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Tanpura is most important instrument for learning and practicing indian classical music. One another advantage of tanpura is it helps in ear training as well. In tanpura there are 3 main notes (pa of lower octave, 2 lower sa of middle octave & lower sa of lower octave). So, my question is there any tips & tricks to use tanpura for ear training.

Thanks!

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    I hope someone with more knowledge of Indian music training than I have will answer, but this video seems relevant. It is true that many types of ear training are about telling the difference between pitches, so it is often helpful to have an instrument nearby to compare notes. Also, a tanbura provides a drone, which would seem very useful for hearing how other notes interact with the sa and pa. In western music, when I need to work on playing perfectly in tune, I turn on a drone pitch of the key I'm in. Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 20:16

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Groundwork

This answer makes three assumptions:

  • we're dealing with a full-size four-string vocal tanpura, not an electronic version, a compact instrumental one, or a six-string variant.
  • we're talking Hindustani music. I love Carnatic music, but have absolutely no training therein. There's no claim here that what works with a Miraj or Calcutta tanpura for Hindustani music works the same way with a Tanjore tanpura for Carnatic.
  • the jawari, the curved bridge on the gourd base over which the strings run, has been expertly polished. Sanding down the jawari to the desired smoothness requires expertise. I've played tanpura for more than thirty years, but don't trust myself to handle the polishing. I entrust the jawari of my tanpuras to someone my teacher recommended.

So now that you have a tanpura with a good jawari, you can use the tanpura to help with ear-training in three ways: by tuning the instrument; by listening to it; and by singing while playing it.

Tuning the tanpura

Tuning the tanpura is surprisingly difficult for the novice, as what matters is the overtones from all strings being played together rather than the notes produced by each individual string. To begin with, ensure that all the tuning beads are free, and aren't modifying the string pitch/length at all. Then using the tuning peg, tune the second string to the desired note, i.e., to the pitch of your singing voice. It's fine to use an external reference point such as a harmonium or a tuner to ensure that this one string is tuned exactly to the desired note. Use silk thread of slightly coarse gauge, not cotton, between the string and the jawari. Reposition the silk on the jawari so that the buzz is full and alive.

Now comes the tricky part. Using only the second string as a reference, tune the third string to the same pitch as the second. They must match exactly, down to the microtone. You'll know it's in tune when plucking the first string causes the second to vibrate, and vice-versa, such that you can hear the same note sustained for much longer than you would by plucking just one string. You should also be able to hear overtones, particularly the octave, perfect fifth, and major third, but it took me several months of tuning the tanpura every day before I could hear those from the middle two strings alone. Whether it was my tuning that got better, or my ear more discriminating, I can't say; probably some combination of both.

One tip is that if the two strings are off just slightly, it's maddening to try to use the tuning peg to raise or lower the second string to match the first. And it's inadvisable to use the tuning beads. Just use the peg so that the second string is as close as you can get it to the first, but slightly sharper. Then run your finger down the length of the string, using slight pressure. That should lower the string tension a hair to get it in tune with the first string. If you find that it's gone flat as a result, re-sharpen it with the tuning peg and try again with lighter pressure. Repeat as necessary until you're happy with the result. Reposition the jawari silk to ensure that the two strings buzz in unison, as it's the only way to check for overtones. If your overtones waver rather than hold steady, it means your two strings are off from each other. Check that the first is still at the desired reference pitch, and keep working to tune the second.

Getting the two middle strings (the jo.Dii) tuned right is the hardest part. Then tune the fourth string, the Sa of the lower octave. That is the loudest string on the tanpura, so it's the one listeners will unfailingly notice if it's out of tune. The key with this one is to listen to what happens as the sound decays after you pluck it. Properly tuned, the decay will cause the jo.Dii strings to resonate strongly without their being plucked. You will also hear a very clear major third (Ga) and a somewhat faint perfect fifth (Pa). As always, manipulate the silk thread on the jawari to ensure that your tuning is perfect.

The last string to tune is the first, to Pa. For the sake of ear-training, you needn't worry about alternative tunings like ma or Ni; the pa.ncham is both necessary and sufficient. If you've tuned the other three strings right, the Pa should be tunable to the same perfect fifth from the overtones. A well-tuned Pa should also give you a clear major second (Re) when plucked, as well as a major seventh (Ni) when the other strings are plucked after it. So the two plucked notes Sa and Pa should yield strong, tuneful overtones that include Ga, Ni, and Re: a well-tuned tanpura sings Hamsadhwani.

The discipline of spending about twenty minutes to half an hour each day just tuning the tanpura will itself train your ear, as you have to listen so closely first, to the individual strings, and next, to the overtones. Making sure that the tanpura produces a rich, alive, non-wavering overtone series takes patience and practice. Even professional singers take about three to five minutes to tune a tanpura, so for a beginner to take half an hour is not surprising. The process is cyclical: the more experienced you get at tuning the tanpura, the better your ear will get, and the better your ear gets, the more adept you'll become at tuning a tanpura. One of my music teacher tells me that in theory, a perfectly-tuned tanpura will produce an overtone series so rich and full that the gourd won't be able to handle the vibrations any longer, and will explode. He adds that since a tanpura can never be tuned perfectly, this is only a theoretical claim.

Listening to the tanpura

Once you have tuned the tanpura to your satisfaction (ideally, to your guru's satisfaction), listen to it. This is where you can use the tuning beads if you absolutely must. The point of those beads is that as a living instrument, the tanpura doesn't stay in a fixed state. As you play it, as the room gets warmer/colder, the strings, wood, and gourd respond, and your beautifully tuned tanpura needs adjustments to stay in tune. Spending about ten minutes just playing the tanpura and paying attention to how it sounds, picking out each note, trying to hear as many different notes as possible in the overtones (can you locate the perfect fourth? How about the major sixth?), will tune your ear.

Singing with the tanpura

Finally, sing. Do not aim for a raga, just for notes. Have a scale (mela/ThaaT) in mind each week: Bilawal is always good, Bhairav is an excellent choice, Kafi is useful, Todi is a wonderful challenge. Sing Sa followed by each note in turn. For example, with Bhairav: Sa re, Sa Ga, Sa ma, Sa Pa, Sa dha, Sa Ni, Sa Sa' : Sa' Ni, Sa' dha, Sa' Pa, Sa' ma, Sa' Ga, Sa' re, Sa' Sa. When you do this with just a tanpura, your only reference is your ear and the overtones. Since you're not matching your voice to any external reference (such as a harmonium), you have to pay attention to the tanpura. I don't know how to explain when you'll know you have it right, except to say the note will sound sweet. It will sound tuneful, as though it fits right in with the other sounds of the tanpura.

The reason to think of these as notes from a mela rather than a raga is that to train your ear, you need to think of these notes in relation to the Sa, not to each other. In a raga, say Bhairav, you will be thinking of phrasing, e.g., Ga ma re Sa; the relationship of the samvadi re to the vadi dha; the inflections, such as the oscillation on the dha and re. None of those are helpful when the goal is to train your ear to recognize notes, and not (yet) your voice, heart, and mind to understand and develop a melody. It's cyclical, like tuning the tanpura: the better your ear and voice get at the discrete notes, the better your handling of raga will be, and conversely. But to begin with, focus on the ear via a ThaaT, not on raga.

Conclusion

A couple of points to close. I mentioned using an external reference just for the second string, and tuning everything else to that second string. I've found that using a tuner (such as those by Korg) is actually not very helpful in tuning the entire tanpura. It's fine for the middle strings, but when the tanpura is properly tuned, the outer two will show up as slightly sharp (by a few cents), because the tuner is listening to the attack, whereas what matters in tuning the tanpura is the decay. Trust your ear rather than relying on the tuner for precision. And finally, it's all very well to read what a random stranger on the interwebs says, but the way to get this right is to work with your guru's guidance. Assuming you don't live with your guru, work on your own each day, but do take yourself and your tanpura to the guru's place each time you have a lesson, and spend a few minutes on tuning the tanpura. Even just having your guru tune it will help you understand what it should sound like when properly tuned. And there's no substitute for that.

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