Ravi Shankar and the Phrygian Mode

The Indian tanpura provides the soundscape for most raga music. It’s also an instrument often used in the Phrygian mode. At Dartmouth, I saw one of Ravi Shankar’s last performances, with his daughter. I also saw Pat Metheny perform at the HOP, at Dartmouth, and many MET operas. I loved the Hopkins Center of the Arts. Ravi Shankar introduced Western bands to the sitar, and the Phrygian mode (examples: the Beatles, Metallica, The Doors, and the Rolling Stones).

The Instruments

The Kurdish tanbur provides sacred music for Ahl-e Haqq practitioners. The tambur is one of the four instruments of Turkish classical music. Turkish or Ottoman classical music can be described as monophonic or heterophonic. The Kurdish tanbur is one of the few Middle Eastern instruments that doesn’t use microtones. A tuning system defines tones, or pitches, in playing music. Tuning involves choosing the number, and spacing of various musical frequencies. The tanbura is another descendant of the Persian tanbur and is used in zar rituals.

The Greek Byzantine tambouras has existed at least from the 900s. The tambouras might have originated even earlier, in Assyrian, and ancient Egyptian times. The Arabians reclaimed the tambouras, and the tanbur is played throughout India, Turkey, Iran, and Eastern Europe. The tambouras may have also originated from the earlier Persian tar.

The Persian tar is short for “cahartar” or “cartar,” both meaning “four-stringed.” Ancient and modern Persians categorize lyres based on the number of strings. From Persian influences comes the setar, or “three-stringed,” which became the Indian sitar, in raga music. There are Pan-Indo-European influences in music, among Persians, Indians, Greeks, and Eastern Europeans. The Persian tar is a staple of Persian classical music. The Azerbaijani tar (from another Iranian people) was added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity items.

The setar was seen in Persia as early as the 800s and was probably based on older lyre instruments. The setar influenced the sitar of India and the satar of Uighur Turks, in China. The sitar is also used in Hindustani classical music. A muqam is a melody type and musical mode, of the Uighur Turks, in China, using the satar.

The Indian tamboori is a smaller tanpura, played with a bow, and also used in ragas. A tamboori also resembles a sitar, but with no frets. Each metal string of the tamboori has its own fundamental tone, with a spectrum of overtones. The term “tamboori” is a combination of “tanpura,” relating to music, and the word for “vibrant,” “borri.” When bowed, a tamboori creates an interactive harmonic resonance, on the basic notes of a key. A tamboori is a melodic instrument, like the violin – unlike the tanpura, which is more of a drone instrument, used to create the soundscape of the music.

The Phrygian Mode

Phrygian mode is found in flamenco, and Spanish Romani music. It is also found in the iconic prologue music, composed by Howard Shore, in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (since Lord of the Rings is a fantasy, fictional retelling of Spain pushing out the Moors). Phrygian is E to E.

Phrygian mode is common in Middle Eastern, and North African music, including Moorish music that became established in Spain, during the Middle Ages (before the late 1400s). This influence resonates so much that Spanish Phrygian, or altered Phrygian, is a common alteration that takes this mode even further, with a minor second and major third. This is found in flamenco, an example being those of Paco de Lucia (like his fandango).

In contemporary pop music, Phrygian is used in Missy Elliot’s “Get Ur Freak On.” Other songs include: “White Rabbit,” by Jefferson Airplane, “Pyramid Song,” by Radiohead, and “Surfer Girl” and “Good Vibrations,” by The Beach Boys. This interval is also used in the iconic shark fanfare, from Jaws (“You’re gonna need a bigger boat”). This theme uses the white keys, on the low end of the keyboard, in a minor mode.

The mode is based on the flat second (b2), one half-step above the tonic (the starting note of the scale). Phrygian, and the flat two (b2) are prevalent in Indian, Bhangra, and Punjabi music, with the one-stringed tumbi. This mode, and the flat second, can be heard in many film and video game scores, in order to build suspense, since this close interval is one of the tensest available in Western music.

It’s a mode that can sound foreign to the Western ear, so it has a kind of “Middle Eastern” or world music vibe or feel to it. The intervals of the Phrygian are rarely seen in Western music (or heptatonic music) but are still common in the rest of the world (pentatonic music) [although the Indian tumbi sounds a little like a Western clavichord keyboard].

Tumbi riffs can sound very odd to the Western ear, with dissonant intervals, against the root note/tonic, and against the other notes themselves. However, there is consonance, and balance that grounds the scales, in this mode, showing that it is an older form of music, older than Western music, much like the pentatonic scale.


Ravi Shankar has passed away. This is saddening. He was 92. I had the pleasure to see him perform when he came to Dartmouth in my freshman year (2009). He was really great at the HOP. Dartmouth really brought in renowned artists to inspire students. I even wrote a blog post review on the performance, below:

Fall 2009

It was an honor to have Ravi Shankar in Hanover on October 20th. It was his second time visiting the Hopkins Center of the Arts after an absence of sixteen years. With a career that spans more than half a century, Shankar’s musical genius and command of the sitar have crossed cultural boundaries and opened the West’s eyes to the beauty and complexity of classical Indian music.

When I sat down in the Spaulding Auditorium at the Hopkins Center of the Arts, to listen to Shankar’s work, I honestly did not know what to expect. I’ve experienced only isolated performances of Indian music. In high school, a Bengali friend was involved in traditional Indian dance. However, the closest I have gotten to Indian music was the modern hip hop, dancehall and techno infused variations that can be sampled on an album like Basement Bhangra compiled by DJ Rekha. Yet, watching Shankar play allowed me to immerse myself in the roots of Indian music.

Needless to say, Shankar contribution to the world’s understanding of music has been honored and appreciated. In India, he has been awarded three of the nation’s civilian awards including the most imminent, the Bharat Ratna or “Jewel of India” in 1999. Shankar was awarded the Commandeur de la Legion d’Honneur, the highest civilian award of France in 2000 and the Honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2001. He has been the recipient of three Grammy Awards, and the International Music Council UNESCO award in 1975. Honorary degrees from India and the United States have been bestowed upon him, fourteen of which are doctorate degrees.

Despite his many accolades, anyone in the audience could see that Shankar is a humble man. Dressed in simple white garments, he bowed in respect to the crowd. For someone who has performed and composed with the likes of George Harrison of the Beatles, Andre Previn, Yehudi Menuhin and Phillip Glass in places as varied as New York, London, Woodstock and Vienna, his smile radiated not pride, or distance but an aura of quiet confidence and warmth.

On the stage, Shankar was accompanied by Ravichandra Kulur on a tradition Indian flute, Tanmoy Bose on the tabla, a pair of hand drums, and Pirashanna Thevarajah on the mridangam, a large double-sided drum. Each of Shankar’s two young proteges played the tanpura, a North Indian lute that resembles a sitar. Shankar’s talented daughter, Anoushka could not accompany him that night due to illness. It was the first time in fifteen years that she would not be performing with him, yet Shankar was kind enough to still grace us with his performance.

Before Shankar came on, Kular and Bose whetted the crowd’s appetite with a dramatic South Indian hymn to the Hindu god Ganesh. As the tanpuras murmured wistfully in the background, Kular’s flute soared above us all, like bird surveying a grassy plain. Bose’s tabla galloped alongside us like a sure-footed gazelle. Basking in the sunlight of their music, we were carried between heaven and earth. Our hearts were in tune with the joyful ragas of the flute and the drums.

At the heart of classical Indian music is the raga, “a precise, aesthetic, melodic form” says Shankar in On the Appreciation of Indian Classical Music. Although Indian music is characterized as modal, the raga must not be confused as the scale, melody, composition, or key found in Western music. A raga can be best characterized as the soul of a piece of music. A saying in Sanskrit translates as “That which colors the mind is a raga.” The raga colors the music, effecting notes and embellishments while setting the emotional tone of a piece. While music students in the West learn through the notation method, gurus pass their knowledge of the ragas to their disciples within the oral tradition of classical Indian music. Shankar was trained by the guru Allauddin Khan.

There are ragas for the nine rasas or sentiments, ragas for particular times of day and ragas for each of the seasons. There is a raga analogous to every cycle of life. Each raga has a vadi or principle note, a samavadi or secondary note, and a jan (life) or mukhda (face) which are the cluster of notes by which a raga can be recognized. All these notes make up the chalan or the characteristic note patterns of a raga. From the permutations and combinations of 72 melas or parent scales, over 6,000 ragas arise.

Shankar breathed life into his ragas. Once on stage, he began the traditional recital with an alap, a calm and slow exploration of the chosen raga. The immense sweeping song of his sitar ran like a river probing a dusty land. From this introspective beginning, Shankar moved on to the jor, in which different rhythms were used to elaborate and embellish the raga’s basic theme. Then he reached the gat, which is 4 to 16 bars rhythmic structure and fixed composition within the raga. Here Bose and Thevarajah entered on the drums. Bose also lent his vocal expertise to the piece. The gat culminated in the jhala, which allows improvisation within the context of the raga. The piece reached its climax in the sawal jabab, where there was a beautiful, exhilarating, and rapid interplay between sitar and tabla, concluding in a sensual, romantic thumri.

As I listened to Shankar’s sitar that night, the raga, the soul of the music synced with my individual consciousness, my own raga, and elevated my soul to a higher realm of awareness. The soul is a frequency of pure energy vibrating in the shell of our bodies. This frequency can harmonize with that of the universe, thereby enhancing our entire being. “Our ragas are the vehicles by which this essence can be perceived.” explains Shankar. The soul is a wave among waves. Like the sound waves of music or the electromagnetic waves of color, such waves are packed with energy that can be amplified, harmonized, and synchronized. When all these waves resonate, when soul and universe harmonize, the subsequent release of energy is not only powerful, but purifying. It is through this revelation do we realize of the true essence of our existence. Through the soul of the music our own soul is perfected.

At the end of the performance, the entire auditorium jumped to its feet. We applauded for so long that the musicians came out and bowed three times. Shankar is indeed perfected through his music. It does not take a guru to know that he has found his purpose in playing great music for the world.  END


The program notes from Ravi Shankar’s performance, in October 2009.

“The White Keys and the Minor Modes” by Professor Ethan Hein. NYU Mused Lab. Accessed here.