Raag Hindustani
© 2011, Sādhana

An Introduction to the Concept of Raga

A scale can be defined as a musical theme created by choosing a specific set of notes from within an octave. Think of the twelve basic notes in an octave as twelve basic colors. Now, what if you limited yourself to a select few out of these twelve colors for a painting? That would be like giving yourself a theme.

A palette comprising blue, green, violet, gray, white, black and yellow colors, for instance, would produce a very cool picture. Red, brown, yellow, black and orange, meanwhile, would make for a fiery combination. You could use colors that are similar, or you could choose contrasting colors for a more dramatic effect. The possibilities of mixing and matching are endless. And even though you could create any number of paintings using a given color scheme, they would all share an easily-recognizable underlying quality that is distinct from paintings based on other color schemes. That is how it is with a scale.

The idea of a scale is actually quite fundamental to all music. The music of ancient Greece, for instance, was based on modes, which are essentially scales. And then, of course, there are major scales, minor scales, pentatonic scales, jazz or blues scales, and many other scales. The video below demonstrates ten major raga scales on a keyboard. Several of these scales have equivalents in Western music.

Ten major raga scales in Indian classical music

Getting Ragas from Raga Scales

A scale is merely a prescribed set of notes. So long as you use only those notes, you have plenty of room for creativity. A song, on the other hand, is rigidly defined by specific musical phrases arranged in a certain way. This leaves very little room for creativity, but it does make for a very recognizable piece of music. A raga is somewhere in between a scale and a song, though closer to a scale than to a song. It leaves you plenty of room for creativity while also being quite easily recognizable (with practice).

What makes a raga more easily recognizable than a scale is the way in which its melodic contours move and flow. Certain musical phrases can be extremely evocative of a raga while others may sound strangely out of place even when you use only the prescribed notes of that scale. Unfortunately, there are no fixed rules for precisely which phrases are characteristic of a raga and which aren't. Familiarity with the raga and an intuitive feel for it are what help you understand the way a raga glides and flows. This is why, in Hindustani classical music, we discuss ragas in terms of their chalan (movement).

Having said that, all ragas have certain observable qualities, and these have been distilled into a set of guidelines for students to get them started. For instance, within the parameters of a given scale, a raga may leave out certain notes in ascending phrases and use them only in descending phrases. It may have a base note (griha svara) that is different from the tonic. All ragas have "vādi" and "samvādi" notes, which are their most important and second most important notes, and musical phrases in that raga tend to gravitate toward and cluster around these notes. Also, ragas have landing or resting notes called "nyāsa," which are notes on which musical phrases in that raga resolve naturally.

To continue with our earlier analogy, getting a raga from a raga scale is like fine-tuning a color scheme. Given a palette comprising blue, green, gray, white, and yellow, for instance, you could emphasize blue and green with sparing use of yellow for a certain effect. Or you could emphasize yellow and white and use only a touch of blue and green for an entirely different effect. Similarly, you can get many, many ragas out of the ten raga scales in the video above. In fact, according to one of the prevalent systems for classifying ragas, these ten scales are considered to be the "parent scales" from which most ragas are derived.

Click on the audios below to see how changing the base note and leaving out certain notes in ascent immediately gives the scale a slightly more specific effect.

Scale: Yaman Kalyan scale, the parent scale of Raag Yaman

Raag Yaman Raag Yaman scale

Scale: Bhimpalasi Kafi scale, the parent Scale of Raag Bhimpalasi

Here is an exercise to help you understand a bit about how a raga functions. I have embedded four illustrative videos of simple raga compositions, two each in Raag Yaman and Raag Bhimpalasi. The first composition is in Raag Yaman and the second one is in Raag Bhimpalasi. See if you can use this information to identify the other two. Observing the notes used should give you a clue. I have color-coded pure (shuddha) notes to be red, flat (komal) notes to be pink, and sharp (tivra) notes to be maroon. (Read my page on the notes in an octave if you are not familiar with them).

Simple composition in Raag Yaman

Simple composition in Raag Bhimpalasi

Quiz - Guess the Raga

1. Raag Yaman or Raag Bhimpalasi?

2. Raag Yaman or Raag Bhimpalasi?

Scroll to bottom of the page for answers. The above videos only help you understand how a raga functions as a scale. Learning to recognize a raga aurally is a somewhat more complex process and can be daunting for beginners. The most effective way, especially with the first few ragas that you learn, is to learn to sing or play at least two or three compositions in that raga. Another way is to listen to several compositions or performances in the raga, but something about the process of learning to sing or play helps your recognize the properties of the raga much more effectively.

Grouping and Combining Notes to Form Ragas

You can group the twelve notes in an octave in hundreds of ways to make five-note ragas, six-note, seven-note, eight-note, nine-note, ten-note...even twelve-note ragas. You can have ragas that use a certain number of notes in ascent and a different number in descent. You can create variations at the microtonal level. There are other ways in which the same set of notes can be combined in different ways to create melody types that are distinct enough to warrant independent raga status.

Of course, not all the permutations you can come up with, mathematically speaking, are pleasant. So, a rough formula was created for grouping or combining notes to make it easier to come up with pleasing ragas. A raga ideally comprises a minimum of five notes (three-note scales are used in religious chanting, but they are not versatile enough for music. I do know of one four-note raga, but it is not very widely sung). All ragas must include the tonic sa. All ragas must include either ma (the fourth) or pa (the fifth), if not both. A raga may use both the pure and flat/sharp versions of any of the variable notes (re, ga, ma, dha, ni), but not in succession (this rule has a few exceptions).

Check out the next three pages (Pentatonic ragas, Many kinds of ragas, and Microtones in ragas) for examples, simple audio demonstrations and excerpts from real performances of many ragas of different kinds. But first, I would suggest that you read the Taal (rhythm) page and take a look at the video demonstrations there for a better understanding of how melody is structured around rhythm, and how artists improvise within a given rhythm structure. And before that, let me tell you about fixed raga compositions and the role they play.

Bandish - Fixed Raga Compositions

Students begin their study of ragas by learning to sing fixed raga compositions. There are several kinds of fixed compositions. The most common are bandish. There are many well-known bandish in each raga. The structure of a bandish is very simple - it has only two stanzas, the first one in the lower register and the second one in the upper.

Bandish are composed with specific ragas in mind and set to specific rhythms and tempos. A good bandish paints a brief yet effective melodic outline of a raga. So, it can be used not just as a learning exercise by students, but also as one of the basic themes in a real raga performance, which an artist can then take and develop in his own style to create something unique and original. Here is an example of a bandish in Raag Durga.

Raag Durga scale

Scale: Durga

Bandish in Raag Durga

Rhythm: Jhaptaal (10 beats)
Tempo: Slow

First stanza
      sakhi mori, ruma jhuma
    baadala garaje barase
Second stanza
      rena andheri kaari
    bijuri chamake
    kaise jaaun piyaa paasa
    baadala garaje barase

Standard rendition of the above bandish

And now, the same bandish fleshed out and performed in his own style by Pandit Venkatesh Kumar (from 0:59 to 13:15).

Pt. Venkatesh Kumar
Raag Durga

If you can't figure out the rhythm of the bandish and how it works, check out the videos on the Rhythm page. Or move on to the next section to see how notes are combined in various ways to form ragas.

Answers to Quiz:

1. Raag Yaman

2. Raag Bhimpalasi

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