GCSE Music Area of Study 4 - Rag Desh

Edexcel GCSE Music Area of Study 4: World Music

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  • Created by: Mel
  • Created on: 06-05-12 10:35

Indian Music

Indian music has a long history which goes back more than 2000 years. Many Hindu Gods are often worshiped through performances of raga, both vocal and instrumental. Indian music can be divided into two great musical traditions:

  • Music of Northern India (Hindustani tradition)
  • Music of the South (Carnatic tradition) 

The set work is taken from the Indian classical tradition of Northern India. Indian music is taught through listening and playing by ear (oral tradition). Indian families have a system of master-pupil teaching known as a gharana. Playing styles inevitably change as new techniques are added by subsequent generations and so the process is a duel one of consolidation and evolution of playing skills. 

Three most common elements or strands in Indian classical raga music are: 

  • Melody - Improvised from notes of a particular rag. Sung by voice or played by sitar or sarod 
  • Drone - Supporting 'drone' of usually one or two notes provided by the tambura 
  • Rhythm - Repetitive, cyclic rhythm pattern played by the tabla drums
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Indian Music - Melody

A rag is a set of notes which are combined to create a particular mood (rasa). Like a scale, a rag ascends and descends, but pitches often differ in each direction, and the number of notes in a rag will vary considerably. Some rags have just five notes, rather like the pentatonic scale. Other rags commonly have seven or eight notes. 

There is no sense of harmony in Indian raga music - emphasis is placed purely on the melody and is therefore linear in concept. However, from the very first notes of a piece, a supportive drone played by the tambura will be heard - usually sounds the tonic and dominant notes of the chosen rag to keep a sense of tuning or intonation as a reference point for the melodic part, such as the sitar. 

Rhythm provided by small tabla drums is organized into repeating rhythmic cycles called tala. Most common tala is the teental (or tintal), a 16-beat pattern (each beat called a matras) organized in four bars as 4+4+4+4. There are many other talas with different numbers of beats per cycle, including 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, 14 and 16. In a tala, bols are the independent rhythm parts that go against the main beat of the cycle creating exciting syncopations. These rhythms must start and end together precisely on the first beat of the cycle, called sam.

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Indian Music - Structure

A raga performance usually has a structure based on defined sections called the alap (opening unmetred and improvised section of a raga), jhor (second section of a raga - medium tempo with improvisation), jhalla (third section of a raga - lively tempo and virtuoso display of improvisatory skills, climax of whole piece) and gat (called bandish if the piece is vocal; final section of an instrumental raga - 'fixed composition' with some improvised embellishment). 

  • Some sections can be omitted, for example a raga might just have an alap and a gat 
  • Raga performances can vary vastly in time
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Indian Instruments used in Raga Performance


In Indian philosophy it is thought that by singing it is possible to talk directly to the Gods. All instruments are ranked according to how close their sound or timbre resembles the sound of the human voice.


  • Most well-known plucked instrument 
  • Has seven principal metal strings; two are used as drone notes, below are usually up to a dozen loose-fretted strings called 'sympathetic', as they vibrate when the top strings are plucked which gives the traditional 'twangy' sound that makes the instrument instantly recognizable

Main strings are played by plucking with a wire plectrum. Common playing techniques:

  • Sliding between notes (called meend or mind) in intervals of quarter tones or less
  • Playing rapid scale-like flourishes called tan. Virtuoso passages of improvisation feature in latter sections of a typical raga performance, i.e. the jhalla and gat
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Indian Instruments used in Raga Performance (cont.


  • Smaller than a sitar and differs in that it is fretless and uses bow rather than plucking the strings
  • Has a gentle tone
  • Ideally used to accompany singers


  • Smaller than the sitar, but like a sitar it has two sets of strings to create the distorted effect common to the sitar
  • Fretless and has a metal fingerboard so that the player can slide up and down the strings to obtain different notes 


  • Simple instrument with only four strings and a resonator 
  • Used to provide drone notes accompanying the singer or instrumentalist
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Indian Instruments used in Raga Performance (cont.


  • Small set of two drums of different sizes, smaller made of wood (tabla) larger one made of metal (baya). Both drum heads are of skin and the black centre circle is made of a paste of iron fillings and flour 
  • Drums play the chosen rhythm, known as the tala, as well as improvisatory rhythms 

Many other instruments are used, the most common being the two woodwind types of flute and oboe. The flute (bansuri) and oboe (shehnai) do not have keys like modern Western equivalents but a series of holes. The players skilfully managed to produce a wide range of pitches by half covering the holes and varying the blowing.

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Rag Desh performed by Anoushka Shankar (sitar)

Two tals are used in this performance: tintal and jhaptal 

Jhaptal (10 beats): 2 + 3 + 2 + 3

Alap (0:00-0:54) - Slow unmetered, introductory section where the unaccompanied sitar introduces the notes and the mood of the rag. Rhythm is free and there is no regular pulse. Intricate decoration to the melodic line made by pulling the strings to get from one note to another rather than just using the frets. 

Gat 1 (0:55-9:26) - Played at madhyalaya (medium speed). Tabla enters in jhaptal, with improvisation and decoration around the basic beats. Tabla and sitar alternate short melodic and rhythmic improvisations. Ending of these improvisations is shown by playing a tihai, rhythmic and melodic device where a short phrase is played three times, often across the beat, before it lands on sam, the first beat of the cycle. Sitar improvises, using triplet phrasing called chand. Sitar and tabla alternate, using a tihai to signal the end of each solo spot. 

Gat 2 (9:27-) - Drut (fast) gat in tintal. Drone strings (chikari) of the sitar are strummed to give added rhythmic effect called jhalla. Final tihai is played, starting at 11:11.

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'Mhara janam maran' performed by Chiranji Lal Tanw

Instruments: Voice, Sarangi, Pakhawaj (large double-headed drum), Cymbals and Tabla 

Kerherwal tal (8 beats): 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 

This is a Bhajan, a Hindu devotional song from Rajasthan, that tells of tender waiting in longing anticipation of the arrival of Lord Krishna in the morning.

(You are my companion through life and death and I cannot forget you night and day

My heart pines for you and I feel totally restless when I am not able to see you) 

Alap (0:00-0:50) - Short introduction as the sarod player, then the singer sings a version of the song's 'chorus', vocalizing a melody in free time based on notes of the rag.

Bhajan (0:50-) - 'Fixed composition', a song in verse form. Tabla joins in and the music becomes fast and exciting. Pattern established is a verse (heard at 1:32/3:03/and 4:50) followed by the first line used as a refrain (chorus), followed by more solos for sarod and sarangi.

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Rag Desh performed by Steve Gorn (bansuri) and Ben

Esraj; a bowed string instrument, played sitting on the floor like the sarangi, but with frets like a sitar. It has a number of sympathetic and drone strings. 

Instruments: Bansuri, esraj, tambura, tabla 

Alap - Drone provides the notes Sa and Pa (tonic and 5th). Bansuri then comes in playing notes from the rag. Esraj comes in after bansuri, they improvise the notes of Rag Desh. Slow and flowing section as there's no pulse.

Gat 1 - Slow tempo gat and lyrical unaccompanied melody for Bansuri in rupak tal. Bala comes in playing a seven beat tala. They play a fixed composition. Music becomes more agitated. Bansuri then plays the gat repeatedly whilst tabla player improvises around the tala cycle. Several tihais are heard to mark section ends.

Gat 2 - Fast (drut) gat in ektal (12 beats). Tabla sets fast tempo and bansuri plays elaborate gat containing wide rages of pitch, scalic runs and slides (tan). Several tihais are heard as the music draws to a close.  

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Rag Desh Notes

Below shows the notes used in Rag Desh, beginning on C. A system known as sargam is used for naming the notes: Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni, Sa. The tonic, or ground note, is Sa - heard in the drone. Pa and Re are other important notes in Rag Desh. 


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Very useful! :)

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