Raga in Music: Definition, Instruments & Songs

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  • 0:00 Defining A Raga
  • 0:52 Improvisation vs. Composition
  • 1:22 Components of a Raga
  • 3:19 Instruments
  • 4:13 Raga Performance
  • 4:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

You probably have some idea of what 'classical music' sounds like, and chances are you don't typically think of a sitar and tabla playing an improvised raga. In this lesson, you'll learn about classical music, Indian style!

Defining a Raga

A raga is a musical mode in the Indian classical music tradition used in an improvised performance. Modes are collections of musical notes coupled with rules about how those notes should be used. There are two main Western modes: major and minor. In India, there are over 300 ragas!

Raga means 'color.' Just like each color has a unique hue, each raga has a unique sound. The sound of each raga is associated with certain emotions, times of day, Hindu deities, and seasons. As an example, we will look at raga Khamaj, which is associated with sensuality, feminine beauty, the Hindu personification of god Radha Krishna, and the time between midnight and 3 am.

Improvisation vs. Composition

Most Western music, including western classical music, is composed. Composed music can be written down in a definitive version, like Beethoven's famous 5th Symphony. Indian classical music is improvised, meaning that the melody is created in real time by the musician as he or she is playing it. Therefore, every Indian classical music performance is different.

Although their music is improvised, Indian musicians do not play whatever they want. Their improvisations are guided by the rules of the raga.

Components of a Raga

To create the guidelines, each raga has the following:

A scale: specific pitches used in a musical piece. To more easily identify the notes of a raga scale, Indian musicians assign syllables to each note. The first is called Sa, the second is Re, the third is Ga, and so forth. The whole scale can be written as Sa-Re-Ga-Ma-Pa-Dha-Ni-Sa.

Arohana: ascending form of the scale. Sometimes, a note will be skipped on the way up, as is the case in raga Khamaj, which skips over Re.

Avarohana: descending form of the scale, which may not be the same as the arohana. In raga Khamaj, Ni is lowered all the way down to its flatted form, Ni-komal, and Re is not skipped.

Vadi: an important note that the musician plays more frequently than other notes. The vadi in raga Khamaj is Ga.

Samvadi: a secondarily important note. Ni is the samvadi in raga Khamaj.

Pakad: mini-melodies that define the raga. Ga-Ma-Ga, Ni-Sa-Ni-Sa, and a descending slide from Ni to Ga are all commonly used pakad in raga Khamaj. Note how the vadi and samvadi are often present in the pakad.

These elements form an extended skeletal melody called the chalan. Once a musician masters the chalan, he can expand and improvise on it while preserving the flavor of the raga.

Playing a raga is like giving a lecture. A good lecturer does not need to write down every word she is going to say ahead of time, but bases her speech on an outline with bullets marking her main points. The lecture topic is like the raga, while the bullet points are similar to the components of the chalan, guiding the flow of the lecture and helping the speaker stay on track.

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