Raga Yaman - How it Sounds

I'll start with this raga by showing some examples to listen to. If you want to understand a raga you need to start to understand the feelings and emotions it conveys.

This is a video of one of my favourite sitarists, Shujaat Khan, son of the legendary Ustad Vilayat Khan. This is a very unusual rendition of Yaman, as usual Shujaat's style sets him apart from most other musicians

The next one is a beautiful version and I think it displays the characteristics of Yaman very well. Shivkumar Sharma & Shafaat Ahmed Khan -

Yaman Kalyan is technically (depending on who you ask) a different raga than Yaman but the difference is so slight that it's hardly worth mentioning here at the moment. Such an incredible performance by Ustad Imrat Khan -

Another master of Indian music - Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar

Lovely flute rendition -

A nice bit of sarod -

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How To Tune A Sitar

There are probably many ways to tune a sitar and every good player will tell you that you should tune by ear, which is certainly something you should work on developing, but this can be difficult when you are starting out. Once you have the sitar tuned properly it should be fairly easy to make small adjustments because you will hear the clashing sound compared to the pureness of a well tuned sitar but if you have never tuned your sitar to Just Intonation this is how we can start, there is quite a lot to do. Don't rush it and don't get frustrated, it sometimes takes a while until you get used to the process.

The Tarafs
So where to start with all those strings? This may not be the 'proper' way to start but it will get your instrument in tune. Start with the taraf strings. These are the sympathetic strings that lay underneath the main set of strings. These are tuned to the raga that you are playing in, the intention is that they ring out on every note you play in the raga. I will be writing out raga yaman so I will show you how to tune to this.

There are a many ways to tune these strings, depending on how many taraf strings you have and which school/branch of tradition you are taught in, amongst other things.

This is the way I tune my sitar, it has 13 taraf strings but some sitars have 11. Going from the longest string to the shortest:

N, D, S, S, R, G, G, m, P, D, N, S, R (remember that the Ma is sharp).

If you have 11 strings you could try this:

N, D, S, S, R, G, m, P, D, N, S

Tune these using Wintemper or whichever Just Intonation tuner you want to use. It may take a while as you might pluck the wrong string, or turn the wrong peg, or you might find that the pegs are fiddly and physically hard to turn. If they are hard to turn just detune it with a slight pulling upward pressure and then tune up again, pushing down when you get near the right note. Try to tune the string exactly to the right frequency, the sitar will sound beautiful if you get it right so take your time and get it perfectly in tune.You may need to go back and check these are still in tune when you have finished because the pressure of tuning one sometimes changes another but do this until it is correct.

The Main Strings
Now for the top strings. Start with the jor string. This is the second string from the bottom as you are looking down on the strings from the playing position. Tune this to Sa. You should hear the taraf strings ringing when you get close to the right tuning but make sure that it is exactly in tune. This is a very important string so make sure you get it accurately in tune. You can use harmonics to check, this is sometimes easier to hear. Touch the string about halfway between the bridge and the nut at the neck, and should be around the 11th fret. Pluck the string while your finger is touching and you should hear a chime sound, you may have to move your finger to find the sweet spot. Check this frequency against the taraf and/or the tuner.

Now the next string. Tune the next thickest string. This should be tuned to Ga. Go through the same steps as the jor string.

The next thickest is tunes to low Sa. The easiest way to do this string is probably to play the jor string and then this thickest string. They need to be tuned to the same note but an octave apart so you should be able to hear the wobble/dissonance if they are not in tune with each other. Make sure you get this low Sa string accurately in tune because it will make everything sound horrible if it's not dead on.

The next string up should be a similar thickness to the taraf strings. This goes to Pa. Again, get this exactly right.

The last two strings tune to Sa, with last one an octave higher than the other.

The string we missed out, the first (bottom) string, needs to go to Ma. Now this is natural Ma, not the sharp version we used for the tarafs. You can use harmonics for this one. Pluck the 11th fret harmonic on the 2nd string and then hit the harmonic on the 7th fret on the first string. Adjust the first string until it sounds pure and completely in tune, no wobble/dissonance.

Now you have your sitar in tune! It would be wise to go back and check all the string again, just to make sure none of them have slipped out of tune while you were doing the others. It should sound beautiful and sing out when you pluck the strings (with your mizrab).

The Frets
The last thing to do is to adjust the frets to make them in tune with the tarafs. This is very important because if you don't then when you play a note it won't ring out and sound beautiful, which is the whole point.

The first thing is to make sure your first (Ma) string is EXACTLY in tune. Check this by plucking the 7th fret harmonic and then plucking the Sa taraf string. When it is exactly in tune pluck the 7th fret harmonic again and then play 7th fret. These two notes should be exactly in tune with each other, just an octave apart. You can play the 7th fret note and pluck the taraf to hear a comparison. Move the fret to make the it exactly right.

Do the same thing on the 17th fret. This is an octave above the 7th.

Now go back to the 8th fret and play the note (first checking the Ma string is in tune again). Pluck the Re taraf to and move the fret until it is exactly in tune with the taraf. You will hear the taraf ring out when it is in the right place.

Now skip a fret and repeat the process with the 10th fret. This is Ga so pluck the Ga taraf and check this. Move the fret to get the Ga taraf to right out.

Skip another fret and go to the 12th fret. This is Ma tivra (sharp). Go through the same process.

The next fret is Pa. Again, the same process.

The next fret is Dha (14th fret). Same process, move the fret until it is exactly in tune with the Dha taraf string.

Skip a fret to the 16th fret and this is Ni. Same process again.

The next fret is high Sa. This should be already in the correct position. The next fret is high Re, and the one after that you can adjust to high Ga.

Go back down to the 1st fret. This is low Ma tivra. The 2nd fret is Pa. The 4th fret is Dha and the 6th is Ni. These last two should be checked against the first two (longest) taraf strings.

All of these frets listed should make the taraf string ring out when you pluck them. The important thing when doing this fret adjustment process is to make sure the Ma string is exactly in tune before you go to the next fret.

Now you're finished, your sitar is in tune according to Just Intonation and raga yaman is ready to play! It should sound beautiful now.
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Indian Tuning - Just Intonation

When it comes to sitars you really don't want to be using a guitar tuner. Sitars, and a lot of Indian instruments, use something called Just Intonation, which is a method of tuning quite different from that of a guitar or a piano.

Just Intonation notes are written as fractions or ratios corresponding to the base note. This means that the resulting notes are purer sounding compared to the rounded up/down version that western music creates.

Have you ever noticed the 'beating' or slight clashing/dissonant sound when you play a complex (or even a simple) chord on a piano or a guitar? This is because the intervals between the pitches are not pure or mathematically correct. The dissonance does add a certain flavour in itself but for Indian music this isn't what we are looking for.

I'm not going to go in to this too far because it is a very deep subject and is not really relevant, but just remember that there is a difference. In western terms, think how a harp sounds almost heavenly and compare that to a piano.

So how do you tune an instrument in Just Intonation? It's actually surprisingly easy to do it by ear because Just Intonation is how we instinctively think two notes should relate together. However, maybe you don't know what you are listening for yet.

The best way to start is probably with a tuner. I don't mean a guitar tuner here (unless it is an advanced one and can do Just Intonation). There are loads of freeware/open source tuners available to download. I used Wintemper for a while, which you can download for free from here - http://wintemper.com/. There is also one called Chromatica which, although isn't free, you can use the evaluation version. This is a bit more flexible to use than Wintemper.

Once you have installed Wintemper, select Just Intonation No.1 from the drop down list on the left. Now you can click on the notes and you should hear the tones in Just Intonation.

I have to say something now though - there are many different types of Just Intonation and not one single standard tuning. The one in Wintemper is good but after a while I noticed that on the sitar the Dha didn't sound quite right.

You can tune this difference quite easily by ear as you should be able to hear that it has a slight beating/dissonance compared to the other notes. The difference is only slight but it will make this note sound a bit striking.

However, if you are starting out with tuning in Just Intonation you can probably ignore this at the moment until you get used to the sound of the new intonation. Or you can edit the temperament or find a tuner where you can input ratios. Email if you need to find out the ratios used for Indian tuning.
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The Basics - Indian Notation - Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa - Sargam

In Indian music the western notes that we all know are not used so the first thing to do is familiarize yourself with the system that is used. Most western people will at least have heard of Do Re Mi La etc. which refer to steps in a given scale, or pitch intervals, rather than actual notes.

This means that you can sing a scale in any key without needing to know what the actual notes are, it is the relationship between the notes that is the important part - so the difference between Do and Re is always the same no matter which note you start with.

This is the way you need to think in Indian classical music. However, it's not that simple. They do not use Do Re Mi, they use something called Sargam. This is an acronym for some of the note names they use.

The notes used are: Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa. 
They can be shortened to S, R, G, M, P, D, N, S. 

These are the pure natural notes, called shuddha. This is also equivalent to the Ionian mode or major scale in western music. In Indian music this is called Bilawal Thaat.

So we can say that western equivalents are:

S - R - G - M - P - D - N - S
C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C

However, this is not really the way to think about Sargam. Indian music doesn't use a fixed pitch to refer to the notes. Remember the relationships rather than how westerners think of notes. Indian instruments are usually tuned to a key somewhere between C and D so Sa could be anywhere in this range. This is why it is difficult to refer to Sa as C, for example, as it depends entirely what base key note is being used.

We can think about it in this way, T=whole tone and S=semi tone:

T - T - S - T - T - T - S

The most common notes to tune to with sitar is C# so in this blog whenever notes are referred to in western terms, Sa will be C#. So for general intents and purposes these are the notes in sargam compared to the western equivalents that I will use:

Sa - C#
Re - D#
Ga - F
Ma - F#
Pa - G#
Dha - A#
Ni - C
Sa - C#

Of course, Indian music isn't limited to these pure, shuddha, notes. R, G, D, and N can be flat (komal) and M can be sharp (tivra). There are different ways of writing these notes but the one I will use is by using capital letters for shuddha notes (S, R G etc) and lower case for komal notes (r, g, d, n). The exception is Ma, where the capitalized note refers to the sharp and the lower case refers to the natural shuddha note. So we have:

S, r, R, g, G, m (natural), M (sharp), P, d, D, n, N, S.

This may seem confusing but once we get started with a raga you will see that it's actually very easy to remember. The raga I will be exploring has all pure notes expect for a sharp Ma so it is unlikely that you will see much of the komal notes in this blog.

Now we have the notation explained (and hopefully understood), the next step is crucial - to learn about tuning!
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Introduction To The Blog - Aims and Purpose

In this blog I am going to write about my journey in to Indian classical music as I learn to play the sitar. I am going to document all the things I learn along the way and hopefully provide a useful resource for other people starting out on this mind-boggling topic.

I am starting out by learning raga Yaman, the king of all Indian ragas. I do not have a teacher so I cannot verify the validity of the things I post here but I will make every effort to make sure everything is true.

There is very little on the internet about this as ragas are traditionally taught from guru to student orally. However, I intend to do my best to provide as much information as I can about the raga.

Once I have more experience of Yaman under my belt I will probably expand in to other ragas but for now all the tips will be related to raga Yaman.

I will post things about other ragas and other instruments, such as videos and interviews, and give my opinions and recommendations on particular performances and players who have struck me while learning about Indian classical music. I hope there are other people that find this useful and I would welcome any tips or help that you can offer.

So, let's get started...
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