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In How does improvisation in Indian ragas differ significantly from jazz melodic improvisation? Phil states:

With a Raga, there is no theme, per se. A Raga is more like a set of rules as to how you progress though the mode than a melody in its own right. Certain notes are designated for emphasis or avoidance, and for being approached or left in a particular manner. With Jazz, an improvisor is left more free to determine how to proceed.

What are the rules of improvisation in Ragas?

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I'll try to be specific and use terms in carnatic music to describe each aspect

  1. Each Raaga provides key phrases which are set forth by the notes which are allowed in the raaga.
    Aarohanam: notes(swaram) that can be played ascending
    Avarohanam: notes that can be played descending.

A list of scales which are common is provided here along with audio:

http://www.ragasurabhi.com/carnatic-music/ragas.html

  1. Signature verses: Signature verses bring out the quality of raaga(bhaava). There are certain notes which are given emphasis even though the aarohanam and avarhonam are the same for some raagas (refer list above)

Along with the notes allowed in the raaga, the style dictates certain notes should not occur together.

  1. Improvisation of a raaga requires a structure which gives its quality. This is often referred to as Manodharama.

Again, there are aspects which are specific to raaga, on how the aalapana(opera style improvisation) should start or end, which notes are emphasised, and which notes are less likely vs more likely.

http://carnaticacademy.weebly.com/uploads/1/2/2/6/12265589/carnatic_music_theory_notes_year_2.pdf

Other than aalapana, Tanam (repetition), and Niraval (melodic transformations of a verse) are popular.

All of these styles provide a framework for a musician to expand, based on her abilities.

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In Indian Classical music, there is no fixed form of music. For improvising upon a raga, you should know the rules that governs that specific raga. For example, in the case of Bhairav Raga, you should know the basic rules that governs the raga. In Indian Classical music, improvisation is termed as sargams or taans, and sometimes even melodies can be improvised. In fact, there is no rule for improvisation in Indian Classical music. The rule of the specific raga governs the ways one can improvise upon a specific raga.

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