Issue 4, July 2004 - Emmie te Nijenhuis, Notation of South Indian Music

3. Notation as used in the Varnam book (te Nijenhuis 2001)

As a matter of fact, in traditional Indian music, especially in the classical South Indian style, notes cannot be separated from their ornaments and never represent simple reference points to the tones of a basic scale. It requires an intimate knowledge of performance practice to understand the finer intonations and configurations of sound that characterize the melodic line of a raga. Nevertheless, the 20th century Indian musicologists Subbarama Diksitar and Vidya Shankar have accepted the Western idea of indicating the inseparable ornaments (gamaka) by special symbols, added to the prescriptive letter notations of their educational works. The famous American musicologist Harold Powers, who for almost fifty years promoted the study and practice of Indian music in the universities of the USA, adopted Diksitar's method of representing the ornaments by symbols (Powers 1958; especially volume 1:140-144; vol. 3: Examples for Notation, pp.1-3, and Examples for Ornaments and Phrase, pp. 1-10). His accurate staff notations as well as his explanation of the complex South Indian embellishments have helped me a great deal to understand this phenomenon and encouraged me to develop my own system.

When I decided to publish an audio-visual series of music books containing the classical South Indian repertoire, my first intention was to present the music notation in three parallel lines. In this system the first line would represent Indian syllabic notation, the second line would contain a literal transcription in staff notation, while the third line would show a descriptive staff notation, using gamaka signs, documenting a real performance of the composition as recorded on the accompanying audio CD. For practical reasons I decided in the end to limit myself to two lines of staff notation, omitting the original Indian syllabic notation. In Varnam: Selected Concert Studies for the South Indian Lute, the first volume in this series of music books with audio CD (te Nijenhuis 2001), I use the following notational devices.

The first line, which represents the transcription of the original Indian syllabic notation, only contains the standard tone symbols of Western staff notation, that is, plain notes without any additional signs or symbols. The Indian song text, given in transliteration using the Roman alphabet with diacritical marks, is written under this staff.

The second line of staff notation is especially designed to show the techniques of the vina, since the varnam compositions of this book are mainly performed by a vina player, who is only incidentally accompanied by a singing voice. Most of the signs and tone symbols I use to indicate the gamaka are designed in such a way - showing the actions of the performer as well as the rise and fall of the tones - that any instrumentalist or vocalist should be able to understand them.

My notation of the melodic embellishments is based on the following two principles:

Example 17 of this article shows two lines of notation in parallel. The bottom line gives the transcription of the 'sounds' (written out in notes), and the top line gives the transcription using my own signs for particular ornaments.

I, 1.
Slides between the tones are marked by slashes, that is, an ascending slide (etrajaru) by a forward slash and a descending slide by a backward slash, written in the staff.

Musical example 1
ascending slide (etrajaru):

Musical example 2
descending slide (erakkajaru):

Ex. 2.

I, 2.
When grace notes produced by fingering are performed before, in the middle, or at the end of the beat of the main note, as a short interruption which does not affect the overall rhythmic structure, they are written as little notes with a dash through their lines and crooks.

Musical example 3 (MP3)
appoggiatura from below (jantasvara):

Ex. 3.

Musical example 4 (MP3)
appoggiatura from above (khandimpu):

Ex. 4.

Musical example 5 (MP3)
pralltriller or inverted mordent (pratyahata):

Ex. 5.

Musical example 6 (MP3)
mordent (ahata):

Ex. 6.

Musical example 7 (MP3)
turn (rava):

Ex. 7.

I, 3.
Grace notes that are integrated into the rhythmic structure are notated as part of the rhythmic framework, that is to say, they are written as notes that are smaller than the main notes, while the crooks and lines indicating the rhythm are connected with those of the larger, main notes. Integrated appoggiaturas, which often repeat the preceding main note, are very common and are apparently used to strengthen the connection between the notes of a melodic phrase.

Musical examples 8 and 9 (MP3)
a. integrated appoggiatura from above (first example) and

b. integrated appoggiatura from below (second example):

Musical example 10 (MP3)
integrated pralltriller:

Ex. 10.

Musical example 11 (MP3)
integrated mordent:

Ex. 11.

Musical example 12 (MP3)
integrated turn:

Ex. 12.

II, 1.
Deflected embellishments are clusters containing a minimum of two notes that are produced by sideward pulling of a melody string jointly by the index and middle fingers of the left hand from one particular fret position. The notes involved in the embellishment can be fully notated, that is to say, the main notes in regular size, the secondary notes in smaller size, while the silent fret position is indicated by a diamond-shaped note with its stem pointing in the opposite direction. This detailed notation can be used for descriptive or analytical purposes, or to clarify complex ornaments such as the vali, a special type of portamento. In my Varnam book I notate a number of compositions (Varnam 2-7a; 8, 10 and 11) in this way.

Musical example 13 (MP3)
multiple vibrato (kampita):

Ex. 13.

Musical example 14 (MP3)
portamento (vali):

Ex. 14.

II, 2.
In the next phase of my work, I switched to a simpler method, using special signs to indicate the deflected embellishments. By placing these gamaka signs - little dashes, curves, zigzags and wavy lines - above the staff, over the main notes, the relationship between the descriptive notation of the second line and the prescriptive plain notation of the first line could be more easily seen. The signs representing the deflected gamaka were designed according to the principle that the graphic image should correspond to the configurations of sound, that is to say, it should follow the rise and fall of the tones.

Musical example 15 (MP3)
Single and multiple vibratos, produced by deflection from the fret position of the main note itself and not exceeding a major second above; they are indicated by slashes, curves and wavy lines:

Ex. 15.

Musical example 16 (MP3)
Single and multiple vibratos, produced by deflection from the fret position of a minor or major second below the main note and covering the interval of a minor or major second; a little horizontal line on top of the vibrato sign indicates the position of the main note:

Ex. 16.

Musical example 17 (MP3)
Special wide vibratos, covering an interval of almost a minor third and hiding the main note, are produced by deflection from the fret position of a minor second below the main note. They are indicated by a slash or zigzag that is intersected by a horizontal line, which represents the hidden main note. The bottom line gives the transcription of the 'sounds', written out in notes, and the top line gives the transcription using my own signs for particular ornaments:

Ex. 17.

Musical example 18 (MP3)
Wide vibratos of a minor third may also be produced by a deflection starting from the fret position of the main note. They are indicated by slashes and zigzags without any intersecting line:

Ex. 18.

In the application of the musical ornaments performers must comply with the rules regulating the special intonations, the characteristic melodic line and the conventional tonal embellishments of the raga. But these traditional concepts do not prevent musicians from developing a personal style of performing. The descriptive notation with signs for the gamaka will help the listener to distinguish between the different styles of the performers. Studying the music notations of my Varnam book one may notice, for example, that the vibrato technique prevails in the performance of Varnam 19 by Vinai Ranganayaki Rajagopalan, while the performance of Varnam 21 by K. G. Vijayakrishnan contains a large number of fingered ornaments.

I hope my descriptive music notation contains enough melodic details for a musical analysis and is at the same time understandable to music students. I welcome suggestions from musicologists and music teachers that will help me to improve my notation in the next volumes of the series of South Indian music books I have planned.