Rag Bhairav – Revision Notes

Image © The Artist’s Planet

This piece (recorded by Ram Narayan) is an example of Hindustani classical music, from northern India. Pieces in this style are often based around rags (similar to scales or modes in Western music) which are each associated with a mood (rasa) and a time of day (samay). Rag Bhairav – the rag this piece is based on – is associated with serenity, and is intended to be performed in the morning, but, unlike other rags, it is not associated with any particular season.


A raga (a piece based on a rag) traditionally has four distinct sections – however, this piece, due to its short length, has three. It begins with an alap (lines 1-13), which has a slow tempo and a free metre. At this point, only the sarangi melody and accompanying tampura drone can be heard. Lines 14-18 make up a brief jhor, where a greater sense of pulse is established, before going into a jhala at line 19, where the tabla enters, and the tempo and virtuosity of the piece gradually increase.


The alap and jhor both use a melody and drone texture, which is filled out by the vibration of the sarangi’s sympathetic strings. The sarangi also uses two note chords at certain points, such as in line 1. When the jhala begins in line 19, the piece becomes a fusion of the melody, the drone, and the rhythmic patterns of the tabla.

Harmony and Tonality

The rag has two aschal swaras (‘fixed notes’), Sa (the first note of the scale) and Pa (the fifth), as well as two additional emphasised pitches – Dha (the sixth note) and Re (the second), which are known respectively as the vadi and samvadi. The significance of these notes creates the tonality of the piece.

There is little in the piece which can be defined using Western concepts of harmony, as the sarangi melody (including its double stopping) does not establish the tonality, but the interaction of the sarangi with the tampura drone does create some consonance (when Sa and Pa are used) and some dissonance. The tabla are tuned to Sa.


The melody instrument of the piece is the sarangi, a bowed string instrument which has three main strings and up to 35 sympathetic ones. Its complex playing technique makes it notoriously difficult to play, particularly to the level of virtuosity seen in this piece.

The drone is provided by the tampura, a fretless, plucked string instrument. The strings are tuned to Sa and Pa, but produce many overtones.

The tabla are a pair of drums, of which one is wooden and the other metal. These drums can produce a variety of timbres, and can play virtuosic improvised patterns, although this is not seen particularly in this piece.

Rhythm and Metre

The alap which opens the piece has no metre, although long and short notes are used to emphasise the important pitches. There is more rhythmic variation from line 14, with the introduction of tans (rapid scalic passages), as well as triplets and irregular note groupings (for example, line 20).

In the jhala, the tabla uses tintal, a 12 beat cycle split into four vibhags (making it 4+4+4+4). The first beat of the tal is marked on the score with a cross, at which point all three performers play on the beat. The tabla part is notated using theka (fixed patterns for each tal), which, despite the imporvisation, is adhered to throughout.


Rag Bhairav is known as a sampurna-sampurna rag, which means that the ascending and descending versions of the scale are the same. The aschal swaras (Sa and Pa) are emphasised throughout the piece, while the vadi (Dha) is emphasised in lines 1-5 and lines 19-20 (which use an octave range between two Dhas), and the samvadi (Re) is emphasised in lines 26-27. Ga (the third note of the rag) is also significant in the jhala.

In addition to the tans, other melodic techniques used by the sarangi include meend (slides) and shruti (microtones). The sarangi melody becomes increasingly virtuosic as the piece progresses.

Click here to view an interactive timeline for this piece

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