Northern Indian Hindustani Music

The musical tradition of Northern Indian Hindustani music is built on different conceptions of musical components than our traditional Western music. Notation of this music is a relatively new endeavor, starting in the 1900’s. Previously the music culture was a tradition passed down orally from a guru or a shishya. The notation of the music today is known a relatively non-standardized process with more emphasis on interval relations than on actual pitches.

For example there is no concept of a “440 A” within traditional Hindustani music, rather, they rely on thaats. These thaats are similar to the notion of scales, with different thaats containing different intervals not unlike our major, minor, and subsequent key signatures. In total up to ten different thaats are identified in Northern Indian Hindustani music. Another shared element is the typical use of seven scale degrees, called swara, and the repetition of the octave.

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In this way the thaats can be compared to the Do, Re, Mi, process associated with solfege notation. This is perhaps the best analogy for understanding the fundamentals of Hindustani music from a western perspective. Each of the scale degrees has a name as follows (in ascending order); Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni, and then the repetition of Sa. The fifth scale degree, Pa, is typically held in a standard position much like the dominant in solfege, with the other notes being mutable in either sharp or flat variations (tivra and komal respectively).

The extent of these variations is however less typical than the half tone steps in Western music and often are microtonal variations in either direction, to that effect there are twenty-two recognized pitches within one octave, all of which may be generated by sharping or flatting one of the seven base notes. As Western music tradition recognized the different registers of a vocalist’s range as soprano, tenor, and bass, the same is true for Indian Hindustani music. Instead of refereeing to a vocal or instrumental range, however, these egisters are defined for the piece; taar being the highest range, followed by madhya and mandra as the lowest. The reason for this distinction being held for entire pieces could stem from the limited ranges (traditional Hindustani music typically keeps within one octave) or from the nature of the music as being centered on the vocalist’s performance. Indeed the objective of many of the aforementioned instruments is to mimic or embellish the voice. Ragas The thaats that exist in Hindustani music are classified into different ragas. If a thaat were to be compared to a scale in western culture, then a raga would be the equivalent of a mode.

Ragas are made up of unique pitches with musically important intervals in melodically ascending or descending order. Each raga is comprised of between five and seven notes, a seven-tone raga is known as a complete or sampurna raga, those with six swara are called shaadava, and those with five, audava. Being defined by the intervals between the notes as well as the general register used, the same collection of pitches may be used in different ragas and yet each would still sound different due to the differences in the use of the tones.

As previously noted, there is no conception of perfect pitch within this music culture, rather each raga is built upon a tonic note, usually chosen by the lead performer, which becomes a drone. This drone is then used as a reference for the duration of the piece for the musicians to rely upon. A unique feature of the ragas in Hindustani music is that their notes or swaras do not always follow an ascending or descending order. Sometimes the swaras within a raga are altered such that they form a crooked scale, known in Indian music culture as a vakra raga.

Talas Ragas in Indian Hindustani music culture express the melodic content of any piece or performance of music. Not addressed is the notion of rhythm or meter. The term tala is used to describe the pulse of the music. The term originates from the Indian word for “clap” so it’s rhythmic implications are apparent from the start. Just as ragas have no set tonic, rather, one is chosen at the beginning of the piece, the same is true for talas. No tala has a predetermined tempo and all can be used at any speeds.

Three general tempos are recognized in Hindustani music of India; a slow speed called vilambit laya, madhya laya, and the fastest of the three, drut laya. Every tala is subdivided into smaller portions, much like a phrase in Western music is divided into measures. These divisions are known as vibhaags with the first beat of each being the most important and often is accompanied by clapping. We find in the conception of talas that the first beat is the most important of all and is also the last beat within a piece. This is similar to the cyclical form of rhythm found in Indonesian music.

Both cultures stress the primary beat, or sam as it is known in India, by coinciding a resolve in the melody as well at the meter at this critical point. Musical form Traditionally, Indian classical music was performed in a style known as dhrupad, typically a sung style, featuring one or more male vocalists. A performance of a raga in the classical dhrupad manner is usually divided into two segments. The first is called the alap and consists of an improvisation based upon the raga used but not strictly adherent to its rules of note order or pitch.

The performer is generally allowed free reign as it were, with limited if any rhythmic dictation, variations on the pitch order, and even the sharping and flatting of notes to add character and life to the performance, similarly to jazz improvisation in contemporary Western music. Gradually a slow rhythm will come to light and as it becomes more noticeable, the performance will settle into the rhythm and at the same time will become less melodically free, returning to the rules of the raga being performed. After the improvisational alap section the gat, or bandish, of the performance starts.

This portion of the piece is much more regimented in its usage of the raga form; with little room for free embellishment, instead focusing on the beauty of the particular raga being performed. The components within the gat are the raga, or melodic content, the talas, or rhythmic punctuation, as well as any embellishment used by the performers (always in keeping with the raga form though). This ornamentation is called gamaka in Indian culture. Dhrupad tradition has evolved over the past several hundred years into additional disciplines known as khyal and tarana; both primarily vocally based forms of Hindustani music.

Although tarana is generally set at a fast tempo than khyal, both styles of performance concentrate much more vehemently on the aspect of improvisation in the musical performance. This improvisation is used to convey and touch upon an emotional content, similar to the concept of Tarrab exhibited in Arabic music tradition. The association can be further seen in that most performances in the khyal and tarana forms contain a decidedly small amount of emotionally charged poetic content, instead concentrating on the actual vocal performance of the music.

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