Wednesday, 3 February 2010

North Indian scales

About fifteen years ago I was playing flute and sax in a trio consisting of a singer/harmoniumist, a tabla/dole player and myself. We did a mixture of ghazals and the singer's own compositions and threw in the odd Bollywood number as a crowd pleaser. As well as the gigs I remember a couple of very enjoyable outings. One was to Southall for food, culture (OK, I mean window shopping) and a trip to the famous Indian musical instrument shop, Bina, where I bought a bansri (pictured). Another was to meet the singer's teacher, a blind sitar player.

We each had an hour's lesson with the man and, although he seemed to spend the greater part of mine on the phone or talking to family members out in the hall, he obviously knew his stuff. He taught me The Ten Thats, the ten scales that are the basis of Norht Indian music, and I was to go away and learn them.
"In all twelve keys?" I asked.
"Of course."

I typed them up on an old computer, printed them out and stuck them to my door. That PC is long gone along with the software and the file. I thought I had lost the piece of paper, too, and a quick search on the internet has not revealed the scales in a form easily accessible to the western musician. So before I lose the scales again, here are The Ten Thats, the North Indian scales, translated for musos brought up in the European tradition, as they were told to me.

Assume all notes are those of the major scale unless indicated. b = lower the note by a semitone, # = raise the note by a semitone. The numbers represent scale degrees. I have put the equivalent mode in brackets where one exists.

At the very least they represent a vehicle for getting to know your chosen instrument a little better. I have found them inspiring and still refreshingly exotic. And do I know all 120 scales by heart? No, but every so often I move a little closer.


  1. I find the scales used by different cultures fascinating. Also the temperaments used in western music. The concept of playing in a different key, on an instrument tuned to a perfect C major scale, for example.

    Apparently the Chinese knew about the concept of equal temperament in ancient times, but couldn't see why anyone would want to use it.

  2. At the moment my favourite is Bhairav - instantly mysterious with the minimum of effort. But I find Toli, with its two sets of chromatic runs very attractive too.

    I hadn't known that the Chinese had beaten Bach and his contemporaries to equal temperament. I suppose it's no surprise really - just another example of the Euro-centricity of the world I grew up in. I love their reason for not pursuing it. There are strong arguments in their favour.

  3. Thanks for posting the scales Jonathan, I shall attempt to assimilate them into my bag of tricks; maybe even get a "Touchable Number" or two out of the more unusual ones. Good stuff.