Improvising with Indian Carnatic Ragas

When you listen to the music of guitar players such as John McLaughlin and Shawn Lane, you can hear the profound influence of a classical art that originated in South India called carnatic music. This genre traces its origins back least 2,000 years, and is based on a melodic concept called raga and a rhythmic concept called tala. One interesting aspect of this music is that the octave is divided into 16 pitches (some scholars say 22, but in my experience we use only 16 practically) called srutis.
Publish date:
Updated on

And while the root, 4, and 5 in carnatic music function just as they do in Western music, the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 7th scale degrees can each generate three different interval types, depending on how they’re played. Non-Western intervals are achieved by specific microtonal inflections called gamakas, which not only serve as ornamentations and embellishments, but also define the mood, imagery, and very soul of the music. In carnatic music, a raga is a scale played with a profusion of specific gamakas that shape the emotional impact of the melodies.

There are 72 melakarta ragas, accounting for all possible combinations of seven-note scales from the 16-note classification of the octave (36 of them with the natural 4, and 36 with the raised 4). For example, major, melodic minor, harmonic minor, Dorian, Lydian, Mixolydian b6, Ionian b2b6, etc.—and virtually any other seven-note mode or scale you can think of—are among these ragas. From the parent ragas, 34,776 ragas (five-note ragas; six-note ragas; five-notes-going up, seven-coming-down ragas; etc.) called janya ragas are derived.

Except for melodic minor, we rarely encounter scales in Western music that have different notes ascending than they do descending, but this practice is very common in carnatic music, and the raga bilahari is a fascinating example. While its true emotional impact would require use of the gamakas, it translates well to the guitar as a scale and makes the perfect introduction to carnatic ragas. It’s derived from a melakarta raga called sankarabharanam, and, to use Western terms, it is essentially a major pentatonic scale going up [Ex. 1] and a complete major scale coming down [Ex. 2]. Because you have to strictly maintain the order of notes while ascending and descending, here are some examples of correct and incorrect phrasing that may help you grasp the concept [Ex. 3].

Now that you have a feel for the phrasing of this raga, let’s look at an exercise that can help you understand bilahari grammar [Ex. 4]. This is a sample solo in bilahari over a standard major-scale-based chord progression I wrote for my instructional DVD, Ragamorphism, and it demonsrates how raga bilahari works in an actual playing situation. To hear a more extensive treatment of this raga in a rock guitar setting, check out “9th Stone from the Sum” on my latest CD, Electric Ganesha Land [abstractlogix .com]. Prasanna performs carnatic music on standard electric guitars. Learn more about the guitarist at his Web site,