Hindustani Classical Music

In Hindustani classical music, we do not notate music for performance purposes because a classical music artist is by definition one who is capable of extemporaneous raga development, and a classical music performance, by definition, is an act of extemporaneous raga development. We do, however, use notation to teach and learn music, and as an aid to memory. When you learn a new raga, you notate a few basic melodic phrases, patterns and simple compositions in that raga so that you can recall them later.

In this page, I use a popularly sung composition (socha samajha mana mita piyaravaa in Raag Kedar) to explain three different systems of notation. If you are not familiar with the basic concepts of Hindustani classical music, I strongly recommend that you read my pages on Notes, Scales, and Rhythms before you continue reading this page.

Anyway, here I will first introduce my own system of notation, which is based on the traditional system, but tweaked to make it easier to write and share digitally. In the second section, I briefly explain my method of Western notation of Hindustani compositions used on this site. (My Simple songs page offers simple compositions in several ragas for anyone interested in learning to sing or play them. The compositions come with audio recordings and both Indian and Western style notations.)

The last section explains the traditional system of notation developed by Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, which all students should be familiar with, as it is used widely in music textbooks in India.

My Simple System for Romanized Digital Notation of Hindustani Music

The composition I have chosen for illustration is a bandish in Raag Kedar, set to the Teentaal rhythm cycle, sung or played at a lively (drut) tempo. Explanations follow after the image and audio.

Notation for socha samajha manamita piyaravaaMy System for Romanized Digital Notation of Hindustani Compositions

Here's an audio of the above bandish.
Rhythm Table
In Hindustani classical music, melody is notated around the rhythm. I use tables structured around rhythm cycle to notate the melody into. My table has columns equal to the number of beats in the required rhythm cycle. The composition in the above example is set to the Teentaal rhythm cycle. Teentaal is a 16-beat cycle, comprising four sections of four beats each.

  Standard Teentaal - 16 beats (4/4/4/4)
   dhaa dhin dhin dhaa/ dhaa dhin dhin dhaa/ dhaa tin tin taa/ taa dhin dhin dhaa

My table, therefore, has a total of 16 columns, with thicker lines used to divide the 16 columns into four sections. The first two rows of my table clearly lay out the structure of the rhythm, including beat number (Row 1) and vocalization of the beats (Row 2).

Notating the Composition
The actual notation of the composition begins on the third row. When notating, I simply fill in the melody and lyrics into the appropriate columns to indicate which syllable of lyric must be sung to which beat of the rhythm cycle. The bandish used in this example begins on the ninth beat of the Teentaal cycle, so I begin my notation in column 9. All the notes in a single box must be sung within the space of that one beat. Each line of notation comprises two rows. The top row (in black) gives you the lyrics, and the bottom row (in red) gives you the melody.

I separate the refrain (1st stanza, called sthaayii) from the second stanza (called antaraa). Compositions in Hindustani classical music are structured to fit nicely into the grove of the rhythm. In addition, it is also important for a composition to make sure that the end of each stanza falls exactly at the point in the rhythm cycle from where the refrain can be picked up again. So, for instance, if the refrain (the first stanza) begins on beat 9 (as in the example above), every stanza will end on beat 8 so that a singer can pick up the refrain again on the next beat.

Melody Notation Symbols
I use Pundit Ravi Shankar's Notation IDs to encode the melody. See my page on Notes to understand this better. Or if you simply need to refresh your memory, here you go:

Entire C KeyboardEntire Keyboard Notated Using C as Keynote

Don't forget that you are free to move your octave up or down so long as the positions of the notes relative to each other remain the same.

Apart from the notes, there are a few other symbols I use in my notation.

  A hyphen ( - ) indicates smooth elongation of a vowel on the same note.
  A blank cell indicates a break (nothing to be sung) for the duration of the beat(s) in question.
  A colon ( : ) indicates a half-beat break in the melody. This creates a syncopation effect.
  An exclamation mark ( ! ) marks a sharp break in the melody, achieved by forceful enunciation of the preceding syllable.
  A divider line or vertical bar ( | ) marks the end of one line of lyric
  (The start and end points of the rhythm and melody lines do not usually coincide. Sometimes, their lengths are different too.)
  A comma ( , ) indicates a slight natural pause, or separates syllables in cases where one syllable ends in the same vowel that the next one begins in.
  Vowel sounds or nasals separated by periods ( a.a.a / i.i.i / n.n.n, etc.) mark a gamak.
  (A gamak requires distinct enunciation of each instance of the vowel/nasal consonant in question).

Note that each line of melody/lyric is transcribed only once, and no information is provided about repetition of a line or stanza. This is because there are no fixed rules for how many times a certain line or stanza should be repeated. That depends on the singer, the context, what sounds natural in that moment and so on.

Romanized Transcription of Hindustani Lyrics
The traditional system of notation uses the Devanagari script, which is ideal because the lyrics of Hindustani music compositions are almost always in a dialect of Hindi. But with the globalization and digitization of Indian music, it is becoming more common to romanize for the sake of convenience.

I use an intuitive and somewhat simplified system for romanizing the lyrics. The idea is for even those who do not know Hindi to be able to achieve a pronunciation as close to native speakers as possible without having to go through special training to understand the transcription code (those who know Hindi, of course, will have no problem guessing the words). In the interests of keeping the system intuitive, I have had to take a few minor liberties with the pronunciation of the words in transcription. Please listen to the audio recordings of the songs for a native pronunciation of the words.

Even though the transcription code is mostly intuitive, the following characters may merit a brief explanation:

  aa = long "a" sound (as in "car" and "bar")
  a = short "a" sound (as in "funny" and "run") or a schwa sound (as in "about" or "another")
  i = used both for short and long forms of the "i" sound (as in "bit" and "beet")
  u = used for both short and long forms of the "u" sound (as in "put" and "boot")
  e = used for both the æ sound (as in "bat" and "cat") and an elongated "e" sound (somewhere between "bet" and "bait")
  o = used for both the short and long versions of the "o" sound (as in "horse" as well as "show")
  d = a soft "d" sound
  D = a hard "d" sound
  dh = an aspirated "d"
  Dh = an aspirated "D"
  t = a soft "t" sound
  T = a hard "t" sound
  th = an aspirated "t"
  Th = an aspirated "T"

The lyrics of the composition, in addition to being part of the notation table, are also written out separately under the title line. I feel it is necessary to provide a clear version of the lyrics separately because the words get distorted in notation, not to mention that the lack of spaces makes it hard to tell where one word ends and another begins.

My System for Western Notation of Hindustani Compositions

Here is how I notate the bandish in the above example using the Western system. Scroll below the image for a brief explanation.

Notation for socha samajha manamita piyaravaa
My System for Western Notation of Hindustani Compositions

My system for Western notation of Indian music is structured exactly like my Indian system of notation (explained in the section above). The only difference is that I use the Western system for notating the melody. The title line and lyrics follow the same style as my Indian notation system. And as with the Indian system, the composition is divided up structurally to separate the two stanzas. Within each stanza, a single row is devoted to one measure. The time signature indicates how many beats form a single measure. Rests are inserted at the beginning of each stanza to indicate at what beat of the rhythm cycle that stanza begins.

The Traditional Notation System

There have been many systems of notation in Hindustani classical music over the centuries, but a system proposed by musicologist Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (1860-1936) gained widespread acceptance during the early 20th century, and is commonly used to this day in music textbooks and other situations within the Hindustani classical music community. The Bhatkhande system uses the Devanagari (Hindi) script for the notes and the lyrics, and a few other simple symbols.

Below is a romanized example of the Bhatkhande system. Explanations follow the image.

The Bhatkhande system of notation
The Bhatkhande system of notation

In the above example the top line states the name of the raga (Kedar), the type of composition (bandish), the rhythm cycle (Teentaal), and the tempo (drut). The sheet is divided vertically into four sections by drawing three vertical lines to represent the four sections of Teentaal, so that each line of lyric can be neatly fitted into a single row. For each line of the composition, there are three rows of notation. The first row notates the melody, the middle row contains the lyrics, and the last row provides rhythm markers. Unlike in my system, where I begin notating from column 9 to indicate that the composition begins on Beat 9 of the Teentaal rhythm cycle, the traditional system begins notating at the far left of the sheet, and provides rhythm markers to tell you what beat of the rhythm cycle pertains to which syllable of the composition.

The traditional system assumes that students are familiar with the basic rhythm patterns. Given the information that the composition is in Teentaal, one is expected to know that Teentaal comprises four sections of four beats each, and that the first beat of the third section of this cycle is muted. The rhythm markers in notation, therefore, are quite minimalist. In fact, they are "section markers" rather than "rhythm markers." Three types of section markers are used. A cross (x) indicates the first section. A small circle (o) denotes a section with a muted first-beat (in the case of Teentaal, this is Section 3). If a section is neither the first section, nor starts with a muted beat, it is simply denoted by the section number.

The melody is notated using the sol-fa syllables of the notes and a few other symbols. The sol-fa syllables of the notes are Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha and Ni (romanized from Devanagari). Flat versions of notes (not featured in this particular example) are shown by an underline. A sharp is denoted by a vertical line above the note. If a note belongs to the octave above or below the main octave, a dot is placed above or below the note. A hyphen indicates that the previous note is to be elongated. When two notes need to be sung within the space of a single beat, they are joined underneath by a curved line.

The lyrics are written in the middle row, syllable by syllable, to show what syllable must be sung to what note and at which beat. A symbol resembling a large "S" is used to indicate that a syllable must be elongated or sustained for the beat(s) in question.

The Bhatkhande system works well for those who notate music by hand in Devanagari, but it poses problems for those trying write or share notations digitally. This is one of the reasons, websites on Hindustani music (including this site) tweak it in an effort to adapt it to the digital medium. Which is fine, except that there is no uniformity, as the digitization of Indian music is still in its infancy and there is a lot of experimentation going on. Until a new system suited for the digital medium is perfected and popularized, we may have no choice but to put up with this lack of uniformity. Most websites, however, provide at least a cursory explanation of their notation system.