Improvisation. It’s known and loved in many parts of the world, and in Western music is most notably used in things like jazz and rock. I’d be remiss to not reference a clip of one of the greatest guitar soloists in American popular music history here:
What made Prince so great at soloing? Could he just run up and down his guitar playing random notes faster and put on the more sexually-driven show that America always seems to crave? It would probably be wrong to say aspects of that statement didn’t contribute to his fame, but they are not what made him such a great soloist. Rather, Prince had an incredible knowledge of music theory. This is not to say that he approached every song and solo with, “Okay, what are the exact names of each of the chords and scales in this song and which modes can I use over them,” but, simply put, he did have a legitimate musical understanding of what would work and what wouldn’t. For those of you who don’t consider yourself musically inclined, firstly I would bet against you, but more importantly for this post, it’s important to understand that, to the average listener, only a certain set of notes are going to sound good in something like a guitar solo, and it takes someone with immense experience and knowledge to be able to dance around them the way Prince did.
At this point, you’re probably wondering, “Why is this post called ‘Hindustani Music’?” That’s fair. I talked about Prince for a while. However, that’s because improvising in Hindustani music, conceptually, is no different than Prince making his guitar gently weep. Check out this incredible North Indian Classical Fusion piece where Jai Sovani-Garud, our gust lecturer for this series, is featured as one of two vocalists. At the 3:28 mark, the soprano saxophone begins to improvise. Pay attention to each note he plays as closely as you can, even if you don’t catch every single note.
Now ask yourself, why does it sound so good? You’ve heard bad solos before, everyone has, and you know when someone is playing something that just doesn’t sound good. Even if you aren’t particularly intrigued by this style of music, you can listen to his solo and know that he is doing the correct things without having studied any of this music, or any music in your life for that matter. Why? Because, just like Prince, what he is playing fits within the scales/modes used in this lavani-bandish (the two styles used in this particular tune) fusion.
Like mentioned in my previous post, this is based on a scale system that uses syllables similarly to the Western solfege system. You can see the different syllables below:
Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti | Do (same as bottom note, one octave up)
Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Nee | Sa (same as bottom note, one octave up)
So as you can see, Do and Sa are the same, Re and Re are the same, Mi and Ga, and so on. What makes Indian Classical music unique is how these notes are altered, which you can read more about in the previous post. Below is a video of Jai giving a brief overview of Hindustani music. Around the 2:00 mark she starts explaining the scale system mentioned above and sings an example of Bhairav (one of the scales also mentioned in the previous post).
For more information or examples of Hindustani music, make sure to check out Jai’s YouTube channel, Indian Raga!