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An introduction to swaras in Indian Classical Music

Svara or swara is a Sanskrit word that connotes a note in the successive steps of the Octave. More comprehensively, it is the ancient Indian concept about the complete dimension of musical pitch.

The swara differs from the Shruti concept in Indian music. A shruti is the smallest gradation of pitch that a human ear can detect and a singer or instrument can produce.A swara is the selected pitches from which the musician constructs the scales, melodies and ragas. The ancient Sanskrit text Natya shastra identifies and discusses twenty two shruti and seven swara. The swara studies in ancient Sanskrit texts include the musical gamut and its tuning, categories of melodic models and the raga compositions.

The seven notes of the musical scale in Indian classical music are shadja , rishabha , gandhara , madhyama, panchama , dhaivata and nishada . These seven swaras are shortened to Sa, Ri (Carnatic) or Re (Hindustani), Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, and Ni.Collectively these notes are known as the sargam(the word is an acronym of the consonants of the first four swaras). Sargam is the Indian equivalent to solfege, a technique for the teaching of sight-singing. The tone Sa is, as in Western moveable-Do solfège, the tonic of a piece or scale.

Shadja and Panchama are achala (immovable) swaras. The other five swaras, viz Rishabha, Gandhara, Madhyama, Dhaivatha, Nishadha are swaras with two or three variations each. The variations are listed below:

  • Ri has 3 variations: shuddha (R1), chaturshruthi (R2), shatshruti (R3)

  • Ga has 3 variations: shuddha (G1), sadharana (G2), antara (G3)

  • Ma has 2 variations: shuddha (M1), prathi (M2)

  • Da has 3 variations: shuddha (D1), chaturshruthi (D2), shatshruti (D3)

  • Ni has 3 variations: shuddha (N1), kaishiki (N2), kaakali (N3)

Sri Purandaradasa is referred to as Father of Carnatic Music. He is the one who has composed the Baala paata or The Beginner’s lessons in Carnatic music. These basic lessons serve as the building blocks for more advanced performance forms like alapana, neraval and swara prastara.



Sri Purandaradasa - Father of Carnatic Music

Difference between Western and Indian forms of Classical Music


Western classical music can be generalized as an extensive study of harmonies

(multiple tones played simultaneously) and the feelings they evoke.

Indian classical music can be generalized as an extensive study of note sequences

and the feelings they evoke.

Both explore two different dimensions of music.

A western classical song written for an orchestra will typically consist of a hundred

different instruments / voices playing different note sequences. Here, it is not the

parts that are important, but the whole - how good these note sequences sound

together. Hence, we arrive at the idea of harmonies and chords, dissonance and

consonance. Harmonic complexity is extensively studied. These are the concepts

explored in western music theory.





Essentially, it comes down to figuring out “do these notes sound good when played

together?”. It’s about creating a co-ordinated piece that has to be played exactly as

notated, with precise timing by every performer. The beauty here lies in the unity of

all the parts, evoking different feelings.

An Indian classical song is freer-more flowing and meditative. Each song has a

broad structure / template laid out, but the performer is free to (and is expected to)

improvise over it. Songs are rarely notated, and notations for the same song can

vary from one another.

Here, there is no concept of harmony; there is always only one note playing at a

time. The core ideas studied in music theory are different combinations and

sequences of notes, and their phrasings (called raagas / raags). There is so much

depth explored here that musicians can usually sing each raaga for an hour.

These differences are probably rooted in how these forms of music originated. Music

in ancient India was a means to reach the gods. It was a way to express devotion,

love and gratitude to them. Therefore, its nature became very meditative. You rarely

ever see songs that express emotions about romantic love, sexuality or the

complexity of human relationships. In western music, a variety of these emotions and

feelings are explored in depth, because it evolved through a need to express them.

This is also the reason that a good part of western music involves modulation. Songs

sung to a lover are to be sung softly, songs sung in anger have to be sung harshly,

and so on (taking some clichéd examples). A lot of emphasis is given, both to

instrumentalists and singers, on how each note should sound. In Indian classical

music, the only thing important is what note is being played / sung (and the

transitions between them).

Both forms of music explore entirely different dimensions of music, and are beautiful

in their own way.


Courtesy : Various sources

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About CMA Munich

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For, Rhythm and Harmony find their way to innermost soul and take strongest hold upon it.

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