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The Ragas of Classical Indian Music

7 January, 2015 - 14:26
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The ragas of classical India and other, similar traditions, are more like modes than they are like scales. Like modes, different ragas sound very different from each other, for several reasons. They may have different interval patterns between the "scale" notes, have different expectations for how each note of the raga is to be used, and may even use slightly different tunings. Like the modal musics discussed above, individual Indian ragas are associated with specific moods.

In fact, in practice, ragas are even more different from each other than the medieval European modes were. The raga dictates how each note should be used, more Specifically than a modal or major-minor system does. Some pitches will get more emphasis than others; some will be used one way in an ascending melody and another way in a descending melody; some will be used in certain types of ornaments. And these rules differ from one raga to the next. The result is that each raga is a collection of melodic scales, phrases, motifs, and ornaments, that may be used together to construct music in that raga. The number of possible ragas is practically limitless, and there are hundreds in common use. A good performer will be familiar with dozens of ragas and can improvise music - traditional classical music in India is improvised - using the accepted format for each raga.

The raga even affects the tuning of the notes. Indian classical music is usually accompanied by a tanpura, which plays a drone background. The tanpura is usually tuned to a pure perfect fifth, so, just as in medieval European music, the tuning system is a just intonation system. As in Western just intonation, the octave is divided into twelve possible notes, only some of which are used in a particular raga (just as Westerners use only some of the twelve notes in each key). But as was true for the church modes, using the pure perfect fifth means that some "half steps" will be larger than others. (If you would like to understand why this is so, please see Harmonic Series II and Tuning Systems.) Even though the variations between these different "half steps" are small, they strongly affect the sound of the music. So, the tuning of some of the notes (not the ones dictated by the tanpura) may be adjusted to better suit a particular raga. (Please see Listening to Indian Classical Music and Indian Classical Music: Tuning and Ragas for more information on this subject.)