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Carnatic music notation is written using the solfa 'sa ri ga ma pa da ni' in textual form unlike the staff notation which is graphic. In carnatic music sa (shadjam) is the tonic. The artiste has the liberty to choose any pitch as the tonic and the note sa will then refer to that pitch. Hence the notation does not prescribe the absolute pitches in which the composition is to be sung.

Generally the notation is used to learn a composition rather than play it by sight and some of the practices in writing notation may be attributed to this.

Samples of notation in Tamil and English are given below.

The notation is written on one line and the lyric is written on the line below with words of lyric aligned to their corresponding notes.

To establish the rhythmic frame work ('Thaalam'), vertical lines are drawn, to separate the 'angams' (components) of a rhythmic cycle. The commonly used thaalams have three 'angams' - Laghu, Dhrutham and Anudhrutham. The Dhrutham is always 2 units of time and in singing the action (kriya) associated with it is a clap (or beat) and a wave (turning up the palm). The Anudhrutham is always a single unit and the action is a clap (or beat). The Laghu has varying number of units indicated by the 'Jaathi' or class of the thaalam. The possible units for Laghu are 3 (thisra), 4 (chathurasra), 5 (khanda), 7 (misra) and 9 (sankeerna). The action for Laghu is a clap followed by counts (number of counts is one less than the total jaathi value so that clap and counts together account for the number of units of the jaathi). The order and number of the components (angams) of the thaalam are fixed by the thaalam name. Thus Thriputa thaalam has a laghu followed by 2 druthams. If it is charhurasra jathi thriputa thaalam it will have a laghu of 4 units, and 2 druthams of 2 units each totaling eight units in a cycle.

The symbols for the three Angams of the thaalam are:
Laghu - a vertical line (or digit 1) followed by the number of units indicated by the jaathi ex. |4
Dhrutham - A circle O
Anudhrutham - A half circle U

These symbols are often omitted.

When more than one rhythmic cycle is shown on one line double vertical lines are drawn to separate them. In the sample below there are 3 rhythmic cycles in one line.

The notation is written using the the solfa symbols 'sa ri ga ma pa da ni' (corresponding to 'doh re me fa so la te'). Normally the notes represent the middle octave. A dot over the note indicates the higher octave and a dot below the note indicates the lower octave. Generally the compositions cover a range from ma of the lower octave up to pa of the higher octave - usually even less.

There is no absolute time measure. A note written as sa or ri takes one 'maathra' which may be equal to the unit duration of the thaalam frame work itself or be a sub-multiple of it. A common convention uses 4 notes per basic unit of the thaalam. In the sample below 2 notes are used per unit of the thaalam which itself has 6 units (a dhrutham of 2 units and a laghu of 4 units). Thus in the sample one cycle has 12 notes (after accounting for half notes etc.)

When the note vowel is doubled as in 'saa' or 'ree' the note is held for twice the duration of the single note 'sa' or 'ri'. This convention is always used while writing notation in Tamil or Telugu but some books published in English use the notation 'S R G M P D N ' to represent notes of single time unit and they cannot double the time by adding vowels

To prolong a note further, or to indicate periods of silences (especially in the beginning of a rhythmic cycle) the symbols "," (comma) and ";" (semicolon) are used. A comma signifies one note duration and a semicolon 2 notes duration. In the English publications which use 'S R G M P D N' a 2 note saa is written as "S,". In some others a symbol like 's' or 'r' in small letters indicates single note and 'S' or 'R' in caps indicates 2 notes.

Half notes and quarter notes are indicated by drawing lines over the notation. A single line halves the duration of the notes and a double line makes it one fourth.

Sample notation sheets are given below in Tamil and English - If the images below are not shown please CLICK HERE


Same notation as above in English script (with explanation of symbols)


As only 7 symbols are used for the 12 note positions in an octave, the 'Melam' or scale number is generally mentioned at the top of the notation sheet. There are 72 scales and each scale defines the variety of 5 notes ri,ga,ma,da and ni to be used. For instance Melam 29 uses all white notes of the keyboard, while Melam 8 uses all black keys except 'ma'.

The name of the raagam (melodic mood) is mentioned along with the ascending and descending sequences (not shown in the examples above)

In Bhaashaanga raagams a variety of note not in the parent scale (accidental) may be used and it is indicated by a "*" (asterisk) immediately after the note. (da in the second line in the example above)

"/" and "\" are sometimes used for indicating slides. A wavy line written above the note indicates a shake or grace. Sometimes grace notes are also shown in small letters above the regular notation (not shown in the sample above) and are not to be included in calculating the durations.

In the example above you may see notation like with a line above the notes, which implies that the first 'ma' takes half unit while the 'gaa' takes one unit (a double note halved) and the second 'ma' takes half unit - a total of 2 units. It could have been written as . The reason for writing as above is that it is much easier to sing, intuitively doubling the duration of ga in the higher tempo. Often students sing the notation for difficult passages and then sing the lyric to get the correct melody.


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