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Article: Indian Notation Systems

By Haresh Bakshi
The keywords for Indian music wold be: microtone (shruti), raga, consonance, melody, improvisation, aesthetics, musical interval, culture.

Indian music is based on melody. The melody is brought out through the medium of the raga. Typically, a taal is played on the percussion (tabla) to accompany the performer. The accompaniment on the tabla takes place in a certain tempo. The tempo may be slow to start with, but may keep accelerating as the performance advances. Hence any notation system should be designed to give information about

  • The notes being(or, to be) performed:
    this involves the naming of the seven notes, and their accidentals (sharps, called teevra, and flats, called komal)
  • Naming the three octaves in which these notes are being (or, to be) performed
  • The taal with its name, number of beats (maatra), its subdivisions (khand), the weightages (sama, taali, khaali), cycles (aavartana).
  • The tempo of the taal.
  • The pros and cons
    Indian music practice can be summed up as: IMPROVISING A RAGA. It is all improvisation. So, the performance brings out an infinite number of patterns permissible in a raga. It is impossible to notate all this. Further, the complexities of the approach and treatment of notes make it impossible to write music even in the staff notation (Western music notation system, which is far more detailed than the Indian system). The melodic niceties and nuances, details and refinements, shades and hues, sheer complexities and overpowering varieties, cannot be represented on a sheet of paper. The magnificent oral tradition of music transmission through the Guru-Shishya parampara, is too overwhelming for any notation system. Thus, in the old days, a notation system was neither invented nor encouraged.

    But the times changed; music schools were opened and encouraged. A notation system became a practical necessity, however imperfect it might be. With a notation system in place, music became capable of being printed. Aleast, it would help revive and revise the compositions; and an outline of the movement of a raga came to be written down. The rudiments of music could now be written and distributed. Of course, this would be atleast partly, at the cost of the traditional Guru-Shishya tradition of transmitting music.

    Anyway, the notation system has come to be firmly established.



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