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Swara (Hindi स्वर), also spelled swara, is a Sanskrit word that connotes a note in the successive steps of the octave. More comprehensively, it is the ancient Indian concept about the complete dimension of musical pitch.[1][2]

The swara differs from the shruti concept in Indian music. A shruti is the smallest gradation of pitch that a human ear can detect and a singer or instrument can produce.[3] A swara is the selected pitches from which the musician constructs the scales, melodies and ragas. The ancient Sanskrit text Natya Shastra identifies and discusses twenty two shruti and seven swara.[3] The swara studies in ancient Sanskrit texts include the musical gamut and its tuning, categories of melodic models and the raga compositions.[4]

The seven notes of the musical scale in Indian classical music are shadja (षड्ज), rishabh (ऋषभ), gandhar (गान्धार), madhyam (मध्यम), pancham (पञ्चम), dhaivat (धैवत) and nishad (निषाद). These seven swaras are shortened to Sa, Ri (Carnatic) or Re (Hindustani), Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, and Ni.[5] Collectively these notes are known as the sargam (the word is an acronym of the consonants of the first four swaras). Sargam is the Indian equivalent to solfege, a technique for the teaching of sight-singing. The tone Sa is, as in Western moveable-Do solfège, the tonic of a piece or scale.[5]


The word swara (Sanskrit: स्वर) is derived from the root svr which means "to sound".[6]

The word is found in the Vedic literature, particularly the Samaveda, where it means accent and tone, or a musical note, depending on the context. The discussion there focusses on three accent pitch or levels: svarita (sounded, circumflex normal), udatta (high, raised) and anudatta (low, not raised). However, scholars question whether the singing of hymns and chants were always limited to three during the Vedic era.[6][7] The word also appears in other texts. For example, it appears in Jaiminiya Upanishad Brahmana section 111.33, where the cyclic rise and setting of sun and world, is referred to as "the music of spheres", and the sun is stated to be "humming the wheel of the world".[8] According to Ananda Coomaraswamy, the roots "svar, meaning "to shine" (whence surya or sun), and svr, meaning "to sound or resound" (whence swara, “musical note”) and also in some contexts "to shine", are all related in the ancient Indian imagination.[8][9]

The swara concept is found in Chapter 28 of the ancient Natya Shastra, estimated to have been completed between 200 BCE to 200 CE.[10] It calls the unit of tonal measurement or audible unit as Śhruti,[11] with verse 28.21 introducing the musical scale as follows,[12][13]

तत्र स्वराः –
षड्‍जश्‍च ऋषभश्‍चैव गान्धारो मध्यमस्तथा ।
पञ्‍चमो धैवतश्‍चैव सप्तमोऽथ निषादवान् ॥ २१॥

— Natya Shastra, 28.21[14][10]

These seven swaras are shared by both major raga systems of Indian classical music, that is the North Indian (Hindustani) and South Indian (Carnatic).[5]

In the general sense swara means tone, and applies to chanting and singing. The basic swaras of Vedic chanting are udatta, anudatta and svarita. The musical octave is said to have evolved from the elaborate and elongated chants of Sama Veda, based on these basic swaras.[15] Siksha is the subject that deals with phonetics and pronunciation. Naradiya Siksha elaborately discusses the nature of swaras, both Vedic chants and the octave.


The solfege (sargam) is learnt in abbreviated form of swara: sa, ri (Carnatic) or re (Hindustani), ga, ma, pa, dha, ni, sa. Of these, the first that is "sa", and the fifth that is "pa", are considered anchors that are unalterable, while the remaining have flavors that differs between the two major systems.[5]

Svara in North Indian system of raga[16][17]
12 Varieties (names) C (shadja) D (komal re),
D (shuddha re)
E (komal ga),
E (shuddha ga)
F (shuddha ma),
F (teevra ma)
G (panchama) A (komal dha),
A (shuddha dha)
B (komal ni),
B (shuddha ni)
(SouthIndia.png) Svara in South Indian system of raga[17]
16 Varieties (names) C (sadja) D (suddha ri),
D (satsruti ri),
D (catussruti ri)
E (sadharana ga),
Edouble flat (suddha ga),
E (antara ga)
F (prati ma),
F (suddha ma)
G (pancama) A (suddha dha),
A (satsruti dha),
A (catussruti dha)
B (kaisiki ni),
Bdouble flat (suddha ni),
B (kakali ni)

Notation and practice

Through swara,
Isvara (god) is realized.

A proverb among Indian musicians
Translator: Guy Beck[18]

A dot above a letter indicates that the note is sung one octave higher, and a dot below indicates one octave lower. Komal notes are indicated by an underscore, and the tívra Ma has a line on top which can be vertical or horizontal. {Or, if a note with the same name - Sa, for example - is an octave higher than the note represented by S, an apostrophe is placed to the right: S'. If it is an octave lower, the apostrophe is placed to the left: 'S. Apostrophes can be added as necessary to indicate the octave: for example, ``g would be the note komal Ga in the octave two octaves below that which begins on the note S (that is, two octaves below g).}

The basic mode of reference is that which is equivalent to the Western Ionian mode or major scale (called Bilawal thaat in Hindustani music, Dheerasankarabharanam in Carnatic). All relationships between pitches follow from this. In any seven-tone mode (starting with S), R, G, D, and N can be natural (shuddha, lit. 'pure') or flat (komal, 'soft') but never sharp, and the M can be natural or sharp (teevra) but never flat, making twelve notes as in the Western chromatic scale. If a swara is not natural (shuddha), a line below a letter indicates that it is flat (komal) and an acute accent above indicates that it is sharp (teevra, 'intense'). Sa and Pa are immovable (once Sa is selected), forming a just perfect fifth.

In some notation systems, the distinction is made with capital and lowercase letters. When abbreviating these tones, the form of the note which is relatively lower in pitch always uses a lowercase letter, while the form which is higher in pitch uses an uppercase letter. So komal Re/Ri uses the letter r and shuddha Re/Ri, the letter R, but shuddha Ma uses m because it has a raised form - teevra Ma - which uses the letter M. Sa and Pa are always abbreviated as S and P, respectively, since they cannot be altered.

The chart below assumes Sa to be at C.

Full form (Carnatic) Abbreviated form (Carnatic) Full form (Hindustani) Abbreviated form (Hindustani) Western (when C is the tonic)
Ṣaḍja Sa Ṣaḍja Sa C
Shuddha Madhyama Shuddha Ma Shuddha Madhyama Ma F
Prati Madhyama Prati Ma Teevra Madhyama M'a F#
Panchama Pa Panchama Pa G

Swaras in Carnatic music

The swaras in Carnatic music are slightly different in the twelve-note system. There are three types each of Rishabh, Gandhar, Dhaivat and Nishad. There are two types of Madhyam, while Pancham and Shadaj are invariant. In Carnatic Music, swaras have prakruti and vikruti swaras. The vikruti swaras are Ri, Ga, Ma, Da and Ni. The rest -- Sa and Pa -- are prakruti swaras.

Position Swara (स्वर) Short name Notation Mnemonic


Western note (Sa = C) # of half steps from Sa
1 Ṣhaḍja (षड्ज) Sa S Sa C 0
2 Shuddha Rishabh (शुद्ध ऋषभ) Ri R1 Ra D♭ 1
3 Chatushruti Rishabh (चतुश्रुति ऋषभ) Ri R2 Re D 2
4 Sadharana Gandhar (साधारण गान्धार) Ga G2 Ri E♭ 3
5 Antara Gandhar (अन्तर गान्धार) Ga G3 Ga E 4
6 Shuddha Madhyam (शुद्ध मध्यम) Ma M1 Ma F 5
7 Prati Madhyam (प्रति मध्यम) Ma M2 Mi F♯ 6
8 Pancham (पञ्चम) Pa P Pa G 7
9 Shuddha Dhaivat (शुद्ध धैवत) Dha D1 Da A♭ 8
10 Chatushruti Dhaivat (चतुश्रति धैवत) Dha D2 Dha A 9
11 Kaisiki Nishad (निषाद) Ni N2 Dhi B♭
12 Kakali Nishad (काकली निषाद) Ni N3 NI B

As you can see above, Chatushruti Rishabh and Shuddha Gandhar share the same pitch (3rd key/position). Hence if C is chosen as Shadaj, D would be both Chatushruti Rishabh and Shuddha Gandhar. Hence they will not occur in same raga together. Similarly for two swaras each at notes 4, 10 and 11.[19]

See also

Further reading

  • Mathieu, W. A. (1997). Harmonic Experience: Tonal Harmony from Its Natural Origins to Its Modern Expression. Inner Traditions Intl Ltd. ISBN 0-89281-560-4. An auto didactic ear-training and sight-singing book that uses singing sargam syllables over a drone in a just intonation system based on perfect fifths and major thirds.


  1. ^ Rowell 2015, p. 13.
  2. ^ Vimalakānta Rôya Caudhurī (2000). The Dictionary of Hindustani Classical Music. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 122–123. ISBN 978-81-208-1708-1. 
  3. ^ a b Ellen Koskoff (2013). The Concise Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Volume 2. Routledge. p. 936. ISBN 978-1-136-09602-0. 
  4. ^ Rowell 2015, pp. 145-159.
  5. ^ a b c d Randel 2003, pp. 814-815.
  6. ^ a b Guy L. Beck (2012). Sonic Liturgy: Ritual and Music in Hindu Tradition. University of South Carolina Press. pp. 91–94. ISBN 978-1-61117-108-2. 
  7. ^ Rowell, Lewis (1977). "A Siksa for the Twiceborn". Asian Music. University of Texas Press. 9 (1): 72–94. doi:10.2307/833818. 
  8. ^ a b Coomaraswamy, A. (1936). "Vedic Exemplarism". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. Harvard University Press. 1 (1): 44–64. doi:10.2307/2718037. 
  9. ^ Valerie Roebuck (2004). The Upanishads. Penguin Books. p. 534. ISBN 978-0-14-193801-1. 
  10. ^ a b Te Nijenhuis 1974, pp. 21–25.
  11. ^ Te Nijenhuis 1974, p. 14.
  12. ^ Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy (1985), Harmonic Implications of Consonance and Dissonance in Ancient Indian Music, Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology 2:28–51. Citation on pp. 28–31.
  13. ^ Lidova 2014.
  14. ^ Sanskrit: Natyasastra Chapter 28, नाट्यशास्त्रम् अध्याय २८, ॥ २१॥
  15. ^ Naradiya Siksha 1.2.1
  16. ^ Te Nijenhuis 1974, pp. 13–14, 21–25.
  17. ^ a b Randel 2003, p. 815.
  18. ^ Guy L. Beck (2006). Sacred Sound: Experiencing Music in World Religions. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. p. 126. ISBN 978-0-88920-421-8. 
  19. ^ Gaanaamrutha Varna Maalikaa by A.S. Panchaabakesa Iyer


  • Daniélou, Alain (1949). Northern Indian Music, Volume 1. Theory & technique; Volume 2. The main rāgǎs. London: C. Johnson. OCLC 851080. 
  • Kaufmann, Walter (1968). The Ragas of North India. Oxford & Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0253347800. OCLC 11369. 
  • Lidova, Natalia (2014). "Natyashastra". Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0071. 
  • Martinez, José Luiz (2001). Semiosis in Hindustani Music. Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 978-81-208-1801-9. 
  • Mehta, Tarla (1995). Sanskrit Play Production in Ancient India. Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 978-81-208-1057-0. 
  • Randel, Don Michael (2003). The Harvard Dictionary of Music (fourth ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-01163-2. 
  • Rowell, Lewis (2015). Music and Musical Thought in Early India. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-73034-9. 
  • Te Nijenhuis, Emmie (1974). Indian Music: History and Structure. BRILL Academic. ISBN 90-04-03978-3. 
  • Titon, Jeff Todd; Cooley; Locke; McAllester; Rasmussen (2008). Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World's Peoples. Cengage. ISBN 0-534-59539-1. 

External links

  • North India Sargam Notation System
  • Article on vivadi svaras, by Haresh Bakshi
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