Theory of Raag in Indian Classical Music

Performance of Raag in Hindustani Classical Music

Popular Raags in Indian Classical Music

A Raag in Indian Classical music is melodic construct that follows specific rules and grammar and it is composed using the Seven Notes (Swar) and its variations. Raag is defined in Vedas as “रंजयति एति रागम”, which means one that pleases and entertains the mind. Seminal theory of Raag music is available in Saam Veda, one of the four Vedas (believed to be written 10,000 BC).

It is described in the scripture as:

योद्यं ध्वनिविशेष्स्तु स्वरवर्णविभुषितः

रंजको जिवचित्तानां सः रागः कथतो बुधैः

Meaning: Intellectuals call that creation of melodic sound a Raag, that can entertain the mind and soul of living beings (note that it does not refer only to humans but Raags are also known to please animals and plants) and the one that acquires its beauty from various combination of Swars (musical notes)

Raagdaari (Music based on Raag) has been an integral part Hindustani and Carnatic Music Systems, two main branches of Indian Classical Music.

Raags have the ability to portray all the Nava Rasa (9 emotions) of Natyashastra (scriptures of performing art), which are, Love, Laughter, Fury, Compassion/Devotion, Anger, Horror, Heroic, Amazement.

Although Raag theory is thousands of years old, it has evolved significantly in the last ten centuries through the eras of Cholas, Chalukyas, Dravidas and Mughal kingdoms to name a few. Especially during Mughal era musicians like Miyan Tansen, Baiju Bawara and Swami Haridas contributed immensely to what we know today asHindustani (or North Indian) classical Music.


Concept of Raag:

Before we delve into the definition of Raag, let us see some foundation definitions of Hindustani Classical Music, upon which Raag is based.

  1. Twelve Swars:
Note Name of the Note
S Shadaj
r Komal (flat) Rishabh
R Rishabh
g Komal Gandhar
G Gandhar
m Madhyam
M’ Tivra (Sharp) Madhyam
P Pancham
d Komal Dhaivat
D Dhaivat
n Komal Nishad
N Nishad


S and P are the two fixed notes and do not have flat (or Komal) or sharp (or Tivra) variations like rest of the notes.

Movement from lower notes to higher notes is known as Ascend (or Aaroh) and movement from higher notes to lower notes is known as Descend (or Avroaha)

  1. Saptak: Set of the Seven Swar (including all the variations and therefore actually 12 Swars) is called Saptak. It starts from S , the first and reference note and finishes on N, the 12th note from Majority of Raag performance revolves around the three Saptaks, known as Mandra Saptak(Lower Register), Madhya Saptak (Middle Register) and Tivra Saptak (Upper Register) 
  1. Aaroh (Ascend) and Avroha (Descend) : In a Raag, ascending sequence of notes in a Raag (lower notes to upper notes) is known as Aaroh and descending sequence of notes is known as Avroha
  1. Thaat: A Raag is derived from a Thaat or parent scale, which is described as a unique combination of 12 Swars such that each Thaat will have 7 notes. It is to be noted that a Thaat cannot be performed unlike a Raag.

Although Raags have existed for many centuries, they were not formally classified based on Thaats and common characteristics, until Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (1860-1936) took upon himself to study and classify Raags into Thaats, and propose Swar notation system which is commonly used today.

The 10 Thaats in Hindustani Classical Music are listed below, which are named after a famous Raag in the respective Thaat:

Thaat Name Notes Some Famous Raags
Bilawal S, R, G, m, P, D, N Alhaiya Bilawal, Durga, Deshkar, Shankara
Khamaj S, R, G, m, P D n Khamaj, Jhinjoti, Saraswati, Gorakh Kalayan
Kaafi S, R, g, m, P D n Bhimpalasi, Piloo, Abhogi, Miyan Malhar
Asavari S, R, g, m, P d n Darbari Kanada, Asavari, Jaunpuri, Adana
Bhairavi S, r, g, m, P, d, n Bhairavi, Malkauns, Bilaskhani Todi, Komal Rishabh Asavari
Kalyan S, R, G, M’, P, D, N Yaman, Hameer, Kedar, Nand, Bupali, Kamod
Marwa S, r, G, M’, P, D, N Marwa, Bhatiyar, Puriya Kalayan, Sohini
Purvi S, r, G, M’, P, d, N Shree, Purvi, Basant, Puriya Dhanshri
Todi S, r, g, M’, P, d, N Miyan Todi, Multani, Gujari Todi, Madhuvanti
Bhairav S, r, G, m, Pa d N Nat Bhairav, Ahir Bhairav, Jogia, Ramkali, Gunaklai, Vibhas


  1. Basic Grammar of Raag:

Now let us see what a Raag consists of and its grammatical structure.

  1. A Raag must belong to a unique Thaat (although some exceptions exists) and have suggested performance time slot of 3 hours out of the 24 hour cycle, based on the Time theory of Raag (Note: A separate section is devoted on Time Theory of Raag)
  2. A Raag must have minimum of five and maximum of seven notes in its ascending and descending moves, and thus can be divided into three main categories (or Jaati) as below,
    1. Sampurna (Septatonic) Raag – Raag with 7 notes
    2. Shadav (Hexatonic) Raag – Raag with 6 notes
    3. Audav (Pentatonic) Raag – Raag with 5 notes
  • Each Raag should have ascending and descending notes, and therefore we get nine sub-categories (Upjaati) of Raag based on number of notes present in its Aaroh and Avroha
    1. Sampurna – Sampurna
    2. Sampurna – Shadav
    3. Sampurna – Audav
    4. Shadav – Sampurna
    5. Shadav – Shadav
    6. Shadav – Audav
    7. Audav – Sampurna
    8. Audav – Shadav
    9. Audav – Audav
  1. A Raag must have Vaadi (dominant Swar) or Samvadi (sub- dominant Swar). These two Swars are used more frequently in the Raag performance and gives a unique mood and emotion to a Raag
  2. A Raag should have a Pakad/Chalan (Key Phrase) that establishes the movement of Swars, mood and characteristics of Raag
  3. Two Raags from same Thaat can have same Aaroh, Avroh and Vadi, Samvadi notes, but their Pakad must be unique
  • Every Raag should have “S” or Tonic, which is the reference note. Think of S a pivotal note around which the entire Bandish (song) is structured.
  • A Raag may omit m or M’ (fourth note) or P (fifth note) but not both at the same time. These are resting places and “connector” between lower set notes and upper set of notes