10 – Indian Music Systems – Harmony
There is a general feeling that Indian classical music is all about melody and not about harmony. However, this is not strictly true. Both Hindustani and Carnatic music have a drone accompanying the performers. The primary function of the drone is to establish the tonic, Sa (since Indian music can use any note as the tonic) and make sure that the performers do not stray from this tonic. Indian drones (called the tanpura) normally play the tonic (in two octaves), the dominant and/or fourth. So, Sa, Pa, Sa or Sa, Ma, Sa or Sa, Ma, Pa, Sa. Though the primary function of the drone is to establish the tonic, it also serves as a background stringed instrument (the tanpura almost functions like a very simple rhythm guitar or bass guitar, playing the tonic chord [or, to be accurate, the notes of the chord]). A singer’s vocalisations and other instruments’ notes do establish a consonance with the notes of the drone. For instance, in Carnatic music, voice and the violin, in Hindustani, voice and the harmonium etc.
NA Jairzabhoy in his The Rags of North Indian Music has a full chapter on the role of drones in Indian music and how they create consonance and dissonance between the drones and the main instrument. Very interesting discussion.
Of course, one thing to note here is that, while the harmony of western music is planned and practiced, since Indian music involves a lot of improvisation, the harmony is realised, as it were, on the fly.
Another thing to note is that when we talked above of single chords in the whole song, we are talking about classical music. Popular music, of course, may have regular chord progressions.
Visit the following pages for notes on particular elements of music.