The lifeblood of all Indian classical music, whether Hindustani or Carnatic, is the concept of raag, (in English spelt and pronounced "raga" after its Sanskrit form) although in modern north Indian languages the vowel, or the "a" at the end is quite redundant. The word raag is derived from the Sanskrit word "rang" which literally means “colour” in many Indian languages, so we could say a raag is something which colours the mind with a particular emotion.
There is no single English word that can accurately translate the full meaning of raga. It is not entirely a musical scale, a mode or a 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 swar or simply sur in modern Hindi/Urdu. As in western music, there are seven main notes and twelve tones, including half-notes. A raag can contain some or all seven notes or it 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 or descent – (known as, aroha or avroha, respectively,) form a large part of the grammatical rules for the correct execution of a raag.
In addition, the rules are further clarified in that individual musical notes contained within a raag are not all given equal importance or significance: some are more important (or dominant) than others. The most important note is called vadi and the second most important one is samvadi and numerous complex rules dictate how these notes may be driven (defined as chalan, which literally means “walk”) or arrived at within the melody.
Raags are sometimes also defined or categorised 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. It is not unusual for novices, (or newer audiences to Indian music) to find it difficult to identify individual raags but those who listen to Indian music regularly and with systematic concentration soon learn to recognise their favourites.
A detailed musical or technical knowledge is not necessary for the enjoyment of Indian classical music as it is primarily aimed at the heart rather than the brain. Many raags are designed to work like a prescription, enhancing a particular mood, time of day, season, emotion or ambience (See ras or rasa). There are some 525 known raags but we usually only hear the same favourite two dozen or so. Raags are also ascribed to a particular time of day or night, but with concerts mostly taking place in the evenings, it is becoming rarer to hear live recitals of early morning or afternoon raags.
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