Music: Practice & Theory Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for musicians, students, and enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

This question pertains to non-Western music and hence a bit of explanation before a question is stated.

I listen to and play Hindustani Sangeet i.e. North Indian Classical Music which does not use chords. A singer is accompanied by tabla (two drums used for percussion but also tuned to singer's tonic) and Tanpura drone or harmonium or sarangi.

Most of our music is without notation (sheet music). There are Ragas which are like melody standards with certain rules, like which notes are allowed and which are principal notes and important phrases for each Raga. Based on those rules and using arpeggios we compose on line music.

The tonic which is called Shadaj (similar to C of a scale) of a singer is fixed by his choice in any note of an octave but such that he/she gets a two-octave voice range.

Singing is accompanied by the Tanpura, which is a drone tuned to the tonic of a singer so it helps in identifying the tonic.

However, some singers do not use a drone, but harmonium may accompany. In this case mostly harmonium plays a tune sung by a singer almost in unison.

I have analysed notations of some study songs and observed that the tonic is hardly there. In such case how can I identify the tonic?

One idea what I have is that if I can transcribe a floating phrase of notes, my brain may extrapolate to identify a tonic even when it is physically almost not there. Please reflect.

share|improve this question
Namaste! Welcome to Music.SE. I'm not even vaguely qualified to answer this question (I hope someone who is will come by), but curiosity has gotten the best of me, so I ask: when you say that "the tonic is hardly there", what do you mean? Do you mean that it is not marked as such in the notation? Or that you would expect to be able to figure out the tonic by which note is used most, or at endings, or some such, and that is not the case? – Codeswitcher May 5 '14 at 4:49
I think my response will work if you would post a series of samples I will run an example for you. – user10164 May 10 '14 at 8:42
@Codeswitcher Hopefully he comes back, but I believe the "melody" lines imply a tonic, but may only rarely pass through whatever note that is (albeit an octave or two above the drone). It would be great if some examples could be provided. – NReilingh May 12 '14 at 4:37
can you post a link to piece of Hindustani Sangeet music? – Anthony May 14 '14 at 14:43

I am going to preface my answer by saying that I know very, very little about North Indian Classical music. However, from your descriptions, I believe that there are parallel techniques used in Western music that may help you define tonic.

Essentially, it appears that you're asking how to define tonic when the harmony / melody is not functioning in the way it is expected.

If the Shadaj is fixed and the singer is adhering to this rule (despite not using the drone), then they will invariably end up returning to a certain pitch over and over again as they are defining that as the tonal center of their scale. By choosing to sing some pitches more often than others, they are creating a tonal hierarchy, and thus, are creating a tonic through pitch-emphasis rather than adhering to the drone.

So, I would listen for notes that the singer keeps returning to and / or emphasizing through neighbor-note motion; which creates (in some aspect at least) a form of tension - release that will emphasize a certain tone more than others.

You have also mentioned that you have studied some scores. In the scores, you can physically see which notes appear more often than others (you can even count the number of times they appear if you'd like, or if the music is particularly complex.) Once you've established a tone-hierarchy, it then becomes a matter of determining the relationships of the most prominent tones -> are some creating / resolving tension somehow? If so, in what way(s)?

If North Indian Classical Music is similar at all to the Maqams of Egyptian / Israeli music, then you may be able to also use modulations to help you determine how the scales are being used and which pitches within those scales seem to be more emphasized than others.

I'd also add that I think you have a great idea about transcribing what you're hearing - not only can it be a great tool for understanding what's going on, but it also makes a great record of the culture's music that can then be shared with others.

Lastly, it may also be a good idea to talk to those musicians and ask them how they are able to find tonic if they are not using the drone. It may very well be that there in fact is no tonic at all, which I think, would represent a fascinating shift in music if it was a new phenomenon.

share|improve this answer

In case I am not too late, here is a great theoretical paper on the exact topic.

I have a smallish program that implements section 2.3 of the paper as a Java program. Sections 2.1 and 2.2 are provided by the author as a Vamp plugin and can be used with any Vamp plugin host. (Eg. Audacity or Sonic Visualiser).

Still struggling to implement section 2.4. However at the moment the output of Section 2.3 gives me a fair idea of the Shadaj. Some examples of the usage uploaded on youtube. Check out

share|improve this answer

Key and tonic are highly contextual in all music, so if a melody line is all one has to go on and that line is ambiguous in what it implies (it does not contain enough information to narrow down all possibilities to one answer), it may not always be possible to arrive at one answer with a high degree of certainty without additional information.

Of course, knowing that we are talking about North Indian classical music gives us quite a bit of context. We know that this music is almost always accompanied by a drone on the shadaj, we know that the shadaj forms the basis for a raga, which defines a melodic construct, and we know that instruments like the tabla and tanpura are tuned to the shadaj.

Harmonium, as you mention, can be used to play melody, but can also be used to provide a drone (some harmoniums are provided with a drone stop to make this easier).

So, to the point of figuring out what the shadaj is from a subset of all of this contextual information, the job is easy if any drone is present OR if the tabla can be heard. If, however, all we have is the melody alone (either in audio or transcribed form), then we need to reverse-engineer the sequence described above. Since the shadaj informs the raga and the raga informs the melody, with enough melodic information we should be able to ascertain the raga in use, and in doing so we determine the shadaj.

Ragas are different from "Western" scales in that the set of notes, their tunings, and the melodic embellishments used on those notes are all defined by the raga in use. So, we have all of those factors to go by when narrowing down the possibilities of which raga, and therefore shadaj, is associated with a melody. This also means that having the shadaj missing from the melody that is being sung should not be such a great burden with all of the other information to be used to ascertain the raga.

In terms of actually making this determination of which raga is in use, the process should not be so different for an expert of Indian classical music as it is for a Western classical or jazz musician to do the same for a scale or key. From a cognitive perspective (for either style), the musician that hears a melody associates it with his or her existing knowledge and training so he or she has an expectation of where the melody will go and what notes will be used. After this guess is made, a few more seconds of listening can confirm or refute it, and if correct, the determination has been made within a margin of error provided by the extent of musical context present.

The untrained ear can do the same process logically, of course, though at a much slower pace, and with a higher rate of error. (This applies to any algorithmic or computerized methods as well.) The sheer number of ragas makes this a bit of a tall order for Indian classical music compared to common practice Western classical music, but if you only need to find out the shadaj, you can group your possible ragas by shadaj to make your process of elimination a bit more manageable.

Disclaimer: I am not formally trained in Indian classical music; please let me know if I have gotten something wrong.

share|improve this answer

Are you familiar with the structure of the key.

In western music, major scale intervals (in half tones) would be: 2 2 1 2 2 2 1.

I am guessing the indian system has a similar structure. If you know it. Just list all the used pitch classes, put them in order. And see where the half tones are. This will help you determine the scale.

Once you know the scale, and if it sounds major or minor, you can identify the tonic. In classic music theory, it also helps for instance to look at starting and end notes.

share|improve this answer
I don't know nearly enough about Indian music to answer the question, but scale structure is different enough that a comparison with the common western scales is difficult. – Karen May 13 '14 at 18:25
I wasn't suggesting using the same intervals. Could this be of help? – dorien May 13 '14 at 20:10

You are right, there are songs without the singer actually singing the Shadaj. If there is an accompanying drone, the drone will keep playing the Shadaj. But if there is no drone, and the singer is not physically singing the Shadaj, it still virtually exists and is an integral part of the Sruthi/Pitch the user is trying to sing in. If you want to findout the Shadaj, then you need to find out the notes that are being sung and extrapolate it to find out the Shadaj. I do it all the time and is a principal technique.

share|improve this answer

Once we comprehend the tune as intended by the composer, our brain has already identified the tonic. Without identifying the tonic, the same tune will sound very different. So, the question about identifying the tonic becomes that of locating the tonic inside your brain, which has made you recognize the tune that it actually is. If you are already a musician, it will be easier to recognize the tonic note, else it requires some amount of training in identifying the notes. There are musical structures or parts in which the tonic may be absent. But in classical music, it goes on, on the Tanpura, which continously supplies the tonic. However, in light music, the tanpura may not be used, where it may become a bit harder to identify the tonic in absence of the Tanpura.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.