Hindustani Classical Music

Indian music is known for its complex use of microtones. But for notation and explanation, we divide an octave into 12 semitones. We use a movable scale, which means that your octave can start anywhere you like. Your starting point is the root of your octave, all the other notes are defined in relation to the root. Each of the 12 notes in the octave has a unique identity, given by S, r, R, g, G, m, M, P, d, D, n, N. Keyboard instruments make it very easy to visualize music, so if you have access to one, do make use of it. Pick any key on the keyboard as your root. Then play 12 consecutive keys in ascending order including both blacks and whites. The chromatic scale is not very pleasant to listen to, but it is a good way to learn all the notes in an octave.

C KeyboardOctave Notated Using C as Keynote

G# KeyboardOctave Notated Using A♭ as Keynote

Chromatic ScaleTable 1. The Chromatic Scale in Hindustani Classical Music

Let me explain some of the columns in Table 1 above. Under Note Name, you will find that with the exception of sa and pa, all the notes have two versions each (the last sa in the table actually belongs to the next octave). Sa and pa are given special status as fixed notes because they form a very powerful harmonic combination. The other notes are variable and can be sung in two different ways each - either natural (shuddha), or flat/sharp (komal/teevra) in relation to the natural. So, there are only seven distinct note names in the chromatic scale - sa re ga ma pa dha ni.

The "Notation ID" column gives you the names of the notes as they are used in musical notation. With the exception of sa and pa, all the other notes (re, ga, ma, dha and ni) have two notation IDs each, one denoted by a small letter and one by a capital letter to distinguish between the two versions. Notice that the final sa in Table 1 is notated S', with an apostrophe after it. Notes in octaves below or above your basic octave are notated with apostrophes before or after them to show which octave they belong to. Here are a couple of ways to notate the keyboard, using C or A♭ as the keynote.

Entire C KeyboardEntire Keyboard Notated Using C as Keynote

Entire G# KeyboardKeyboard Notated Using A♭ as Keynote

The third column gives the Indian sol-fa syllables for the various notes. Solmization is not just a form of voice training in the Hindustani tradition - it is also used now and again during musical performance as one of the tools for improvisation. Singing in solfege is called singing in "sargam," an acronym created by combining the first four sol-fa syllables (sa re ga ma).

In the video below, Pt. Venkatesh Kumar sings in sargam between 9:10 to 11:15 or so.

Pt. Venkatesh Kumar
Raag Durga

The full names of the notes (Shadja, Rishabha, Gandhaara, Madhyama, Panchama, Dhaivata, Nishaada) are used only rarely.

The Basic Seven-Note Scale
The chromatic scale comprises twelve notes separated by uniform (or nearly uniform; Indian music is based on natural temperament) intervals, but it is much easier to create pleasing melodies by combining notes separated by non-uniform intervals. Since ragas are so central to Indian classical music, we are always on the lookout for note combinations that offer significant melodic potential. We know of about 500 ragas in the Hindustani tradition now. Sometimes ragas fade out as they lose popularity and people stop singing or learning them, sometimes new ragas are born out of new encounters or mixing existing ragas to come up with surprising new melodies. A number of ragas have been derived from folk tunes sung in various parts of India. So long as a scale is versatile enough to be developed into a full-fledged raga, artists are happy to play with it and see where it takes them, and if the new raga stands the test of time, it may eventually receive a place of honor alongside the other classical ragas.

But one must begin somewhere, and all new students of Hindustani classical music begin by learning the all-natural (all shuddha) seven-note scale comprising S R G m P D N.

Scale: Bilawal
Click to hear: All-Natural Seven-Note Scale
(Ascent: S R G m P D N S' / Descent: S' N D P m G R S)

Diatonic ScaleTable 2. The Basic Seven-Note Scale in Hindustani Classical Music