Indian Carnatic music - Theory & Principles

In my last post, I'd touched upon the theme of knowing Carnatic music, in order to appreciate it better. In this post, I'd like to explicate the math behind the theory of Carnatic music for the benefit of all those who are passionate about knowing Carnatic music.

Indian Carnatic music is a seemingly complex theory that has raaga & thaala as its cornerstones. A raaga is basically the melody(scale) and the thaala is basically the rhythm(beat). The seven basic notes (or Saptha Swaras) that comprise every raaga are Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha & Ni. These could be thought of as the Carnatic music counterparts of Western music's Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La & Ti respectively. Henceforth, I shall use the term swara to refer to a musical note.

Whereas the swaras Sa and Pa are always fixed (meaning, they do not have sharp or flat variants), the swaras Re, Ga, Dha & Ni have three variants apiece & the swara Ma has two variants. The below illustration shows the different swaras as laid out on a musical keyboard's C-scale. Note that the swara R2 is the same as G1 & the swara R3 is the same as G2. Similarly, the swara D2 is the same as N1 & the swara D3 is the same as N2. For reasons of lack of space and easy understanding, the names of the swaras have been represented using their first letters alone.

The variants of the swaras R & G can be used to create 6 different combinations which are R1-G1, R1-G2, R1-G3, R2-G2, R2-G3 & R3-G3 respectively. Similarly, the variants of the swaras D & N can be used to create 6 different combinations, thereby resulting in 6\*6=36 combinations for the 4 swaras R, G, D & N. These 36 combinations, when multiplied by the available two variants of the swara M, produces a total of 36\*2=72 combinations, for all the available 5 variable swaras. These 72 combinations are referred to as the Melakartha raagas. Of them, the first 36 raagas that use the first variant of the swara M are called Shuddha-Madhyama raagas & the next (or last) 36 raagas that use the second variant of the swara M are called Prathi-Madhyama raagas.

Every raaga is a pattern of swaras and is defined by the way it flows from one swara to the other. The ascending pattern is called as aarohana & the descending pattern is called the avarohana. For the 72 Melakartha ragas, the aarohana & avarohana have the same swaras, meaning that the avarohana is just a simple reversal of the aarohana.

Though the basic Melakartha raagas are only 72 in number, Indian Carnatic music gives you the flexibility and freedom to experiment with the swaras and create as many raagas from them, by omitting one or more swaras (note that the swara S cannot be omitted). Another fine flexibility allowed is that these omissions can be done separately for the aarohana & the avarohana. i.e., any swara that is omitted in the aarohana can be included in the avarohana & vice-versa, thereby provisioning the gamut of raagas for futher extensibility.

Hmmm.. so, how do you feel? Having started to taste Carnatic music theory, feel like hogging more? Here's a goodie that I'd like to offer you to get started with practising all the theory. I've come up with a list of all the 72 Melakartha raagas along with their aarohanas & avarohanas. The best method to familiarise yourselves with these raagas would be by trying these swaras on a musical keyboard. The list of the 72 Melakartha raagas in PDF format, can be downloaded here.

In my future posts, I shall talk more about thaalas, popular composers, veterans, famous artistes, instrumental music & a lot more. As always, keep the comments & suggestions pouring in!


excellent post.

Before you go on to thaalas etc...why do you not spend some more time on raagas?

Is there a concept of the pakad in Carnatic music, the unique signature of the raaga? The improvs allowed in raagas is a fascinating issue -- why not dwell some more on that and give us some examples of variations musicians practice?

Also, are all swaras sung the same way? I have heard, say, Sa being rendered in a million different ways -- like a drone, slow and long or sharp...etc. So what determines how each note is sung?


Posted by Umang Kumar on May 01, 2007 at 01:07 PM IST #

Thanks, Umang! Yes we do have the concept of "raaga lakshana", where the entire essence of the raaga can be brought about with a swara pattern comprising of just 4 or 5 swaras. For example, the essence of the raaga "Kaapi" in Carnatic music can be highlighted with just the swara pattern - [G3-M1-N2-P-G2-R2] and for the raaga "Reethigowla" it is [M1-N2-D2-M1-N2-N2-S]. The moment these patterns are sung/played, the lakshana of the raga is said to have been exposed, which allows us to easily identify them. Coming to your second question, it's true to an extent that a swara can be sung differently, meaning, though the pitch of the swara cannot be extended beyong a certain range, the way a swara is sung depends on the type of the raaga. For heavy raagas like Bhairavi, Thodi & Ananda Bhairavi, the swaras sway to and fro a little more than for other normal raagas. The swaying of the swaras is usually called "gamakha". For these raagas, the gamakha is an important factor that helps in exposing the lakshana of the raaga. A few other raagas that provide great scope for using gamakhas are Kaapi, Behag, Maand etc. But, mostly the swaras Sa & Pa are not sung differently and are considered static swaras. The gamakhas are applied only to the other 5 swaras.

Posted by Jayanth Krupanidhi on May 02, 2007 at 04:25 AM IST #

Post is helpful for a layman like me who yearns to learn abt Carnatic Music. How to identify the swarams occurring in say a line of a vrnam or keerthanai. For example, the first line of "ninnuko...." in Mohana Raaga?

Posted by R Ramanujam on May 10, 2007 at 03:01 AM IST #

hi jayanth, y dont you post the details of each raaga with some film songs in that raaga. i think it will help a lot to know each raaga in detail.

Posted by nimmy on May 19, 2007 at 02:46 AM IST #

i am awaiting more blogs of yours about music...

kind request: if possible could these posts be more frequent..
(i'm eager)


Posted by Pradeep on August 19, 2007 at 03:42 PM IST #

Excelent I am really lucky to have a wonderful person like you to help .
God Bless you .
I am expecting and willing to have friendship with you

Posted by Babu Subrahamanian on September 01, 2007 at 05:48 AM IST #

Wonderful explanation. I will explain this to my 9 yr old kid who is learning musci

Posted by Ananta on February 06, 2008 at 06:03 PM IST #

Good Day all,

Kalyani is the raga that is used by most of the music directors in many cases. The songs are intended to be tuned to hamsadwani but the "Madhyama creeps in and makes it kalyani. It is very difficult to hide this ragam when the music is intended to be composed in Sankarabharam or Hamsadwani.

Right, naatai is anothe raaga preferred by the MDs(music dir) when the song is being sung near to the sea.

Sentimental, Hindustani Kapi...

Jewellery Ads, it is Karahara Priya or kapi.. thats being prefferred.

i do understand that there are people from different states writing the form. well, if you all could tell me about the song ( which raga each song belongs to and to discuss about it) , i could explain it well..

I am new to teh form and can solve most of teh question which you guys can assault me with..

Kind regards,

Posted by djKrish on February 19, 2008 at 10:20 PM IST #

Dear all,

Just let me know if you want me to discuss about the classical music ,..

English .. japanese..Korean Music..

they all have ragas in them...

Its very important for us to accept the music throughout the world ...

and how Indian Classical (carnatic) is a drop in the big ocean in music, but for which the ocean become incomplete..

What I mean is... if we are perfect with teh ragas and the talams.. we can get to know each the notes of each song and can easily create an alapana of our own.

Kind regards,

Posted by djKrish on February 19, 2008 at 10:24 PM IST #

Dear all,

Please check this lionk and download the song" Udurajamukhi"

its a malayalam song(Classical music) remixed ....

The raga is karahara Priya.

one of the Songs (in classical music) that come under karahara priya is:-

Chekkani raja Margammu lundaka


Posted by djKrish on February 19, 2008 at 10:27 PM IST #

Dear all,

Sorry I passed a wrong link:-

here is teh link:-





Posted by djKrish on February 19, 2008 at 11:02 PM IST #

\* Different Concepts in Carnatic Classical

1) I was just wondering if people in the form could just split themselves and talk about different concepts in Music...

Now, for example, one can concentrate on 1- 5 ragas in number... and some other person can concentrate on other 5 ragams.

In that way, one can target a range of 5 ragas , can understand them as well as can understand what others speak...

Mr.A- say- Thodi, Kalyani, Hamsadwani, Kapi, Malahari,Amruthavarshini
B- Say- Naatai, NataKuringi, Krishnaveli, Abhogi, Devagandhari

Etc... so, every week one can post of different ragas and can learn different ragas...

PS:- If someone is interested in teaching theior kids classical music, it is highly recommended that the kid learns under a guru..

Female Kid- Female Guru
Male Kid - Male Guru..

the reason why I am saying this is once the kid reaches an age of 15-15, his voice starts getting matured and cracks...

Under that condition, the male student cannot raise his voice and synchronise with the female singer(teacher)...

The females ususally would have the pctch of(6)... think chitra sings in 7.5... she is brilliant. Small kids( boys ) can go upto that level which tends to decrease to 2 or 1.5 in sruthi scale as they age towards 13-14-15.

Please be adviced that the children must practise or do sadakam everyday morning at 5:00AM..(after taking bath and praying god)...

thats the right way to do it...

Just telling the mistake which I did and would not like anyone to do them...

These days kids are not sertious about music..well theya re not mature enough to understand teh seriousness of the Indian Classical music...

So.. the parents must be strict and make them do tehir sadakam everyday morning....

If you all need any more tips of how to practice let me know and I'll tell you..

kind regards,

Posted by djKrish on February 19, 2008 at 11:18 PM IST #

hello folks..
i wanted an information..
i heard that there is only 1 raga in carnatic music with only 4 swaras...
may i know the name of that raga and the lakshanas of that raga..
thanks in advance.

Posted by sindhushree on February 29, 2008 at 01:02 PM IST #

What is a flat and sharp Note? I am a beginner.

Posted by Manoj on March 20, 2008 at 08:38 AM IST #


I'm sure you're talking about the raga Mahathi, which has only 4 swaras - Sa, Ga3, Pa, Ni2.

Most of us know M S Viswanathan's composition "Athisaya Ragam" from the film Aboorva Ragangal, sung by K J Yesudas. This raga is believed to be Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna's brainchild.

Posted by Jayanth on April 01, 2008 at 08:02 AM IST #

Here's a list of songs composed by Ilayaraja -

You can see the name of the 'raagam' for each one. I am not sure if all the listings are right though.

Posted by Sharadha on July 23, 2008 at 01:53 AM IST #

Thanks a lot for this great work Mr.Jayanth.
Krish, I appreciate your efforts in this blog. Even I am passionate about music and Ragas, just a beginner though.
I reached here, by searcing articles on "Mahati" ragam. BMK's "Mahaneeya Madhura Moorthe" is in Mahathi.
Jayanth and Krish, if you guys can provide your email id (Jayanth, I tried reaching you, but I think your mail server rejected my mail), I would like to get in touch with you.
Thanks a lot,

Posted by Arun on August 19, 2008 at 03:37 AM IST #

I accidentally stumbled on this site. The site is very interesting indeed. BMK has given a record on Thodi RTP, where in the Pallavi Raga Malika, finds a place. Any one is interested in sharing their knowledge on Raaga based film songs, both Tamil & Hindi?


Posted by Subbaroyan on October 28, 2008 at 03:26 PM IST #

Thanks for the posting. Very helpful indeed for a beginner like me. I would appreciate if you could point me to any other posting of yours which explains other basic concepts like sruti etc.

Posted by Jayaraman on April 05, 2009 at 04:49 PM IST #


Posted by guest on January 30, 2010 at 03:41 PM IST #

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Posted by guest on January 30, 2010 at 03:42 PM IST #

Indeed this blog is very helpful as I am aspiring to learn basics of carnatic music. I would be grateful if given scope to learn about carnatic music.

Posted by Sudhir on February 23, 2010 at 09:31 AM IST #


I just stumbled upon this blog of yours :) And cant thank you enough for coming up with something like this one ! I am starting to learn music after a gap Of 14 yrs and I seem lost !!!

Look fwd to reading more of ur blogs on music :)

Posted by Swetha Sunder on June 28, 2010 at 10:59 AM IST #

Great blog. Keep it up.

Posted by The kid on August 02, 2010 at 05:46 PM IST #

Nice one you were saying "Every raaga is a pattern of swaras and is defined by the way it flows from one swara to the other. The ascending pattern is called as aarohana & the descending pattern is called the avarohana"
This can be defined by this unknown audio clip in raag Desh:

Posted by Amith on October 25, 2010 at 05:56 AM IST #

can you break this down for me- Im having trouble understanding what is going on- its as if I can't quite hear it. I know it is because of my lack of understanding raaga and thaala- I want to fully appreciate it whats going on during this piece.

(found online-not satisfactory) A fast-paced work based on:
1) a “Middle Eastern” sounding Shankar theme in 7;
2) a seconf theme also by Ravi and also in 7 but of a somewhat different lenght;
3) A Glass theme in 4.
Glass also added an Introduction and other rhythmic ideas. The themes are stated, blended and combined in the Finale.

Posted by rebecca on March 05, 2011 at 01:19 PM IST #

Thank you Mr. Jayanth Krupanidhi. I am very happy to read your article on the topic of Carnaric Music. I have learnt Hindustani music and was therefore having little difficulty understanding the 16 notes theory of carnatic music. The difficulty offcourse led me to look for more information and i am sure that your article will definitely help me follow carnatic music and understand it better. I am practising bharatnatyam for last 15 years hence following this music is the most important part of the studies. thank you again. Regards

Posted by Kalyani on April 10, 2011 at 11:41 AM IST #

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