Indian legend holds that the god Brahma taught music to humankind in the form of sacred songs. These songs, such as the hymns of the Rig Veda, are about 3,000 years old and consist of three note chants to the gods, telling the history of the universe.
The first word of the Rig Veda is AGNI, which is built upon three sounds:
- A: the first sound an infant makes. This symbolises the primeval energy which is the beginning of all things.
- G: the guttural sound which puts an end to this first energy.
- Ni: the energy of the universe as we know it.
These hymns are actually the earliest known examples of words set to music. Other sacred songs are built upon five, six, and seven note melodies.
Indian music is wholly based on melodies, which are then varied by decorative improvisation. This is fundamentally different to western music, which is harmonic (built upon chord changes). Other sacred songs are built upon five, six, and seven note melodies. Indian music does not use major or minor scales but rather is based upon ragas, which is a fixed tonal sequence which is part scale - part melody. There are more than three hundred ragas written, with each one expressing a particular mood or emotion of Hindu life, to be played at a particular time of the day. The numbers of notes varies from raga to raga, the actual notes may differ whether the raga is ascending or descending. Two different ragas may have the same notes, but the accents applied to the notes and the microtonal shading between them gives them a different mood. This is in contrast to western music, where the smallest interval between any two notes is a semi-tone, Indian music employs much smaller intervals, to be played at a particular time of the day.
The raga during performance consists of three definite parts:
- Alap - slow introduction that defines mood
- Jor - where the rhythmic accompaniment begins
- Gat - an extensive improvisation section which builds up in intensity to a climactic ending
The raga always ends on the first and (most focussed upon) note, and gradually gets faster and more decorated with each repetition. The drone is the third layer typical to Indian music (after melodic and rhythmical layers). This layer can be supplied by another instrument (often the tanpura), or by a melodic instrument such as the sitar, which has sympathetic drone strings that vibrate in response to the melody being played. Interestingly enough, the drone is often played by non-professionals, not musicians, people such as member of the artists family, and friends.