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Sounding Summer

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

I believe in the power of classical Indian music to stir, thrill and inspire all the senses. My own introduction into this world began in 2008 in Portland, Oregon. I wanted to learn about sound healing. A friend recommended I begin by learning raga with a local teacher named Michael Stirling. My first lesson was an exquisite 3 hour journey of the voice - where time unraveled and I found myself traveling on the winds of our voices and the harmonic overtones of the tanpura. I was hooked! And returned weekly to my new teacher's home for the next 5 years to practice and study. Eventually I bought my own tanpura and began to sing and practice on my own.

The lifeblood of all Indian classical music, whether Hindustani (North Indian) or Carnatic (South Indian), is the concept of raag (in English, spelt and pronounced ‘raga’ after its Sanskrit form - although in modern North Indian languages the 'a' at the end is quite redundant).

The word raag is derived from the Sanskrit word rang which means ‘color’ in many Indian languages. So we can say a raag is that which 'colors the mind' with a particular emotion. In my experience, a raag colors all your senses and can powerfully shift your internal landscape.

There is no single English word that can accurately translate the full meaning of raag. It is not a musical scale, a mode or even a tune, but it definitely encompasses all those three elements. So, rather than attempt to describe the concept of raag in its totality, it is easier to look at it from the perspective of what it must contain to qualify as a raag.

A raag must have notes – musical notes known as swara or simply sur in modern Hindi or Urdu. As in Western music, there are seven main notes, drawn from a similar basic set of twelve tones to the Western piano. A raag can contain some or all seven notes, and can have different numbers of notes in its ascending and descending scales. The rules governing which notes may, or may not be used in ascent (aroha) or descent (avroh) form a large part of the grammatical rules for how to correctly execute a performance of the raag.

In addition, the rules are further clarified in that individual musical notes contained within a raag are not all given equal significance. Some are more important (or dominant) than others. The most important is called vadi (king note) and the second most important one is samvadi (queen note), and numerous complex rules dictate how these notes may be driven - such as chalan, which means ‘walk’ or ‘arrived at’ within the melody. Raags are sometimes also defined or categorized in terms of particular characteristic movements of notes, resulting in distinguishing phrases that make a particular raag stand out from another one with similar note combinations. There are over 500 known raags but we usually only hear the same favorite few dozen or so.

Raags also describe the mood of a particular time of day or night (known as prahar), and as such are only sung/played at those times. It is this aspect of each raag that I find so genius and compelling. It mirrors how certain acupuncture protocols or indigenous rituals and ceremonies that are used only at specific moments in time, such as when the moon is full or when the water is frozen.

Indian classical music is accessible to all - its beauty is in its capacity to evoke a certain felt sense in the heart, and amplify a particular mood, time of day, season, emotion or ambience.


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