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Notations in Carnatic Music

(While Carnatic musicians do not use keyboards or harmoniums, the keyboard is an excellent way to describe Carnatic swars. Note how four of the notes of the octave have duplicate names.)


In all of the creations in nature, sound was one interesting creation. Sound came in two forms. Sounds with a soul and sounds without souls. The sounds without souls were unpleasant and unbearable to hear. Sounds with a soul are pleasant to hear. Sounds with soul are musical sounds. In Satya Yuga, almost all speech was musical. Today, most speech is not, thus unpleasant and unbearable. Nonetheless, musical sounds exist in some form or another. Musical sounds originate naturally from seven sounds in nature. The seven sounds are known in Indian notation as sadjamam, rsabham, gandharam, madhayamam, panchamam, dhaivatam, and nisadam. Namely, sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, dha, and ni. The specific origins came from specific sounds in nature. Sa comes from the sound of the peacock, Ri comes from the skylark, Ga from the goat, Ma from the heron, Pa from the nightingale, Dha from the horse, and Ni from the elephant. These notes also represent colors. Sa is the lotus leaf, Re is red, Ga is golden, Ma in kundan powder, Pa is black, Dha is yellow, and Ni is all of them combined. They can be abbreviated as S, R, G, M, P, D, and N.


These seven notes are from nature and are pure. Because of the effects of transposing notes, five other notes originate. Four of these notes are flattened, or suddha swars, while there is one sharpened note called the prati swar. In Carnatic music, suddha implies flat and prati implied implies sharpening. These combination of five notes are collectively called vikrita swars, or distorted notes.


In the scale, there are twelve unique sounds in total. However, in Carnatic music, there are also four notes which are already acknowledged for before. Sa and Pa are immoveable notes. Ma only comes in two forms. This means, Ri, Ga, Dha, and Ni have more forms than merely “normal note” and “flat note.” Unfortunately, the theory of how to derive the notes is beyond the scope of this article. Here is the sixteen note scale of Carnatic music. Unlike Hindustani music, numbers are used to mark the positioning of notes.


R 1

R 2 , G 1

R 3, G 2

G 3

M 1

M 2


D 1

D 2, N 1

D 3, N 2

N 3


Notice how four notes have multiple names. For instance, R 2 can be called G 1. This is similar to Western music, where D sharp can be noted as E flat. The both notes sound exactly the same, but functionality is totally different.


The Vedic names for the sixteen notes go as follows.

S  = Sadjamam (Tonic)

R 1 = Suddha Risabham (Lowest Ri)

R 2 = Catusruti Risabham (Fourth microtone Ri) same as G 1

R 3 = Satasruti Risabam (Highest microtone Ri) same as G 2

G 1 = Suddha Gandharam (Lowest Ga) same as R 2

G 2 = Sadharana Gandharam (Ordinary Ga) same as R 3

G 3 = Antara Gandharam (Cadenced Ga)

M 1 = Suddha Madhayamam (Lowest ma)

M 2 = Prati Madhyamam (Augmented ma)

P = Pancham (Fifth or Pa)

D 1 = Suddha Dhaivatam (Lowest Dha)

D 2 = Catusruti Dhaivatam (Fourth microtone Dha) same as N 1

D 3 = Satasruti Dhaivatam (Highest microtone Dha) same as N 2

N 1 = Suddha Nisadam (Lowest Ni) same as D 2

N 2 = Kaisiki Nisadam (Middle Ni) same as D 3

N 3 = Kakali Nisadam (Highest Ni)


Like with Hindustani music, notes in higher or lower octaves will receive an apostrophe (‘) in front of or behind the note, respectively.


This is the general scope of Carnatic musical notation.


UPDATED: April 2, 2009