Wikipedia describes a raga thus:

A raga is sometimes explained as melodic rule set that a musician works with, but according to Dorottya Fabian and others, this is now generally accepted among music scholars to be an explanation that is too simplistic. According to them, a raga of the ancient Indian tradition is best described as "a non-constructible set in music", just like non-constructible set in language for human communication, in a manner described by Frederik Kortlandt and George van Driem.

What does this mean? How does this mathematical concept map to a raga?

If the above quote is nonsense as one answerer asserts, then what is another precise definition of a raga?

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    I read the Wikipedia section and the paper. The quoted thing is basically nonsense, but the rest of the paper (and the rest of the Wikipedia section) have more useful things to say. I will try to post an answer later. – ShreevatsaR Jan 29 '18 at 18:42
  • I never got around to posting an answer. Anyway see 1, 2, 3, 4 for nonsense about “non-constructible sets”, which seems to just mean “something that is hard to define”. But the article by Wim van der Meer that Wikipedia cites (incorrectly attributing it to the editors as “Dorottya Fabian and others”) has a great description of what’s meant. – ShreevatsaR Feb 28 '18 at 21:16
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    Ok nevermind, just posted a quick answer now. And to be clear, the answer is more about the body of the question (what the quoted paragraph means) than about the title of the question (What is a raga). – ShreevatsaR Feb 28 '18 at 21:35

I think the "non-constructible set" concept is actually more confusing than descriptions of what a raga is.

As far as I can tell, a raga is a whole group of musical concepts put together to form a framework from which an entire work of music can be created. It is more than just a key signature or scale, although all ragas seem to have at least one scale in them.

Some components that ragas may have (but not necessarily have to have) include:

  • Arohana - A set of notes (scale) used to play ascending melodies.
  • Avarohana - A scale used to play descending melodies.
  • Vadi - The most important note in a raga (the tonic, in Western terminology).
  • Samavadi - The second most important note (the dominant).
  • Komal Swar (swar means "note") - Any of what western theory would call "flattened" notes included in the raga.
  • Teevra Swar - Any "sharpened" notes included in the raga.
  • Varjit Swar - Any notes that should not be used when playing or composing with the raga.
  • Pakad - A musical phrase that captures the essence of a raga that may be used as a tag phrase or motif in a piece.
  • Samay - A time of day when the raga would be played.
  • Seasonality (an English word) - The season of the year when the raga would be played.

So one way to think of a raga is a collection of notes along with a set of rules or guidelines on how to use those notes in a piece, along with a musical motif that uses those notes and obeys those rules that is associated with that raga.

I suppose a western concept that might be as close to a raga as western theory can get might be a fugue with a predetermined key and motif. Even though everyone who writes such a fugue would be writing in the same key and would incorporate the motif somewhere, there are still an infinite number of different fugues that could be written with those guidelines.

Sources and further reading:



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The description of a rāga as a “non-constructible set in music” is essentially useless, because if you follow the source that is referred to on Wikipedia, and its citations for the phrase “non-constructible set”, you arrive at things like these (1, 2, 3, 4) from which, after unpacking a fair bit, it turns out to just mean roughly “something hard to define”.

However, the source that Wikipedia quotes for the “non-constructible set” actually has a great description of what its author intended. The source is the article by Wim van der Meer titled “Audience Response and Expressive Pitch Inflections in a Live Recording of Legendary Singer Kesar Bai Kerkar”, in a book Expressiveness in Music Performance. This is what it says:

Raga is sometimes described as a set of melodic rules to which the musician must adhere, but it is now generally accepted that this is too narrow a viewpoint. Perhaps a raga is best described as a non-constructible set along the same lines as language is seen as a non-constructible set by Kortlandt (1983, 2003) and Van Driem (2004, 2007).

(These citations are the 4 articles I linked above.) But it goes to say something more helpful:

In fact, in India, raga is often seen as an entity in the sense of a living being, a creature, an organism. And what the artist does is to bring it to life in front of the audience. Undoubtedly, expressivity in Indian music has much to do with this very conception of raga. When a musician manages to touch the core of a raga, and to portray its salient characteristics, this surely elicits a strong response from the audience, possibly with specific interjections such as “yeh [raag] hai” (this is the raga). is is not an analytical or intellectual process; the listener does not sit comparing the notes being performed with a formal definition of the characteristics of a particular raga. Instead, the experience is immediate and intuitive in the Bergsonian sense (Bergson 1889), in that the audience “knows” the raga without any intervention of reason. Many members of the audience may know the raga without being able to identify it by name; they are familiar with its melodic patterns or gestalt, in much the same manner that we may know or recognize a person but not their name. The comparison to people is drawn also for the immediate nature of the cognition of ragas, in the sense that when we come across a person in the street we recognize them without resorting to a table of physiognomies.

That's fair enough, at least as a sociological description of how listeners experience rāgas (even if it's not useful to other musicians as a technical definition), and explains what the author meant by “non-constructible set”.

The rest of the Wikipedia section (permanent link) has more useful things to say about rāgas too.

[…] Jones translated it as "mode" of European music tradition, but Willard corrected him […] a Raga is both mode and tune. […] Stern refined this explanation to "the raga is more fixed than mode, less fixed than the melody, […] richer both than a given mode or a given melody; it is mode with added multiple specialities"

[…] the concept has no direct Western translation […] Raga is a fusion of technical and ideational ideas found in music, and may be roughly described as a musical entity that includes note intonation, relative duration and order, in a manner similar to how words flexibly form phrases to create an atmosphere of expression. […]

[…] A raga has a given set of notes, on a scale, ordered in melodies with musical motifs. […] a rasa (mood, atmosphere, essence, inner feeling) that is unique to each raga. […] For most artists, their basic perfected repertoire has some forty to fifty ragas. […]

[…] The goal of a raga and its artist is to create rasa (essence, feeling, atmosphere) with music […]

[…] defined Raga as a "tonal framework for composition and improvisation." […]


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  • The whole comparison seems a bit pointless, since the same could be said of Western music, e.g. the concept of tonality, or even just whether a song sounds good/bad. – awe lotta Jul 6 at 21:47
  • @awelotta Yes of course the same can be said, but the question of how often it is said, and where the focus is laid, influences the evolution of the music and what is considered core—see the answer of ggcg and the comments on it. – ShreevatsaR 2 days ago

The idea of describing it as a non-constructable set as in language arts is to express the idea that Raga cannot be dissected or reduced by the ideas of Western music. Perhaps a better term might be irreducible, but if you look at papers on Linguistics and non-constructibility I think you may see that the comment is not meaningless.

The problem is that defining a Raga as "a set of notes", and "a motif", and "a framework for the musician to ..." blah, blah, blah, is that this reduction is a completely Western Philosophical view applied to an Asian tradition. Raga is more than that. It does not express the full idea of what Raga means to say that a musician is noodling around on the Dorian mode (which is one of the Carnatic Scales). Raga includes cultural ideas. In some sense one can compare it to language where we have a vocabulary, then we have cultural ideas expressed in idioms. English, Canadians (for the most part), Australians, etc. speak English, yet they don't always understand each other. Not because of accent but because of idioms, euphemisms, vocabulary not in common use across all English speaking regions. This is not reducible like the base roots of language. A great deal of meaning is conveyed by tone of voice and other things like body language. Yet we remove that when we try to describe "language" as a rule set.

Raga is often mapped to a complete human experience, not just some notes that are played with. Phrasing, and other attributes are taught as part of the Raga. Some examples are Morning Raga, Evening Raga, etc. Musical ideas that are supposed to invoke in the listener the feeling that most people have when they wake up, or start slowing down in the evening and stop working. You can't write this is Western sheet music. In fact we cannot even express the full gamut of Western experience this way. I seems to me that the entire Westernized way of looking at music evolved from the development of orchestras and multi voice harmony. Not all musical languages follow this tradition and are not describable in these terms.

In the Indian culture Yoga and chakras are an integrated idea that permeates art and music. Not everyone in India practices this or believes in it but it has roots that are thousands of years old and hence is an integral part of everyone's common experience. That being said, many Raga ideas map to chakras, moods, etc. We have some of this in western music in that minor modes usually convey negative moods, and major positive moods, etc. But that is a far cry from saying that this collection of musical motifs (a Raga) stimulates sexual desire, or produces a calming effect. Again, I am not stating that there have been double blind studies that verify this, but the idea is deeply rooted in the Raga tradition. To simply reduce it to "up scale", "down scale", "etc". Misses the entire point of Raga, and ignores the cultural ideas contained within the Raga.

I'd recommend reading the following (Wikipedia is not always a good source if info).

The Raga-ness of Ragas by Deepak Raja

Classical Music of India by Subramaniam and Subramaniam

Nuances of Hindustani Classical Music by Hirlekar

And listen to some of these classic Ragas like The Morning Raga, etc. I have a box set I got in India more than 10 years ago called 50 Glorious Classical Years that has examples of every kind of Classical Indian music performed by the great musicians of India. The Western view of music is not all encompassing yet it doesn't stop us from trying to fit every thing in our box. To really get a Raga you need to learn it the traditional way, from a master in person. All the subtle nuances are transmitted by oral tradition.

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    Thanks for this answer! You have a great point: the totality of experience is not reducible to basic elements even in Western music; it's just that the Western approach (method, point of view) is “bottom-up”: to consider certain elements (e.g. what can be expressed on the page in sheet music) more fundamental/“real” and leave the rest as vague/inexpressible, while the approach in Indian music is sort of “top-down”: to consider a certain something (rāga, directly experienced by good listeners) as fundamental, and consider “set of notes”, “motif” etc as vague and unsatisfactory approximations. – ShreevatsaR Jul 8 at 21:15
  • Thank you for your comment. I am sure 1000s of years ago Western music was top down as well, and we still have cultural ideas that are not expressible solely in terms of Western theory (only 7 notes, 12 intervals in an octave). Some cultures have more notes than we do so by definition we are lacking in something. But harmony is what I think the West contributed and that changes our view of other traditions. – ggcg Jul 8 at 21:28
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    I guess the focus influences what develops more. So while Western music has harmony, counterpoint etc, Indian music leads to fine distinctions of rāga (as you mentioned) like “an evening rāga that evokes the kind of longing felt by separated lovers” which listeners recognize like friends: my father listens a lot to Indian music deeply and can identify rāgas, no doubt hundreds of them, often better than trained musicians, even though he has no musical training whatsoever and cannot identify a single note. – ShreevatsaR Jul 8 at 22:00

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