The Raaga Gestalt – Scale and Mode


I found Raaga literature in English to be of two kinds – the first kind as a body of jargon that revels in describing the perception and neuropsychology of the concept of Raaga. Raaga is a color, an aesthetic experience et al. Raagas are asassociated with certain times of the day, a particular rasa, a specific deity and such. The second kind leaves me bewidlered and somewhat disoriented.  Often a pandora’s box with good intentions. A baggage of jargon borrowed from western theory that is ‘applied’ to describe a semantic that unfortunately has no “englees word’! So we add to the great big void by describing the Raaga as ‘ a scale, a mode, a tune, a melody, a collection of complex swaras and complicated gamakas’ and more. Love the affliction with complexity here! I often heard ‘Raaga is a philosophy that is beyond a scale, mode, a melody and tune’.. and moreblah blah.  This blog is a result of my own search for a working definition, that is sufficiently grounded in performance, as it is informed by theory. This attempt is by no means all-encompassing.  Having said that, I keep coming back to one observation – we have borrowed western jargon without always being aware of their contextIn my mind – a Raaga is a gestalt –  a gestalt of melodic behaviors that could be evaluated along certain parameters. I start with the scale and mode:

SCALE : The idea of scale according to Western parlance is wedded to harmonic ideas, a scale idea is a harmonic prerogative. A C-major scale not only specifies the notes used but represents a way of grouping these notes into chords and how the music will move as chord progressions. The idea of scale is essentially and inextricably tried to a harmonic view of music behavior and expectations.

In Carnatic music, the scale is an essential but an insufficient view of a Raaga. It merely lists the component pitches, offers no ‘protocols’ or ‘manuals’ to move about with that scale. In the evolution of ideas, we have every reason to believe that scales were ‘created’ often as a shorthand for larger melodic movements. A big departure from it being a tool for  harmonic engagement. That is why we have crooked, asymmetric and weird looking scales that can throw of someone looking at a Carnatic scale (like Anandabhairavi) for information, it is not meant to give! That is also why, in essence, a scalar approach to classifying Raagas under the Melakartha scheme is somewhat ‘artificial’ and is only great for theoretical infatuation.

MODE: A raaga effectively describes the meta-level melodic ‘protocols’ of  – pitch hierarchies, gamakas, nyasa, vadi-samvadi, and tetrachordal relationships. In this way a Raaga is indeed  similar to western modal ideas. A mode not only lists the pitches, but also gives a how-to-manual of moving between these notes, often garmented as compositions. Greek modes were derived from chants which specified a finalis (final note) and a dominant reciting tone (very similar to the idea of our chanting as well). You can see how transposing this kind of music like one can with scales and keys disturbs an innate ‘grammar’. Ask any decent performer of Carnatic music, he will tell you how his Raaga vision is heavily borrowed from compositions and not from scale-based approaches.  Describing a Raaga as an advanced modal concept is probably the most potent way to describe a Raaga.

The biggest point of departure is that in a scale the sequence of intervals is constant. So, one can transpose a major scale  from C to D and not have the intervallic sequence altered. While doing that kind of transposition over a modal piece of music, almost always, transposition does not keep it in the same mode – as a higher grammar is disrupted. It comes as no surprise to me that as the Raaga concept evolved heavily along the modal axis, while older moorchana-scale/key/transposition ideas  such as Grahabheda took a back seat in evolution. The dominance of vocal music and prosody could be another major factor. More on this later.

Please read this fabulous module on Modes and Raagas by Catherine Schmidt-Jones! An excellent description of how a mode differs from a scale is summarized.

Of particular interest is this figure that succinctly brings out the difference:

SCale mode

Figure 1 shows two scales and two modes. The two major scales use different notes, but the relationship of the notes to each other is very similar. For example, the pattern of half steps and whole steps in each one is the same, and the interval (distance) between the tonic and the dominant is the same. Compare this to the two church modes. The pattern of whole steps and half steps within the octave is different; this would have a major effect on a chant, which would generally stay within the one octave range. Also, the interval between the finalis and the dominant is different, and they are in different places within the range of the mode. The result is that music in one mode would sound quite different than music in the other mode. You can’t simply transpose music from one mode to another as you do with scales and keys; modes are too different.



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