Keepin' It Raga | Make Indian Fusion Music

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Creating a new tuning is the first step to making Indian music with the seemingly unlikely tool, Native Instruments Absynth.

Tabla Beat Science, Talvin Singh, Karsh Kale, Anoushka Shankar — India has put a bold stamp on the world of electronic and urban production, influencing many top producers around the world in the process. Attractive as Indian electronic music is, much can be gleaned from India's traditional music as well. Over many centuries, it has evolved into numerous diverse paradigms whose musical structures and forms are mind-bogglingly strange to Westerners. Despite the various differences between Western and Indian music, there are still many collaborative projects that bring East and West together. The most well-known was Ravi Shankar with George Harrison, but there have been many others since.

The contemporary paradigm of world music fusion joins musical traditions from all around the globe, and the time is ripe for producers and musicians of every persuasion to consider what they might stand to gain by crossing a cultural divide and immersing themselves in a tradition that is completely foreign to them. Such cross-cultural musical collaboration is well-established, but the trend has by no means run its course. To find out how a Western musician might understand and collaborate with Indian music, Remix sought out experienced pros to illuminate some of the tradition's most fundamental concepts.


Indian music is based on ragas, which are systems of rules that tell a singer, vainika (veena player) or violinist how to play and embellish a specific scale. For example, Devagandhari, a raga from the Sikh musical tradition of Northen India, uses the notes of the major scale but identifies a very specific sequence those notes must follow.

To assist our inquiry into some of the structural aspects of ragas, Remix sought the help of Lakshmi Ranganathan, adjunct lecturer in Veena and World Music at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. She plays the saraswati veena (the original veena) and has toured as far and as wide as any musician. When asked how a Westerner using Western instruments should go about learning ragas, Ranganathan's tentative response was, “First of all, they have to tune to [the] raga,” which is not as straightforward as it might seem. Indian instruments are tuned to “just intonation.“ So, before explaining musical techniques and raga rule-adherence, let's start off with a just intonation crash course.

Like Western music, Indian music uses seven principal notes — called swaras — around which all modes and scales are based. Instead of “do re mi fa sol la ti do,” however, Indian music uses the syllables “Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa.” With the addition of flats, the full chromatic scale becomes “Sa re Re ga Ga ma Ma Pa dha Dha ni Ni Sa.”

Like the Western equivalent, this system contains 12 tones, but there are important differences. First, the note Sa is not exactly equivalent to C. Middle C is defined exactly as 261.626 Hz, but Sa is not attached to a specific frequency at all. Sa simply represents the root note of the scale from which the other notes are derived. Second, Western music uses an equal tempered scale that comprises an octave of 12 semitones, each having an equal frequency ratio. Just intonation, however, uses ratios that are less even but more consonant. Just intonation thus sounds a tiny bit more in tune than equal temperament.

The use of just intonation in Indian music presents a challenge to Western producers because the piano, guitar and other Western fretted instruments are designed on the assumption of an equal tempered tuning. A Western guitar, by design, cannot reproduce just intonation (unless it is played with a slide, allowing the guitarist to move freely between all intervals) Fortunately, some synthesizers contain a handy work-around: tuning tables. Here, in the shortest steps possible, is how to derive a just-intoned scale from a root note.


Native Instruments Absynth is one of the relatively few synthesizers with a flexible tuning-table function. You could also try Homegrown Sounds Astralis Orgone VSTi (25£ — approx. $50;, and the old Kurzweil K2000, K2500 and K2600 hardware synths all had tuning tables.

In Absynth, click on the Perform nav button at the top of the GUI and then click on the tuning drop-down menu at hard right, just above the master envelope section. In the new window called Select or Create a Tuning, click on New.


Let's say your root pitch (Sa) is 240 Hz; multiply Sa by the following decimals to obtain a just-intoned chromatic scale: 1.000, 1.066, 1.125, 1.200, 1.250, 1.333, 1.406, 1.500, 1.600, 1.667, 1.800, 1.875 and 2.000.

This is a full scale from Sa to Sa with corresponding pitches (in Hz) of 240, 256, 270, 288, 300, 320, 337.5, 360, 384, 400, 432, 450 and 480.


You can now begin entering the results of your calculations into Absynth or into the synth of your choice. Again, 240 Hz is more or less arbitrary. If you prefer, you can use a value closer to middle C because C is the note associated with Sa. Note that the Octave Link radio button in Absynth is lit, and the Keys per Octave is set at 12, meaning that when you reach the next C key, the same note relationships will be preserved. Once you have entered every pitch, name your tuning file, and then — if you're using Absynth — return to the window in Step 1. Your newly created tuning file should show up under the User tab. When you select it, you become the proud owner of a custom Indian solo instrument. That's just the beginning.


There are 72 ragas in Indian classical music; some are simple, some are dizzyingly complex. Essentially, ragas are templates onto which musicians and composers superimpose their own style. Learning ragas is a long, deliberate process, but here are its phases in a short explanation:


The notes of the raga are played in a specific order, and alankars (embellishments or dynamic tricks) are reserved for specific notes. Aroha and avaroha refer to the ascending and descending parts of the raga. The example cited before, Devagandhari, ascends with Sa Re Ma Pa Dha Sa and descends with Sa Ni Dha Pa, Ma Pa, Dha Ni Dha Pa, Ma Ga Re Sa. It is not played flatly but with very careful emphasis on specific notes.


Knowing the note order as defined by the aroha and avaroha is one thing, but learning any raga with the comprehensiveness necessary to play and improvise correctly on an intuitive level is more difficult. Ranganathan stressed the importance of listening: “It is better not to learn but listen… You have to know the scale first, then you can be playing around back and forth. But even then, how do you go back and forth? You have to listen.”

What are you listening for? Alankars. Specifically, you're listening for what notes they modify, and when in the raga they occur. If you're still confused about the function of alankars, consider the pentatonic scale as it is played by a blues guitarist. In Indian nomenclature, the blues guitarist places an alankar — specifically a meend (pitch bend), which is the most fundamental alankar — on the 4th of the scale, bending it sharp toward the 5th. Bending the next note of the pentatonic scale, the minor 6th produces a cacaphonous twist that is sure to clash with the rest of the song. That completes the idea of the raga. Notes must be in a specific order; embellishments must happen at certain intervals. Failure to comply with the rules takes you outside of the raga.


To perform dynamics in the Indian style using a MIDI controller, some form of continuous pitch modulation is necessary: enter the pitch-bend wheel. What pitch-bend range is best depends primarily on the answers to two questions: How ambitious are you, and how well made is your pitch wheel? If you're quite ambitious and your controller sports a precise, ergonomic pitch wheel, then you may want to set a pitch-bend range of 12 semitones. That way, you can use the meend technique to transition between notes of the entire scale.

In the screenshot below, I've set Absynth to a 7-semitone bend in either direction. On an M-Audio Axiom 49, I was able to effect simple meends with ease with a 7-semitone range. The next parameter, Lag, controls the length of time it takes the pitch wheel to modulate the oscillators of the synth.


Of the many alankars, the most fundamental is the meend. The easiest way to get familiar with how a basic meend should sound is to use it to accent the notes of a major scale. The screenshot below shows the slight pitch modulations of meend accents in Image Line FL Studio 8. A slight nudge of the pitch wheel at the beginning of each note produces an authentic-sounding meend. Ragas also contain many other alankars, and each has its specific place. There are several variations and subtypes of the meend. Sparshes and gamaks are roughly equivalent to hammer-ons and vibratos. A complete list is available at This will require skillful use of the pitch wheel, and some of it might well be impossible to accomplish on a keyboard. For now, just listen to your favorite pieces. Learn the aroha and avaroha of a simpler raga, get familiar with that pitch wheel and expand your horizons.


So is it really necessary then for a Western musician to prepare his or her chops for a meeting with Indian musicians? When we interviewed Doug Cox, Salil Bhatt (son of V. M. Bhatt) and Ram Kumar Mishra of the group Slide to Freedom, their answer was an emphatic “no.” Remix caught up with them on a Pan-Canadian tour this year, prior to the recording of their second CD, Make a Better World. Though all three performers are energized by meetings of different styles, their explicit goal is not to fuse styles or exchange traditions, but rather to just jam. Remix asked Doug Cox if he made use of ragas while playing Dobro with Bhatt and Mishra: “I'm thinking about the scale, but I even step outside that a lot. I'm not trying to play like one of the masters here [gestures to Salil]. If I was going to do that I might as well not do it. I'm just playing the way I play.”

Perhaps the greatest lesson here is the joy and freedom that comes from playing outside one's paradigm. Ranganathan, who had been all her life a rigidly conservative player of traditional Carnatic (South Indian) music, only late in her career gave in to her colleagues' repeated requests for her to play with a Western orchestra. She recalls the novelty of that experience fondly. But perhaps Salil Bhatt's description of playing with Slide to Freedom sums up the sentiment best: “It's all there — up there in your mind, and finally it just flows through your hands and your fingers and you get ‘wow!’ That's why you found [the] three of us totally into it. It's juicy for us, we just jump on it, pounce on it. We are not merely playing, we are literally pouncing on our instruments; we want to just do this thing.”

Get a list of links for further reading and listen to audio examples of aroha and avaroha, as well as basic meends using Absynth and a sidebar on recording a veena