Raag Hindustani
© 2011, Sādhana

Notating Indian Classical Music

In Indian classical music, we do not notate music for performance purposes because a classical music performance, by definition, is extemporaneous. But we do use notation to teach and learn music. 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.

This page uses a simple 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 Indian classical music, I strongly recommend that you read my pages on the notes, ragas, 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. The second section explains the traditional system of notation developed by Pt. Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, which all students should be familiar with. In the last section, I briefly explain my method of Western notation of compositions presented on this website. (My Raga Compositions page offers simple compositions in several ragas for anyone interested in learning to sing or play them. The compositions come with recordings as well as Indian and Western notation.)

Romanized Digital Notation for Indian Classical Music

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

Digital notation of Indian classical music

The Rhythm Table

In Indian classical music, melody is notated around the rhythm. I use tables with columns equal to the number of beats in the rhythm cycle (spreadsheets are great for this).

The composition in the above example is set to teentaal, which is a 16-beat rhythm cycle comprising four sections of four beats each. My table, therefore, has a total of 16 columns, with alternating colors used for each of the sections.

The first two rows lay out the structure of the rhythm, including the beat number and vocalization (bol ) of the beats.

Notating the Composition

When notating the composition, 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. The syllable that falls on the first beat is highlighted in red, because this syllable (called sam) plays a very important role in classical performances (see my page on rhythm for details).

All the notes in a single box must be sung within the space of that one beat. Each line of notation comprises two rows. One row for the lyrics and the other for the notation. The first stanza (sthayi) and second stanza (antara) are clearly separated.

Melody Notation Symbols

To notate the melody, I use Notation IDs based on a system developed by Pt. Ravi Shankar. Apart from the notes, there are a few other symbols I use in my notation.

  • A tilde ( ~ ) indicates smooth elongation of a vowel or nasal sound on the same note.
  • A dot or a blank cell indicates a break (nothing to be sung) for the duration of the beat(s) in question.
  • A slash (/) or vertical bar ( | ) marks the end of each line of the composition.
  • 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 with.
  • Vowel sounds or nasals separated by hyphens ( a-a / i-i / n-n, etc.) mark a gamak.
  • Notes written within parentheses are grace notes.

Note that no information is provided about repetition of a line or stanza. This is because there are no fixed rules as to 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 Lyrics

The traditional system of notation uses the Devanagari (Hindi) script, but it is easier to romanize for digitization. The words to the composition are written out under the title line in a way that makes them easy to understand for those who know the language.

However, for notation purposes, I use a transcription code designed to help even those who do not know the language achieve a relatively natural pronunciation. The code is mostly intuitive, but here is a brief explanation of some of the characters:

  • aa = open "a" sound (as in "car" and "bar")
  • a = closed "a" sound (as in "funny" and "run") or a schwa sound (as in "about" or "another")
  • i = "i" sound (as in "bit")
  • u = "u" sound (as in "put")
  • e = used for both the æ sound (as in "bat" and "cat") and an elongated "e" sound (somewhere between "bet" and "bait")
  • o = two kinds of "o" sounds (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 Bhatkhande Notation System

There have been many systems of notation in Hindustani 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 (North Indian) classical music community. The Bhatkhande system uses the Devanagari 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.

Bhatkhande notation system for Indian classical music

In the above example the top line states the name of the raga (Kedar), the rhythm cycle (Teentaal), and the tempo (Drut Laya). 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. Three types of markers are used. A cross (x) indicates the first beat of the rhythm cycle (also called sam). A small circle (o) denotes a muted beat (in the case of teentaal, this is the first beat of 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 solfa syllables of the notes and a few other symbols. 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(s) 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 is inconvenient for writing or sharing notations digitally. This is one of the reasons websites on Hindustani music 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 an explanation of their notation system.

Western Notation of Indian Classical Music

Staff notation is not ideal for Indian classical music as there are many differences between Indian and Western classical music in the way some of the most fundamental concepts related to the notes, the scales, rhythm cycles, as well as ornamentation are approached. Still, in order to help non-Indian audiences begin to make sense of Indian classical music, I provide very rudimentary Western-style notation to illustrate certain concepts. I also provide skeletal staff notation (just the main notes without the ornamentation) for the simple compositions presented on this website.

My system for Western notation of Hindustani compositions is based on my Indian system of notation (explained in the first section above), but uses the staff for notating the melody. I always notate using C as the tonic because using anything but C as tonic renders the sharp, flat, and natural variants of the notes in the scale wrongly. But feel free to transpose the entire composition to whatever pitch is comfortable for your voice or instrument.

Because Indian classical music is based on ragas, most compositions have internal consistency in terms of which notes in the scale are sharp, flat, or natural. For this reason, I use key signatures when notating. For instance, Raag Yaman uses the sharp variant of the fourth note (M), so I use a G-major key signature to notate compositions in this raga. It is important to recognize that Raag Yaman is not a major scale with G as the tonic. It is a scale that begins on C and uses the sharp variant of the fourth note.

My time signature tells you the number of beats per cycle of the rhythm pattern that a particular composition is based on. Each measure in the notation is devoted to one cycle of the rhythm. Below the score, there are two rows of text – the first row is for the lyric and the second row for the Indian notation, which I think is important to know for anyone interested in learning Indian classical music.

Western Notation of Hindustani compositions

Rudimentary Notations

Indian classical music is essentially an oral tradition. The emphasis has always been on training your ear. Notations tend to be very basic, simply providing the skeleton of the melody without the ornamentations. Please use them as a stepping stone to understand the patterns, while aiming to learn to sing or play by ear.

There are a few reasons why the notations are not more detailed. For one, ornamentations are more like variations on the main theme, and artists are free to personalize them to some extent.For another, ornamentation in Indian classical music is so profuse that it is not just labor intensive to notate all of it, it is also confusing for students.

Compositions play the role of helping students understand the flow-patterns of a raga's melody. Notating all the ornaments can be counterproductive, because it provides too much detail before the student has had a chance to get an overview of the melody structures - somewhat like trying to understand the pattern of fine wrinkles on a face before you know where the eyes, nose, and mouth go.

In other words, it is recommended that students learn the basic structure of a composition before attempting to replicate ornamentation, which is often acquired naturally in the course of becoming familiar with the music.