Indian "Scales"

The first thing you need to know when using Indian musical concepts to lend an exotic flavor to western music is that Indian instruments use a different tuning system than western instruments. If you're not already familiar with the concepts of "just" vs. "equal-tempered" intonation, you can perform some simple experiments with a guitar and an electronic tuner to illustrate the theory behind different tuning systems. Bottom line, this difference in tuning is a fundamental (no pun intended) difference between Indian and western music. If you've mastered a raga and have the perfect sitar sample loaded but it still doesn't sound "authentic", it's probably because you're playing it on an equal-tempered western keyboard. On the other hand, if you to try to write "serious" Indian music using my explanation, your pandit will probably be gravely disappointed in your results anyway.

OK, now that we have that out of the way, let's get down to business. Just like western music, Indian music divides the octave into 12 "swaras" (tones) roughly corresponding to western chromatic scale (only "roughly" because of the differences in the tuning systems). With no modification a swara is "shuddh", close to the corresponding natural in a western scale. A "komal" swara is close to the corrseponding flat in a western scale. A "teerva" swara is close to the corresponding sharp in a western scale. Also similar to western music, the Indian "thaat" corresponds to a western heptatonic (seven-tone) scale, and must likewise contain seven out of the twelve swaras (tones). So far, so good, but now it gets a bit tricky. First, the names of the scale steps used in thaats are different from the names in western scales.


Also, unlike western scales, in which any step can be flatted or sharped, in Indian music only Re, Ga, Dha and Ni (Re, Mi, La, Ti) can be komal (flatted). Only Ma (Fa) can be teerva (sharped). Here are the 10 basic thaats and their approximate equivalent notes in western chromatic tuning, using D as the tonic.

Asavari D E F G A Bb C
BhairavD Eb F#G A Bb C#
BhairaviD Eb F G A Bb C
BilawalD E F#G A B C#
KafiD E F G A B C
KalyanD E F#G#A B C#
KhamajD E F#G A B C
MarwaD Eb F#G#A B C#
PurviD Eb F#G#A Bb C#
TodiD Eb F G#A Bb C

Finally, here's the big difference. Thaats (scales) are not directly the basis of a melody in Indian classical music; "ragas" produced from the thaats are. Ragas are also sometimes used in Indian popular music, but less strictly. Ragas consist of 5, 6 or 7 swaras (tones) from a particular thaat (scale). In western terms for melodic structure (what notes are played in what order), a raga is more specific than a scale but less specific than a theme. Different ragas are traditionally associated with different times of the day, seasons of the year, moods, spritual ideas or other concepts. There are literally hundreds of different ragas, so I can only scratch the surface here but there are plenty of other resources on the web where you can learn new ragas. Google (or whatever search engine you prefer) is your friend. I have provided a few examples at the bottom of the page. Every raga has five defining attributes:

Thaat - the thaat (scale) on which the raga is based.
Arohi - A pattern of tones used when the melody is ascending in pitch.
Avrohi - A pattern of tones used when the melody is decending in pitch.
Vadi - One tone most strongly emphasized within the raga.
Samvadi - A secondary tone, emphasized less than the vadi but more than the other tones.

So, to summarize, here's a glossary of Indian musical terms:

Indian TermWestern Equivalent
RagaTheme (sort of)

Now, as I mentioned earlier, the differences in tuning between Indan and western instruments create a few additional wrinkles. First off, because Indian instruments use just intonation, Indian music doesn't make use of modulation (change of tonic) within a musical piece the same way that western music does. A typical arrangement will consist of melodies based on a single raga, over an accompaniment drone that only uses Sa and Pa (Do and Sol). If the raga doesn't include Pa (Sol), the accompaniment drone uses Sa and Ma (Do and Fa). Of course, if you base your melody on a raga but play it on a western instrument with equal-tempered tuning, you can change keys to your heart's content, but that will make it sound quite "westernized" to listeners who are familiar with authentic Indian music.

The other twist is the tuning itself. Specifically, Indian music uses pure perfect fifth tuning for the accompaniment drone (inverted, if the raga doesn't include Pa). The octave is also subdivided into "shruti" (22 per octave) for tuning purposes (but not played). Depending on the raga, the interval between two swaras (tones) varies. In one raga, the interval between Sa and Re (Do and Re) might be 4 shruti while in another it might only be 3 shruti. A sitar has moveable frets to accommodate this variable intonation. You can simulate the differences between the western and Indian tunings on many western instruments if you have a good ear and a confident touch with pitch bending on your instrument of choice. You can use embouchure changes on a wind instrument, string bends on fretted instruments, finger placement on fretless instruments, and the pitch wheel or other controller on a synthesizer. On the other hand, if you take your performance to that level, you're already beyond what this article can teach you, and you might want to consider buying a real sitar and finding a guru.

Here are a few ragas that I find useful for rock music. I have described them all using western chromatic tuning based on a root note of D.

Raga Purvi stems from the North Indian musical tradition. It is traditionally played in the evening, and is generally described as serious, quiet and solemn. Some medieval sources associate the raga with a beautiful and charming heroine. That association, plus the geographical origin of this raga, plus the vaguely middle eastern atmosphere it evokes for me, led me to use it as the basis for my song "Roxana" (about Alexander the Great's wife, who was from Bactria, northwest of India in modern Afghanistan).

Thaat: Purvi, with the addition of shuddh Ma (G natural) used as an ornament between two Ga's (F#)
Arohi (ascending pattern): D Eb F# G# Bb C#
Avrohi (descending pattern): D C# Bb A G# F# Eb D
Vadi (most emphasized note): F#
Samvadi (second most emphasized note): C#

Raga Janak is also a very old, melodious and popular raga. It is described as masculine but tender in nature. It is traditionally recited in the very early morning (between 3 AM and 6 AM) during October & November.

Thaat: Bhairav
Arohi (ascending pattern): C# D F# G Bb C# D Eb
Avrohi (descending pattern): D C# Bb A G F# Eb D
Vadi (most emphasized note): Bb
Samvadi (second most emphasized note): Eb.

Raga Malar is a very serene raga. It is said to help create a congenial atmosphere and promote an atmosphere of love, unity and divinity.

Thaat: Kafi
Arohi (ascending pattern): D E F G, G E A, C B C D
Avrohi (descending pattern): D, B C A, G F G, E D G E D
Vadi (most emphasized note): G
Samvadi (second most emphasized note: D
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