Part I: An Introduction to North and
South Indian Scales
The idea of a “scale” is not completely the way the Northern Indians looked
at a set of notes. The North Indian equivalent for a musical scale is
called a raga. However, this name is not directly translated as
scale, but more like “A set of notes to be used to make a melody”. Even
then the meaning goes much further as the name implies many other things
relevant to the culture.
The raga became an integral part of Indian life and
spiritual practice. There were set ragas that were to be played at
various times of day and also special ones for ceremonies. In addition,
they were commonly used in meditation and prayer, sometime as chant. A
lot of the time these scales were sung vocally, but they are played on a
variety of instruments as well.
What you must remember is that for a long time, the
system of ragas was a complete mess. And understandably so: There were
originally a small set of ragas from which most everyone worked from but
over time, due to many different events in history, cultural diffusion,
invasions, and geographic barriers, many of the original ragas began to
undergo modifications by different people and many new ragas were added.
The South Indian system was a bit more organized but
refers to a raga by a completely different name. The concept is
identical however. This system is the primary one in use today in South
Indian music (Carnatic Music). Note that that South Indian music used
completely different scales than North Indian music, but there is some
overlap evident. This system was organized by Venkatamakhi in the
North Indian (Hindustani) remained a mess for much
longer. In the 1800’s, Chaturpandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande
(1860-1936) managed to create a system known as the “That” (sometimes
spelled “Thaat”) to classify all the ragas. Unfortunately, as useful as
this system was, it still failed to account for many of the ragas. It is
however the primary system in use today. There are two other ways to
classify ragas which will be discussed in greater detail further in this
In South India, the word for a musical scale is mela.
The Northern and Southern Indian music greatly differ from each
other in sound and in instruments but many share the same scales. In
addition, you will often find that a large majority of the scales are
identical to many of the ones named in the previous lessons.
The application of these scales in terms of Indian music
in general goes beyond this scope of this website but if you wish to
incorporate some of the exotic sounds of these scales into your music
then that is probably the best usage for them.
As I mentioned earlier, many of
the scales overlap into the Western System of scales. The most common
name for the Western Equivalent will be given on the side. Some of these
alternate names may be scales that we have not discussed at all.