Thursday, December 18, 2014



Pitch Problems in Indian Classical Music (1)


Before understanding the pitch problems faced by the Indian Classical Music, a brief note on the pitch & the tuning system, the basis of any music.

Pitch can be defined as a sensory characteristic arising out of the frequency assigned to a note in a musical scale. The frequency assigned to a music note is based on the tuning system and pitch standard.

Music intervals with the pitch standard primarily help tuning the instruments to the scale of music of the Indian Raga.  During performance, the artist some times deviates from these intervals to bring out a colorful music. These deviations will have to follow a minute grammar involving musical threads. ( Published in Sangeet Natak Vol XLII, Number 3,2008:’Musical Threads – A New Musicological Concept discovered from the Ancient Indian Music’)

What are the pitch standard & the tuning System for Hindustani Music & Carnatic Music of the Indian Classical Music?

Hamoniums and sruti boxes were western inventions introduced into our Indian music leading to ‘kattai’ in Carnatic Music and ‘White-Black’ in Hindustani Music, an indirect invasion of Equal temperament into the Indian music leading to the pitch problems.

There were several pitch standards followed in different western countries till 1939 and sruti boxes that entered into India till 1939 were having those different pitch standards. (Chapter 1, ‘Ancient Music Treasures – Exploration for New Music’ by Dr.Vee)

The electronic sruti boxes, now dominating Indian music education & performance follow the international pitch standard A = 440Hz as per the communication I received from Radel, the major supplier.

Our tampoora based tuning pitch standards were set by the gurus in their ‘pANis’ in Carnatic Music,& ‘Garanas’ in Hindustani Music.

No need to stress the importance of identifying the pitch standard & the tuning systems, followed by the great Gurus of the Indian classical Music in their ‘pANis’ & ‘Garanas’.

Thanks to the developments in the Music Information Technology(MIT), it is now possible to deal with the above pitch problems in Indian Music, and preserve our Indian Classical Music. (‘How can MIT rescue Indian Classical Music Education?’; http://musicdrvee.blogspot.sg/2012/08/how-can-mit-rescue-indianclassical.html )

I am willing to share my expertise, if any reputed institution undertakes the above project of rescuing the Indian Classical Music.

A brief note on the pitch standard in ancient Indian Music


Famous Indian Music scholar B.Chaitanya Deva in his book ‘The Music of India: A Scientific Study’ (page 54- Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt Ltd  NewDelhi 1981) offers the following interesting evidence.

“However, the flute seems to have been used as a drone (sthanaka) from at least the time of Kalidasa.” (vide V.Raghavan, Music in Sanskrit Literature, Qly,Jl, Nat. Centre for Perf. Arts, Bombay, VII, no.1, 1979)

Air instrument like pitch pipe and flute could serve as pitch standards as they were pre-tuned at the stage of manufacture and do not need tuning like the string instrument tampoora. The above evidence suggests that ancient Indian music during the time of Kalidasa had a flute as a pitch standard and drone.

Evidence for the ancient Indian pitch standard was also found in ancient Tamil literature chilappathikAram.

In chilappathikAram, poems from ancient music treatise ‘panjcha marapu’ were cited in Chapter 3 commentaries, while explaining flute. Details regarding the length of the flute, its diameter and positions of holes were provided. 

Vipulananda Adigal , a famous musicologist, in his book ‘Yal Nool’  had tried to calculate the frequency of middle octave C (Madya Sthayi Shadjam) using the above values and applying formulas in the vibrations of air column.

Vipulananda Adigal, had treated tuning fork frequency value of 256 Hz as pitch standard and like P.Sambamoorthy, (who had assumed 240Hz for his calculations) was not aware of international pitch standard (1939). His calculations suffered minor defects like incorrect calculation of vibrating length, non-application of end corrections and inaccurate value for velocity of sound.

In my doctoral thesis (1996) I had pointed out the above defects and calculated the frequency of middle octave C (Madya Sthayi Shadjam) as 264 Hz. Temperature played a role in this calculation. Since flute was related to mullai  land (forest and adjoining land), I had assumed that the temperature of mullai land was 24 0 C. Even if the temperature was few degrees above or below this value, we could conclude that the above flute had pitch standard very close to the present international standard.

When I presented the above finding in Pann Research Seminar at Chennai Tamil Isai Sangam, the Chairman of the meeting Mr.Me.Pa.Somu had revealed that during his early years, he had witnessed a pitch pipe assisting the standardization of pitches, during the manufacture of in air instrument Nadaswaram. My speech with this comment was published in the souvenir of Chennai Tamil Isai Sangam.

The tuning of the string instruments and the percussion instruments by referring to flute as pitch guidance device in ancient Tamil music, was compared to the mating of the elephants.(Refer post Dt. December 12, 2012: Tuning compared to the Elephant Mating in Ancient Music’)


How & Why & When did India loose its ancient pitch standard and the method of tuning? Probably a Dharampal like probe ('on the damages to the cultural, scientific and technological achievements of Indian society at the eve of the British conquest';http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dharampal ), may reveal the answers that may lead to their revival.

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