Indian Musical Scales

In a related article, 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 that article 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 the previous article, 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 the previous article, we know it also corresponds to the Shadaj Gram scale.

How is it that Sama Gana scale, Shadaj Gram, Kharaharapriya and Kafi can all be denoted the same way and yet be considered different? We know from the previous article that Sama Gana scale and Shadaj Gram have a slight difference in the tuning of Re and Dha. 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.

Demonstrations of Sama Gana scale and its variants

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. Note that Raga Kharaharapriya and Raga Kafi are quite well represented in the vast of body of work of Indian Classical music. Besides they have their own stories of evolution from Shree Ragam and from folk music, respectively, which digress from this discussion. So we will revisit them at the end and also provide some reference recordings to understand them better.

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.

Demo 1. A musical interpretation of the Sama Gana scale
(composition by S Balachander; programming by Aravind Iyer).

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

Demo 2. Another musical interpretation of the Sama Gana scale
(composition by S Balachander; programming by Aravind Iyer).

Next, let us listen to a musical interpretation of the Shadaj Gram.

Demo 3. A musical interpretation of the Shadaj Gram scale
(composition by S Balachander; programming by Aravind Iyer).

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.

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.

Historical milestones in Indian Classical Music

In order to understand how Indian tuning systems and musical scales developed and evolved into today's music, it is necessary to trace the history of Indian Classical music through various eras and milestones. Note that the following material is not intended to be an authoritative and accurate historical commentary. Rather please read it as a broad account of the different eras through which Indian Classical music progressed and transformed into its modern form. Also note that folk music or generally, forms of music which were not subjected to the rigours of scriptures and grammar, were always around and continued to evolve in parallel while both inflencing and drawing from classical music.

From 1200 BCE to 200 CE: Sama Gana and Gandharva Veda

The Samaveda can be regarded as the origin of classical or scripture based music in India. The chanting of the literature of Sama Veda was termed as Sama Gana (i.e., the singing of Sama Veda). Sama Gana was performed in accordance with a musical scale which was derived using the concept of Pancham bhav (fifth) and Madhyam bhav (fourth). For more details, refer to this article. Over time, the musical scriptures branched off and evolved into their own Upaveda (a subsidiary vedic text) called Gandharva Veda. The Sama Gana scale survived from nearly a thousand years eventually giving way to Shadaj Gram.

Note: Under the influence of the Sama Gana scale, it is likely that early musical works retained the scale and its intervals and worked with them. The composition we presented in Demo 1 is an artistic recollection of such a proto-typical work of music.

From 200 CE to 1200 CE: 22 Shruti tuning system

Sometime in the period from 200 BCE to 200 CE, Bharat documented the performing arts traditions and knowledge of his contemporary India in his famous Natya Shastra. Bharat describes a tuning system called Shadaj Gram which can be considered as a slight modification of the Sama Gana scale. For more details, refer to this article. In this period, music was likely played in accompaniment with 8 string harps tuned to Shadaj Gram, Madhyam Gram and their related scales. Over a period of time, more sophisticated instruments came into being adding the capabilities of bends, slides and shakes of notes to Indian Classical music. But the 22 shruti tuning system based on Shadaj and Madhyam Gram remained the standard. Through their murchhanas, jatis and lakshanas, this era created a legacy and precedent for Raga bhavs and identities. For more details on the development of Lakshanas and Ragas, please see this post by S Balachander.

Note: With the invention of new instruments with the capability to slide or modulate notes with frets, the musical thinking must have definitely evolved. The compositions we presented in Demo 2 and Demo 3 are an artistic recollection of how music evolved and became more sophisticated in this period.

1200 CE to 1600 CE: Acceptance of Adhara Shadaj

The music in the era of Shadaj Gram was based on murchhanas and jatis. Essentially, these were musical structures based on cyclical permutations of the Shadaj and Madhyam Gram scales (see this post for more). As the capabilities of musical instruments improved with slide and fretted instruments coming in, Indian Classical music underwent a profound transition, adopting the concept of Adhara Shadaj or singing to a fixed tonic note called Shadaj or Sa. Musicians grappled with mapping older concepts to the new framework. In this process, the musicians of this era laid down the precedents for modern Ragas and their associated Raga bhavs. It is likely that this period saw the emergence of some early versions of the 12 note tuning system which was later formalised by Ramamatya.

1550 CE: 12 note tuning system

Ramamatya prescribed a method for setting the frets on a Sudha Mela veena (for more details, refer to this article). This resulted in a 12 note tuning system documented by Venkatamakhin which is also equivalent to the Pythagorean Tuning system. This was a significant departure from the earlier 22 note tuning system, and would have required some adjustment. Notice that when notes are played on the fret positions, then they would naturally be in accordance with the 12 note tuning system. So any vocalists or instrumentalists playing in accompaniment with a veena would naturally have to adhere to this tuning system to be in tune. If the artists desired to evoke shades of notes not available in this tuning system, that would have required the deliberate use of bends and shakes. It is likely that these conscious deviatons were well understood by the veena player and his accompanying musicians, so that they could all play in tune. In this way, this tuning system together with Adhara Shadaj partly honoured the legacy of the 22 Shruti tuning system and Jatis derived from it. But it also moulded the same legacy into a form which is more familiar to us today.

1600 CE to 1700 CE: Tanpura as the Tuning System

The Tanpura as a musical instrument is likely to have reached its modern form sometime around 1600 CE. The use of a rounded bridge to create a richer sound was already employed in Veenas. This was incorporated in the Tanpura, along with the ingenious idea of a cotton thread inserted between the strings and the bridge. As we describe in a related article, in a Tanpura, the clever design of the bridge and the thread, allows us to split the harmonics of each string and hear them separately. Much like a prism splitting white light into its constituent rainbow colours, the bridge and thread of the Tanpura split apart the harmonics of each string. For example, from the Sa string of a Tanpura, harmonics corresponding to Pa, Ga, etc can be heard, while from the Pa string Re, Ni, etc can be heard. Thus, a Tanpura creates a tuning system where certain positions in the octave are better supported and certain positions are perceived as dissonant. By subtly adjusting the tuning of each Tanpura string, it can be tuned to support the Sama Gana scale or the Shadaj Gram scale or any other musical scale of choice. Each distinct tuning encourages or discourages certain Ragas. This aspect along with Adhara Shadaj further moulded the legacy of Raga identities.

Note: In each of the Demos 1-3, you may have noticed the Tanpura (drone) track playing in the background. In Demo 1 and 2, the Tanpura was tuned to ensure the tuning system generated by the Tanpura was consistent with the Sama Gana scale. In Demo 3, the Tanpura was tuned differently to match the Shadaj Gram scale. Please do check the demos again with this understanding in mind.

1200 CE to 1800 CE: Slow and progressive divergence of Hindustani and Carnatic classical music

During the same period when Adhara Shadaj, the 12 note tuning system and then Tanpura was adopted by Indian Classical music, there was a slow and progressive divergence between Hindustani and Carnatic classical music. It is believed that by 1800 CE or so, the two were considered sufficiently distinct at an aesthetic and stylistic level. These differences arose primarily out of localized clusters of musicians formed around the courts and estates of their royal, noble and spiritual patrons. Carnatic and Hindustani musicians both acknowledge the work of Sarang Dev, Ramamatya and others, but their aesthetic preferences and usage of musical ornamentations (e.g., gamakas and geetis) lend a distinct character to their sound. However, it is important to underscore the point that they shared this critical period of change in the history of Indian Classical music, when the music changed from a harp based tuning system to a fret based one and then ultimately to a Tanpura based tuning system. So despite their apparent differences, Hindustani and Carnatic music share very deep roots.

1800 CE to 1900 CE: Introduction and acceptance of Harmonium

The harmonium was introduced around 1800 CE and became quite accepted among several communities of musicians by around 1900 CE. The tuning system used in harmoniums varied. While a majority of them tend to use the Western 12 tone equal temperament, many harmoniums are also tuned to the Just Intonation scale based on five-limit tuning. The tuning system of the harmonium is similar and also different from that of a fret based veena. On a fretted veena, by the use of bends and shakes, it is possible to avoid or evoke certain shades of notes as required. A harmonium being restricted to fixed notes constrains the player and accompanying artists in terms of the musical phrases they can execute while still playing in tune. This has also resulted in further moulding of Raga identities. Also, by using 12 tone equal temperament, the harmonium made Indian melodies directly comparable and relatable to the Western musical concepts of scales and modes. This also enhanced its popularity in popular and film music.

Role of Tuning Systems in Raga identity

Let us revisit the question which we posed at the beginning of this article. How are the different tuning systems of the past relevant to Indian musical scales and Ragas today? 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.

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 4. Tanpura tuned for Sama Gana scale.

Demo 5. Sama Gana Scale

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 1 and Demo 2 use these same pitches for the individual notes and the same background Tanpura track. You can revisit Demo 1 and Demo 2 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.

Next let us turn to the Shadaj Gram scale.

Demo 6. Tanpura tuned for Shadaj Gram scale.

Demo 7. Shadaj Gram Scale

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 3 uses these same pitches for the individual notes and the same background Tanpura track. 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 \(\frac{81}{80}\) (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.

Revisiting Kharaharapriya and Kafi

As we mentioned earlier, Raga Kharaharapriya and Raga Kafi have their own interesting stories, developing from Shree Ragam and from folk music, respectively. You may be interested in exploring that for yourselves. But hopefully through the demos in this article and the historical milestones we talked about, you may be able to place their evolution in the proper context. Here are a few examples of really great renditions of these Ragas:


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.