Fundamentals of Melody

Learn about the fundamentals of melody in Carnatic Music from the Perfecting Carnatic Music Level 1 Book published by IFCM.
Notes(swaras): Many leading music systems in the world have seven fundamental notes. The table below compares three major systems to illustrate this.


Indian Western Chinese
Sa(S) Do Koung
Ri(R) Re Chang
Ga(G) Mi Kio
Ma(M) Fa Pion-Tche
Pa(P) Sol Tche
Da(D) La Tu
Ni(N) Ti Pion koung


(Hindustani music tends to say ‘Re’ for Ri and ‘Dha’ for Da.)


16-Note system: In Carnatic music system, as in other major systems, the octave is divided into 12 parts, giving rise to 12 notes. But the singular distinction here, is that 4 of these notes are given two names, which results in a 16 note system. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this article, but these extra 4 notes make Carnatic music more exhaustive, and give rise to possibilities of thousands of ragas. The first note Sa and its fifth perfect Pa are constants. Among the other notes, Ri, Ga, Da and Ni have three values each, while the remaining note Ma has two values. The full names of the 16 notes used in Carnatic music are:


Shadjam Sa Prati Madhyamam M2
Shuddha Rishabham R1 Panchamam P
Chatushruti Rishabham R2 Shuddha Dhaivatam D1
Shatshruti Rishabham R3 Chatushruti Dhaivatam D2
Shuddha Gandharam G1 Shatshruti Dhaivatam D3
Sadharana Gandharam G2 Shuddha Nishadam N1
Antara Gandharam G3 Kaishika Nishadam N2
Shuddha Madhyaman M1 Kakali Nishadam N3


It is to be noted that R2 = G1, R3 = G2, D2 = N1 and D3 = N2 respectively.


Raga: A raga may be understood as a melodic scale of formula, created by using some of these 16 notes in a specific manner and combination. If we were to use all types of combinations available to us, with these notes we would arrive at over 7.2 million ragas. But this is only a theoretical possibility. In reality, 250-300 ragas are used often, though 5000-6000 have been tried and named. Even among these, only a few dozen are more popular among listeners.


Practically speaking, a raga is much more than a theoretical formula based on notes. It is a living entity, capable of evoking of communicating emotions. The individuality of the raga is dependent on the manner in which its notes are handled.  Some of them are rendered plain while others are oscillated, some are rendered fleetingly while others are sustained, and a few are rendered even slightly sharper or flatter than their original values.


It would be beneficial for students to familiarize themselves with some of the popular ragas and develop an ability to identify them. Students should make it a point to learn and remember the name important features of every raga they are taught, including its ascending and descending sequence of notes (arohanam and avarohanam respectively.)


There are two types of ragas—parent ragas and derived ragas. Parent (melakarta) are those that have a straight sequence in both ascent and descent, using at least one variety of each of the seven notes S R G M P D N. The descent is the exact mirror image of the ascending notes. There are 72 parent ragas in Carnatic music




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