Galaxy of the Raga 2: temperament

Most of us know that we are losing bio-diversity, but few ponder the concurrent loss of cultural diversity. And in a way, cultural forms are natural forms, since no one consciously creates a language and it takes many generations to domesticate a plant or develop a tradition of music. It is provocative to ponder a causal relation between the biological and cultural spheres: are the two connected somehow? We have lost 90% of languages and 75% of cultivated plants in the last century, and this rate continues steadily. In both of these domains, a few dominant forms have been responsible for the decline of many others. In the domain of music, which has seen a comparable loss of diversity, one dominant and homogenizing authority has become so ubiquitous that, like water to a fish, we don’t even recognize its presence. Its name is Equal Temperament.

Put simply, temperament refers to the way in which we chose to tune the intervals between the notes that we use. Although this makes it sound like an arbitrary system, there is a natural basis to the use of intervals, which I will explain soon. Equal temperament means that the octave is divided into 12 exactly equal steps. It’s an artificial system that has settled into common practice in the last 150 years or less. This means that none of the great Western Classical composers actually intended their music to be played in our current system of tuning. Why do I say that it is artificial? To understand that, we need to go back a little further…

Every audible sound manifests with a set of decreasingly audible 'over-tones', called the harmonic series. This is nature. The lower harmonics are more audible and the intervals between them seem more consonant to us. As we ascend the harmonic series, the intervals become closer, more dissonant and less audible. Since ancient times, tuning systems have been constructed upon the most audible and consonant intervals, such as the fifth (the Pythogorean system is constructed on the cycle of fifths). A system that tunes its melodic intervals to the lowest possible relationships in the harmonic series, called 'just temperament', gives intervals that are the most consonant and have the brightest harmonic response, but the musician can’t change key without retuning the instrument or adjusting the position of the 12 tones. This is fine for modal music, where the tonic is stable, but when musicians in Europe started to want to modulate key in the one performance, or even in the one piece, they searched for temperaments that would allow for this. This usually meant preserving some of the natural intervals and sacrificing others.

The increasing reliance on fixed note or tuned instruments, such as harpsichord, piano, guitar, etc, must also have posed technical problems in the context of harmonic music, which encouraged compromises to the more natural system of temperament. The antecedents to equal temperament were kicking around for a few centuries, but not until the 19th century did the technology for measurement allow for the introduction of true equal temperament. The result is a system which preserves the fifths (…almost: still 2 cents flat of the true harmonic fifth), but massacres the major thirds, with all other intervals falling somewhere in between these two extremes.  Every key, however, is equally challenged, so once you get used to those dissonant thirds, no key sounds worse than any other. This system is designed for harmonic music with key modulations, but doesn’t cut the mustard for good modal music, since we don’t get to hear the beautiful pure intervals that nature provided. For music that’s all about melody, with a fixed tonic, it’s simply the wrong tool for the job.

Traditional Indian Raga music is just-tempered in essence, however, in practice every raga allows for its own unique temperament. Singing against the backdrop of the tampura, with its cascade of audible harmonics, reveals subtle micro-tonal shades of any note. The singer, or instrumentalist, can alter the position of the note in very minute shades to bring different expressions into the raga. The richness of the harmonic field in the tampura exposes these nuances in pitch. Change a note by a mere shade and it can completely change the impression of the tampura. Two or more ragas may use the same basic scale, but be differentiated by different micro-tuning. For example, in one the major second may be a classic just-tempered second, but in the other it may be a hair flatter. Musicians find the pitches that bring the best qualities to each raga, and these tend to be passed down through the generations in the guru-shishya (master-disciple) tradition.

Wait a minute. If you ask a Classical Indian musician about all this, he may know nothing about it. The reason is that my teachers learnt from a conservative family tradition (the Dagar family) that stretches back at least 500 years, in the elder style called dhrupad. The dhrupad linage has rejected the introduction of that all-pervasive slayer of mico-tuning, the harmonium. This terribly popular instrument in India is actually a Western invention, designed for Western music and tuned to equal temperament (if you’re lucky: mostly they are out of tune). It became common in Classical Raga music only in the early 20th century, when the whole patronage and teaching of the Classical music changed.

I want to express my awe and admiration for India, to have preserved such a mind-blowing artistic tradition in the modern age, but it is clear that it’s only a shade of its former glory, and well en route for losing its spirit in ostentatious appeals to populism. When we listen to recordings of the old masters we hear this attention to micro-tuning, called shruti. This is the beauty and subtlety of real Raga music. An amazing emotional clarity and diversity springs from this approach. It demands a yogic level of mindfulness, to stay with the questioning and engage in that relentless search for perfection that leads to the Great Beyond. May this unique musical tradition, which has so much to teach us, survive its passage into the 21st century.   

Some references… 

This article is a distillation of many years of musical study, contemplation and dialogue, however the following are a few key refences and links to validate my outrageous comments:

Gann, K. An introduction to historic tunings:

Gann, K. Anatomy of an octave (based on Alain Danielou's research):

Danielou, A. Music and the Power of Sound, Inner Traditions International, Rochester, 1995 (reprinted from Introduction to the study of musical scales). 

Danielou, A. Sacred Music, its origins, powers and future, Indica Books, Varanasi, 2003