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Ragas & Western Scales


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Ragas and Western Scales

                                                                                                By Lucas Pickford


Lately Iíve been immersed in the world of Indian classical music. The music from India is an amazingly deep, complex art form that has many things in common with our American art form of jazz. Both rely heavily on improvisation, intricate rhythmic patterns, and both utilize a vast array of scales for their melodic material. Most of us here donít know much about the music of India or itís musical legends except for perhaps sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. Ravi is one of the only great musicians from India that the average person in America has heard of.  That is a credit to him of course, as he is one the most amazing musicians of the 20th century from any country. There are so many great players from India that are on the scene here in America today though. People like tabla master Zakir Hussain, mandolin prodigy U. Shrinivas, and sarod genius Ali Akbar Khan just to name a very few. They are all tremendous masters on their respective instruments and have all performed with some of our greatest masters in jazz and rock. In this column I want to draw some parallels between the ragas of North India and some of the scales we use here in jazz and in other types of American music.  

First though, what the heck is a raga? Not just mere scales, ragas are precise melody forms with different ascending and descending versions of themselves. Certain notes are used to bring out the very unique ďcolorĒ of each raga. Specific degrees of the raga are accentuated and embellished and that is what really gives each raga itís own unique sound. Many Indian musicians like to stress however that although ragas are modal in nature, they are not akin to the modes as we are taught them here. The subtle differences in the order of notes, an omission of a dissonant note, an emphasis on a particular note, the slide from one note to another, and the use of microtones together with other subtleties differentiate one raga from the other. Many, many, ragas have no counterpart in either the modes or any scales that I know of because of their different ascending and descending versions. That doesnít mean though that they donít cross paths with our scales in the West, they do. 

One of the most inspiring musicians to me from the jazz world who has cross pollinated with musicians from India is the one and only guitarist, John McLaughlin. Starting back in the 70ís with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and his groundbreaking group Shakti with Zakir Hussain, John has blazed the trail for whatís possible when you combine these two rich traditions. John is still touring with Shakti and their music is truly amazing. If youíre not hip to them, check them out soon. There are others like bassist Jonas Hellborg and Bela Fleck of Bela Fleck and The Flecktones who have also done tremendous things with Indian musicians. I really encourage all of you out there; even the ones who think you donít like Indian music, to investigate some of these master musicians. The technical ability of players like Zakir Hussain and U. Shrinivas is staggering. Indian music isnít about hippies, free love, and incense. Itís some of the most technically advanced, rhythmically sophisticated music in the world and if you give it a chance you wonít be disappointed. 


Here are some ragas that usually on the descent are very similar to many of the modes and scales we use in our neck of the woods.

1. Rag Bhimpalasi (ascending) C-Eb-F-G-Bb-C (descending) C-Bb-A-G-F-Eb-D-C

This raga reminds me of a minor Pentatonic ascending and the Dorian scale descending.

2. Rag Bihag (ascending) C-E-F-G-B-C (descending) C-B-A-G-F#-E-D-C

This is similar to both the plain Major scale and the Lydian scale on the descent.

 3. Rag Kirvani (ascending) C-D-Eb-G-Ab-B-C (descending) C-B-Ab-G-F-Eb-D-C

This resembles the Harmonic minor scale.

 4. Rag Tilang (ascending) C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C (descending) C-Bb-A-G-F-E-D-C

This one is the Major scale going up and the Mixolydian scale coming down.

 5. Rag Pilu (ascending) C- Eb- F-G-B-C (descending) C-Bb-Ab-G-F-Eb-D-C

Similar to Melodic minor going up and Aeolian on the way down.


As you can see, some of these ragas are like partial scales. Some notes are left out on the way up or down and that is what slightly changes the melodic possibilities when improvising on them. Iíve only scratched the surface of Indian music but I continue to study and learn more all the time. Ultimately, music is the language of the world, just spoken with a slightly different accent depending on where you are. To learn more about these scales and Indian music in general, check out the Sounds of India page on my web site


Lucas Pickford can be reached via email at
PicksProductions AT yahoo DOT com 
and at his web site:

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