Asian Music and Dance

The Science of Rāga – Part 2

Ranjīyatē Ithī Rāga – ‘That which delights the mind is rāga’ 

Rāgas are the backbone of the classical and semi- classical forms of music in India. The root of the word is in the Sanskrit ranj or even rang referring to delight and colour. The basic idea of rāga is rooted in musical phenomena which give delight and move the listener. There are many definitions of rāga available, each one only able to convey a particular aspect of the whole. 

Though rooted in ancient music, musicians have created many rāgās over time. They could have been inspired by folk music, nature or instruments or musical genius.  The names of the rāgās come from various sources ranging from names of regions, gods, goddesses, feelings and musicians. The name helps create its identity, to which musicians add new experiences and ideas. 

Understanding rāga within the context of delight is further invoked by references to taste; sap (rasa), emotion, colour and so on can be compared to a fruit. Each fruit has a taste and a mental picture can be created by just naming the fruit.  Amongst experienced listeners rāgas invoke particular feelings and expectations. And just as fruits differ according to where they are grown, rāgās also have regional variations.

Important questions about rāgās include: How is this rāga effect created?  What are the factors which help in creating a particular rāga effect?

The classical definitions in Sanskrit all agree that a rāga is created by a combination of notes and musical phrases. The rāga manifests itself when the seven notes and their variations are combined in a particular manner with some important stopping notes and some characteristic phrases sung or played with appropriate rhythm. It is important that the rāga is sustained for a given time for it to have its magic.  As the notes have their own emotional effect in relation to the tonic note and in relation to each other they cumulatively create a specific vibratory force that affects our emotions.  The ancients have recognised at least twenty-two shades of notes called ‘Shrūtīs’ in an octave which help to further enhance the mood of the rāga. 

Rāga is an identity which enables musicians to create songs and melodies, as well as a framework to create compositions or improvisations.

The rāga in its pure melodic form can be best expressed in an ālāp, an introductory musical rendering highlighting the identity of the rāga.  An ālāp can be sung or played on an instrument with the core intention of introducing the rāga, mostly in pure sound, either sung or played using the vowels, without any discernible text.

Musicologists have classified rāgas in many ways. Some divisions include:

  • Masculine, feminine or neutral character (rāga-rāgini system prevalent up to the 17th century)
  • Time of day (still prevalent in North Indian music practice)
  • Season (autumn, rainy, summer)
  • Scales (modern North Indian Thāt system of ten parent scales and South Indian Mela system of 72 parent scales)
  • Pure (using only scale notes) or mixed (use of non-scale notes as accidentals)

In this introduction to rāgās we will use three rāgās classified under the parent scales with five notes, six notes and seven notes in both the ascending and descending movements.

Rāga Hamsdhvanī: auspicious, joyful, romantic and popular in both the North and South Indian traditions. The notes used are:

Sā Re Gā Pā and Ni 

(C D E G and B with C as the Tonic)

with an emphasis on the Sā, Pā and Re notes. 

Rāga Sohinī: popular in the North Indian tradition. The notes used are:

Sā Re Gā Mā Dhā and Nī 

(C Db E F# A and B with C as the Tonic)

with an emphasis on the Sā and Gā notes. This rāga is performed mainly in the higher register and invokes longing and pathos. There are two other rāgās which use the same notes as Sohinī but with a different emphasis and mood. Rāga Mārvā highlights the lower register emphasising the Re and Dhā notes with a serious, sombre mood.  On the other hand, Rāga Pūrīyā emphasises Gā and Nī and can be treated in a mixture of moods.

Rāga Kirvānī: popular in both the North and South Indian traditions.  The notes used are:

Sā Re Gā Mā Pā Dhā and Nī

(C D Eb F G Ab and B with C as the Tonic)

with an emphasis on the Sā, Pā and Re notes.  This rāga’s overriding feeling is of sadness with glimpses of hope and allows more freedom to the musician.



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