The Notation System In Indian Music

The Indian notation system is linear in form as opposed to the staff notation system of the west. Hence, it is not visually obvious whether a note is higher or lower than another note unless you read it; whereas in Western music one can easily distinguish a higher note by its higher placement on one staff. For example:

It is obvious, looking at it, that the E is higher than the F; whereas if you see the Indian notes G and M, it is impossible to tell, unless you read the notes, whether the second note M is higher or lower than the first note G. In general, a note with a dot above it is always one octave higher than a note without a dot.

The main difference between the two systems is that when, in Western music, you say A, it always refers to a particular pitch, but in Indian music, S only refers to the tonic or first degree, which can be any pitch. The performer has the option to choose any suitable pitch as his tonic S. For example, a male singer might have pitch C as his tonic (S) and so on. Hence, S and P are always constant. They are changeless Swaras or notes that have no variations. The other 5 notes R,G,M,D and N may be either lowered or raised. Thus, we have two Ris, two Gas, two Mas, two Dhas and two Nis. These 10 notes together with the S and the P give rise to a total of 12 swaras, which are as shown in the Table on the following page.

In South India, in common parlance amongst musicians, the minor or flat notes are often referred to as “chinna” (meaning ‘small’ in Tamil) and the major or natural notes as “periya” (meaning ‘big’ in Tamil), e.g. “chinna Ri“, “periya Ga“, etc.

The next illustration shows the twelve notes mentioned above, in Western notation, keeping “C” as tonic and below it the corresponding Carnatic symbols.

In Western music, there are different symbols used to indicate notes of different lengths and there are symbols known as clefs, which fix the pitch of the note on the staff and, as a result, the rest of the notes. These clef signs are placed at the beginning of the staff. The different clef signs used are as follows:


This is called the treble or G clef. This fixes the pitch of the second line from the bottom as G above middle C. Also, the second line of the staff goes through the middle of the circle of this clef.


This is called the bass or F clef. This fixes the pitch of the fourth line from the bottom as F below middle C. There are two dots on either side of the fourth line.


This is called the alto clef. This fixes the pitch of the third line as middle C.


This is called the tenor clef. This fixes the fourth line from the bottom as middle C.

Both alto and tenor clefs are also known as C clefs. There is also a soprano clef where the same C clef symbol is placed on the bottom line of the staff, fixing this line as middle C. However, this is not in use anymore.

Generally, in the Carnatic system, the minor and major notes are distinguished from one another by the numbers 1 and 2 following the notes respectively (Note: there is another type of notation used in the melakarta system). In the Hindustani system, the minor notes are distinguished from the major by a line below the note (_) except in the case of the fourth degree (M), where the augmented or sharp fourth is distinguished from the perfect fourth by a vertical line above the note (|).

In order to indicate the key of the composition, either the name of the raga on which it is based is written on the top or, in some cases, the ascending and descending notes of the scale are written in notation.

The Western clef sign is of no consequence in Indian music as the notation system indicates only the intervals between the notes without indicating any specific pitch. All the compositions in South Indian music can be played on any instrument such as violin, veena, or flute, unlike in Western music where compositions are written for specific instruments or voice. Hence, any composition can be sung or played from any pitch that the performer may choose. For example, a composition based on the major scale may be played or sung in A major, B major, C sharp major and so on, whereas in Western music, a violin sonata in G major is always played in G major.

Though there are only 7 notes in the octave (S, R, G, M, P, D, N), the music uses a much wider range of sounds than these 7 notes, so the same notes are repeated over again.

Thus, when we reach S in the higher octave, we start over with R, G, M, etc. once again. Thus, the question arises – how does one distinguish between the two notes in different octaves? For this, we use a dot (.) either above or below the note. A dot above the note (S) indicates that the particular note is one octave higher than a note without a dot [S].

In other words, if C is tonic,


Similarly, a dot below the note (S) indicates that the note is an octave lower than the note without the dot [S].

In the earlier days, since most of the compositions were vocal compositions, which generally covered no more than 3 octaves, these dots sufficed to indicate these 3 octaves. But now, due to the advancement in techniques of instruments like the violin, which can span a much wider range, the old system is no longer adequate to indicate the extra range. Hence, I use my own system whereby I can know whether a note is 2 or 3 octaves higher or lower. This is done by using the corresponding number before the dot.


Besides the dot, there are a few more symbols that are commonly used in the Carnatic notation system:

(,) a common after a note indicates an increase of one value, of the note it follows.
(;) a semi-colon indicates an increase of two note units, of the note it follows.
(|) a single vertical line indicates the end of a section of the tala.
(||) double vertical lines indicate the end of one rhythmic or tala cycle.
(-) when a line is drawn below or above any notes, the notes must be played twice as fast as the other notes without the lines.
(=) double lines below or above the notes indicate that they be played twice as fast as notes with one line below or above. This also applies to the commas and semi-colons, which are used to extend the note value.

When a group of notes is played faster than the normal tempo, instead of using separate lines above or below the notes, we use one or two long lines depending on the speed as indicated above.

E.g. instead of S ; M P M G R we write S;MPMGR connecting all the separate lines under each note to form one long line.

There is also another school of notation, which uses capital and small letters. The notes written in capital letters are twice the value of notes in small letters. E.g. S = s.

There is no separate sign or symbol for silence or rest in the music. We use the same comma (,) or semi-colon (;) to indicate the silence. E.g. if a composition starts two pulses after the downbeat, or samam (the first beat of the tala cycle, where each beat is divided into four pulses), it is notated as follows:

; N R   GMPM  GMGR  S,;||

Here, as mentioned earlier, the double line (||) indicates the end of one cycle of tala, in this case, a four-beat cycle of chatusra jati eka tala. Here, the semi-colon not only indicates a two-pulse silence in the beginning of the melodic line, but also at the end, after the last not (S), after the last note (S), along with the comma, it increases the value of the S to make it four pulses for the last beat, which implies that the last note is to be held till the end of the cycle. This is a major difference from the Western system where there are definite symbols (rests) used to indicate the length of the silence. Also, there are definite symbols used to indicate the length of the notes.

For example: