11 – Indian Music Systems – Tala

11 – Indian Music Systems – Tala

Tala is the Indian equivalent of beat 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, 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. This is achieved by designating one of the beats of the tala as the important one (called the sam) and during each rendering of the phrase, 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 or even three if the improvisation makes it take two or three cycles to render the phrase. This way, the basic rhythm is maintained. See picture. It is convenient to depict talas as cyclic.

The tala played on percussion instruments like the tabla (which can play beats at different pitches). Each tala (talas could be 6 beats to 29 beats long) has a defined structure and the different beats of a tala are played in particular ways and pitches by the percussionist. (There are elaborate schemes for rendering different talas. We will not go into details here). This helps the singer or instrument player know where in the tala cycle he or she is and adjust their rendering to the pattern of the tala.

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.

The talas of Carnatic music are quite similar in theory.

Visit the following pages for notes on particular elements of music.

2 – Western Music Systems – Notes

3 – Western Music Systems – Scales

4 – Western Music Systems – Pulse, beat, metre, rhythm and tempo

5 – Western Music Systems – How scales are used to compose music (Melody and Harmony)

6 – Western Music Systems – An example of a piece of music

7 – Indian Music Systems – Notes

8 – Indian Music Systems – Scales

9 – Indian Music Systems – Ragas

10 – Indian Music Systems – Harmony

11 – Indian Music Systems – Tala

12 – Indian Music Systems – Decorative Elements

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