Music Literacy: Awareness to Appreciation

We take a detour here from the progression of topics. There is a reason of course. I got a few reactions on the plan I posted a few weeks ago. The question is:  We seem to be heading into quite a technical discussion on various topics, is it necessary to understand music in such depth?

I think there is no limit to the depth of understanding any subject, if you are genuinely interested in it. But let us try and apply this in the context of Indian Classical Music.

If we were to grade the levels of understanding on a scale, then we would expect the performing artist to be at 100. The opposite would be of course zero, which we can call completely illiterate in music.

Can we try and estimate the average level of literacy of the audience of any classical program today? We can generally divide the audience into three groups. The core group, which has a high level of understanding, who knows what the artist is doing moment to moment, and can generally make their own decision whether the music is good or not. The second group would be the one on the periphery, with a very low level of understanding, who have no clue as to what is going on, and are there just to be there. And then the third group, the middle one, who is genuinely interested in following classical music, and are trying to learn the nuances by themselves, just enviously looking at the core group. Consider the type of concert, whether it is a private baithak at home ( 25-50 people), or a usual morning or evening concert organized by a music circle ( 100-200 people) or a large festival with more than 10000 people. I will leave you guess the proportions, and also as to which category you fall in.

What is important to understand here is that one does not just reach the level of really appreciating art music (unless you are learning it to sing or play an instrument yourself). So let us define the earlier stages on the way to become an enlightened listener.awareness

I think we would begin with the awareness stage, where you at least become aware of the fact that you need to educate yourself for the purpose. It is not enough to just be literate. Just as being literate is not enough to appreciate poetry in any language. If you become aware, and get on to the quest for understanding, then you go through the next stage of acquaintance, where you get familiar with the basic concepts and terminology. This is a big step. This helps you get rid of any intimidation (fuelled largely by the artists and the core listeners, and by the overall mystique attached to the whole process). This opens the doors of appreciation for you, making the journey ahead really enjoyable.

Like everything else in our life today (from sports to politics to entertainment) Classical music too succumbs to the pressures of commercialization. With the number of artists trying to make a career in music, and the numbers in the audiences ever on the rise, a lot of non-musical elements creep into the performance. So it becomes necessary for a good listener to make his own quality judgment, reject the substandard and choose who and how he wants to listen to. Reason enough to continue on with this musiquest!

We can now get on to understand how the swara and the Laya evolve into the Raga and the Tala respectively, the backbone of Indian Music.


Laya : Musically

We said earlier that Laya is about time intervals. Imagining time intervals and keeping them equal one after the other is the first step in maintaining a laya. If the time interval is long, we say that the laya is slow, and the laya increases if we reduce this time interval.

While creating music, we also go on to make patterns with Laya. This requires us to divide the time intervals into parts, and then using these parts. The clip below would demonstrate just how this is done.


You would perhaps have made two observations from the exercise:

  1. The longer the time interval between the beats, i.e. slower the laya, the more difficult it is to maintain it. As the pace increases, it becomes much easier to hold the beat. We will go on to see later, that a very slow tempo of compositions or Bandishes, is also a uniqueness of Hindustani Music. No other music in the world uses such slow tempos.
  2. While dividing the intervals, even number of parts are easy to manage, than the odd ones. The twos and fours seem to be easier than the threes and fives. At least initially. This is perhaps due to the symmetry element. In any case, for a musician, over the years, the difference ceases, and he is equally comfortable at all times.

There are a couple of more things to know about laya in the context of Hindustani music. Firstly, there is no standard for the tempo, such as a certain number of beats per minute being called as vilambit, or Madhya or drut laya. So what is slow or vilambit for one could be medium or Madhya for another artist. Broadly, we can imagine the three tempos as bands which overlap. This is similar to the swara scales in Indian Music, where there is no fixed standard for the pitch frequencies. We will see more about this later.

Secondly, We do not use laya in a metronomic form. A metronome is an instrument which gives a click at regular intervals, and the intervals are adjustable. The metronomes in the earlier days were mechanical, using a pendulum, which, like a lot of other things, are replaced by electronic ones or software today. We do not use the beats in a staccato way for our compositions, but rather also employ the space between the beats. Going around the beats, exploiting the entire space in an aesthetic manner, is seen as a sign of maturity in a musician. This is also quite similar to the use of swara, where we not only use the defined swara points, but the entire space between swaras, across the saptak.

Thus, while using both the fundamental ingredients of music, the swara and the laya, we visualise these as a continuum, rather than just discrete points.

Lastly, the word laya actually means decay or death. For all things being, we imagine them to be passing through three stages, the utpatti ( birth), the sthiti ( being) and the laya ( death), and then utpatti again, going in a cyclical manner. The concept of laya further evolves into the Tala, which uses laya in a cyclical form, known as the awartan.

Laya – The Concept

We said earlier that all music is about sound and time. While the sound element expresses itself through the swara, the time element finds expression through the Laya.

The word Laya has been generally translated into rhythm, or tempo or meter. But in the context of Indian music, the word really means all these, and much more beyond.

Just as we process sound into a musically usable swara, we also pick up the element of laya from nature, and process it for the purpose of music.


Laya is about time intervals. Imagining time intervals and then controlling them requires one to develop this skill or ability. Just in the same way as one develops the skill to produce sounds of different pitches on his instrument, and to control the pitch intervals.

We would need events to punctuate the time intervals. These would need to be audio events, and as sharp as possible, occupying minimum possible time themselves. So these can be finger snaps, or claps or feet taps, or then sounds produced by a percussion instrument. Generally and collectively, we call these as beats.

It will be quite interesting to play a simple game using a table clock, which gives a tick every second. Start counting the tick when the second hand is on 12, and after a few ticks, close your eyes. If you open the eyes on the 60th tick, the second hand should be just reaching 12 again. It is not really difficult to count every tick, and you should not go wrong if you have not missed a tick. Now find a clock which is silent and does not make the ticking sound. And then try the same exercise again.  I am sure you would get it right after about a year’s practice!

The one question which I have always had in my mind is : What is more abstract? Swara or Laya?

As many others, the answer to this question too has changed over the years for me. I always thought the swara to be more abstract, and laya more concrete. However, when it comes to actually practicing, and teaching and learning, a slightly different picture started to emerge. It could be a matter of personal experience, and I will leave it to you to find your own answer.

Just as a true musician is on a lifelong quest of a finer and finer control over the swara, he also pursues the laya, honing his skills to finer and finer levels of control over time intervals. But then, deep down, each artist would have his own private inclination towards one of the faculties. This has a big influence over how his musical material is created, and hence the development and presentation of his music. This eventually gives rise to the variety and different styles of presentation in Hindustani music, which over the generations have evolved in Gharanas.

We will go on to explore how the laya concept is actually put to use for music.

Musiquest : The plan

This is my 10th post of Musiquest. When I set out, I was quite curious as to how this develops. And am still curious!

There has been a big gap (more than a moth) since the last post. It was quite heartening that I got a few  mails enquiring about the next post! I have also been getting a few questions on mail, but no comments on the post. I would rather urge you to write a comment on the post…..Answering questions off-line has not really been a part of the plan for me.

Perhaps we are a bit embarrassed to post a question which becomes public, going by my earlier experiences of the workshops. I would give the same comment as we used to then: A question is never stupid (of course if genuine and asked with the right intent), the answer could be!

Now to explain the gap since the last post… I had planned to take a pause around the 10th post to see how it was going, and make any course corrections as necessary.  I hope that I have been able to avoid letting this be a runaway train of posts. But still I felt that I should now consolidate and present a complete plan of how this is going to develop. This will give you a clearer picture of what to expect, and also help me keep up the regularity in my posts. secure web browser So my plan is attached here…And we are looking at finishing this in about a year from now, with at least one post every week. So now you can look up to a new post every Saturday.

Musiquest – The plan

I have tried to cover as much as possible in this plan (remember, the focus is on the concepts, and not information), but do let me know if I have missed out on anything….

Lastly, I have a rough sequence in mind, trying to maintain the flow of concepts as they progress, and will anyway indicate this from time to time. But there could be some diversions, if some interesting questions come up. What is life without a touch of spontaneity?

The next two posts will be on the concept of Laya, and its use in music…….


Swara to Saptak

The Saptak literally evolves from the Shadja, or the sa, which is the base note or the aadhaar swar. Shadja itself means that which gives birth to six (more). What this also means is that the saptak can not exist without the shadja. It is only when you define the shadja, the sa, that the positions of the others will automatically be defined.

The positions of the rest of the swara arise from the principle of consonance, and bear specific relation (in pitch) with the sa. Thus, each swara also holds a specific relationship with every other swara. parental security . It is every musician’s quest to explore these relationships, and use them for music making.

The clip below should generally explain how the saptak is formed.


It is important here to dwell upon the concept of consonance (Samvaad). Consonant relationships between two notes are a natural preference of the human ear (physiologically), and result in the experience of pleasure. The degree of the pleasure varies, and depends upon the exact relationship.

The opposite of consonance is dissonance (Visamvaad) and it results in displeasure. Any two notes separated by a half note distance have this dissonant relationship. So the Sa and the komal Re (or the Ni) would be dissonant or visamvaadi with each other.

However, it does not mean that the dissonance is avoided altogether while making music. (It would perhaps be like writing a story or making a movie with only happy scenes). Rather, the dissonance is also used aesthetically, and in fact some of our Ragas like Shree and Marwa exploit it to the fullest. Generally though, Indian music avoids using two consecutive half notes one after the other. The whole concept will be clearer when we move on to the shadja pancham bhaav and the aesthetics within the saptak. But that would be for later.

Understanding all the swara positions perfectly, and being able to produce these with respect to the shadja is the part of training to become a musician. What exactly is “perfection” of the swara? And what is a Surila musician? I think this deserves to be a separate topic for a post, which will be my next.

There are also various other things related to the saptak, such as comparisons with other (mainly western and the carnatic) scales, tempering of the scale, the tanpura etc…We will touch upon these subsequenly…..

I commented earlier upon the danger of over- simplification ( at least initially) when we are trying to explain such abstracts. I would once again ask you to view the explanatory AVs with this in mind, as they would sometimes prove to be a bit inadequate, but I hope the discussion here would fill any gaps.

Swara : Physically…..and Musically!

Is there a difference between the two? Well, as for myself, It took me quite some time to realize and accept the difference!

Till a few years ago , I used to revel in the mathematics of Music, different scales, their variances, and lots and lots of ratios and numbers. And then I was introduced to the musical search of the swara ……The ongoing and unending quest has taught me to leave the mathematics behind……

Understanding of the physics behind it is not wasted though, and I think that one has to start with it, to be able to appreciate what lies beyond the physics.

The link below explains the physical attributes of the swara, as simply as possible.

Swara physically

The pitch, of course, is the first readily recognizable attribute of the swara. The pitch is not the same as the frequency, but is rather the perception of the frequency of a swara. And truly, we are dealing more with the feel, when we talk about the swara musically. The pitch, tone (timbre) and the loudness of the swara are not really experienced independent of each other, but should be seen as three dimensions of a swara. These three dimensions together define the swara, making it very dynamic.

For a musician, a major part of his life is spent in mastering the control over these three variables of the swara, so that he is able to use his instrument to create the sound exactly demanded by the moment. While the ability to vary and control the pitch is the most primary aspect of learning music, one also learns to change the tone or the loudness of a swara while keeping the pitch same. A musician also keeps on improving on the fineness of this control, exploring the depths of the swara to infinitesimally minute levels. The musician’s greatest friend and Guru in his quest of the swara is the tanpura (more about this later).

For a musician, the swara is a very dynamic and a living thing, which he uses to create the feel, through continuous modulation of the pitch, tone and the volume, and thence the emotion and the effect he desires.

The musical scale defines the relative positions of the swara which can be used for music making, and these as we commonly know are the seven swara of the saptak.

More about how the saptak evolves, and the variants of these swaras in the next post…….

Swara : The Concept

Any Music is fundamentally about sound and time. And the element of sound is expressed through the Swara, or the Musical note.

We all have used  the proverbial SA RE GA MA  as the initiation into music, and know that there are seven swara, generally known as Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha and Ni. However to really understand them fundamentally, and their relations with each other, and how these relations are used to create music, we need to begin at understanding the journey of sound as it progresses to become a swara.

In our urban homes, we are used to live constantly with some sorts of sounds around us, ranging from the traffic noise, the TV blaring at the neighbour’s, a drill machine whining away somewhere, children playing in the garden, and so on. In fact, we have forgotten what real silence is, and if at all we encounter it on one of our travels to remote places, it unnerves us.

All of these sounds together can be summed up simply as noise. The character of noise is its randomness, where the sounds are quite irregular, and unrelated to each other.

To become musically usable, this noise has to lose its randomness, become regular, pleasing to the ear, and acquire defined correlated pitches. The clip below should explain these steps with examples.

Noise to Swara

It will be worthwhile here to elaborate the Naada and the Swara stages here, as sometimes in the literary world, you may find the term Naada used in both spiritual as well as musical context.

A Naada is the stage of sound just before it attains swarahood. It is pleasing to the ear, and also has a definite pitch, but generally  is restricted to one particular pitch. It has the potential to become the swara, if its pitch can be varied, at will, and with a definite purpose of making music. It is this purpose of musical creation, which distinguishes the Swara from  the Naada.

When we say that two or more sounds are related to each other, we are generally referring to their pitch. So we now need to know what we mean by the pitch of the sound.

To understand the pitch and the other physical attributes of the Swara, we have to revisit our school physics, and we shall do that in the next post.


As we have seen, Raga is the purpose of presentation, or a performance. And Raga by itself is just a melodic theme, which may be quite abstract for a listener, even if the artist can render this theme just through the swara or Alaap.

The Bandish becomes the performer’s tool for development and presentation of the Raga.

Imagine the Bandish to be a song. Melodically, this song is composed to the theme of the Raga. Rhythmically, it can be composed to any Tala, depending upon the length of the cycle as may be required. And it uses a basic lyric, with words.  The lyric need not be high on poetic content, but is rather useful from a phonetic viewpoint.

The lead line of this song is known as the sthayee, and will repeat itself in congruence with the cycle of the Tala. The Sama, which is the most significant point in this cycle, now carries an added purpose, and becomes the Sama of the Bandish. This Sama now will coincide with one particular letter of the lyric. The leading tagline which takes you to this Sama would be confined to only a part of the Awartan towards the end, and is known as the Mukhada.

The artist’s job now is to use this Bandish as a platform to create his musical material, which will comprise of the swara of the Raga and the words of the Bandish. The theme of his presentation now shifts to the Bandish instead of the Raga, and the musical material he develops will be (or is expected to be) matching with the Bandish he has chosen.

There would be numerous Bandishes available to an artist, set to different Talas, and to different tempos from Vilambit to Madhya to the Drut laya. Most of these Bandishes are traditionally composed over the last 2-3 centuries, and are regarded as trademarks of different Gharanas. All the traditional Bandishes normally have been in Hindi, or more particularly, the Braj dialect, which provides beautiful phonetic support. New Bandishes are of course composed from time to time by contemporary artists, but their popularity would depend upon their effectiveness in serving their purpose.

Contemporary artists nowadays announce the name of the Raga they are going to present, and also recite the Bandish in prose, clearly spelling out the words.


I think by now we have understood the broad framework of Hindustani music, and know the purpose of a performance. The artist presents a Bandish in a Raga, and the purpose is to develop the Raga through creating various musical material. Within every awartan, this material has to smoothly lead to the Mukhada, and the artist then beautifully shows the Sama…and on to next awartan….

It is now time to leave the surface and take a dip into the next level of detail…..

We will begin by exploring the concept of the Swara…

The Tala

Fundamentally, any music is about sound and time. Sound expresses itself through the Swara, and time expresses itself through the Laya. In case of Indian music, Swara and laya are further processed, and elevate themselves to the status of the Raga and the Tala, which then become the basis for presentation. Just like the Raga, the Tala also is a uniquely Indian concept.



While the Raga is a melodic theme for development, the Tala is the rhythmic frame for presentation. Tala provides that platform which is used for creating beautiful and interesting patterns, and at the same time becomes the compound which disciplines the development.

What is unique to the Tala is the concept of awartan, or repetition, which means that the rhythm is maintained in a cyclic form. In the other forms of music, the rhythm progresses linearly, and generally expresses itself as a meter with a few beats. The cyclic nature of the Tala  allows much longer and complex cycles, of varying number of beats. The variety of sounds which can be created on the Tabla ( by the use of the Tabla and the Baanya), further provides a distinctive personality to each Tala.

The most significant contribution of the Tala to music is undoubtedly the Sama, which is the starting point of an awartan. During performance, reaching the point of Sama beautifully becomes the goal of the development (so much so that how an artist does this is an indicator of his musical prowess and class). The Sama becomes the emotional and intellectual objective awartan after awartan.

The Tala accompaniment is provided by the Tabla for the khayal, while it is the Pakahwaj which accompanies the Dhrupad.

Other than being the rhythmic component of a bandish (composition), and hence accompaniment, the Tala is also presented by itself during a Tabla solo performance. In this case, a melodic composition is used for accompaniment ( mostly on the harmonium or the  sarangi), which is known as the Nagma or Lehera.

We will shortly get down to understanding the concept of Laya, and how it evolves in the Tala.




The Raga

The Raga is the soul and the sole purpose of Hindustani Art Music. So much so, that we also call this music Raga Sangeet.  When an artist performs, he presents a Raga, and that is his topic of presentation.

A raga is not a singular melody composed by any one artist, but rather a melodic theme. A multitude of such themes, the ragas, took a few centuries to evolve, and have been around for a further many centuries. The aesthetic principles underlying the concept of the Raga are so strong in themselves, that they have remained virtually unchanged throughout.  The forms of presentation, however,have gone through a process of evolution on the other hand, from the Prabandha to Dhrupad and then on to the present day khayal. The permanence of the very robust aesthetic fundamentals and yet a scope for evolution in the presentation, is, I think what makes the Raga concept unique.

We will of course get down to understanding how a Raga comes into being, and all the rules, which seemingly make it rigid in its structure. For an artist, however, a raga is almost like a person, and his relationship with a raga goes through increasing levels of familiarity, just like acquaintance, friendship, love and marriage. And this person behaves differently on different days.  This is why the same Raga sung or played by a great artist gives us glimpses of something new year after year.

There are about 200-250 Ragas in all, about 50-60 of them most commonly presented, most of which have been around for about a thousand years.  Minor changes in the structure do take place, and new Ragas do get added, but these have to survive the ultimate test of Ranjan ( Ranjayate iti ragah). Ranjan here is not the same as commonplace entertainment, but rather refers to the intellectual and emotional appeal of the melodic theme.

Physically, a melodic theme is a set of musical notes, sung in a particular way. Instead of using all the seven musical notes available, sets of 5, or 6 or then all 7 are used for the purpose.


The combination becomes that dynamic entity, raga, which has a tremendous potential for expansion and development, through exploring the samvaad or the harmonies between the notes used. How an artist exploits this potential, and keeps you engaged in his development, without boring you with repetitive phrases, depends upon his own training, riyaz, and of course the samskar he receives from his Guru.

We will go on to understand the formation of a raga and the underlying aesthetic principles…….

A word of caution at this point :

In explaining anything as evolved as Indian Art Music to the uninitiated, there is always the danger of oversimplification (to borrow from what Carl Sagan said about explaining science to laymen).. But I think the risk is worth it, and the intricacies and complexities will sort themselves out in due course……