see how we choose a certain set, so that it provides enough potential to expand the theme, keeping the ranjan element intact.

First Swara: The Shadja, Of course. How can we omit the Shadja from any theme? The very existence of any other note is relative to and hence dependent on the Shadja.

The second swara : Pancham or Madhyam. We have to keep either of them, and can not omit both at a time. The reason is quite simple really. The Pancham ( or the Madhyam) is the starting point, or the Sa of the Utaranga. And if the purpose of presenting a raga is finally to exploit the symmetry between these two parts of the Saptak, then we can not do with a set which has neither one. Furthermore, we have seen that the Ma-Pa space is the axis of symmetry between the Poorvanga and the Uttaranga. If we omit both, and thus remove this axis, it would be impossible that the resulting structure can be effectively used as a Raga.

The remaining swara will have to be chosen such that there is a balance of these between the Poorvanga and the Uttaranga. What is the minimum number we need? Having one each does not give us enough scope to make complimentary phrases, but a combination of 1-2 or 2-1 should be just enough. So we need at least three more notes.

The clip below should further help understand the concept.


To summarise the rules that make a raga:

Rule No.1 : A raga has at least 5 notes, including the Shadja. More than 5 is definitely ok. We can then add a further complexity, by choosing different swara in the ascent ( Aaroha) and the descent ( awaroha). So the number of combinations can then be 5-5, 5-6,5-7,6-5,6-6,6-7,7-5,7-6 and 7-7. Five is Odhav, six is Shadhav and 7 is sampoorna. So, an odhav-sampoorna raga will have 5 swar in the aaroha and 7 in the awaroha.

We have still not bothered about the  version ( komal, or teevra in case of Madhyam)of the swara.But it is obvious that their choice also will be guided by the principle of the Poorvanga-Uttaranga symmetry, and the ability to exploit the Sa-pa or Sa-ma bhaav. For example, a komal rishabh will b complimented by komal dhaivat in the uttaranga, or a komal gandhaar with the corresponding komal nishad.

There are of course exceptions to the rules, but hardly any.

All the above only gives us the mathematical possibilities. This does not mean that every combination arising out of the above rules gives us a Raga. One needs to really appreciate the fact that the Raga has evolved over a few centuries.  Only those combinations which could pass the test of ranjan for the listener, and more importantly the test of time, have sustained and survived as Ragas.

So there must be some more factors beyond the above rules that give the Raga its Ragatva or Raganess. The Chalan and the Vaddi Samvaadi are those factors, which we shall look at from closer quarters in the next post.

Within the Saptak : Samvaad

Before we actually get into understanding how a raga comes into being, I think it is essential to delve within the saptak, and explore the aesthetic principles which finally lead to the concept of the raga.

We have seen earlier that it is the relation between two notes (defined by the pitch interval), which decides whether the combination will be pleasing to the ear. Further, the degree of pleasure also would depend upon and vary as per this relation, meaning some combinations will be more favorable than others. The most favorable combinations within the saptak are the pairs of Shadja Pancham and Shadja Madhyam. They are the same actually,  the taar Sa becomeing the Pancham of Madhyam.

If you look within the saptak, you would find more pairs which have the Sa-Pa or Sa-Ma relationship. You can extend this to include the komal swaras too. For example, the komal Dhaivat will become the Pancham of komal Rishabh and so on. The clip below would be helpful…..

saptak aesthetics

Based on the Shadja-Pancham Bhaav, we can divide the saptak into two parts, which are symmetrically identical.

poorvanga utarangaThe first half, known as the Poorvanga, and the second half, known as the Uttaranga, are perfectly congruent with each other. This congruency, I think, is the fundamental aesthetic principle behind the concept of the Raga. Later, when we look into the Raga formation process, we will realize that the balance between these two parts is an essential factor.

The congruency between these two parts of the saptak also gives us two more availabilities. Firstly, it lets us build phrases in one part which can replicate or compliment themselves in the other. This becomes extremely useful in the development and vistaar of the raga. It is like making a small design in the first half, and then another one matching it in the second half.

Secondly, this congruency also helps the artist hit the right notes. We have seen earlier that we view the swara as a continuum, and the exact points are decided on the specific needs of the moment. Well, this need in turn is more specifically defined by the relationships we want to see and show within the notes. For example, the Dhaivat  can be arrived at by imagining it to be the Pancham of the Rishabh, or also as the Madhyam of the Gandhar. And both these points would be different. The exact points or shades of the komal notes employed also would be derived similarly. So, an artist really has to train himself in imagining (visualizing?) the samavaad or the harmonies between the various swara.

Finally, we see that the Poorvanga ends at Pa, while the Uttaranga begins from the Ma, thus including Ma and Pa in both parts. Can you imagine why?

We will find the answer as we move on to see how the Raga evolves from the swara…..