11 – Indian Music Systems – Tala
Tala is the Indian equivalent of time signature in Western music. The concept is essentially the same, but there are some differences.
In Western music, the unit of the beat structure is a measure or bar. Notes are rendered full length, half length, quarter length etc., and each beat represents one of these. The notation 4/4 indicates 4 quarter beats (or rests) in a bar; 3/4 indicates 3 quarter beats in a bar; 4/2 indicates 4 half beats in a bar etc. In a bar of 4 quarter notes a half note length will occupy two beats, three-quarter length note will occupy 3 notes etc.
In Indian music, the unit of the tala is a phrase (or a line or a composition) and is therefore much longer than a bar or measure. In Indian music there is no concept of a fractional note (there is an obscure taal of 10 ½ beats. But, if need be, you can double the tempo of a taal cycle, where this original ½ beat becomes 1 full beat in the faster tempo. We can ignore these.), but a musician will improvise the length of each note in the composition with different lengths. If you listen to Carnatic or Hindustani music, you will see that each phrase or line is rendered by the musician many times with different note lengths, slides, ornamentation etc. But it is important that each line or phrase does not go outside the rhythm of the song.
The question is, why have these complicated sets of Talas? Why not, just go by the pulses of the metronome? The main reason is that these different kinds of talas, with different combinations and rhythms of pulses, help in creating different rhythms (and maybe even moods to a small extent) for compositions. The percussionist and other players can “groove” to these rhythms. The tala of a composition also give a structure to music. Of course, song writers and lyricists (especially when the lyricist and the music composer work together) keep the tala in mind when they compose their parts.
The talas of Carnatic music are highly complex in practical terms. As mentioned, the unit of a tala-cycle is a phrase or a line of a song, not a bar as in western music.
The beat, or the unit of the tala, in Carnatic music, is a logical group, based on the song being rendered, of 3, 4, 5, 7 or 9 pulses (of the metronome) [This 3, 4, 5, 7 or 9 pulses in called the gait of the music. In Carnatic music it is called the gati or nadai]. These pulses can be called sub-beats and they normally accommodate a note or a rest. [To be complete, we should know, that in certain cases each of these sub-betas are doubled or quadrupled to increase the tempo at particular points of the rendering.]
One key requirement, when the tala cycles are long, is for musicians to be able to keep track of where they are in the cycle at any time. This is facilitated by different beats having different hand-gestures to represent them. Carnatic musicians, while rendering a piece song, continuously move their hands (if they are free!) with the corresponding gestures so they know exactly where they are in the cycle.
Some of these hand gestures are: a downward clap of the open hand with palm facing down (loud), a downward clap with the palm facing up (silent), and silently counting using the fingers of the hand (silent).
A beat in a tala is indicated by a basic combination (called Anga) of these. There are three main combinations: 1. One palm-down-facing clap plus some number of finger counts; (This combination is called Laghu and is denoted by “I”) 2. One palm down-facing-clap plus one palm up-facing-clap (This is called Dhrtam and id denoted by “O”); 3. One palm-down-facing clap alone (This is called Anudhrtam and is denoted by “U”).
A tala is a is a permutation of these three types: For example, the permutation “OI” (One Dhrtam anga followed by a Laghu anga) is called the Rupaka Tala. “IOO” (One Laghu followed by two Dhrtam) is called the Triputa Tala. “IUO” (One Laghu followed by one Anudhrtam followed by a Dhrtam) is called the Jahmpa Tala; “IOII” is called the Dhruva Tala and so on. There are seven such Talas.
Note that every Tala of the seven above has at least one Laghu anga. We said that the Laghu anga is “One palm-down-facing clap plus some number of finger counts”. These “some number of finger counts” can be 2, 3, 4, 6 or 8. Choice of one of these numbers for the Laghu anga indicates what is called the Jati of the Tala. A Tala having 2 finger counts in its Laghu anga is called a Tisra ( three beats – a downward clap plus two finger counts)Jati; the one having 3 counts is called a Chatusra (Meaning four beats – a downward clap plus three finger counts) Jati etc.
So, seven talas with five jatis each create a total of 35 basic talas.
Here’s table of the Talas:
Now as we said before, each beat can have one of 5 Nadais of gaits, depending on the number of sub-beats or pulses (3,4,5,7 or 9) per beat. This creates a total of 35×5 = 175 Talas.
Note: The well-known Adi Tala to which many compositions are sung is a Chatusra Jati Triputa Tala.
If we consider the Kalai where the sub-beats are double pulse or quadruple pulse, we can double or quadruple the 175!
An illustration of the above:
Note: You my have realised that the first pulse of each beat is the downbeat.
Note: while theoretically all the possibilities of Talas exist and they can be a good intellectual exercise, in practice, only a few talas are employed.
There are other and more elaborate systems of Carnatic Tala classification which we will not go into here.
The Tala structure of Hindustani music is also quite varied and complicated. Of course, as in Carnatic music, the main purpose of these different talas is to bring a variety of moods and rhythm to the music. (When I describe Hindustani music a ‘beat’ is equal to a ‘pulse’ of the metronome. I use the terms interchangeably. In Carnatic, if you remember, a beat referred to a set of pulses.)
The tala cycle is divided into various sections (or vibhags). These sections could be of different pulse lengths. For example, the well-known and most popular tala called Teental has a length of 16 beats divided into four sections – 4+4+4+4. Ektal of 12 beats is made up of six sections of 2 beats each. Rupaktal of 7 beats is asymmetric and has three sections of 3,2 and 2 beats. The Dhamar tala of 14 beats has a 5+2+3+4 pattern. The Chachar tala also has 14 beats but is divided as a 3+4+3+4 pattern.
The first beat of each section (the downbeat) is indicated by either a clap (accented, written as 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 etc., called taali) or a wave of the hand (unaccented, written as 0, called khaali). The other beats in the section are also unaccented. The 1, 2, 3 etc. of the taali represents the ordinal number of the taali in the tala cycle. The first beat of the tala cycle (the first taali – taali number 1) is called the sam and is indicated by a cross (x), instead of 1.
For example, the Teental and Jhaptal (10 beats – 2+3+2+3) have the structures given in the figure below.
In Hindustani music, the percussionist (the tabla player) is normally also the timekeeper, whereas in Carnatic music, it is the musician [or someone else] who keeps the time by clapping down etc. The mridangam player of Carnatic music follows the beats kept by the musician.
The tabla (two drums) , that is used as the percussion instrument in Hindustani music, can be tuned and can produce different sounds (called bols) when struck at different parts of the left or right drums with closed/ open palms and or fingers. (Strictly only the right-hand tabla (snare drum) is tuned to the scale used by the player, the left-hand drum (bass drum) normally makes a “good” sound.) The tablaist plays these bols in the rhythm of the tala and indicates with different bols the sam, the taalis, the khaalis and other beats and the sections of the tala cycle. This way, the musician is able to keep track of where in the tala-cycle he is when he is rendering a particular part of the composition. These bols have been given specific names. For example, the bols of teental are given below:
As we saw before, the first beat of the tala is designated as the most important one of the cycle and is called the sam and during each rendering of the particular phrase of music, one particular (emphasised) note/syllable is rendered exactly at the sam. Between two times that that particular note or syllable is rendered at the sam, the musician is free to improvise length of the notes and syllables. In fact, the emphasised syllable need not return to the sam each cycle. It can be in two cycles (avartans) or even three if the improvisation makes it take two or three cycles (avartans) to render the phrase. This way, the basic rhythm is maintained. See picture. It is convenient to depict talas as cyclic.
Visit this site to get a good idea of talas.
The basic pulses of the tala can be at different tempos (like in western music). The tempo is called the laya. A composition can be (and is) rendered in two or three layas.
[I would like to thank Narayanan Deshamangalam, Vishweshwar (Vishu) Hegde, Vivek Govilkar and Siddharth Nambudiripad for their valuable inputs on the subject of Talas.]
Visit the following pages for notes on particular elements of music.