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Raga

Melodic improvisation in Indian music is based upon a set collection of ascending
and descending notes - this is called a rãg or raga, which can be described as
being somewhere in between a melody and a scale.
The ascending and descending forms of the rãg can be different. Each rãg has an
association with a certain time of day or night, or season, resulting in particular
moods or feelings being evoked.

Elements of a raga
The three most common elements in raga are:
  • the melody - made up from notes of a particular rãg. Sung by a voice or played by an instrument such as the sitar or sarod
  • the drone - a supporting 'drone' of usually one or two notes provided by the tambura
  • the rhythm - a repetitive, cyclic rhythm pattern played by tabla drums.

Melody - the rag

The rag is the set melody on which the music is improvised. This is a cross between a collection of pitches and a scale. Like a scale, a rag ascends and descends, but the pitches often differ in each direction. Unlike the pattern of scales in Western Classical music with the same number of notes, the number of notes in a rag will vary considerably. Some rags have just five note rather like a pentatonic scale.

 

There are over 200 different rags in existence in Indian classical music and each has a particular mood (called a rasa) associated with it. The chosen rag will be used as the musical material in a full raga performance, and the music is then made up by the performers.This technique of making up music without notation is called improvisation.

 

Drone Accompaniment - the tambura

From the very first notes of a piece, you will hear a supportive drone played by the tambura. This usually sounds the tonic and dominant notes of the chosen rag. Its function is to keep a sense of tuning or intonation as a reference point for the melodic part, such as the sitar. It ever-present sound adds texture to the music as a whole.

 

Rhythm - the tala

The rhythm provided by the small tabla drums is organised into repeating rhythmic cycles called tala. The complex rhythms sound exciting when played against this steady beat by both the tabla player as well as the instrumentalist (or singer). These rhythm patterns, called bols, are independent of the beat and can be inventive, displacing accents off the beat to create syncopation.

 

Structure of a raga performance

A raga performance usually has a structure based on defined sections called the alap, jhor, jhalla and gat. However,

Some sections can be omitted, for example a raga might just have an alap and a gat or Bhajan.

Raga performances can vary vastly in time up to 5 or more hours in some cases!


Alap - opening unmetred and improvised section of a raga

  • Tempo is slow and meditative.
  • There is no metre (e.g. 4/4, 3/4/ , 6/8 etc..) so is in free time.
  • The soloist explores the notes of a rag setting the mood and is accompanied by the drone produced by the tambura.
  • The music is improvised.

 

Jhor - second section of a tempo

  • Tempo has increased to steady/medium.
  • There is now a regular sense of a pulse therefore there is the introduction of a metre.
  • The improvised music becomes more rhythmic.
  • Music becomes more elaborate. 

 

Jhalla - third section of a raga and climax of whole piece

  • Tempo increases again to fast and lively.
  • Rhythm is now exciting with complex rhythms.
  • It is the high point in a piece.
  • There is a display of virtuoso (musician who excels in musical technique or execution) using advanced playing techniques.

Gat/Bhajan - final section of an instrumental raga

  • Tempo is moderate-fast.
  • The tabla drums introduce the rhythmic cycle 'tala'.
  • The 'fixed' composition is introduced.
  • Musical dialogue takes place between the instrumentalist and drummer, as well as improvised flourishes on the prepared melodic line.

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