9 – Indian Music Systems – Ragas

9 – Indian Music Systems – Ragas

Check out this site for a good introduction to raga, tala etc.

Western classical composers take a scale and then use the notes of that scale to compose pleasing music. They create riffs, motifs, phrases and themes conforming to the scale.

Indian systems (both Hindustani and Carnatic) use a further restriction. They introduce a concept called a Raga which is a framework to create the melody from. A raga has three main components. 

  • A scale (or a subscale of the scales we saw before) – a scale may have the same ascending notes (aroha) and descending notes (avaroha), or they could be different. 
  • a note that the musician emphasises on (called the vadi) and a consonant note on the other side of the scale (called the samvadi). 
  • a motif or catch phrase that uniquely identifies the raga (called a pakad in Hindustani music).


The first component of a Raga is its scale. This scale (or derived scale) is derived from the 72 Carnatic scales or the 32 Hindustani scales. It can be the whole scale itself without any reduction (heptatonic or 7-note scale called sampurna) or can be reduced to a 6-note scale (hexatonic called shadava) or a 5-note scale (pentatonic or audava) or even smaller. Each scale has two movements – ascending and descending. The ascending scale can be pentatonic while the descending can be heptatonic. All combinations are possible. One rule is that the Sa note cannot be dropped, as it is the tonic. Another rule is that one of the following pairs need to be chosen: Ri/Ga; Ma/Pa; Dha/Ni. This is to avoid bunching of the selected notes at one end.

An Indian musician composes or renders a song in a particular Raga by using the notes in the ascending and descending scales, much like a western musician composes or renders music based on the scale he or she is working with. A melody is created by pleasingly combining the notes of the scale, as we saw before.

Let us take the scale (melakarta raga Shankarabharanam or thaat Bilaawal) Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa. If we drop the Ma and Ni, we get the pentatonic scale, Sa Ri Ga PA Dha Sa (Intervals 2,2,3,2,3). This pentatonic scale is the scale of one of the most famous Ragas of both Carnatic (Mohanam) and Hindustani (Bhoop or Bhopali) systems. [Note that it is only one approach that derives Mohanam/Bhoop from Sankarabharanam/Bilawal. It could easily be said to be derived from Sa Ri Ga Ma# Pa Dha Ni Sa (Kalyani melakarta or Kalyan/Yaman thaat) or Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni♭ Sa (Harikambhoji or Khamaaj) or even Sa Ri Ga Ma# Pa Dha Ni♭ Sa (Vachaspati melakarta). Traditionally, Mohanam is said to be derived from Harikambhoji and Bhoop from Yaman/Kalyan.]

This scale Sa Ri Ga Pa Dha Sa is used for both ascending and descending in the case of Mohanam and Bhoop.

Raga Deshkar uses the same scale and the same ascending and descending notes but is traditionally said to derive from Thaat Bilawal. {See this video to understand the subtle differences https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9YWbgPyT9Y%5D

Let’s take another Raga. Bilawal. Raga Bilawal uses the same scale as the Thaat Bilawal. The equivalent Carnatic Raga is Sankarabharanam which also uses the same scale as its namesake melakarta raga. They are equivalent to the Western Ionian (Major) Scale, and use the intervals 2,2,1,2,2,2,1. They are both Sampurna Ragas or use all the seven notes of the scale – Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni and Sa. This is used for both ascending and descending.

The thing to note is that there are many raga scales with a different number of notes in the ascending and descending scales.

The first half (first trichord or tetrachord) of the Raga scale is called the purvanga and the second half (the last trichord or tetrachord) of the scale is called the uttaranga.

Emphatic notes (Vadi and Samvadi)

Of the notes in the Raga scale, one note is called the Vadi note. This is the note that musicians lay a great emphasis on, repeating it again and again. The second most prominent note in the Raga is called the samvadi. The samvadi is normally a note that is in consonance with the vadi note (maybe the perfect fourth or perfect fifth). The vadi and the samvadi note are in different parts of the scale (If one is in purvanga the other will be in uttaranga).

The vadi and samvadi of notes of Bhoop and Deshkar are interchanged. Deshkar focuses heavily on the Dhaivat and second tetrachord, while Bhoop on Gandhar and the first tetrachord.

[I read somewhere that the difference between Deshkar and Bhoop is disappearing over time with Deshkar being subsumed up by Bhoop]

Motif that uniquely identifies the Raga 

This is the most difficult part of a Raga to explain. We are referring here to the signature that identifies the raga. It is called a pakad or chalan in Hindustani music.

As I said before, some ragas focus on the first tetrachord, while others on the second.

This motif (with small changes) is repeated often in a composition so that the nature of the Raga is maintained. It is this motif that generally creates the atmosphere of the raga and kindles emotional responses in the listener. Some Ragas (those with the vadi in the uttaranga) are supposed to be sung during the first half of the day while the others during the second half (those ragas with vadi in the purvanga). The pakad is elaborated to get the movement or chalan of the Raga. There are also some other indications of the Raga like some typical slides between notes that the singer makes. Also, in many cases, notes that are avoided in the Raga’s scale are hinted at, to give a characteristic flavour to the Raga. There are also the individual singer’s characteristic flourishes that give a Raga its authority. 

[I found this site that talks of some of the most important Carnatic Ragas and describes its scale and also signature. ]

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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