How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano (2016)

Contents, Introduction & Videos

258-page book by composer John Pitts, with sheet music for 24 raags, step by step instructions and hundreds of musical examples to try out.

This collection of 24 raags will be enjoyed by good amateur pianists through to virtuosic professionals. It is suitable for any pianist who enjoys discovering new music, or who has an interest in music from other cultures, or who knows the pleasure of jazz noodling and wants to explore a rewarding and fresh (but centuries-old) form of improvisation.

Indian raags have an extraordinary musical heritage dating back several centuries (from the area that is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) – a truly unique musical genre of fascinating melodic beauty and rhythmic intricacy – freely combining elaborate composed melodies with carefully rehearsed improvisation.

But now the amazing world of Indian raags has been opened up in this sympathetic but thorough reinvention for piano solo (or duet or two pianos) by an award-winning British composer (

 The book includes:

* Sheet music for piano solo: a set of 24 raags, newly composed within a traditional raag genre, one for each hour of night and day, sunset to sunset, encompassing a wide array of moods, and based on over twenty fascinating scales.  Includes these 24 raags: Kalyani “Bliss”, Hemvati “Golden Mountain Stream”, Latangi “Little Girl”, Desh “Sweeping Landscape”, Vachaspati “Wise Old Man”, Gezellish “Gazelle”, Kalavati “Moonlight”, Bageshri “The Waiting Bride”, Neenda “Sleep”, Paraj “Pollen on the Breeze”, Lalit “Elegant Mischief”, Jogiya Kalingra “Aroma of Saffron”, Chakravaak “Ruddy Goose”, Kofi “Intense Coffee”, Suraja “Morning Sun”, Bilaskhani Todi “Mourning”, Asawari “Full of Hope”, Todi “Lady in the Forest”, Gaud-Sarang “Lunchtime Bell”, Madhuvanti “Flowing with honey”, Patdeep “Stealing my heart”, Charukesh “Beautiful Hair”, Poorvi “From the East”, & Puriya “Satisfaction”.

* Step by step instructions to play each of the pre-composed and improvised sections of Indian raags, written for pianists who are used to playing European classical music and jazz.

* Instructions to play any of these raags in a duet or at two pianos.

* Hundreds of musical examples

The following is an extract from the book (pages 7-11) – the introduction.

The purpose of this book

The aim of this book is first and foremost to open up the astonishing world of Indian classical music to pianists from western classical or jazz traditions who otherwise have no easy way to engage with Indian raags.  I hope to help enable you to perform a (pretty much) authentic, improvised raag, having understood the structure and having practised using, playing around with, and generally enjoying the key raag ingredients, and immersing yourself in a whole new emotional experience.  I also hope that some more adventurous pianists will be encouraged to develop the raag tradition further in interesting new directions!

What is a raag?

The raag is the highest musical art-form of India – a genre – a highly ornate, semi-improvised music with a typical set of conventions and a typical structure.  The nearest equivalent western musical term might be a cross between ‘Air’ (a composition dominated by melody) and ‘Sonata’ (a musical form with established conventions).  The word raag literally means ‘colour’ and from that also ‘passion’ or ‘emotion’.  Each individual, named raag is defined by a set of musical ingredients which determine its distinct ‘colour’. Raags are typically played by a melody instrument (or voice) accompanied by a drone instrument and rhythmic percussion – but the raags in this book have been designed specifically to be performable by a single pianist.  Performances can last anywhere between a few minutes and a few hours!

On your own, or in a duet, or on two pianos?

This book is designed for you to explore and play raags either on your own or with a friend (or pupil/teacher).  I have included 2-hand examples of the drone-combined-with-tala so that one person playing the melody line (with either one or two hands) can be accompanied by someone else, if they choose.

For those of you fortunate enough to have a friend, your partner can be either lower down the piano, or on a second piano. Several raags in this book also contain harder talas with lengths other than 8 beats.  They are generally a lot harder to play on your own (certainly while improvising a melody in the right hand), so they are especially good for duets.  In fact a raag performed on authentic Indian instruments would have the different layers performed by different people (eg: sitar melody, tabla percussion, tanpura drone).

Playing as a duet allows you to concentrate on just one layer, and therefore improvise more complex music (not least, the optional flashy jhalla section at the end of raags).  So, player 2, feel free to elaborate further on these 2-hand drone-and-talas, and improvise with them too – develop the patterns and make them more complex.  To be authentic, the most important thing is to make sure that you know where beat 1 (sam) of the tala is, and from time to time particularly emphasize it when you get there.  This is especially true at the end of a tihai (see the section “Ingredients of Pre-composed Melody”) which you’ll need to practise together with player 1.

Playing in a 2-piano duo allows more improvisational interplay between players, a more equal partnership, and more freedom. For example two players on two pianos can play the notated music together and also improvise together, taking it in turns to take a lead role, or both bouncing off each other. But that’s up to you – whichever way, you’ll want to play and practise on your own as well.

General instructions

Each of the raags on the following pages contains certain key ingredients for you to explore.  If you haven’t yet tried any of this, and if you’ve got a piano nearby, I’d recommend you now go straight to the first of the raags (“Bliss” Raag Kalyani) and just have a little explore, trying to follow the instructions as best you can.  Then when you’re ready, come back to the ‘Raag Ingredients’ pages and find out exactly what’s what.  There are then 23 other raags to immerse yourself in, each of which can provide hours of emotional engagement and intellectual stimulation.

If you decide to give a concert performance of a raag, you can choose the raag most appropriate to the event/time/audience, and tailor it accordingly.  Two words of caution:

  1. The notated raags in this book contain more material than you will need for any single performance – don’t try to perform it all in one go.
  2. While your audience doubtless will love your performance, do be considerate to them – it is all too easy to be self-indulgent playing these raags on your own at home (potentially for very long stretches of time), which may be more than most audiences (other than late night / lazy afternoon) might appreciate.

Why doesn’t everyone play Indian raags on a piano?

Playing Indian raags on a piano is not an obvious thing to do. On one level it really doesn’t make any sense. Simply attempting to copy the notes played by a sitar and transfer them onto a piano doesn’t work very well at all – it just doesn’t sound Indian.

And why not? Well, this is partly because many raags use scales that are very well known in western music – eg: major scale, natural minor and church modes (also used in rock and jazz). Moreover, many of the main characteristics (or ingredients) of North Indian Classical music are not easily achievable on a piano:

  • 22-note division of the octave – ie: the tuning, in effect, is often different to our standard piano tuning (equal temperament) that we’ve used in Europe for the last 4 centuries.[1]
  • percussion – raags are accompanied by drums, normally a pair of drums called tabla with their idiomatic pitch bend (a gorgeously satisfying slidey sound), and other percussive sounds – also difficult to replicate on a piano!
  • pitch bend – it isn’t just the tabla that does this – sliding between notes (meend ) is an integral part of Indian melodies and a key ingredient to sounding Indian.
  • timbre – the actual sound – plucked Indian string instruments tend to have a resonant, buzzy twanginess, and bowed Indian string instruments have a somewhat raw gutteral sound.
  • reverberance – Indian instruments such as the sitar have a built-in resonance by way of a set (an entire scale, and over more than an octave) of ‘sympathetic strings’ – these are not plucked (other than at the start of the raag – essentially to check they are in tune!) but each string is set vibrating when the equivalent note is played in the melody, and it acts as a sustaining mechanism for that note, adding an extra resonance or reverb to each note in the melody.
  • drone – the sustained feel and the quietly changing harmonics of this ever-present background accompaniment of notes 1, 5 and 8 is not easy to replicate precisely on piano.

So, how can Indian music be played on a piano?

Well, with some carefully chosen additions, many of those difficult-to-achieve-on-a-piano characteristics can be compensated for.   Enough of the classical Indian sound-world can be captured on a piano to produce an authentic vehicle for the immense beauty of the structure and melodies and rhythms of raags.

Much of this collection could be seen as the musical equivalent of a Chicken Tikka Massala – definitely Indian, but tweaked for a Western palate – although in this case adapted for a Western instrument – the piano.  Flavour-enhancers (the equivalent of MSG – monosodium glutamate) are used to concentrate certain Indian ingredients – eg: using the more obviously strongly Indian-flavoured scales, adding extra flavouring notes to the drones, and using low bass notes with the sustain pedal permanently down to help all the harmonically-related piano strings constantly resonate.

Reasons you might want to play Indian music

  • out of general interest – simply to find out about the ingredients of Indian music and how Indian raags work.
  • to immerse yourself in exploring a whole new sound-world from your piano. It is easy to spend many many happy hours exploring raags on a piano.
  • to enjoy creating your own music. Improvisation is largely a lost skill in Western classical music, although it has seen something of a resurgence in recent years. In Mozart’s time it would be common for a performer to prepare their own cadenza for the middle of a sonata. Many of you jazz pianists may well have had the pleasure of noodling around the blues and various modes for many happy hours, and there are plenty of similarities in the kinds of processes you go through in jazz improvisation and in Indian raags. The Indian raag is an improvised art-form – but within a clear structure and boundaries and with a distinct set of rules. Raags are very much melody-dominated, and as such are a great vehicle for learning to improvise and compose generally – following precise instructions and a clear structure – from simple melodic phrases to complicated rhythmic patterns.
  • The atmospheric scales. There are 32 North Indian scales (see pages 210-212) to choose from and explore, not least the exciting characteristic of having different collections of notes on the way up and the way down.
  • The beautiful and enchanting melodies, filled with highly nuanced, ornate and colourful decorations and grace notes.
  • Rhythms – the rhythms in Indian music include some really groovy patterns and features, rather like jazz. Rhythmic transformation is a core feature of raag melodies – either in simple augmenting or diminishing of rhythms (layakari), or in adapting melodies to a new rhythmic pattern (chand) such as the syncopated and rather funky 2 2 3 pattern. One particular concept, the tihai, has pretty much infinite exciting patterns to explore and create, and you could easily spend many many happy hours just on these – exploring, practising, creating.

Video examples from the book How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano

Raag Kalyani “Bliss” – Excerpt playlist

Raag Kalyani “Bliss” – 12 individual excerpts

 Raag Hemvati “Golden Mountain Stream” – Excerpt playlist
Raag Latangi “Little Girl” – Excerpt playlist
Raag Desh “Sweeping Landscape” – Excerpt playlist
Raag Vachaspati “Wise Old Man” – Excerpt playlist
Playlist of playlists – examples from the book: 

NOT DIRECTLY FROM THE BOOK… but here is a through-composed, virtuosic piano duet, “Raag Gezellig” performed by Emilie Carcy & Matthieu Millischer, Perpignan, France 2015