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Indian Musical Scales

In a related series of four articles (1, 2, 3 and 4), we reconstructed two historically significant tuning systems which were used in Indian Classical music:

  1. The 22 note division of an octave described by Bharat and later by Sarang Dev.
  2. The 12 note division of an octave described by Ramamatya and Venkatamakhin.

Depending on your knowledge of Indian Classical music, you may have some familiarity with these two tuning systems. If you are completely unaware of them, then it may be a good idea to read those articles first.

But an important question that remains unanswered is regarding the relevance of those tuning systems to Indian musical scales and Ragas today. Are there scales and Ragas which still use the same tuning as we reconstructed? Or have these tuning systems and their derivative Jatis and Ragas left a more subtle imprint on today's music?

Let us tackle this question using the very same scale with which we began those articles, i.e., the Sama Gana scale. If we simply write down its notes, it goes as follows:

Sa Re ga ma Pa Dha ni

where a note beginning with an upper case letter is a sharp (tivra) note, while one beginning with a lower case letter is a flat (komal) note. Depending on your familiarity with Indian Classical music, you may relate it to the Raga Kharaharapriya as well as the Raga Kafi. Of course, from those articles, we know it also corresponds to the Shadaj Gram scale.

How is it that Sama Gana scale and Shadaj Gram (and the modern scales of Kharaharapriya and Kafi) can all be denoted the same way and yet be considered different? We know from the previous articles (1, 2, 3 and 4) that Sama Gana scale and Shadaj Gram have a slight difference in the tuning of Re and Dha.

Note: In the case of Kharaharapriya and Kafi, their distinction in terms of musical patterns and phrases is well accepted and should be recognisable to an attentive patron of Indian Classical music. But in terms of the tuning of these Ragas, there is no formal documentation. In this article, we do not tackle how they relate to the Sama Gana scale and Shadaj or Madhyam grams. We may cover it in a separate article.

Reference Pitch, Basic Intervals and Ratios

Before we begin, let us start with the concept of the fundamental note Sa. In Indian Classical music, all musical notes are defined based on their relationship with Sa. You can use the settings below to set the Sa to any pitch you prefer. All the demos on this page would play according to this setting.

Common Parameters

Key
Offset

Note: This article features high quality audio demonstrations which are an integral part of the narrative. Please try and use a pair of headphones or good quality speakers to listen to the samples with maximum clarity.

Demonstration of Sama Gana scale

Before we analyse this further, here is a series of samples expressing these scales musically. Listen to them and see if they sound similar or different, and in what way.

First, we present a musical interpretation of the Sama Gana scale. As the prevalent instrument of the Sama Gana era was likely to be a harp, we present a composition with very minimal use of shakes or bends of notes.

Note: In the following Demos 1-5, the composition should be heard with a matching drone (Tanpura) track. This is necessary to ensure that the tuning system generated by the Tanpura is consistent with the scale of the composition. For Demo 2 and 3, please play Demo 1 first. While Demo 1 is still playing, play Demos 2 and 3. The drone track in Demo 1 is tuned to be consistent with the Sama Gana scale.

Demo 1. Drone for Sama Gana Scale
Demo 2. A musical interpretation of the Sama Gana scale
Pa' Dha' ni'(G) . Dha' ni' . Sa 2 Sa 2
Sa Re ga(G) . Re Sa ni' . Dha' Pa' Sa Sa 2
Dha' ni'(G) Dha' Pa' 2 Dha' ni'(G) Dha'(G) . ni'(G) . Sa 2
ma ga(G) Re . ga(G) ; Re Sa 2 Re . ga(G) ; Re  Sa 2
Dha' ni'(G) Sa Re ga(G) ma Pa 2
ma Pa ma ga(G) . Re ga(G) Re Sa 2 ga(G) . Re Sa ni' . Dha' Pa' Sa 2
Sa Pa Dha ni . Dha Pa ma . Pa . Dha . ni(G) Sa" 2
ni . ni . Sa" ni(G) Dha Pa ma . ma . Pa Dha ni(G) Re" . SA 2
ni(G) Sa" . ga"(G) Re" ga" . Re" Sa" ni Dha ni ma" ga"(G) . Re" Re" . ga" . Re" SA 2
ni(G) Sa" . ni Dha Pa ma Pa Dha ni(G) . Dha Pa ma ga(G) Re ni'(G) Dha' ni' Sa Sa 2

Next, we present the same scale but interpreted with a more liberal use of bends and shakes.

Demo 3. Another interpretation of the Sama Gana scale
Sa(G)(ni',Re,-0.7,1.2) 2
Sa ga(G)(36,12,2.5,3.34) 2 Re Sa 2
ni' Re(G)(72,Re,7,4.35) 2 ni'(G) Sa 2
ga(G)(30,-30,6,3.3) Re 2 Re ga(G) 2 Re Sa 2
Sa ni' . Dha'(G) Pa' ma' Pa' ni'(G)(30,-30,7,3.3) 2 Dha' ni'(G) ga(G) 2 Re(G) ; Sa 2
Sa Re(G)(Re,ga,1.5,1) ga(G) ma Pa ma ga ; Re(G)(Re,45,7,3.5) 2 Sa 2

Demonstration of Shadaj Gram

Next, let us listen to a musical interpretation of the Shadaj Gram. Like we mentioned before, you should hear the composition below with the matching drone track. Please play Demo 4 first. While Demo 4 is still playing, play and listen to Demo 5. The drone track in Demo 4 is tuned differently (from Demo 1) to match the Shadaj Gram scale.

Demo 4. Drone for Shadaj Gram Scale
Demo 5. A musical interpretation of the Shadaj Gram scale
Sa ma ga(G)(ga,ma,1.5,0.9) ma Dha(G)(Dha,ni,1.5,0.9) ma Pa ; ga(G) Re Sa 2
ni'(G)(-30,30,5,2.95) Sa Re(G)(Re,Sa,1.5,0.9) 2 Sa ni' Dha'(G) 2
ma' Dha'(G)(Dha',Pa',1.5,0.9) 2 Dha' ni'(G) Sa 2

What do you think? Did you find the two scales to be similar or different? You may want to listen to them a few more times, and we encourage you to take your time to absorb and appreciate each of these different pieces. You may intuitively feel they are different or you may know exactly which notes or phrases are rendered differently.

Depending on your familiarity with Indian Classical music, you may feel that the Sama Gana scale sounds related to Raga Sreeragam, Raga Kharaharapriya or Raga Bhimpalasi, while Shadaj Gram sounds related to Raga Bageshri or Raga Abheri.

In any case, if you are curious to learn more about how they are different and how those differences tie in with the evolution of Indian Classical music, its tuning systems and musical scales, then let us continue.

Role of Tuning Systems in Raga identity

Based on the long history and evolution of Indian Classical music, it is clear that the tuning systems and their derivative Jatis and Ragas have definitely left an imprint on today's music, even though we may no longer use historical tuning systems exactly as they were.

Closer Look at Sama Gana scale

To understand this a little bit better, let us take a closer look at the Sama Gana scale and the Shadaj Gram scale with the aid of their accompanying Tanpura tracks.

Demo 6. Drone for Sama Gana Scale
Demo 7. Sama Gana Scale
  • Sa
  • Re
    ga
  • ma
  • Pa
  • Dha
    ni
  • SA

Spend some time listening to the Tanpura track and once you feel immersed in it, play the keyboard and check if each note is in tune and musically matches the Tanpura track. Demo 2 and Demo 3 use these same pitches for the individual notes as Demo 7 and the same Tanpura track (i.e., Demo 1 and Demo 6 are the same). You can revisit Demo 2 and Demo 3 with this understanding in mind. If you are familiar with the intervals of Pancham (fifth), Madhyam (fourth) and Gandhar (major third), then you may note that there is no Gandhar interval in this scale. This has an influence in shaping the music and its feel.

Closer Look at Shadaj Gram

Next let us turn to the Shadaj Gram scale.

Demo 8. Drone for Shadaj Gram Scale
Demo 9. Shadaj Gram Scale
  • Sa
  • Re♭
    ga
  • ma
  • Pa
  • Dha♭
    ni
  • SA

Again, spend some time listening to the Tanpura track. It may take some time to adjust to this track and remove any musical memory of the previous scale and Tanpura track. Again, once you feel immersed in it, play the keyboard and check if each note is in tune and musically matches the Tanpura track. Demo 5 uses these same pitches for the individual notes as Demo 9 and the same background Tanpura track (i.e., Demo 4 and D emo 8 are the same). You can revisit it with this in mind. Again, if you are familiar with the intervals of Pancham (fifth), Madhyam (fourth) and Gandhar (major third), then you can note the Gandhar interval between ma and Dha and between ni and Re in this scale. This again influences the structure and feel of the music.

In addition, feel free to try comparing Re with Re and also Dha with Dha to see how they differ. You can also try to play one keyboard with the other Tanpura and vice versa and make up your observations. You may find that the Sama Gana keyboard works with the Shadaj Gram tanpura track, but not the other way around.

Tuning Systems influence Musical Scales

What we learn from these demonstrations is that while you can write Sama Gana scale and Shadaj Gram as

Sa Re ga ma Pa Dha ni

by altering the pitch of Re and Dha by 8180\frac{81}{80} (Pramana Shruti) or just 21.51 cents, the relationships between notes gets affected and this influences the structure and feel of the music.

In general, this is true for any scale, and this is a major reason why Ragas which appear to have the same scale in our modern 12 note nomenclature, can sound so markedly different. Over the thousands of years of musical evolution, these structures have gotten crystallized in the form of Raga Lakshanas which we recognize today as characterizing a Raga. In this way, the historical tuning systems have left their imprint on the music of today, even though we may not use them exactly as they were.

We also learn from these demonstrations is that the Tanpura is so versatile that it can support a variety of tuning systems by appropriately retuning its strings. This is apparent in the way Demo 4 and Demo 5 work with each other and the way Demo 6 and Demo 7 work with each other. In a related article, we take a look at how the Tanpura works, how it generates overtones and how by tuning its individual strings we can support different tuning systems.

Summary

We have covered the historical evolution of Indian Classical music and seen how changes in tuning systems have influenced the music and brought it to the form we recognize today. We have taken the example of the Sama Gana scale and Shadaj Gram scale to show how even a subtle alteration in tuning can change the consonance relations between notes and how this affects the musical feel. In a related article, we address Tanpura tuning a bit more closely and shed more light on how the drone tracks in Demo 4 and Demo 6 differ from each other.

Category and Tags

Comparison of RagasComparison of RagasSama GanaSama GanaShadaj GramShadaj GramTanpuraTanpuraDroneDrone