Posted on
October 18, 2021
Written by
nexus d9

NOTE; Having been thrust upon to write about this difficult subject, by an esteemed university of music in a few pages, got my head scratching.......
What started with a document of 40/50 pages, now sits at a few pages.to obtain the essence, of this subject, and hope to ignite your interest for further meanders into this area.

The author's attempt to give a summary of WHAT IS A RAGA, is a miniature version at best. The views in this article is totally the authors, and hopes that it does due diligence to this vast subject area in a few pages for understanding how to listen to a RAGA.

( The author is a BANSURI musician, teacher, educator, speaker, maker of customised flutes of various worlds, and a published author. His writings rely on his experiences of learning music,as he continous on the beautiful journey that has no end. His thoughts emanate from the discipline and study of music spanning over decades.He has been deeply influenced by the INDIAN MUSIC TRADITIONAL guru-shishya parampara ; his guruji Late Pandit Malhar Rao Kulkarni bansuri musician, and Swami Parmananda of Kangra valley ashram where he spent learning ancient Vidhis of India , principally Chanakya neeti ;a priceless forgotten thought processing subject as Chanakya was not a believer of writing any of his teachings down as a matter of his principle. His teaching methods were only Guru and Shishya, and mind , and nothing else for focus. The views and ideas expressed are the authors own, the objective being to invoke the person to think differently , on simple issues/topics/objects that surround all of us in our lives,
The author's attempt in this article is a miniature version, at best to try to capture the vast subject, of WHAT IS A RAGA? The views expressed are the authors own, and hopes these few pages does due diligence to this vast topic)


There are two streams of Indian Classical Music: HINDUSTHANI TRADITION,North Indian style and CARNATIC TRADITION, South Indian style.

(As there is no direct equivalent of RAGA found in Western Music, it makes it a bit difficult to draw similar examples)

Raga ( meaning derived from root RANJ in SANSKRIT ) is to color (create happiness) the universe with the sound. Something as the painter,does with his brush, colors and canvas.

The specific structure of a family of notes in a melody derives happines and brings specific moods of visualised thoughts, giving rise to the various names of RAGAS.

In shorrt it is therefore conceptually a melodic organisation ( melodic movements) using various scales and their melodic structures.

Various ragas or melodies may share similar scales, and infinite number of compositions. But the improvisations, are the key to the understanding of a / the raga. The musical sound links, is firmly embedded within the cultural, aspects, mixing with visual arts, dance, drama, folklore, mythology,
vedas, shlokas, emotions, moods, seasons, all encompassing.

This indeed could be interpreted as the the central core of the internationally recognised Northern( HINDUSTHANI) and the Southern ( CARNATIC) music of India.


Ragas can be further sub defined with the usage of Strong or Weak notes, use of pitch , or loudness, and particulary techniques as Glissando (glide) or what is called MEEND. Omitted notes, re emphasised notes, or a group of notes played quickly, and are handed down in a mostly oral tradition by a guru to his disciple and so on.

What also makes it probably a bit more puzzling is the prevalence of so many schools or gharanas, or styles of INDIAN CLASSICAL MUSIC, that makes it difficult to focus on the object of the raga.

So lets take a sojourn and understand this aspect of GHARANA for clarity!

WHAT DOES GHARANA MEAN? T he courtyard or verandah (called angana) of the house (ghar)where your guru teaches music, or used to teach becomes the name of the gharana or school.
Example 1:
So what is known as the MAIHAR GHARANA denotes the the town of MAIHAR in Northern India where Baba Allaudin Khan Saheb used to teach music. Ravi Shankar, Pannalal Ghosh bansuri, Ali Akbar Khan sarod, Nikhil Banerjee sitar are few noted musicians of this gharana.

Example 2:
The AGRA GHARANA denotes the Hindusthani Classical Vocal tradition that descends from NAUHAR BANI traced back to 1300 A.D during the reign of Emperor of Delhi Allaudin Khilji The best known vocalist in this gharana was Nayak Gopal (1790-1880)

Thus there are numerous schools of Hindusthani Classical Music descended through generations .

It is recognised that each school of musicians will play similar named Ragas in a different style, as his guru has taught him that interpretation. It is a unique concept that brings richness and variety into the indian raga systems.

A point of distinction here to be noted would be some schools or gharana concentrate solely on an instrument, like Etawah Gharana , Farukhabad Gharan -Tabla ( the Indian two piece drums), for example .

So the next time you hear the word Gharana, you may ask further, the name, the place, instrument where the musician learnt from, and what is its unique characteristics?

There is no fixed number of ragas, A performing musician may have a collection of 40, and yet it is a dynamic list, many old ragas dissapear, and others emerge as the world and universe change. And that is the unique beauty of the Raga Concept. A core number of RAGAS exists, as others tend to dissolve or evolve over time. Some core ragas of KALYAN, BHAIRAVIN, DEEPAK, MEGHA,

A raga has various nuances of thought and approach.

The division of the day into 8 prahars ( periods of 3 hours each), have a significant impact on it.

The moods and emotions that a living being goes through is distinctly different at various times, depending upon sunlight, food, water, and air mixtures within, and evokes a unique supply of chemicals in our brains, through the hypothalamus in our base of the pitiutary glands; giving rise to different emotions.

The seasons of winter, summer, autumn, spring bring various differences into a raag.

In India for example we add the monsoon season, which is known for an outpour of emotions, happiness, ( good crops for farmers), or harvesting season ( considered auspicious) that feeds all of us etc.

Coupled with that comes the combination of various types of percussion instruments, like tabla, pakhawaj, mrudangam, khol, dholak, and a large list follows. Each with its own distinct sound vocabulary, that is to be studied. All taals ( or beat patterns ) are in circular cycles of 8, or 12, or 16 etc, giving rise to the mathematical precision of the melodies.

The mythological stories, art, paintings, temple architectures are all important cultural elements that can be found in a RAGA.

So as you listen , try counting the number of beats, from the familiar sound in a circular manner.


The Raga starts of with an ALAAP-introduction ( where the performer introduces the main elements of his story of notes, and the plot ( one example the cluster formations of the notes called PAKAD-key phrase).

The RAGA then goes on to faster phases of JOD, JHALA , where one can feel the pulsating beats, but intrinsic.

Next stage is the GAT – (or gati meaning speed) here the RAGA is joined by the beats, typically tabla. An Interesting fact to be noted is that instruments have their own preferred percussion preferences. The SHEHNAI ( indian oboe), is best played with TIGARA twin (percussion instruments played with sticks) exactly as the WESTERN DRUMMER does.

The Gat or ( what is called the head in Western Music), is a pre learnt and memorised note sequenece with the help of beats in a cycle of choice. The beat cycle cements the notes beautifully into the beat cycle mould.

Then follows the meat of the RAGA, what we will name as ( improvisations -TAANS-). There could be many different nature, and structure of these TAANS.

The improvisational capabilites, and training, is what the INDIAN CLASSICAL MUSIC concentrates upon. The aesthetics of each Raga, melody, step etc can be learnt only from the GURU, as it is predominantly an oral knowledge transfer method of learning.
It is called the GURU MUKHI VIDYA, or learning from the mouth of the teacher in the oral tradition of a GURUKUL.

The Raga may have several compositions ( Gat) set to different beat cycles), Fast DRUT , and slow VILAMBIT, ( usually played before DRUT).

The RAGA story enfolds depending upon the qualities, time, atmosphere, skill level of thinking, coupled with level of technique learnt in application.

The melody usually ends with a finale of TEHAI ( one sequence played 3 times) The concept of the 3, or trikon ( triangle) comes from the BRAHMA VISHNU SHIVA concept of the eternal triangular cycle of life, BIRTH, SUSTAIN/MATURITY, AND END, followed by BIRTH ...

Listen to the phases above as you listen along, and you will see a story enfold!
Some examples of emotions and their context
BHAIRAVI-morning shows the day.
DARBARI-music from the depths late night hours
MALHAR- music of the rainy season.
MALKAUNS-music of introspection.
HAMSADHWANI -the swan song.


Due to the nature of the raga as described above, it is popularly used in sound therapy; SOME EXAMPLES;
Raga with 7 notes in a scale confer , long life, merit, fame, reputation, success, health, welath, long lineage
Raga with 6 , praise of heroism, beauty of form and qualities,
Raga with 5 , expulsion of diseas, doing away with fear, anxiety, grief, and astrological bodies. ( ref: SANGEETA RATNAKARA BY SARNGADEVA 13TH CENTURY author who wrote the medical ( ayurvedic) principles.


As there is no exact equivalent to RAGA in Western Music, it is a daunting task to try and explain.However there are some musics that come close it, for example the dastgah of Iranian music, the maqam of Arab/Turkish musics, the Jewish prayer modules with the Shofar, or the pathet of Javanese gamelan. Thus the Raga is a wonderful entity between the scale and the tune. These are some examples of the Asian modal systems of music.
Thus the RAGA is a wonderful entity which resides within the scale, tune, and various other emotions exemplified above.

Perhaps RAGA could best be described as a cognitive schema , a memory structure( vocabulary) with an ordered structure giving temporal and spatial experiences through SOUNDS, generating expectations and improvised behaviours.

The music of the Indian RAGAS today has brought to the world a new musical consciousness. It has opened further the dimensions of moods and emotions of greater enjoyment for the masses. The popularity of the INDIAN RAGA MUSIC today is immense. Its astronomically growing trend clearly indicates its acceptance in making our musical world more beautiful.

The next time when you are listening to a Raga, keep your ears and mind open for the above simple ques.

Thanks for reading.

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