How to use Rhythm Groups and Calculations based on Karnatic (South Indian Classical) Music in Jazz- improvisation & Composition (a short Introduction)

Everybody, who ever worked on improvisation on chord changes knows how boring it is after a while to play from one chord to the other without rhythmical conception.
To do this correctly we have to imply the melody to the harmonic rhythm. A note on a downbeat (or pulse) functions different than a note which will go to this note (pulse). The first one has to make “sense” with the harmony. The 2nd one has much more freedom, because it’s approaching the 3rd one. The only exception is the last note of a phrase, because this note becomes a pulse note in all cases. The result are many concepts used in jazz improvisation as chromatic-, scale approaches, bop-scales, or more complex systems like the multitonic systems, inside-outside playing, etc. There is a lot of information already on the market.

But the melody which comes out of that is always a “slave” of the harmonic rhythm. There is no independent dramaturgy of melodic development.
What is missing is a consequent development of an independent melodic rhythm while respecting the harmonic rhythm.

If you use now the concepts, I developed out of Karnatic Jathi singing, introduced in this book and replace the “Takadimi’s” by musical notes you’ll find a lot of different ways of developing a melodic lines. By using all the systems mentioned above you’ll find your way of melody in improvisation & writing.

Now you need only a rhythm section which understands what you are doing and the communication will become much more sophisticated and interesting for you and the audience.

During my studies in Karnatic (south Indian) Classical Music I was always impressed by the control of rhythm in this particular music. Besides the treatment of musical pitches this is the most outstanding factor in this art-form. Though the pitch language (Raga Bhava) needs a much longer intensive study and explanation (a subject for another book or life…), the rhythm aspect can be integrated in jazz and western music in general right away. It will give the improviser & composer a creative tool to create superimpositions, mastering odd meters, switching from any sub-count into any sub-count without doubt.

Musical events in Karnatik music are not based on a absolute value. They exist only in relation to each other. An Akshara (Aks.), for example, is a count or beat. It could be a quarter note. A Matra (Mt.) is a sub-count. If 4 Mt. sum up to 1 Aks. – like 4 sixteenth notes sum up to a quarter note – it’s called Chatusra Gati. (ChG.) . If 4 Aks. form 1Avartanam (Ava.) (Cycle) you get a Chatusra Eka Tala. (ChET), the old western 4/4 measure.

Rhythmic groups in Indian music are formed by an enchainment of syllables. These syllables are derived from the sound of the percussion instruments. Rhythms are taught by spelling or “singing” these syllables (Jathi singing, Konnakol). I simplified them to the following:



To elongate a syllable by 1 (or more) unit (s) you put a dash behind the syllable. I.e.: Ta- = 2 units; Ta- – = 3 units etc. (In some books they use a comma Ta, = 2 units, Ta,, =3 unites. I use commas only to separate groups)

Now take a 5/4 for example (without any divisions it’s called Khanda Eka Tala (KhET.). With 2 Mts. per Aks. you get 10Mts. in 1 Ava. So, in the period of time you sing 1 time Ta- di-gi-na-tom- (1 time 5) for the Aks. you can sing Tadiginatom Tadiginatom (2 times 5) for the Matras.

In western thinking you would group the ten Mts in 5 groups of eight notes (Taka TakaTaka Taka Taka). Now imagine, you sing a 1 measure phrase in 5/4. You keep your beat on the foot and double the speed of your melody. That means you sing it twice. The 2nd time that means in the 2nd Tadiginatom all the offbeats are downbeats and vise versa! Now it depends on your interpretation of this groupings. If you strech the note on the downbeats (fat notation) you get the Western agogig (Tadi gina tomTa digi natom). If you think in groups of 5 just realizing how the Mts. fall on the Aks. You get a poly rhythm within you realize when the enchainment of groups fall on the Sama (starting point) (Tadiginatom Tadiginatom), what I call the Indian agogig.
So the difference between Western and Indian rhythmic interpretation (agogig) is the note we ́ll stretch:
In Western music we stretch always the downbeats Indian the 1st note of the group. ( This is the main unrealized problem of Indofusion projects! The western player stresses other notes than the Indian. The result: 2 different grooves)
If you double the 2nd Speed to 3rd Speed you get 4 different groups of 5ths where the specific Aks. falls every time on another Syllable.
(Tadigina tomTadigi natomTadiginatomTa diginatom) in Western agogig.
These are all possibilities a group of 5 Mts. can be phrased in Chatusra Gati (ChG) or 16th notes.
Besides doubling the tempo you could change the subcount. For example 3 Mts. Per Aks. (Triplets) or 7 Mts. per Aks. the result of superimposition would always fall in 5/4 and you get all possibilities a group of 5 Mts. can be phrased in that specific subcount! Groups of 5th in Triplets with western agogig:
(Tadigi natomTa digina tomTadi ginatom)
Groups of 5th in 7-tuples (Misra Gati):
(TadiginatomTadi ginatomTadigina tomTadiginatomTa diginatomTadiginatomTadiginatom)
(For more information about practicing through all measures and rhythm-groupings see under chapter “Packing rhythmic groups in their specific mesure” )

A group of 5 Matras could be played with 1 (or more) elongations. I.e. less attacks than units.

Matras 12345
Group of 4 attacks in 5 MtsTakadimi
Group of 3 attack s in 5 MtsTakidi

The result for 1 elongation are 4 different “Takadimi’s “. (Ta-kadimi, Taka-dimi, Takadi-mi, Takadimi-).
With 2 elongations you 6 different “Takita’s” etc.( Ta- -kita, Taki- -ta, Takita- -, Ta-ki-ta, Ta- kita-, Taki-ta-)

(All possibilities you’ll find in chapter “Packing groups with elongations”.

To fill a 2 bar cycle which is called Adi Tala (8/4 measure = 2 x 4/4) subdivided in 16thnotes (Chatusruti Gati) you need 32 16th notes.
If you want to „land“ on the downbeat of the new cycle (Sama) you could take 3 6-note groups and 3 5-note groups.

3 x 6 + 3 x 5 = 33 That means the last note of this enchainment is the Sama. A nice way of doing it is in alternating the groups.
(Takataka dinaTadi ginatomTa katakadi naTadigi natomTaka takadina Tadigina tom) The last “tom” must be the downbeat.

This example could be played with any kind of elongated groups, so you have a lot of variety just for this example.
Fill it with musical notes and play it over a II-V progressions under respecting the harmony change on the 5th beat.

(more of these ideas you’ll find in the chapter “Calculations and Chord progessions” ). In Karnatic Music exist many other possibilities of enchainment of groups. There are reductions of groups, 3time groups to end a phrase, Alankaras, Korvais, etc.

The Tala-system in use right now is built on 35 Talas. Talas are some kind of more complex mesures with sub-pulsations. There is a big difference between a 7/4 built on the combination 3 + 4 (Tisra Triputa Tala), a 7/4 built on the combination 4 + 3 (Chatusra Jhampa Tala) and a 7/4 without sub-pulsation (Misra Eka Tala). This is part of the chapter “Talas in Karnatic music”.

In the chapter “Rhythmical analysis of Karnatic compositions” I’ll talk about some Gitas, Varnams (etudes in Raga) and how they are structured.
The whole melody concept in Karnatic Music is built on groupings. To give these powerful tools in an understandable way to the western educated musician I decided to write this upcoming blogs

Rainer Pusch

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