Composers & Improvisors: Invent Your Own Raga!

This is a rough approximation of the content of my lecture-demonstration on raga. This is how I introduce students in a university classroom to the underlying conceptual structure of raga-based melody:

With a simple recipe for making our own raga.

Here’s what we do:

Start with a tonic – fifth drone. Choose a second degree – either natural or flat. Choose a third degree – either natural or flat. Choose a fourth degree – either natural or sharp. Choose sixth and seventh degrees – either natural or flat.

For example, let’s say we choose: 1, b2, 3, #4, 5, 6, b7, 8.

Play or sing this for a few minutes over the drone to experience the intervals.

Now, pick a number between 2 – 4. For example, 4.
Pick a number between 5 – 7. For example, 7.

Now we play/sing the original scale, but this time OMIT 4 & 7 on the way up, and include them on the way down. Thus:

1, b2, 3, 5, 6, 8 — 8, b7, 6, 5, #4, 3, b2, 1.

We play or sing this for a few minutes over the drone so we can learn the interval structure…the diminished triad ascending from the 2, the juicy diminished fourth that emerges on the way down between the b7 and the #4…all kinds of goodies are there to be found. Notice that certain phrases evoke ascent and others descent, giving improvisation a lot of motion.

Just going this far generate a ton of beautiful material. But there is one more refinement we can make on the process which will make our “raga” hang together even better.

Pick a group of three adjacent numbers. Any three; doesn’t matter. Let’s say we pick 5,6,7. Now…take those three notes, and make up a special tweak — just a little phrase, or a small shift in the sequence. For example, we’ll make the descent from the upper octave ALWAYS follow the rule 8, 6, b7, 5 — expressly forbidding a straight pathway.

Mess around with this for a while and we’ll start generating melodies automatically.

There is nothing special about this particular combination of intervals.

There are many ragas in the Hindustani system which are entirely built from an ordinary major scale.

In general, inside any raga, the more complex the intervals, the harder it is to *hear*; the more complex the rules of ascent/descent/tweaking, the harder it is to *think*.

Mess around. See what you can come up with.

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