Fundamentals of Melody

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Learn about the fundamentals of melody in Carnatic Music from the Perfecting Carnatic Music Level 1 Book published by IFCM.

Swara is the most fundamental unit of a melody; it refers to the basic note of an octave. In Carnatic music, these swaranotes are the basic melodic element, through which a musician creates different ragas and melodies. Like an alphabet is to a word or a sentence, a swara is to a melody. Any song, tune, or raga that we hear is composed using this basic element known as a swara.

Origin of Swaras
Swara is derived from the Sanskrit root word svr. Swarameans to sound’. This word can be found in ancient Vedic scriptures which are dating back to 1000 BC, predominantly in the Samveda. The Swara systems are contained in both – Hindustani classical music and Carnatic classical music systems.

How many Swaras are there in Carnatic Music?
The Saptaswaras or the swaras are fundamentals of Carnatic music. These musical notes are common to both the major raga systems of India – North Indian and South Indian classical music.
The 7 swaras or notes are as below:
  • Sa – Shadjama (Tonic)
  • Ri – Rishabha
  • Ga – Gandhara
  • Ma – Madhyama
  • Pa – Panchama (Perfect Fifth)
  • Da – Dhaivata
  • Ni – Nishada
Note : The term ‘chaturashra’ is also referred to as ‘chatushra’.
Music is considered holy in India and enjoys a venerated status. There is a popular proverb among Indian musicians, “Through Swara, Īśvara (God) is realised”. And therefore, Carnatic swaras has seven Gods associated with each of the swaras.
  • SA. Agni Deva
  • RI. Brahma Deva
  • GA. Sarasvati
  • MA. Mahadev Shiv
  • PA. Lakshmi
  • DA. Lord Ganesha
  • NI. Surya Dev
Just like the Indian classical music system with 7 swaras, many leading classical music systems in the world have seven fundamental notes. The table below compares three major systems to illustrate this.
Indian Western Chinese
Sa(S) Do Koung
Ri(R) Re Chang
Ga(G) Mi Kio
Ma(M) Fa Pion-Tche
Pa(P) Sol Tche
Da(D) La Tu
Ni(N) Ti Pion koung

What are the positions of swaras?

Like a scale has numbers placed at different positions and you can measure the distance between them, the swara scale also has fixed positions of the 7 swaras which are known as the swarasthanams in Carnatic music.Every Swara stands for a particular position/pitch. The swarasthanams are as follows:
Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Da Ni
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
In Carnatic Music, swaras have prakruti and vikrutiswaras. Prakrutiswaras refer to the swaras, which are constant; they do not have many variations. Vikrutiswaras, on the other hand, have variations. The vikrutiswaras are Ri, Ga, Ma, Da and Ni. The two —Sa (tonic) and Pa(Perfect Fifth) —are constants. They will remainfixed once we finalise a Tonic (according to the Shruti). The vikrutiswaras that is the remaining 5 notes have two variations each – a lower note and a higher note. So in all, we have 2 prakruti notes and + (5X2), i.e. 10 vikruti notes = 12 musical positions of swaras. With this mathematical calculation, the 7 basic swaras become 12 due to swarasthanams.
Understanding the swaras in some more details
12 Note System

Sa – fixed
Lower R (R1, r), Higher R (R2, R)
Lower G (G1, g), Higher G (G2, G)
Lower M (M1, m), Higher M (M2, M)
P – fixed
Lower D (D1, d), Higher D (D2, D)
Lower N (N1, n), Higher N (N2, N)

Each of these particular swaras has a position or swarasthana in the melody scale.
S r R g G m M P d D n N
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
It is essential to understand that each swara in swarasthanamhas a specific position. A small alteration in this swara position can have a significant impact on the raga. A raga usually contains five to seven swaras; all the 12 swaras are never present in a single raga. For example -
Raga1: Maya MalavaGowla: position of swaras
S r G m P d N
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Raga2: Charukesi: position of swaras (N---> n, r→ R)
S R G m P d n
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Raga3: Shanmukhapriya: position of swaras (G-->g, m→ M)
S R g M P d n
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Like we learn two-lettered, three-lettered words and gradually progress towards forming more complicated words and sentences while learning a language, the language of music is also similar. The more ragas you learn, the more familiar you shall become with the different swaras. And like grammar is the base of learning a language, you must be aware of which swaras you are singing in a particular raga. Understanding these fundamentals is very essential. If we learn the raga as a melody, we cannot understand its construction. The most authentic way of learning ragas is to decipher the musical scale and then study the raga. This helps you master classical music with a strong foundation of the basics. Only then can you understand the difference between the ragas on the basis of theirswaras.

16 Note-System

The 12 swarasthanas that we understood previously can further be classified into 16 swarasthanas too. This happens when a particular raga contains both the pitches of the vikrutiswaras R, G, D and N. In such a situation, singing the two pitches of a particular swara consequently is not the best option technically as well as aesthetically. Hence, the consecutive position of a virkrutiswara is given the first position of the next vikrutiswara / previous vikrutiswara. For example, R2 becomes G1, R3 becomes G2, etc. M1 and M2 are not affected in this swarasthanams, and the prakrutiswaras – Sa and Pa remain constants. As a result, we get a total of 16 swaras.

Many leading music systems in the world have seven fundamental notes. The table below compares three major systems to illustrate this.
(Hindustani music tends to say ‘Re’ for Ri and ‘Dha’ for Da.)

16-Note system: In Carnatic music system, as in other major systems, the octave is divided into 12 parts, giving rise to 12 notes. But the singular distinction here, is that 4 of these notes are given two names, which results in a 16 note system. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this article, but these extra 4 notes make Carnatic music more exhaustive, and give rise to possibilities of thousands of ragas. The first note Sa and its fifth perfect Pa are constants. Among the other notes, Ri, Ga, Da and Ni have three values each, while the remaining note Ma has two values. The full names of the 16 notes used in Carnatic music are:

Shadjam Sa Prati Madhyamam M2
Shuddha Rishabham R1 Panchamam P
Chatushruti Rishabham R2 Shuddha Dhaivatam D1
Shatshruti Rishabham R3 Chatushruti Dhaivatam D2
Shuddha Gandharam G1 Shatshruti Dhaivatam D3
Sadharana Gandharam G2 Shuddha Nishadam N1
Antara Gandharam G3 Kaishika Nishadam N2
Shuddha Madhyaman M1 Kakali Nishadam N3
It is to be noted that R2 = G1, R3 = G2, D2 = N1 and D3 = N2 respectively.

Raga: A raga may be understood as a melodic scale of formula, created by using some of these 16 notes in a specific manner and combination. If we were to use all types of combinations available to us, with these notes we would arrive at over 7.2 million ragas. But this is only a theoretical possibility. In reality, 250-300 ragas are used often, though 5000-6000 have been tried and named. Even among these, only a few dozen are more popular among listeners.

Practically speaking, a raga is much more than a theoretical formula based on notes. It is a living entity, capable of evoking of communicating emotions. The individuality of the raga is dependent on the manner in which its notes are handled. Some of them are rendered plain while others are oscillated, some are rendered fleetingly while others are sustained, and a few are rendered even slightly sharper or flatter than their original values.

It would be beneficial for students to familiarize themselves with some of the popular ragas and develop an ability to identify them. Students should make it a point to learn and remember the name important features of every raga they are taught, including its ascending and descending sequence of notes (arohanam and avarohanam respectively.)

There are two types of ragas—parent ragas and derived ragas. Parent (melakarta) are those that have a straight sequence in both ascent and descent, using at least one variety of each of the seven notes S R G M P D N. The descent is the exact mirror image of the ascending notes. There are 72 parent ragas in Carnatic music
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