August 2007

This is a continuation of the Ragas and Scales post covering why a raga based melody sounds so different from a western melody even if both can be said to be based on the same scale. I am comparing the raga Sankarabharanam with its western counterpart – the major scale, and covered a few obvious differences in the previous post. Now I will cover a couple more here. First one again is perhaps obvious, but the second is a very interesting and important difference.

Discrete vs. Continuous
In carnatic music, the gamakas not only adorn/embellish swaras with pitch modulations, but also perform the role as “links” between previous/succeeding swaras in the melody. When going from one swara to another swara that typically takes gamakas, it is common for this transition to be started with a slide as the initial part of the gamaka. Let us go back to the sample that played the Sankarabharanam swaras just straight up and down in Carnatic style:

If you listen carefully, you will find that the modulation of ri (the second swara being struck) in this case included a lead-in from the previous swara sa. The same applies for ma (4th swara), and for dha (6th swara). This sort of a movement where a “slide” is implicitly part of a swara that has gamakas is quite common although not mandatory. In my opinion, it helps in maintaining melodic continuity as you transition swaras – something which seems important in Carnatic music. Even when you have jumps like sa-pa (D-A), sa-ma (D-G), and smaller jumps, it is quite common for it to include a slide from the first swara to the next.

Looking at the flip side, in western music notes are held flat more often, a lot lot more often. While slides are indeed part of the music, they are not used as often, and not “implicitly” (as explained above) as in Carnatic music. So it is typical for a Carnatic music listener to perceive a western melody to have a “discrete flow”, and a Carnatic melody to have a much more “continuous flow”.

Skippin’ n Jumpin swaras/notes
The last difference I cover seems like an important key to the puzzle. I learned about it first in a DVD by Guitar Prasanna called Ragamorphism, where he deals with this same topic – how is a raga from a scale? He says that in a western melody, there will be lots of jumps between notes. By a “jump”, we mean e.g. a transition from D to F# in the major scale on D, and thus skipping the E note which is indeed part of the scale (note: for the majors scale on D, F is absent). In a Carnatic melody, a jump would e.g. be a transition from sa to ga for a raga that includes ri in the ascent. In a scale, you are free to jump from one note to any other note with aesthetics as being the only criteria. On the other hand, in a Carnatic melody, you have to honor the ordering of the swaras in the underlying raga structure. Prasanna mentions that this does not mean that jumps are disallowed in Carnatic melodies – just that in general, order must be followed. Prasanna then demonstrates by first playing something that is based on the major scale, and then something in Sankarabharanam.

That section from that DVD was a very good clue to an answer I was searching for a while. It wasn’t a complete answer as Prasanna does not explain much beyond that i.e. what is meant “general order must be followed”. He just let his guitar do the talking. I delved into this a bit more and I think I am now able to understand it better.

Western music does have more jumps compared Carnatic music even though the latter Carnatic music does permit jumps – sa-pa, sa-ma, ga-da, ri-pa, ni-ri, da-ri etc. all figure regularly. So what does “Western music have more jumps that Carnatic” mean? This can be summed up by two points:

  1. Two consecutive jumps are quite rare in Carnatic music. An example of this is D-A-E in major scale, where D-A is a jump followed by A-E which a jump. In Carnatic, this would e.g. be ni ri n or sa ga pa say in a raga which includes all swaras in ascent and descent. I will refer to these as Double Jumps from now on.
  2. The # of jumps itself is not that high in carnatic music. Hence, the probability of a swara being either preceded or followed by one of its neighbouring swara in the raga structure is very high. So for example, if we take ri in Sankarabharanam, the chances of it occurring as one of sa-ri, ri-sa, ri-ga, ga-ri is very high. In other words, “general order of the swaras in the raga structure” is followed.

Note that by ‘jump’ here we also include jump from one note/swara to the same note/swara up or down an an octave.

But how rare is rare and how high is high? How does it compare to western music? We of course need some metrics that allows us to see whether there is any truth to the above assertions. So here it is: I analyzed the melody lines of a few Western and Carnatic pieces, tabulating how many note/swara transitions there are, how many of them are double jumps, and how many are single jumps, and thus how often is the next note a neighbor (as per scale/raga structure). Here are the results:

Name Transitions1 Double Jumps Single Jumps Next / Previous
is neighbour
Pastorale – Domenico Zipelli 119 53 (44.54%) 7 (5.8%) 59 (49.58%)
Minuet in G – Mozart2 92 44 (47.83%) 6 (6.52%) 42 (45.65%)
Minuet in G – Bach3 111 7 (6.32%) 13 (11.71%) 91 (81.97%)
Gavotte – Arcango Corelli 69 20 (28.98%) 4 (5.8%) 45 (65.22%)
Carnatic – Sankarabharanam raga based songs
Sami ninne – Adi tala varnam 331 4 (1.21%) 50 (15.1%) 277 (83.69%)
Chalamela – Ata tala varnam 499 11 (4.01%) 64 (12.83%) 424 (84.96%)
Carnatic – other ragas
ninnukOri – mohana raga varnam 271 3 (1.11%) 17 (6.27%) 251 (92.62%)
evvari bodhana – Abhogi raga varnam 290 3 (1.03%) 17 (5.86%) 296 (93.11%)
vanajaskhiro- kalyani raga varnam 345 11 (3.19%) 38 (11.01%) 296 (85.80%)
era napai – todi raga varnam4 458 44 (9.61%) 61 (13.32%) 353 (77.07%)

1 – Does not include transitions involving accidental notes in western pieces (very few if any for those shown).
2 – Minuet in G by Mozart involves key shifts from G-Major scale to C-Major Scale. The pieces also contain a few accidentals.
3 – Minuet in G by Bach involves key shifts from G-Major scale to C-Major Scale. The pieces also contain a few accidentals.

In the above table,

  • Transitions is the total number of note/swara transitions or change of note/swara including jumps to the same note in a different octave in the song/melody (a repeat of same note is not a transition: B C C D D or S R R G G would contain 3 transitions). In case of western pieces, this also does not include transitions involving accidental notes. The pieces shown above have very few accidentals (if any).
    • Also, it should be noted that only the melody of the treble clef was considered. This does distort the picture a bit as the bass line melody could be “compensating” for some jumps. However, my guess is that this is not a significant distortion
  • Double jumps is the # of transitions that are part of two consecutive jumps as explained above.
  • Single Jumps is the # of occurrences of a transition from note/swara X to note/swara Y that skips over one or more intervening notes/swaras as defined by the scale/raga.

I should note that the western pieces picked are not exactly a representative set. They are just the ones my colleague gave me “as a start” when I asked her for some pieces which are in the major scale, did not use accidentals much and stuck to one key. Judging by the number of transitions between the western pieces and the carnatic pieces, we can see that perhaps more complex ones from western should have been picked. However, it is also possible that in more complex western pieces, there would be more accidentals, more key/scale changes, and also polyphony, making a comparison less meaningful.

What the data means
As you can see from the table, the varnams involve a lot of transitions, which I think is not that unique to varnams, and would be typical for all carnatic melodies. In spite of the large number of transitions, these melodies involve very few double jumps. Looking at the last column, the percentage of time that a swara is preceded/followed by the neigbouring swara in the raga structure is quite high – 80% or even higher. This I believe is a key characteristic of how a Carnatic raga uses its underlying swara structure. This seems to apply to all ragas although it is easier to quantify for ragas that have a symmetrical structure.

You may notice that even among the Carnatic set, the mohanam and the abhogi varnams have very very few jumps, with the last column showing a figure > 90%. This could be because these ragas have pentatonic structure – this is just my guess. Also you may notice that the todi varnam has a much higher percentage of double-jumps compared to other songs. A large portion of the varnam has the pa (fifth) is completely absent. Skipping pa (but done judiciously) is not uncommon for that raga. Perhaps symmetrically, it is also not uncommon for the sa (tonic) to be skipped. All this allows for many M-D-M or D-M-D, and N-R-N occurrences, and thus perhaps a high jump %, and a lower (<80%) last column figure.

In the western side, Bach’s Minuet does have “Carnatic like” usage of the scale implying that even this is possible in western music. However, all others involve significant # of double jumps, which I suspect is more common.

However, an analysis of a bigger sample set with more representative pieces may be needed before we can confirm this.


So there you go. There are several factors that make a carnatic melody sound very different from a western melody based on the equivalent scale. You have

  • Gamakas
  • Continuity between swaras
  • Fundamental difference in how the basic structure is used in terms of avoiding double jumps, not too many jumps, and thus honoring order determined by the raga structure.

Have you ever wondered why sometimes a film song that is supposed to based on raga has only a faint hint of that raga? We all know film songs can be like that, but how/why are they different? Why can’t they resemble Carnatic songs in that raga more? Well – it could the absence of one or more of the above. Besides it may employ accidentals or foreign notes and also change keys change like western pieces. So film songs that are loosely based on a raga are sort of like western pieces. However, they are typically much closer – they may include one of the above.

That’s it folks. Hope you found the Ragas and Scales comparison interesting.

The end

In my About page, I mention that my current interests include dreaming about vacations in exotic places. This is one such dream. A dream vacation to my paradise – Bora Bora. I have no doubt that it will come true one of these days …

By now, I have a whole list of exotic places that I feel I must visit during my lifetime. But Bora Bora … Ah – Bora Bora! It was the very first entry on that list and it still remains at #1.

I think I first heard the name Bora Bora in some Cheers episode. The name sounded funny and it was used in the context of a standard sitcom joke. I remember thinking it must be an unimpressive place because the way they were talking about it in that joke. But later I realized, that I must not have gotten the import of the joke correctly, since as I soon saw some pictures of Bora Bora, it was like Whoa! I must go there!

I have it all planned out – this trip to my paradise. I know exactly how it will be.

(Warning: Lots of pretty pictures ahead – not sure how much time it would take to load on slower connections)

Over the weekend, I attended an Onam festival conducted by one of the Malayalee organizations in the Chicago area. We had a very busy morning that day at the end of which I had a pounding headache. I was tempted to skip the program because of that, and also the introvert in me felt that I wouldn’t enjoy being in the middle of about 600-1000 people who spoke a language that I barely understood, and celebrated something which I could not relate all that well.

However, there were commitments – people whom we knew would feel happy to see me there, and I also had to be the driver for a group of dancers who would be decked in fine, Bharatanatyam costumes. It would have been hard for them to drive by themselves dressed like that. The festival was at a high-school 30 miles away in the city – which also meant I drive. A couple of ibuprofens and a nap later, my headache and excuses evaporated. I decided that it was better to go out than sit at home, watch TV as the day darkened to night. Staying at home on a weekend particularly during the darkening twilight hour always seems like a dull prospect.

We arrived at the high school, and the festive atmosphere was immediately obvious. A group of men and boys were in procession playing the Kerala drums (Chenda) . I wanted to see the procession and take a few snaps – but this was Chicago, and I had to find parking. By the time I parked, the procession was over.

The auditorium where the cultural programs were held was pretty crowded. A lot of men (I guess more thanI have seen elsewhere) were in a half-traditional attire – i.e. a western shirt and a dhoti/veshti in traditional Keralite colors – off-white with gold border. Women and young girls were also dressed in saris, and half-saris with the same traditional Keralite colors. Sounds of Malayalam filled the air. There was standing room only, and I stood in the back – feeling very conscious that everyone probably expected me to know Malayalam and I knew squat. However, while a part of me felt out of place, a part of me strangely felt comfortable – perhaps it was the down to earth hospitality that our friends showed us when we arrived. But the real reason became more apparent once the cultural programs began.

The first program seemed like a very traditional Onam thing, where a group ladies dressed in traditional attire, each carrying a tray performed a kummi stle dance. What struck me was the song – it was in Anandabhairavi raga, and suddenly I realized how beautiful the Malayalam language is! I couldn’t follow a single word, but each of then seemed coated with honey and sugar. The song put me right at home. It was just like any Carnatic song with folksy touch in Anandabhairavi – very “homely”, always a winner.

Then a very little girl came and sang a couple of film songs – a Malayalam one and a Hindi one. Following this was a dance program which had a collage of classical styles – Mohiniattam , Bharatanatyam and even a little taste of Kathakali. The first two was under the backdrop of a familiar Purandaradasa song in Kannada.

A couple of semi-classical items followed, this time performed to Tamil film songs with a classical base. This was then followed by a presentation from the group I chauffeured. They did a classical Bharatanatyam piece where the song was in Telugu set to various Carnatic ragas. This was followed an extensive dance presentation celebrating India via 3 dance styles – Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam, and folk (impressive costumes!). At the end of this, we realized it was getting very late, we had a long drive back, and so we had to leave.

During all this, I realized that this may be a celebration of Kerala, but it is also a celebration of India (perhaps mostly South India), and its diversity. That is why I felt right at home. I was glad to be a part of it, and I felt enlightened in more than one way. Yes, the people there spoke a language that I did not understand, and their food and customs were different from mine. But it did not matter at all when there is so much in common. We can either focus on the few differences between us, use them as a reason complain, ridicule, and come to blows; or we can focus on the many things that are common between us and celebrate life together. The choice seems obvious to me. In the end, I felt that I could relate to everything there because their culture is similar to mine, just as Indian as mine. I felt connected.

I also marvel at the openness, and tolerance exhibited by the Malayalee community here in Chicago. In a festival that specifically celebrated their tradition, they were being so inclusive, celebrating other languages, and other cultures of India. I salute them for this!

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