The Notation System In Indian Music

Let me point out some differences that exist between Western and Karnatic notation systems.

  1. The indication of the dynamics in the Western system where different signs are used, for example:
    Piano (meaning soft) indicated by p.
    Pianissimo (meaning very soft) indicated by pp.
    Forte (meaning loud) indicated by f.
    Fortissimo (meaning very loud) indicated by ff.
    In the Karnatic system, the dynamics are left to the imagination and interpretation of the artist.
  2. In Wester music, the compositions are written specifically for different instruments and, in order to cover the different ranges of the various instruments, different clef signs are used. In the case of keyboards and harp, music is written using two clef signs (treble and bass clefs) on two staffs, to indicate the treble and bass notes respectively for the right and left hands and to cover the wide range. In Indian music, this is not needed since the notation system does not indicate any specific pitch; it only indicates the relative intervals. Besides, most of the compositions are vocal compositions, which are played on different instruments – hence the range is limited.
  3. In Indian music, the melodic concept, using microtones and ornamentations, is so advanced that one would have to create and use a great number of symbols to indicate the specific type of ornamentation and microtones in great detail. Also, since the interpretation of the same composition varies a great deal from one performer to the next, each performer would have to vary the notation to suit his needs. Sliding towards a note is a very common ornamentation. The same note could be approached from the note above, sliding down, or from the note below, sliding up, or sliding beyond the note and then coming back to it, either from below or above; the magnitude of the slide could also vary from person to person along with the speed of the slide and the number of repetitions.

    In the figure shown, the asterisk indicates the note and the lines indicate some ways of approaching the note by sliding from notes above and below.

    In Western music, ornamentations like trill, turn, tremolo have specific signs to indicate them and there is not much difference in interpretation of these ornamentations between different performers.

  4. In Western music, the tempo is indicated at the beginning of each movement in a composition by terms like adagio, allegroand andante, meaning slow, brisk and moderate respectively (a movement is a section of a large composition like a concerto or sonata). At times, there are also metronome markings to indicate the number of beats per minute. In Indian music, the tempo is left to the performer’s discretion and, at times, the same composition could be sung or played from the extremely fast to the extremely slow tempo (or anywhere in between!) depending on the performer! And this is allowed and perfectly acceptable.

    In orchestral compositions like symphonies and concertos and in chamber music compositions like sonatas and string quartets, there are always tempo changes with each movement. In Karnatic music, musical forms like varnam, kriti, padam or tillana are also divided into sections, but all are played at the same tempo. However, at times, the performer may speed up the tempo of the last section (e.g., the charanam section of the kriti) in order to create an impact.

  5. A dot following a note-symbol increases the note value by one-half in the Western system, whereas in Indian music a comma increases the note value by an equal length and a semi-colon increases it by two. The value of the rest (used for silence) is also increased by one half when a dot follows the rest symbol in Western notation. In South Indian music, the comma and semicolon are also used to indicate a rest or silence as opposed to the Western notation which has specific signs for rest. This is because once the composition starts, in the Indian system, there is no rest till the end of the section. The accompanying percussionists usually “fill the gaps” with rhythmic patterns between the sections and lead the main artist to the beginning of the next section. So there is no absolute silence once the composition starts. Silence is not part of the music, unlike in Western music, where it is part of the composition. Hence, there is no need for the rest symbol, except at the beginning of the composition, if the composition starts after the downbeat; also, for the vocal or melodic instruments, between the sections, whilst the percussionist is “filling up”. The length of the rest between sections is not fixed since it depends on the improvisation of the percussionist. It could normally vary from half to two-and-a-half rhythmic cycles.
  6. In the case of music for instruments like the violin, in the West, there are indications for the bowing, like up-bow (V), or down-bow (II). Often, the left hand fingerings are also marked, thus telling the performer exactly what to do. For other instruments, there are no such indications as the compositions are written for the voice and there are no separate instrumental forms and notations. The instrumentalists usually adapt the compositions to suit their own style of playing.
  7. In Western music, a dot over the note is used to indicate that the note is to be played slightly shorter and detached (the term used is staccato) whereas, in Indian music, a dot over the note indicates that it is to be played an octave higher.
  8. In the Western system, there are 13 major scales (6 with sharp key signatures and 6 with flat key signatures and one natural, C-major, scale). Each major scale has a relative minor scale with the same key signature, starting a minor third below the corresponding major scale. There are three types of minor scales: (1) natural minor, (2) harmonic minor and (3) melodic minor. In the natural miinor, the 3rd, 6th and 7th degrees are minor intervals and they are in both ascending and descending scales. This corresponds to the 20th mela – Natabhairavi. In the harmonic minor, the 3rd and the 6th degrees are minor intervals, but the 7th degree is a major 7th in both ascending and descending scales. This corresponds to the 21st mela- Kiravani. In the melodic minor, the 3rd degree is a minor 3rd interval in both ascending and descending scales, but the 6th and the 7th degrees are major 6th and major 7th in the ascending scale but a minor 6th and 7th in the descending scale. In addition, there are also chromatic scales made up of semi-tone intervals. In the Karnatic system, there are 72 parent scales and from these there are thousands of derived scales.

    Another important difference is that in the Western system the above mentioned scales are obtained by shifting the tonic, whereas in the Indian system the tonic is a constant factor and the scales are obtained by methodically changing the intervals between the 7 notes in the octave.

  9. Rhythmically, there is a complex system of 175 talas in the Karnatic system, in addition to the chapu talas and other groups of talas, as opposed to the Western system which has a handful of time signatures indicated by two numbers, one above the other. The upper number, or numerator, indicates the number of beats in a bar and the bottom number, or denominator, indicates the kind of notes the bar is divided into. Also, in the Karnatic system, when each beat is further sub-divided into 3,4,5,7 and 9 pulses of their multiples (nadai), the division is strict and each of the subdivided notes is of equal length, not always the case in the West, since there is no concept of the nadai. For example, when there is a group of notes of equal length against the beat or in a whole bar, the Western performer plays them freely and not necessarily in strict rhythm and also sometimes, towards the end he may retard, which is not allowed in the Indian system.
  10. Since spontaneous improvisation by the performer plays a major role in Indian classical music, notated music does not have much relevance here. In Western classical music, however, there is almost no improvisation. In ensemble playing, like a quartet or an orchestra, every member has his own notated parts to follow under the guidance of the leader, who, in the case of an orchestra, is the conductor. In Indian classical music, in ensemble playing, there is the main artist who is followed by melodic and rhythmic accompaniments. The accompanists listen, imitate and also improvise, in addition to playing the composed portions along with the main artist. In some cases, they just follow the main artist even without knowing the composition, if the main artist decides to play a composition that they are not familiar with.

    The notation system, as mentioned earlier, is merely a skeletal representation to jog the memory and is never used during a concert or even during practice, since the compositions are memorized when learning from the guru. Even a basic notation system, in actual performance the compositions rendered may vary a great deal from person to person. This is because of the spontaneous creative addition of melodic variations (known as sangatis) to the different melodic lines by the performer. These variations depend on the technical and musical ability of the performer