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As a continuation of this question, why does the tanpura have 4 strings playing different notes (Sa plus Pa, ma, or Ni)? I had the understanding that the tanpura is mainly there to provide reference to Sa. Then why can't it just play Sa?

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    In Indian classical music, both Sa and Pa are achala swarams, that is, their positions do not change from ragam to ragam. In other words, both Sa and Pa are important swarams when it comes to establishing the tonic. (When performing certain ragams, for instance, panchama-varjya ragams—those that do not take the note Pa—one may benefit from having the tanpura tuned to Ma instead of Pa, and there are similar reasons for tuning a string to Ni. But the key point is that both Sa and Pa are achala swarams.)
    – user77458
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 12:50
  • @Pantuvarali: Thanks for your comment! I do understand that Sa and Pa are achala swaras. But my question is why use both notes, not just any one? Also Sa is base note from which all notes are referred. So it's much easier choice. Moreover, Pa used in tanpura is of lower octave (Mandra). And most of the beginners don't learn lower octave notes before middle octave (Madhya). So, there ears are also not tuned. Thanks!
    – Beta
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 14:17
  • Good questions, @Beta, but I'm not entirely sure I follow your reasonings. It is valuable to have the swaram Pa as a reference point right around the middle of the octave. Why would you want to let go of this? I also don't agree that beginners don't learn the mandra sthayi before the madhya sthayi: the beginner is ideally taught exercises in all three octaves. Moreover, even assuming that training the ear on the mandra sthayi is more difficult in comparison with the madhya sthayi for a beginner, well, all the more reason to have a base point in the mandra sthayi, isn't it?
    – user77458
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 15:33
  • But tanpura sound starts with Pa not Sa. So, it's odd (atleast I find) that first I hear Pa and then Sa. But from your answers it seems the only reason to have 2 swaras in tanpura is due to their pureness. Thanks again for your answers.
    – Beta
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 16:28
  • @Dom - May I ask why you deleted the harmonics and overtones tags added to this question?
    – Sadhana
    Commented Dec 1, 2021 at 5:23

1 Answer 1

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I think it is because of the overtones produced. I did an experiment with three types of tanpura tunings. I played and recorded one tanpura cycle each for Sa-Pa, Sa-ma, and Sa-Ni tunings (using A as my Sa). Then I viewed the recording as a spectrogram and wrote down the frequencies and notes associated with the frequencies for each line in the spectrogram.

Of course, the recording software picks up many more overtones than the human ear can hear. But one can still hear at least some of the overtones, at least with practice.

For example, when the tanpura is tuned to Sa-Pa, I can hear Sa, Pa, and Ga quite clearly, as well as Ni and Re if I really focus. For ragas that use ma instead of Pa, you really need to tune the tanpura to Sa-ma to be able to hear the ma. And for ragas such as Marwa and Purvi, which use tivra Ma, tuning the tanpura to Sa-Ni gives you tivra Ma overtones.

Also, the tanpura is not just for providing reference notes. The tones and overtones produced by the tanpura help your voice (or other instrument) resonate better in those frequencies.

Screenshot of the spectrogram

Spectrogram frequencies written out

Frequencies of all the notes in 4 octaves

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