Difference between Indian and Western music notation

New musicians, especially who studied Indian swaralipi first and trying to study Western staff notation (and vice versa), often get very confused about how to align Indian swaralipi with western staff notation.

The key thing to understand here that in Western Music notation, each symbol represents an absolute note. For example, in a staff notation you always see whether it is C4 or C5.

However, in Indian swaralipi (= sa re ga ma pa dha ni) is made of relative notes!

The Sa can be C, D, E, F, G, A, B anything! In fact it can be C# or Ab too.

When you play a western staff music notation, you are expected to play exactly as it is written. That means, staff notation shows whether you will have to play C4 or G#3 etc.

However, when you play a Indian swaralipi, since only relative notes are shown, it is up to the player to choose which scale s/he wants to play in!

For example, here is Indian swarlipi notation for national anthem Jana Gana Mana (first line)

Sa Re Ga Ga | Ga – Ga Ga | Re Ga Ma – |

Now it is the player’s discretion whether s/he wants to start Sa in C or D or E or whatever.

Suppose, you have staff notation for this tune in C major. If you follow that notation, you have to play in C major. However, one can still play it in other scale like D major, F major etc. – by transposing it to a target scale (software like MuseScore can do it by flick of a menu).

In a way, the Indian notation is easier since it is entirely relative and you are free to play at any scale of your choice. Western staff notation is more rigid in this aspect (though you can re-write it by transposing – as mentioned earlier). However, staff notation is very rich and can convey timings, rhythm, chords etc. in much more details compared to swaralipi.

Any Indian tune or swaralipi can be always converted (manually) to staff notation. The reverse is also true, though you are likely to loose some complex information as there is no swaralipi equivalent of some concepts of staff notation.

There is a dearth of good quality written Indian tunes (compared to western music whether you can get notation of almost any popular tune). This is because Indian musicians predominantly play by ear where as western counterparts play by ear and/or sight as well.

If you are an Indian musician but unable to read staff notation, I strongly recommend that you learn it. It is not only versatile (in spite of steep initial learning curve) but universal too. People from anywhere can exchange music using this format.

Free software like MuseScore, make it very easy to compose music using staff notation.

PS: full scale example

Indian swaralipi and Equivalent Western notes (in C major)

Sa – C (C4 if mapping it with piano’s middle C key)
komal re – C# or Db
Re – D
komal ga – D# or Eb
Ga – E
Ma – F
kori ma – F# or Gb
Pa – G
komal dha – G# or Ab
Dha – A
komal ni – A# or Bb
Ni – B
Sa (next octave) – C

Indian swaralipi and Equivalent Western note (in D major)

Sa – D
komal re – D# or Eb
Re – E
komal ga – F
Ga – F#
Ma – G
kori ma – G# or Ab
Pa – A
komal dha – A# or Bb
Dha – B
komal ni – C
Ni – C# or Db



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