views updated May 23 2018


RĀGA Rāga (Sanskrit, ranj, "color"), in the classical music tradition of India, is the combined concept of melody and scale. To the listener, a rāga is a category of melodies all sharing key melodic features and inflections as well as scalar relationships, not to mention psychological associations. To the musician-composer, rāga is a resource of melodic ideas upon which he or she can draw to create music that is at once unique and familiar. In the northern and southern traditions, multiple performances or compositions of any particular common rāga will yield realized melodies that share a general scale type, an emphasis on particular pitches, and characteristic ways of engaging these pitches; yet they can be unique utterances.

However, while North and South India share this melodic concept, their approaches to rāga are subtly different. No term is as fundamentally important to contemporary Indian classical music yet as descriptively elusive as rāga.


Underlying India's rāgas is a sense of pitch that is fundamentally similar to that found in the West and that indeed may have common ancient historical roots. As in many cultures, the physics of pitch production seem to generate the primary underlying structures, while cultural practices have defined specific pitch relationships; that is, the primary overtones of pitch production (the unison, the octave, and the fifth representing the open string and string divisions of one-half and one-third) result in a generalized conception of the octave being divided into seven principal steps and twelve incremental steps.

Musician-scholars of ancient India—probably reflecting practices historically deriving from the intonational relationships of Vedic chant—recognized an even smaller pitch increment: the shruti. The scholar Bharata describes how to derive twenty-two of these microtonal intervals in the Nātya Shāstra (c. 200 b.c.–a.d. 200), demonstrating that he clearly could hear the pitch relationship but generating many questions and interpretations. However, even for Bharata, the shruti was never a functionally separate entity, but rather an intonational difference between two intervals. Subsequent treatises show that the concept was increasingly vague, although in typical Indian fashion, scholars continue to reference the concept in their own works (particularly in the South).

The primary term relating to pitch is svara (Sanskrit/Vedic, sur, "sun, heaven"; Hindi, "voice, sound, note"). As in the West, South Asian music recognizes seven scale steps (see Table 1): shadja (Sanskrit, sasa, "of six"; shadja, "six-born"), the principal note from which the other six derive, the tonic; rishabha (Sanskrit, "bull"), the second note of the gamut; gandhāra (Sanskrit, "the name of a people"), the third note of the gamut; madhyama (Sanskrit, "the middle"), the fourth note of the gamut; pañcama (Sanskrit, pañcha, "the fifth"), the fifth note of the gamut; dhaivata (Sanskrit, dhi, "to think, perceive [?]"), the sixth note of the gamut; and nishāda (Sanskrit, nishāda, "to sink or go down"), the seventh note of the gamut. Musicians commonly abbreviate these note names as , ri/re, , , , dhā, and ni. (South Indian musicians use the abbreviation ri for the second scale degree, whereas North Indian musicians use re.)

South India

The Karnātak Sangīt Paddhati (South Indian musical tradition) emphasizes rāga as an organization of scale and pitch hierarchy. Moreover, various treatises demonstrate how the South's systemic approach to rāga developed. Rāga in the South involves the concepts of melā (Sanskrit, "group," or "scale"), melākārta (Sanskrit, "scale matrix"), and svarasthāna (Sanskrit, "note placement").

Ramamatya, a minister of Rama Raja of Vijayanagar, finished the Svara-melā-kalānidhi (1550) fifteen years before that city fell to northerners. Remarkably, the treatise shows either relatively little influence from the Islamic north or steadfast resistance to the growing importance of western Asia's music culture. Notable is Ramamatya's description and grouping of rāgas according to the number of scale types necessary to accommodate the varying intervallic structure of rāgas in current practice. This grouping of rāgas by scale type probably dates from the fourteenth century, but most musicians today know Ramamatya's sixteenth-century interpretation. Somanatha's Rāgavibodha (1609) shows the court traditions of South India to be cosmopolitan and connected to other cultures around the Indian Ocean (e.g., rāga Arabhi).

The scholar Venkatamakhi in his Caturdandī-prakāsika (1661) features a classification of rāgas into seventy-two basic scales (melās) derived from a note placement (svarasthāna) of twelve available semitones in which some notes have enharmonic equivalents (i.e., the same pitch can have a different name, depending on context). This

Scale steps in South Asian music
SolfeggioSvara NameAbbreviation
SOURCE: Courtesy of author.

system still prevails in South Indian classical music. His ingenious system makes maximum use of the available twelve semitones with the following premises:

  1. Scales have a maximum of seven possible pitches.
  2. These seven pitches occur in order (, ri, , , , dhā, ni).
  3. The octave repeats (a named pitch in one octave is synonymous with a pitch of the same name in a different octave).
  4. Some notes can enharmonically overlap in different scales.
  5. Scales consist of two conjunct tetrachords: sā-mā and pā-sā (octave).
  6. The natural (shuddha) position for every note is the lowest position.

Venkatamakhi describes three positions each for nishāda, dhaivata, gandhāra, and rishabha, and two positions for madhyama. Shadja and pañcama have fixed positions. The logic behind this lies partly in the physics of sound. Shadja and pañcama are the most prominent overtones produced by a vibrating string or column of air. Madhyama is at once the inverse of the shadja-pañcama interval (i.e., the distance from the upper shadja to madhyama is the same as from the lower sadja to pañcama) and the defining upper limit to the lower tetrachord. Nishāda, dhaivata, gandhāra, and rishabha lie in acoustically unstable areas. That is, the seventh, sixth, third, and second scale degrees have no strong harmonic overtones to support them. Interestingly, the concept of shruti remains in the names for the variants of rishabha and dhaivata in the modifiers sat-shruti (seven shrutis) and catus-shruti (four shrutis).

In Table 2, each of the twelve discrete semitones has an assigned number from 0 to 11. Note that nishāda and dhaivata, as well as gandhāra and rishabha, share two note positions each. Also note that the examples in this entry use the Western musical symbols of # (indicating a note is in a raised position by a semitone), n (indicating a note is in a lowered position by a semitone), or, as in this particular example, ## to indicate that a note is two semitones higher than the natural position. Similarly, the use of the numerals 0 to 11 is consistent with Western pitch-class analysis and is not generally a part of South Asian musical dialogue. Nevertheless, that both Western and Indian musical practices have enough commonalities to allow both the use of the concept of semitone and raised and lowered positions, not to mention seven note identities, is possibly indicative of cultural links over the centuries.

The principles underlying Venkatamakhi's system are as follows:

  1. and , as the most important notes in the harmonic series, are fixed in their positions. That is, the overtones produced by the fundamental include first its octave equivalent and the fifth (). In melodic contexts, these notes can be omitted, but they are inherent in the scale.
  2. , as the next most important note in the harmonic series, has two positions: shuddha (pure) and prati (raised) .
  3. The second (ri), third (), sixth (dhā), and seventh (ni) of the scale have three variations, each beginning with a shuddha (pure or natural) position and two raised positions above. Ri and dhā, as the notes immediately above the immovable notes of and , borrow from ancient terminology with the indication that they are four (catus) and seven (sat) shrutis above their respective notes. Thus, ri has a natural position (suddha rishabh) with two raised positions above (catus-shruti rishabh and sat-shruti rishabh). The third and the seventh employ a different nomenclature, but their shuddh positions are also the points above which their alternates are placed. In practice, these intervals are roughly equivalent to modern semitones, although Venkatamakhi would have used something closer to just intonation (with note positions based on string ratios).
  4. When constructing a scale, the notes must always appear in the order , ri, , , , dhā, ni, , no matter which position they are in.
  5. Venkatamakhi divides his scale into lower (purvānga) and upper (uttarānga) tetrachords (groups of four notes), reflecting the importance of stringed lutes in the definition of these scales. The purvānga consists of the notes , ri, , and . The uttarānga consists of the notes , dhā, ni, and .
  6. The first cakra (cycle) has and fixed in the purvānga. Ri and are in their shuddh or lowest positions. Thus, the first melā (scale) of the first cakra has , suddha ri (one semitone above ), suddha gā (one semitone above suddha ri and a whole tone above ) and (a perfect fourth above ). The second melā of the first cakra has , ri, and in the same positions as the first melā, but raises one semitone. The third melā follows the same pattern with now two semitones above ri. The fourth melā starts with and in the same position, but raises ri to the catu-sruti position, two semitones or one whole tone above . This leaves only two positions for (sadhārana and antara). Finally, with and still fixed, ri raises to its highest position (sat-sruti) leaving only one position for gā (antara) so that the first cakra has six melās.
  7. The uttarānga (upper tetrachord) functions the same way, except that now and are the fixed notes and dhā and ni move. More important, the six parallel changes in note position take place once for each cakra. Thus, in the first cakra, dhā and ni begin in their suddh positions (dhā one semitone above and ni one semitone above dhā) and remain in those positions while ri and go through their mutations in the lower tetrachord. When the second cakra begins, ni raises one semitone to its first raised position (kaisiki) and remains there until the third cakra, when it rises to its highest position (kākili). Again, the upper tetrachord parallels the lower tetrachord in note changes, matching one change for every cakra (or set of changes in the lower tetrachord).
  8. Matching the six positions of the lower tetrachord with the six positions of the upper tetrachord yields thirty-six different scales. Venkatamakhi then derives an additional thirty-six melās by repeating the process with in the prati position.

Performance practice places a number of qualifications on rāga. First, a rāga may use some or all of the notes available in a melā. A sampurna rāga (Sanskrit, "complete") is a rāga having a heptatonic or seven-note scale. A shadava rāga (Sanskrit, "sweetmeats") is a rāga having a hexatonic or six-note scale. An audava rāga (the name of a constellation) has a pentatonic scale. And a rāga that introduces notes from other melās, or mixes melās, is a janya rāga (Sanskrit, janya, "derivative").

In describing a rāga and in defining its melodic characteristics, musicians and scholars employ a variety of terms. Among the most important are those describing a rāga's ascending (ārohana) and descending (avarohana) scalar movement. Such movements commonly omit a note in one direction, only to include it in another. This movement may also be vakra (crooked) such that a momentary ascent may interrupt a descent and vice versa. Perhaps even more important are the notions of jīvasvara (Sanskrit, "life-note") and pitippu (Telegu, "catch"). The former is the most important note of a rāga, the note that stands out and contributes to the melodic dynamics of the rāga. The latter is a characteristic melodic phrase commonly generated by the jīva-svara and which stands out as a principal way to identify the rāga. Scholars sometimes project this last idea into a rāga-chāyā-sañcāra (Sanskrit, "rāga-image-phrase"), an extended notion of characteristic melodic phrase. Another important component is the treatment (gamaka) that individual notes receive, of which there are numerous kinds of shakes, vibratos, and slides.

North India

While North and South Indian classical music systems hold many fundamental concepts in common, at the same time there is much that is different. The names of the seven notes of the scale are nearly identical (with some minor variations) and the word for melody is essentially the same, rāga (rāg in common Hindustani speech).

The word for scale in the north is thāt (Hindi, "framework," or "skeleton"). Instead of the complicated and comprehensive system espoused by Venkatamakhi, North Indian musicians and scholars use a set of scales derived largely from practice, not theory. Furthermore, the North Indian svarasthāna is a straightforward approach with the five movable notes having only two positions each (rather than three). A svar's position is either shuddh (natural) or one of two vikrit (altered) positions: tīvra ("strong," "intense," or "raised") or komal ("soft," or "lowered"). As in South Indian musical practice, shadja and pañcama are in fixed positions. The other notes—nishāda, dhaivata, madhyama, gandhāra, and rishabha—have two possible positions each (see Table 3).

The scholar V. N. Bhatkhande (1860–1936) collected and organized North Indian rāgas according to scale, describing rāgas in terms of ten thāts. Bhatkhande's beginning scale, or shuddh thāt, is Bilāval that, which is parallel to the Western major scale. He describes the other thāts in terms of the ways in which they vary from Bilāval (see Table 4).

Melody is by far the most important defining aspect of rāga in the Hindustani sangīt paddhati (North Indian classical music tradition). In most rāgas, only one version of a svar occurs (either the shuddh or the tīvra/komal position of any one note). However, in some rāgas (especially the so-called light rāgs or in the Lalit group of rāgas), more than one note may appear. N. A. Jairazbhoy (1971) has commented on the historical mutation of rāgas and has proposed both an explanation for this evolution (in tetrachordal symmetry) and a thirty-two-thāt system to include all—not just ten—possible combinations.

As in South Indian practice, some North Indian rāgas use only some of the notes available in a thāt, which—while confounding classification by scale—contributes to the diversity of musical possibilities. Scholars recognize three such jātī (Sanskrit, "species"): sampurn ("complete"; heptatonic scales, i.e., those with seven notes), shadav/khadav (hexatonic scales, i.e., those with six notes), and audav (pentatonic scales, i.e., those with five notes).

Indian music does not generally make use of equal temperament, but rather something closer to just intonation; that is, Indian musicians tend to tune their instruments to pure acoustic intervals. Individual musicians will further fine tune specific notes, for the most part, according to their prerogatives, paying particular interest to fine shades of intonation. Musicians commonly highlight particular notes with several "intonational" ornaments: mīnd (slides), andolan (exaggerated vibrato), and gamak (a quick shake). The word musicians commonly use to describe these fine discriminations in intonation is shruti (that which is heard), which, while referencing the ancient microtone of Bharata's time, has no specific or measurably consistent equivalent today.

Scholars and musicians in northern Indian practice describe the melodic movement of rāgs with a number of terms. They recognize rāgs by their characteristic melodic movement or varn (Sanskrit, "kind" or "class"). The terms āroh (or ārohi varn) and avroh (or avrohi varn) describe the ascending and descending aspects of the rāga in abstraction. Three other terms also find their way into contemporary usage: sthāyī varn ("steady" or "unchangeable" form, i.e., the rāg has characteristically straight ascents or descents), sañcārī varn ("wandering," i.e., a mixture of āroh and avroh), and vakr varn ("crooked" or "oblique"). This last term describes the characteristic passages of some rāgs, which demand a deviation from the straight scale. The note from which a vakr varn must begin is the vakr svar.

One of the most important ways of identifying a rāg is through its pakad, or characteristic phrase. An even more

Bhatkhande's thāt s
SOURCE: Courtesy of author.
shuddha nishada11nini    nininini
komal nishada10  nininini    
shuddha dhaivata9dhādhādhādhā     dhā
komal dhaivata8    dhādhādhādhādhā 
tīvra madhyama6 #     ###
komal gandhāra3      
shuddha rishabha1rerererere     
komal rishabha1     rerererere

elaborate description of a rāg is a svar vistār, a series of phrases illustrating the characteristic shapes of a rāg in a variety of registers.

Most rāgs have two notes of particular importance: the vādī and samvādī. The vādī (Sanskrit, "sonant") or amsha is the most important note, often approached via the sam vādī (consonant), the second-most important note. Historically, scholars have used the terms visranti svar or maqām sthān to describe the terminal or resting notes, sometimes equating these with vādī. Modern musicians are more likely to use the term vādī. Two terms that are used often (but that are more commonly defined by what they are not) are vivādī (a dissonant note to be avoided, sometimes also described as the varji svar, "omitted note") and anuvādī (an assonant note that is perceived neither as consonant nor as dissonant to the vādī).

According to Bhatkhande, musicians should perform between noon and midnight those rāgs that have their vādī in the purvāng or that emphasize the lower tetrachord. Rāgs that have their vādī in the uttrāng or that emphasize the upper tetrachord should be performed between midnight and noon.

Gordon Thompson

See alsoMusic ; Tāla


Bhatkhande, V. N. Kramik Pustak Malika. 6 vols. Hathras: Sangeet Press, 1937.

Jairazbhoy, N. A. The Rāgs of North Indian Music: Their Structure and Evolution. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1971.

Rowell, Lewis. Music and Musical Thought in Early India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.


views updated May 21 2018

Rāga (Pāli, Skt.). In Eastern religions (for Hinduism, see ASMITA), the form of attachment identified with lust, greed, and passion. According to Buddhists, it is one of the most basic characteristics of human nature, having the pleasures of the senses as its object; but it also exists as attachment to more subtle pleasures at higher levels of spirituality (saññojanā) and is not finally disposed of until nirvāna is reached.


views updated May 11 2018

ra·ga / ˈrägə/ • n. (in Indian music) a pattern of notes having characteristic intervals, rhythms, and embellishments, used as a basis for improvisation. ∎  a piece using a particular raga.


views updated May 23 2018

rãga. Indian melodic type, first mentioned in 5th cent. AD. Various rãga systems have developed over the centuries. A rãga comprises an unchangeable series of notes presented as an ascending and descending scale, some notes being used only in the ascending part, others only in the descending. Rãgas are assoc. with moods, e.g. loneliness, bravery, eroticism, and with particular times of day or year, or with certain ceremonial occasions.


views updated May 21 2018

raga (Sanskrit, colour) In Indian music, a sequence of five to seven notes that is used exclusively for the duration of a performance as a basis for improvisation. Its basic structure can be written in the form of a scale. Mood or atmosphere are created by emphasizing certain parts.


views updated Jun 08 2018

RAGA Royal Australian Garrison Artillery