Sunday, December 17, 2006

Intonation in Carnatic concerts

The term Intonation in music means, put simply, producing notes that are in tune. It is what we would call zruti zuddham. (Or, in other words, being a "suswaraM Ramjhi.")

The most important factor for producing a note in tune is possessing an accurate aural perception of that note. Once this is present, intonation is developed by practising to match the note we produce with this standard. (In Carnatic music, of course, we do not have an "absolute note" -- they are all relative to the chosen reference SaDja.) Thus, for perfect intonation, a keen sense of hearing is absolutely essential.

When performing in large halls, musicians hear their own instruments only very faintly. And there isn't enough echo either.* So, intonation becomes a big challenge. Now, an accompanying Carnatic artiste has a tougher problem -- he needs to be able to hear the main performer as well. Furthermore, an instrument that is initially tuned perfectly to the taMbUrA, may go out of tune during the course of the concert; and the musician needs to be able to detect when this happens and correct it based on the taMbUrA that is droning some distace away on the platform. (And, to repeat, "I can't hear no nothing!")

Usually, to enable the performers to hear themselves, a speaker system (called a monitor or "fold-back") that is directed towards the platform is provided. However, I have never seen one in a Carnatic concert. In addition, few concert venues are actually auditoria built with necessary acoustics for a music performance. Many are just open spaces with asbestos roofing (Ayodhya Mandapam, YGP Auditorium, etc.).

Given all these hurdles, I am amazed how our musicians perform with perfect intonation. They are practically performing deaf.

- - -
* An extreme case would be a recording studio, whose walls are built to expressly prevent any echoes. This is why (as we have seen in movies scenes featuring a studio recording) the artistes are supplied with headphones.

Update (20 Dec): I have found a related Wikipedia entry -- Foldback. Excerpts:

The provision of foldback (or monitor) speakers is essential to performers, because without a foldback system, the sound they would hear from front of house would be the reverberated reflections from the rear wall of the venue. The naturally-reflected sound is delayed and distorted.

... On stages with poor or absent foldback mixes, vocalists may end up singing off-tune or out of time with the band.

Update 2 (26 January): A post from an excellent blog (by Ramnarayan) I stumbed upon says:
Young vocalist Savita Narasimhan clarifies that the musician on the stage rarely asks for the volume to be turned up for the listeners. He or she is actually asking for help with the feedback (or fallback) so essential for the performer on stage. “Often the vocalist cannot hear the percussionist or violinist and vice versa. The musician’s request to increase the volume of the monitor is misunderstood and the technician increases the volume for the audience.”


Manjunatha said...

I am totally out of tune here(okay, obvious joke). Please explain more. Let's say I want to sing sa-ri-ga-ma. I have started 'sa' with a certain tone/note relative to certain standard note. But if I have to say 'ri', I have to remember what was the tone of 'sa' such that I can say 'ri' relative to that. Is this aural perception in music somekind of 3D system? Are listening and singing done in two different time points? And how do your rate this comment in a 1-10 stupidity scale with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the height.

Sunil said...

things are certainly slowly changing. Most concerts in the states (both Carnatic and Hindustani) have stages where there are decent feedback monitors. And that does make a very big difference. It is only a matter of time before they are adopted in auditoriums in India.

That said.....traditionally, Carnatic (and to a lesser extent Hindustani) music was mostly performed outdoors (in temple courtyards and suchlike). In part that explained why some of the older singers (in old LP recordings) didn't sound too great....but people who heard them live in large, open venues still swear by their standards of music.

All this is worth a post in itself....

Srikanth said...


I have to remember what was the tone of 'sa'
Ideally speaking, in Indian music, one does not have to remember the Sa tone -- we take the help of a tambura which plays the reference Sa. However, as I mention in the post, when performing with a PA system, it gets tough to hear the tambura tone. So having a tonal memory of the Sa definitely helps!

... such that I can say 'ri' relative to that.
The aural perception is also needed to know how much relative to Sa is the location of Ri.

It's a little more difficult if we are going from one arbitrary note to another -- say from Ri to Ni -- or if we sing/play a series of notes in a quick succession.

Are listening and singing done in two different time points?
Good question! Is our brain a multi-threading uniprocessor or a multiprocessor?

And how do your rate this comment...
The grade shall be released on the receipt of an examination fee.

Is this aural perception in music somekind of 3D system?
Hey, what do you take me for? A scholar or something? I am just a dilettante!

Srikanth said...


I do hope usage of good foldback systems gets widespread in Carnatic concerts. I also wished to articulate in the post my astonishment at how inspite of a primitive sound arragement, our (especially instrumental) vidwans have maintained an impeccable Sruti Suddham in the concerts. Probably just like how our eyes get used to darkness, the artists learnt to manage with whatever little they could hear.

traditionally Carnatic ... music was mostly performed outdoors
I think performing outdoors is not the problem per se. It's doing so with a PA system that brings in the difficulty. This is because, in this case, (1) there is no echo (the venue being open) and (2) due to the PA system, one only gets to hear a diffused version of the amplified sound, and not the original voice.

sunson said...

Srican, I completely agree with your post. The acoustics at most Carnatic halls are bad. But your post makes it appear as though its the lack of the 'monitor' that kills the performance. There is usually _one_ monitor on stage common to all the people. I know it can be very difficult. So obviously we need atleast one monitor per artist. The other thing is, the music on the 'house' is bad because the audio engineer knows less about the tonal quality that is needed, the volume needed for each accompaniment, etc.,. and therefore even the 'house' music is bad.

Srikanth said...


This post was written before my visit to Madras for the Season. This time I was looking for monitors and noticed that some of them did have one, as you rightly point out. But I didn't see any in the Infosys Hall (or maybe it wasn't visible from my seat). Nor do I remember seeing any in Ayodhya Mandapam during the Ramanavami concerts.

As the musician says (see my latest update): Not only does absence of (or having poor) monitors make it tough for the performers to hear each other, it also forces the performers to request an increase in the overall volume, making it tough for the listeners.

You are correct about the poor acoustics and tonal adjustments -- that's a post by itself.

abhorigine said...

Delightful blog! Will you write for Sruti magazine? Please let me know. Ram

Srikanth said...


Thank you! It's an honour if I get to write for Sruti. I'd love to!

krishna said...

amazing blog.. i would like to be with this blog.. nice articles..thanks

Srikanth said...

Thank you!

Violin is an instrument I love. So it was good to see the prominence given to it in your website's mast, as well as the space given to violin vidwans in your Maestro section!