4. Raga (Melodic Structure)

The melodic aspect of Indian music is based on a structure called a raga, which as a concept lies somewhere between a simple scale and a complete melody. In many ways the rules of the raga system are like those of chess: they are very strict, but allow a great deal of scope for the creative musician to develop individual musical ideas and expressions. There are hundreds of actual living ragas (thousands of theoretically possible ragas) in Indian music, though most musicians will have an active practical repertoire of perhaps fifty to a hundred ragas.

A raga has several characteristic and defining features:

Aroha: a distinctive ascending scale

Avaroha: a distinctive descending scale

Chalan: the distinctive melodic shape of a raga, made up of pakads

Pakad: an individual "catch" phrase, several of which together form the chalan of a raga

Vadi and samvadi: primary and secondary tonal centers around which improvisation is focused, with significant emphasis on these notes; these notes are often a fourth or a fifth apart. Vadi is sometimes translated as "dominant" and samvadi as "subdominant"—in terms of prevalence or importance in a raga, not in the harmonic sense. Two ragas may share the same scale but have different vadi and samvadi notes. It should be noted here that the concept of vadi and samvadi is suggestive at best and often controversial between musicians of different traditions—if they recognize the concept at all.

The aroha and avaroha may be direct and straight (sidha) or crooked (vakra); it is not uncommon to have a straight aroha and a crooked avaroha, or vice versa, or to have both aroha and avaroha crooked.

The scale or sargam of Hindustani music is made up of seven basic notes which roughly parallel the western scale; the second, third, sixth, and seventh intervals have natural and flat forms, and the fourth has natural and sharp forms, for a total of twelve basic notes in a scale roughly equivalent to the western chromatic scale (see the previous page for an elaboration of the names of the notes and related terminology).

A raga may have as few as five notes, and as many as twelve; in some cases, the aroha and avaroha may have different numbers of notes, or even different notes. For example, a raga may have five notes in the aroha, and seven in the avaroha. Or again, a raga may have one form (natural or altered) of a given note in the aroha, and another in the avaroha.

Note: A raga is not an absolute and inviolable structure; a raga can change over time and may even vary, to a greater or lesser degree, among different musical traditions, or even among performers within the same tradition. Since the transmission of ragas from the Mughal period has been largely in the oral tradition (complete written notation not being a fundamental part of traditional musicianship in India as it is in the west), we cannot be certain that the ragas as currently performed are the same as those of Mughal times.

-- Brian Q. Silver

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