Carnatic Music Theory Explained


In Carnatic music theory, the primary emphasis is on vocals. The compositions are designed to be sung, even if being played on instruments. It is a singing style that is called “gayaki,” resting on two primary elements: the modes (or raga) and the melodic formula (or tala), which creates the rhythmic cycle of the music.

In addition to the raga and tala, there are two additional important elements that can be found within the Carnatic music theory.

1. Sruti.
This is the musical pitch of a composition. Similar in some ways to the “key” of a piece, it is the note to which all other notes will be derived. Graded pitches within an octave are common. There are 22 total sounds that can be distinguished by listeners, though many converge upon themselves, creating a musical expression within the mind.

2. Swara.
This is the musical sound of a single note. It will define the position, either higher or lower, of a note instead of a specific frequency. There are 7 notes in a basic octave scale from which to work, similar to other forms of music, though there are variants that can modify the form of it. The 7 notes are referred to as “sa,” “ri,” “ga,” “ma,” “pa,” “da,” and “ni.”

3. Raga.
This is a set of rules that is used for building a melody within Carnatic music theory, similar to the idea of using a “mode.” Rules are set in place that dictate upward or downward movements, referred to as “aarohanam” and “avarohanam” respectively. Which phrases should be included or avoided are part of this element as well. Raga can be divided into two classes: parental and descendant.

4. Tala.
This is the fixed time of the composition. It is a fixed-time cycle which prescribes a specific number or grouping of beats. Unlike in other forms of musical theory, the tala is rarely changed within a composition. There are different combinations which can be used, however, which leads compositions to be grouped based on their tala.

How Improvisation Fits into Carnatic Music Theory

Improvisation is one of the most important elements of Carnatic music. Without improvisation, it could be argued that the music being played is not truly Carnatic. There are several varieties of improvisation that are recognized by this musical theory, but there are 7 traditional forms that are typically used.

1. Alapana.
This is a slow improvisation without rhythm. The raga acts as the foundation for creativity. It is like producing a thought sequence during a conversation, but with music instead of words.

2. Niraval.
This improvisation sings a line or two of a song’s lyrics repeatedly while performing improvised melodic improvisations simultaneously. Different speeds are possible with this improvisation style as well.

3. Kalpanaswaram.
This improvisation method uses passages to enhance expression, using melody and rhythm. Lyrical improvisation is part of this process as well. For many who learn Carnatic music theory, this is the first improvisation that will be taught.

4. Tanam.
This form of improvisation expands the syllables of the raga.

5. Ragam.
For this improvisation method, the performer will typically compose what will be played ahead of time. It is most often used within a long-form concert setting. It may include elements of tanam and pallavi as well.

6. Pallavi.
This improvisation occurs on the thematic lines of a song. It will only last for a single cycle in most circumstances, but can be repeated twice or more, depending on the phrases of the ragam. A full improvisation using this form will including phrasing, variation, and tempo alterations.

7. Tani Avartanam.
Performers may be asked to perform a solo piece during a concert performance. This improvisation refers to the extension of a solo that is being performed by a percussionist. It will usually take place after the primary composition has been played for the concert. For an extreme improvisation example, some performers have utilized this form for 20+ minutes on a single piece.

What makes Carnatic music theory so interesting is the total scope of free improvisation that is allowed within each piece. Although a composer may utilize a specific melody and harmonic pattern throughout a song or composition, performers using this music theory are expected to provide listeners with their own interpretation of the song.

Some pieces may be varnam, or short metric compositions. Others may be “kriti,” which vary in style, but offer a complete composition. Whatever the case may be, in Carnatic music theory, no two compositions are ever exactly alike and that is why it is such a beautiful way to create music.