What Are Raagas

One reason that Indian music sounds so different to the Westerner is that the major/minor tonal system is not used. Harmony, and specifically the major/minor tonal system, has been the basic organizing principle in Western music - classical, folk, and popular - for centuries. In this system, a piece of music is in a certain key, which means it uses the notes of a particular major or minor scale. The harmonies developed using those notes are an integral, basic part of the development and form of the music. Most of the complexity of Western music lies in its harmonies and counterpoint.

The music of India does not emphasize harmony and does not feature counterpoint. In fact, most Indian classical music features a single melody instrument (or voice) accompanied by drone and percussion. There is no counterpoint and no chord progression at all. Instead, the interest and complexity of this music lies in its melodies and its rhythms. (Just as Indian music can seem confusing to someone accustomed to listening for harmonic progressions, Western melodies, based on only two types of scales, and Western rhythms, based on only a few popular meters, may sound overly similar and repetitive to someone accustomed to Indian music.)

Western music divides an octave into the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. But most pieces of music mainly use only seven of these notes, the seven notes of the major or minor key that the piece is in. Indian music also has an octave divided into twelve notes. These twelve notes are called swaras; they are not tuned like the notes of the chromatic scale (please see below). Also similarly to Western music, only seven notes are available for any given piece of music.

But there are important differences, too. Western scales come in only two different "flavors": major and minor. The two are quite different from each other, but any major key sounds pretty much like any other major key, and any minor key sounds basically like every other minor key. This is because the relationships between the various notes of the scale are the same in every major key, and a different set of relationships governs the notes of every minor key. (Please see Major Keys and Scales and Beginning Harmonic Analysis for more on this.)

The seven-note thats of Indian music, on the other hand, come in many different "flavors". The interval pattern varies from one that to the next, and so the relationships between the notes are also different. There are ten popular thats in North Indian music, and many more in South Indian.


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