Simple Introduction to South Indian Classical Music – Part 2

mridangam, a Carnatic percussion instrument
mridangam, a Carnatic percussion instrument

Author: Suresh Sri

In this part, we go a bit deeper into the melody and rhythm concepts. We’ll see what makes a melody major or minor, and how rhythms are
classified, etc. We’ll also provide pointers to resources for more information.

Melody Classification

Just as in Western music, an octave in Carnaatic music is assumed to consist of twelve notes, referred to as octave notes (svara sthaanam). The notesare referred to using the terms Sa (roughly corresponding to the note C), Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni. Carnaatic music uses the rational (or fractional) scale, instead of the equi-tempered scale. Here’s how each
of the notes correspond to the Western scale notes:

Western music octave note names C C# / D flat D D# / E flat E F F# / G flat G G# / A flat A A# / B flat B C (of next octave)
Carnaatic music octave note names Sa Ri1 Ri2 Ga1 Ga2 Ma1 Ma2 Pa Dha1 Dha2 Ni1 Ni2 Sa’ (Sa of next octave)
Alternate octave note naming convention Sa Ri1 Ri2/
Ga3 Ma1 Ma2 Pa Dha1 Dha2/
Ni3 Sa’ (Sa of next octave)

(Conventionally, the first note of the next octave is also included in the list of notes of a melody, just to round up the number of notes to eight. The eighth note is usually written as Sa’.)

Some Carnaatic music literature use an alternate convention, referring to certain notes
with multiple names (similar to referring to the same note as C# or D flat). We won’t use the alternate convention in this article, but will later briefly see why it exists.

Unlike in western music, there is no specific frequency attached to an octave note. An octave note merely indicates the position of the note within an octave.

Major Melodies

A major melody is one that uses exactly seven octave notes in each octave. In the context of the melody, these seven notes are referred to as melody notes (svaram), and are referred to using the names Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni. Thus, a melody note acts as an alias for an octave note in the context of the melody (the melody provides a ‘name space’ for the notes of the melody). The combination of a melody name and a melody note uniquely identifies an octave note. (Think of the melody notes Sa, Ri, Ga, etc. as a Carnaatic version of Do, Re, Mi, etc.)

Henceforth, when we use the term ‘note’ in this article without any qualification (‘octave’ or ‘melody’), it is assumed to mean ‘melody note’.

The example below shows how the same note (say Ga) in two melodies could map to different octave notes.


Octave note Sa Ri1 Ri2 Ga1 Ga2 Ma1 Ma2 Pa Dha1 Dha2 Ni1 Ni2
Notes of melody A Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni
Notes of melody B Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni


In addition to using exactly seven notes, there are some other rules that make a melody major: a) the same seven notes must be used during both the ascending sequence (moving from a low note to a high note) and the descending sequence (high to low), b) the melody notes must be mapped to the octave notes according to the scheme shown below:


Melody note(s) Available octave note(s) Octave note mapping choice(s) Number of possible choice(s)
Sa Sa Sa 1
Ri,Ga Ri1,Ri2,Ga1,Ga2 (Ri1,Ri2), (Ri1,Ga1), (Ri1,Ga2), (Ri2,Ga1), (Ri2,Ga2), (Ga1,Ga2) 6
Ma Ma1,Ma2 Ma1, Ma2 2
Pa Pa Pa 1
Dha,Ni Dha1,Dha2,Ni1,Ni2 (Dha1,Dha2), (Dha1,Ni1), (Dha1,Ni2), (Dha2,Ni1), (Dha2,Ni2), (Ni1,Ni2) 6


Thus, twelve octave notes, using the above rules, give rise to to 72 major melodies (1
x 6 x 2 x 1 x 6 x 1). The first such combination of octave notes (i.e., the first melody) is numbered 1, and so on.

Here are the octave notes of the first two major melodies:

Melody note –>
Major melody number


The alternate convention mentioned earlier allows a major melody to appear as if it always had a Ri, Ga, Dha, Ni octave notes (instead of two Dha’s, as in the melody 1 above). Using this convention, the above two melodies get represented as follows (the places where they differ from the notation above is shown in italics):

Melody note –>

Major melody number

Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa’
1 Sa Ri1 Ga1 Ma1 Pa Dha1 Ni1 Sa’
2 Sa Ri1 Ga1 Ma1 Pa Dha1 Ni2 Sa’


To make it easy to identify the octave notes for a melody (at least for Sanskrit speakers), the major melody names were standardized in the seventeenth century such that the positions of the first two letters of the melody’s Sanskrit name represented the melody
number. Not terribly useful if one is not a Sanskrit speaker, but there it is.

Minor Melodies

Every minor melody is derived from a major melody. Minor melodies are defined as follows: a) in any octave, the melody must have at least five unique notes (of its parent melody), b) the notes Sa and Pa must be among the five, c) the melody may use different notes during ascension and descension, d) backtracking is allowed – i.e., the ascending sequence could descend momentarily, and/or the descending sequence could ascend momentarily, e) the melody could include all the seven notes of a major melody, plus one or two notes from another major melody (in this case its parent is arbitrarily chosen to be one of the two major melodies). There are a few additional rules/relaxations, but these are the main ones.

These rather lax rules result in thousands of minor melodies. However, only a few hundreds of them are actually in vogue. here are a few examples of minor melodies:


Melody name Parent melody name (number) Notes What makes it a minor melody
Bilahari Shankaraabharanam (29) Sa Ri Ga Pa Da Sa’Sa’ Ni Da Pa Ma Ga Ri Sa Ascending sequence contains only 5 notes.
Sahaana Harikaambhoji (28) Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Ma Dha Dha Ni Sa’Sa’ Ni Da Pa Ma Ga Ma Ri Ga Ri Sa Ascending sequence backtracks a little bit (Ma Pa Ma), also Dha is always of double duration (Dha Dha)Descending sequence backtracks (Ma Ga Ma Ri Ga Ri)


The minor melodies inherit only their notes from their parents. The movement rules for a minor melody could be (and usually are) completely different from that of the parent melody.

Rhythm Classification

The basic rhythm cycle set consists of thirty five rhythm cycles arranged in seven cycle types with five flavors in each type. Unfortunately, the set of thirty five is not a canonical set as in the case of major melodies; there is a fair amount of duplication.

The following table summarizes the set. As mentioned in part 1, only a few of these are actually played in practice, though occasionally an enthusiastic artist will try out one of the more exotic ones. The ones that are more commonly used areoften referred to by their aliases shown in parentheses.


Rhythm cycle type –>


11 8 7 (thriputa) 6 5 10 3
14 10 8 (aadhi) 7 6 (roopaka) 12 4 (eka)
17 12 9 8 7 14 (ata) 5
23 16 11 10 (jhampa) 9 18 7
29 20 13 12 11 22 9


Rhythm Cycle Variations

Early Start (atheetha): Some songs don’t start exactly at the start of the rhythm cycle. Early Start indicates that a line of a song starts before the rhythm cycle does. A simple example is the nursery rhyme ‘Mary had a little lamb’ shown below (the letters in bold are where the beats go):

Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow….
And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go…

The first line starts in sync with the beat, but the second line starts with the word ‘And’, a little earlier than when the rhythm cycle starts (with the word ‘everywhere’).

Late Start (anaagatha): Similarly, a line of a song might be longer than a cycle of beats
causing the next line to start later than the start of the rhythm cycle.

If a song’s description states neither an early start nor a late start, it can be assumed to start concurrently (sama) with the start of the rhythm cycle.

Multiple Beats (kalai): Sometimes a single line of song is long enough to occupy multiple cycles of a rhythm. In such cases, each beat in the rhythm cycle is repeated to make a single cycle last for the duration of the line. For example: if the line of song is sixteen beats long and the composer has chosen an eight-beat rhythm cycle (12341212), the rhythm cycle will be played as 1122334411221122. The most common multiple is 2 (each beat played twice as we just saw – this is referred to as 2-kalai), but could be more.

Gait or sub-rhythm (nadai or gathi) – While the meter of the song dictates the rhythm cycle, the lengh of a phrase dictates the length of each beat (i.e., the interval between successive beats). For example: the rhythm cycle could be 4 beats long (1234), but the
interval between two successive beats may be long enough to be counted as three
sub-beats, as in:


Four beat rhythm cycle 1 2 3 4
Sub-beats 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3


The four beat, three sub-beats rhythm cycle is pretty common in other music systems too. For example, the following song in the film “Sound of Music” is set to a four beat, three sub-beat rhythm cycle:


Rain drops, and roses, and whiskers on kittens
1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3


There are five different types of sub-rhythms: threes (thisra), fours (chathusra) fives (khanda), sevens (misra), nines (sankeerna), with threes being the most common.
SummaryThis article just scratches the surface of the theory behind Carnaatic music. There are various books and web sites that provide a detailed description of the concepts, as well as up to date information about artistes, albums and concerts. Here are just a few:


Web Sites