My Indian classical music teacher asks me to practice alankaars on a harmonium.

1) Will practicing on a harmonium somehow bias my voice towards the western fixed tempered scale on which the harmonium is based? Or will I be able to learn the true Indian natural harmonic scale later without any difficulty?

2) Does practicing alankaars (like Sa Pa Sa etc.) improve voice and voice tuning?

  • Are you learning vocal music?
    – dry leaf
    Jan 30, 2020 at 3:06

4 Answers 4


If your teacher asked you to do it, then the benefit of this practising outweighs any risk of acclimatizing to equal temperament, especially if you also do some practice away from equal temperament.

Even within the European tradition, unaccompanied choirs and string quartets have no difficulty producing chords and melodies untampered by equal temperament, despite their performers spending many hours with keyboard instruments or, for that matter, absorbing popular music in restaurants and shopping malls.

  • 2
    This is correct. I play can play piano the whole day long and when I play with the brass band I have to adjust the fine tuning relating to the key, the other members and the function of the leading tones and to the will of the conductor. .and singers of western culture will have the same problem with the relative doremi. But the question is interesting: how far do singers and musicians with non- tempered instruments adapt the temperatur. Aug 15, 2019 at 20:44
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    The thing is, my teacher does not know of the differences between the frequency values of Indian notes to that of the tempered ones. So I become suspicious of its efficacy.
    – Aksh
    Sep 17, 2019 at 16:28
  • 3
    If your teacher doesn't know that, I would say it would a slight problem down the road. Practicing with tempered notes shouldn't be a problem in the beginner stages. Using a harmonium can help you speed up the basics, but do keep listening to performances/recordings done without a tempered accompanying instrument. You will yourself reach a stage when you're able to identify the difference by ear, at which point you quit the harmonium. Dec 18, 2019 at 23:40
  1. Reason for practicing with harmonium as a beginner is to make you familiar with notes. For example, if I played sa and asked you to sing ma, you'll not be able to do it without singing the whole sargam. Eventually, he will ask you to stop using harmonium once you develop a rough idea of how the notes sound. Even then, you may not be able to sing a note perfectly but you will intuitively know if you haven't sung it properly, which wouldn't be possible if you never practiced with a harmonium in the first place.

  2. Yes, singing alankars is very important for the same reason mentioned above, to get you familiar with notes. It will help you sing notes independent of other notes, ie, you'll be able to sing non consecutive notes in any order. Not only that, it will also help you sing ragas as they are made of many alankars with added beautification.

  • But still my memory will be that of notes on the fixed tempered scale than the original Indian classical scale, right?
    – Aksh
    Aug 16, 2019 at 6:07
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    I had this confusion as well when I started. But that's not how it works. Your brain will identify the "distance" between the notes rather than notes themselves. To overcome this, you can practice sargam in different scales, therefore you wont have a fixed scale memorised. Very few people have the ability to remember absolute sound which is called perfect pitch/absolute pitch. Aug 16, 2019 at 6:36
  • 1
    @Aksh, No, you won't remember the frequencies that accurately. Humans simply aren't good enough at that, not even with decades of what you might call mis-training. Sep 17, 2019 at 16:36

The answers by @CamilleGoudeseune and @YeeteshPulstya are on point, but I would like to add a little to them.

Beginners training to sing in the Indian classical music system typically have difficulty identifying the position of an arbitrary swaram. The harmonium is a useful aid at this stage since:

  1. it is a keyed instrument, so even a beginner can reproduce notes on it very easily, and
  2. it does not require regular re-tuning, which can be an arduous (or even impossible) task for a beginner.

Singing along with the harmonium will help solidify a mental image of the swara-sthānams (positions of the notes) in one's mind, a basic aspect of swara jnyānam (literally, "knowledge of the swaras").

However, do not forget that Indian classical music makes use of more than just the sapta swaras (seven notes), but instead identifies many microtones called shrutis, which may number twenty-two or even more. As you continue to practise and listen to music, you will develop your "mental ear" to identify the positions of not only the sapta swaras, but also each of the shrutis (this is called kelvi jnyānam in south India, literally "knowledge obtained by listening").

So, the fear that the tempered scale will be impressed upon your mind instead of the harmonic scale is unfounded. With continued practice, you will be able to identify by ear not only the subtle differences between these two tunings, but also the shrutis which cannot be reproduced on the harmonium by any of the individual keys.

The practice of the basic exercises, alankārams included, is of paramount importance in improving one's swara jnyānam. This cannot be emphasised enough. There is absolutely no way forward without practising the basic exercises so thoroughly that you can deliver them in multiple scales and speeds with ease. Practise, practise, practise!

It is also worth mentioning the value of the harmonium as a concert level instrument, in light of some answers and comments that deem it to be a beginner's instrument meant to be graduated from.

It is a common misconception that a keyed instrument like the harmonium does not have a place in Indian classical music which is so gamaka (oscillation) laden; at most it could be effective as an accompaniment in kirtans and bhajans.

However, nothing could be further from the truth! I offer below my (rough and liberal) translation from Thamizh (Tamil) of some of the words of the great vidwān (master) Madurai T. N. Seshagopalan:

Shruti is that which lies within the swaras. If one plays or sings gamaka-shruti-vishada rāgams without gamakas (oscillations), then one cannot bring out the true aural form of that rāgam (in contrast to sva-sthāna-vishada rāgams). But, by playing the swarams along with their anuswarams the way they are meant to be played, one can create—in this vādyam (musical instrument)—the illusion of gamakas.

In the past, the harmonium was a "banned instrument". I honestly do not understand why it was so. My guru used to say that when Bade Ghulam Ali Khan's father would play the harmonium, one would be terrified to even gaze upon him after that—such was his mastery over the instrument. S. G. Kalanchandra Kittappa would host Rajarathnam Pillai (the legendary nadaswaram vidwan) at his home in Senkottai just because the latter so desired to hear Kittappa's elder brother S. G. Kasi Iyer play the harmonium. Such was the calibre of the masters of yore.

Today, I have not taken up this instrument merely for doing some "swara jugglery". On this instrument, rāgams such as Yadukula Kāmbhoji, Nāyaki, Neelāmbari, Begada, Bhairavi, Thodi, Dhanyāsi can be played while remaining true to their swarupam (form).

. . .

One can say this this is also one of the ancient musical instruments of this culture, even though it was introduced from a foreign land. Since the harmonium can be used to produce a "continuous" sound, it is indeed an instrument eligible for playing Carnatic music.

Source: concert in memory of Alathur Venkatesa Iyer, held at the Arkay Convention Centre under the aegis of Madhuradhwani, on 24 September, 2016. Accompaniments: M. Chandrasekaran on the violin and Trichur Narendran on the mridangam. Link to the full concert here. Speech of T. N. Seshagopalan starts at 1:05:46, ends at 1:10:13.

In addition to the brilliant concert from which the above speech is extracted (in which Seshagopalan performs the rāgams Goulai, Ānandabhairavi, Varamu, Yadukula Kāmbhoji, Bhairavi, Hemavati, Sindubhairavi and Sourāshtram), it is worth listening to the following recordings to get a sense of the immense scope of the harmonium in Indian classical music:

Spotify album

  • Live recording of Muthu Natesa Bhagavathar on the harmonium, held in Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1968. Accompaniments: K. Shivakumar on the violin and P. S. Devarajan on the mridangam. Released by Country and Eastern in 2011 under the title Karnatik Harmonium. Bhagavathar performs the rāgams Begada, Hamsadhwani, Sri Ranjani and Poorvikalyani.

YouTube playlist
Spotify album

My (late) guru Bombay V. Vamanan once performed an All India Radio (AIR) concert with harmonium on accompaniment instead of violin. It was aired on 21st July, 2012. The accompaniments were S. Krishnan on the harmonium and P. Murugan on the mridangam. My guru performed the ragams Māyāmālavagoulai, Vāchaspati, Sāveri and Begada. At the moment, I only have an audio cassette tape recording of this AIR concert, and so I am unable to share any link to it.


Harmonium have a temparate scale notes means they are fixed in weight, and as we know that indian classical music is based on notes as well as spaces between notes (i.e shrutis), so there are also gliding of notes,meend, ornamentation etc..and harmonium can't go to that detail..thats why for professional vocal practice, string drone(taanpura) is the best instrument,However for begginers its(harmonium) a quite a good instrument to connect.

Ya in starting is good to start with the harmonium, slowly slowly you will get grip on notes and then you will be able to produce desired note without harmonium, there is no difficulty, but also practice matters, try to produce own alnakars, paltas, try to implement your own pattern, first think in mind how it will be sound like and try to improvise it(with or without harmonium)...it will take effort but u will get a good grip.

practicing alankars in all ocatves gives you good command over voice, also voice gets improved with it..but initially you should follow the voice culture also.

  • 1
    -1 The fact that gamakas or meends are an essential component of Indian classical music has no bearing on the choice of instrument (harmonium vs. tanpura) for use as a drone (shruti or sur).
    – user38256
    Mar 18, 2020 at 12:31

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