The Notation System In Indian Music

The notation system in Indian music is not complete enough to notate all the delicate nuances, ornamentations (collectively called gamakas) and microtones (srutis), which are the very essence of Indian music. It is because of these very ornamentations and microtones, the interpretation of which would vary from performer to performer and teacher to teacher, that it is almost impossible to come up with a notation system perfect enough to do the job. Also, the music, which evolved from the Vedas, was passed down from generation to generation by oral tradition for hundreds of years. In this guru-sishya-parampara (guru-teacher; sishya-student; parampara-tradition), the student learnt music on a one-on-one basis from the guru. The music was never notated or written down until much later, mainly as a memory aid. Then, only as skeletal representation. Even today, students are discouraged from singing or playing their instruments looking at the book with the musical notation. Rather, they are expected to listen to guru, repeat the lesson, memorize it and play from memory. All the great performers have been products of the guru-sishya parampara, still considered the most effective way to learn Indian music.

Working with the guru in this manner helped to develop a good memory and ear-training; to listen and repeat different notes in different pitches, including microtones and ornamentations. Later, the student would be enabled to develop the improvisational techniques, characteristic of Indian classical music. Not dependent on a notation book or music sheets, the student would concentrate and develop the capacity to listen, and imitate the teacher without much difficulty. Also, when the guru performed, the student went with the guru and either played the drone instrument (tambura or sruti-peti) or kept the tala cycle.

The process of learning with the guru, in this manner, also helped accompanists and instrumental soloists. The ear-training was most essential for success as a good accompanist, expected to listen to and repeat what the main artist sings.

Even when singers presented new ragas, without warning in a concert, the accompanist, with good ear-training and musicianship, was often able to repeat the raga, sometimes without even knowing the name of the raga or raga lakshana (characteristics of the raga). The lakshya gnyana, meaning knowledge picked up through observing or listening. In the concerts, and, in rare cases, even without the main and the accompanying artists knowing each other. They meet just prior to the concert, to tune up and go on stage. In many cases, the main artist does not even inform the accompanist of the repertoire of the concert! There have been instances where the main artist has performed difficult ragas or used complex rhythmic structures in the swara-kalpana, after a great deal of preparation at home, and the poor accompanist is expected to cope with him on the spot! Some great accompanists have matched the challenges and, in some instances, even outdone the main artist, thanks to their strong ear-training, musicianship and lakshya gnyana. The ear training is not confined only to the melodic structure. It also applies to the rhythmic aspects.

There have been situations where the main artists have prepared rhythmically complex pallavis (in the Rangam-Tanam-Pallavi portion) in difficult or uncommon talas and, after singing the pallavi in tri-kala (three different tempi), have immediately signaled the mridangam accompanist to play a solo (with great generosity!). When the legendary Palghat T. S. Mani Iyer, the mridangam wizard, was the accompanist, he not only immediately repeated the complex structure of the pallavi in three tempi, but, at times, even added his own, more complicated, improvisational pattern to it, at even a higher speed. This is possible only when one has a fantastic memory for the rhythmic structure and superb technical control of the instrument.

Living and travelling with the guru, helping him and his family with domestic chores, criticized as exploitation of the student, nevertheless helped develop presence of mind in various situations to tackle different problems on a concert platform.

The student would gain important first-hand practical knowledge, which cannot be learnt from a book or in any other way. This experience helped the great artists to acquire knowledge while in training, as opposed to learning the hard way during performance. The disciple, sitting behind the mridangam player on stage, carries the instruments and prepares them (making the cream of wheat paste to be applied to the left head of the mridangam). He also keeps tala cycle for his guru. It helps him obtain valuable, practical experience and understand different rhythmic patterns and compositional structures.

It is always advisable for students, when they practice alone, to practice with a drone instrument, which will help them to sing or play “in correct pitch” or, in other words, develop an excellent intonation. This is because practicing with a drone helps one to almost “memorize” the tonic or the basic tone Sa which in turn develops a sense of accurate intonation for different intervals. This is one of the essential factors in an advanced stage for the interpretation of ragas, specially because of the usage of microtones and ornamentations associated with certain notes in certain ragas, giving the svarupa or form of the raga. Unlike Western music, we do not use the tempered scale of tuning. In recent years, some modern composers in the West have experimented with using microtones in their compositions and tried to re-tune the piano or other keyboards to perform these pieces. Some melodic percussion instruments like marimbas are constructed as microtonal instruments by varying the lengths of the strips of wood. Thus, there has been constant growth and innovation in different kinds of music, thanks to the genius of some musicians and composers or the exposure to the other systems of the world or, at times, a combination of the two factors.

In the case of Western music, the whole learning process is very different from that of the Indian system. Since there is a notation system adequate for the type of music played and little or no improvisation in the classical tradition, learning in musical institutions works well. In earlier times, like the Baroque period, improvisation was a part of the tradition and later, in orchestral compositions like concertos, the soloists were also expected to improvise in the cadenza sections. This was probably due to the fact that many great composers were also great performers and vice versa, e.g. Mozart, Paganini, Chopin.

However, with the passage of time, performing and composing have grown apart and the art of improvising, in the classical tradition, has practically disappeared. Composers write down every note that they want the performers to play, though this will, hopefully, change in the future.

The student in the West is taught to read musical notation and practice with it right from the beginning. Later on, at an advanced stage, he memorizes the pieces and plays from memory so that he can concentrate on other musical aspects like interpretation and intonation.

In Western music, there are people who are said to have “perfect pitch”, in other words, people who have the memory of a particular frequency (musical note) or, in some cases, more than one. This could become a disadvantage, specially if one is a soloist with a perfect pitch and has to perform with different orchestras where some orchestras are tuned to the note A which may vary slightly in frequency; for example, if one has “perfect pitch” for the note A with a frequency of 440, and one has to play with an orchestra tuned to a frequency other than A-440. In the case of Indian music, the ear is trained in such a way that it remembers the relative intervals, in relation to the basic tonic or adhara shadjaDue to this, the student can develop his skills in remembering the microtones (which are less than the semi-tones, the shortest interval in a regular keyboard).

Like any other system of music, there are only 7 basic notes in the octave in Indian music. The 7 notes are denoted by 7 letters (S, R, G, M, P, D and N) like Western music which uses the first 7 letters of the alphabet (A, B, C, D, E, F and G). But, each of these 7 letters in Western music refers to specific pitches. Different symbols are used on the staff lines (the 5 parallel, horizontal lines on which the symbols of the note are written) in place of the letters.

In Indian music, the letters themselves are used in the notation, but they do not denote any specific pitch since the “S” or tonic (the basic note) known as adhara shadja (adhara, in Sanskrit, means support) is variable in pitch according to the performer’s choice and the other notes are always in relation to the basic tonic.

The seven notes or sapta swaras (sapta-seven; swara-note), as they are known in Indian music, are as follows:

(table to come)

While notating, only the first letters of the names of the notes are used: S,R,G,M,P,D,N but, when reading from notation, they are read as Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha and Ni respectively.