How to Play Indian Sitar Rāgas on a Piano (2020 edition)

Amazon UK / USA  – How to Play Indian Sitar Rāgas on a Piano (2016, fully revised 2020)  Perfect-bound, 268 pages, 21 x 1.5 x 29.7 cm.  The 2020 edition is also available coil-bound from Lulu or as a digital download from SheetMusicPlus

Contents, Introduction & Videos

2nd edition

262-page book by composer John Pitts, with sheet music for 24 rāgas, step by step instructions and hundreds of musical examples to try out.  2nd edition – fully revised 2020 (first published 2016).

Indian rāgas (or 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.  This rich and intriguing music is traditionally performed on sitar – or instruments such as the sarangi, sarod, esraj or voice – and has previously been generally unavailable to pianists.

But now the amazing world of Indian rāgas has been opened up in this sympathetic but thorough reinvention for piano solo (or duet or two pianos) by an award-winning British composer (www.johnpitts.co.uk).   Watch video samples from the book.

This collection of 24 rāgas 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.

This book contains:

  • Sheet music for piano solo: a set of 24 rāgas, newly composed within a traditional rāga 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 rāgas: Kalyāni “Bliss”, Hēmavati “Golden Mountain Stream”, Latāngi “Little Girl”, Desh “Sweeping Landscape”, Vāchaspati “Wise Old Man”, Gezellish “Gazelle”, Kalavati “Moonlight”, Bāgeśrī “The Waiting Bride”, Neenda “Sleep”, Paraj “Pollen on the Breeze”, Lalit “Elegant Mischief”, Jogiya Kalingra “Aroma of Saffron”, Chakravāk “Ruddy Goose”, Kofi “Intense Coffee”, Suraja “Morning Sun”, Bilaskhani Toḍī “Mourning”, Āsāvarī “Full of Hope”, Toḍī “Lady in the Forest”, Gaud-Sarang “Lunchtime Bell”, Madhuvanti “Flowing with honey”, Patdeep “Stealing my heart”, Chārukēsi “Beautiful Hair”, Pūrvī “From the East”, & Puriya “Satisfaction”.
  • Step by step instructions to play each of the pre-composed and improvised sections of Indian rāgas, written for pianists who are used to playing European classical music and jazz.  This includes how to develop the melodic material in the improvised ālāp (with optional joṛ and jhālā sections), and the part composed part improvised slow, medium and fast gat sections, with optional jhālā to finish.
  • Instructions to play any of these rāgas in a duet or at two pianos.
  • Hundreds of musical examples.
  • Accompanying audio & video examples can be accessed for free at pianoraga.com

The book has been fully revised in 2020, with improved explanations and definitions, spellings conformed to academic usage, corrected inclusion of the improvised joṛ section, inclusion of mohrā phrases in the ālāp, and a transcription of the intricate free-pulse rhythms in the first example ālāp video.



The following is an extract from the book (pages 5-12) – 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 rāgas.  I hope to help enable you to perform a (pretty much) authentic, improvised rāga, having understood the structure and having practised using, playing around with, and generally enjoying the key rāga ingredients, and immersing yourself in a whole new emotional experience.  I also hope that some more adventurous pianists will be encouraged to develop the rāga tradition further in interesting new directions.

There exist several very good books and articles on Indian classical music that focus on an analytical and theoretical approach to the note relationships and melodic construction within rāgas, and which explore the history of the numerous different traditions of vocal and instrumental music from different eras and places.  This book serves a different purpose: it is practical – it is a book for performers – a book to be played – a book to jump into and immediately start exploring this extraordinary music from the inside.  I am indebted to composer Christopher Norton’s insightful description in his kind review of the first edition of this book: “you can… enjoy being taken out of yourself and your western sound-world and into a wholly new way of making music.  On the piano”. 

This book then is a practical book.  It is designed to allow you the pianist to jump in and explore and play and experience music within this wholly different sound-world.  Its focus is not historical analysis, nor a comparative study of different traditions, nor a detailed look at the mathematical construction of and relationships between scale and melody types – fascinating though all those things are – but notated music with explanation and practical performance instruction, and the intensely captivating and intimate musical journey of each of these 24 rāgas.

What is a rāga?

The rāga is the highest musical art-form of India – a genre – a highly ornate, semi-improvised music with a typical set of conventions and typical structures.  The Sanskrit word rāga literally means ‘to colour’ and from that also ‘to induce emotion’ or ‘to arouse passion’.  Each individual, named rāga is a framework for an improvised yet heavily rehearsed musical performance that is defined by the unique combination of musical ingredients which determine its distinct ‘colour’.  Rāgas are typically played by a melody instrument (or voice) accompanied by a drone instrument and rhythmic percussion – but the rāgas 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.

It is difficult to find a neat, succinct definition of what a rāga is.  This is a) because the word means a number of different things, b) because the musical term rāga entails a process of music-making that is alien to most western musicians, and c) because performance practice varies widely.  The word rāga is often (unhelpfully and inaccurately) translated as “scale” – which barely scrapes the surface of its meaning.  In reality it refers to a whole set of conventions – both a broad set of musical ingredients and also the specific approach to improvising with them – that ‘colour’ the emotions.

The following list makes a sequential connection between different definitions of the word rāga:

  • to colour, to dye
  • to colour the mind, to evoke a mood
  • to induce an emotional response, to arouse passion
  • a melody type, or category of melody within Indian musical tradition, thought to evoke or induce emotion, distinguished by a unique combination of constituent components, including:
    • a small collection of particular patterns of notes (key motifs or phrases)
    • ascending and descending versions of a particular scale
    • notes that are approached or decorated in particular ways
    • notes that are emphasized or prolonged
  • a broader framework for composition and improvisation that includes rhythmic conventions (including tāla = a metre or rhythmic cycle with defined groupings of beats and associated patterns of drum strokes).
  • a complete musical performance – of melody accompanied by drone notes, and usually also percussion in the latter part of the performance –  within the context of one of several musical traditions from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, featuring heavily rehearsed improvisation and (most commonly) some pre-composed melody using the distinguishable patterns and features of a particular melody type (see above), within an established framework and structure.  There are hundreds of named rāgas, each usually associated with a particular mood, time of day, and possibly also season.  The specific name given to a rāga identifies the specific set of characteristic phrases and other melodic features that define that individual named rāga.

In practice, this last definition – comprehensively including all the other meanings – is the most common usage: where the word rāga is used as part of the title of a specific musical performance.  A performer may introduce the performance as “rāga such and such”.  Similarly, you will find recordings of “Rāga X” or “Rāga Y”.  To be clear, these are not performances of a “piece of music” in the western sense.  No two performances will ever be exactly the same, even if by the same performer.  And performances of the same rāga by two performers from different traditions – in genres with different compositional structures and instrumentation and contexts – may well sound like completely different ‘pieces of music’, albeit with similarities in melodic contour.  Some rāga performances may use a significant amount of pre-composed material, while some performances may be entirely improvised.  Mostly it is a combination of both, within a strict set of melodic, rhythmic and structural conventions, specifically within one of the various music styles (eg: Dhrupad, Khayāl, Tarānā, Ṭhumrī etc.) and according to the method of a particular gharānā (tradition/school).

Indian classical music divides into two camps: Hindustani rāga/raag and Carnatic ragam.  The starting point for this book is the North Indian (Hindustani) sitar tradition, in which a rāga performance typically comprises a selection from these six possible movements or sections, always in this order:

Ālāp joṛ jhālā – slow gat section – fast gat section – final jhālā

A fully improvised performance would comprise just the ālāp, joṛ and jhālā.  Be aware: these three sections are also known collectively as ālāp.  A common structure – the pattern frequently used in this book – is:

Ālāp (just the first of the three ālāp sections)gat sections – jhālā.

The first section (the ālāp) has a free pulse, so you have all the time you need to get your fingers around the given melodic ingredients, playing around with tiny ideas, with space to enjoy each note and gesture.  The idea is to gradually reveal the characteristic phrases of the rāga.  You pull them apart and try them out in different combinations.  You investigate different registers of the instrument.  Collections of atmospheric drone notes provide the scenery.  You become accustomed to the feeling of timelessness, with the ebb and flow utterly at your control.

The ālāp may be continued with the option of one or two more improvised sections – joṛ and jhālā.  In the joṛ you gradually reveal and explore the notes of the rāga in a similar vein to the ālāp – except now with a fixed pulse (although still no metre).  You gradually pick up speed and complexity, and have the option of moving through subsections characterised by specific patterns or rhythms.  The faster and highly energetic jhālā can be used as a climactic finish to the ālāp-joṛ.  This features a simpler melody played with the right thumb, but surrounded by the technically tricky higher rhythmic semiquaver drone notes.

The ālāp(-joṛ-jhālā) is followed by one or two gat sections – each with a regular pulse and tāla (rhythmic cycle), and in a kind of loose ritornello form.  They use a pre-selected melody that keeps returning, interspersed with episodes of ever-more-exciting improvisation, becoming fast and furious, energetic and rhythmically thrilling.  The left hand provides the drone notes and the rhythmic framework (combining the roles played by the tambūrā – an instrument with 4 or 5 open strings repeatedly played – and the tablā – drums that provide rhythmic accompaniment and outline the metre).  For your right hand there is intricate delicacy – an ornate pre-composed melody (the gat).  It is there in small chunks to be played around with, and to use as the launching pad for more improvisation, then dip into again and again.  There are increasingly complex variations to try out, or ignore as suits.  And the improvisation goes on – becoming more extravagant as your skills develop and your confidence grows.  There are tihāīs – little melodic patterns played three times – marking the end of an improvised passage and emphasizing sam (the start of the rhythmic cycle).  The second gat section is faster, with a new but related melody, over a new rhythmic pattern, and often in an interesting metre.  An exuberant and thrilling jhālā may follow.  The rāga finishes with some conventional final gestures that traditionally signal the end.

Multidimensional (/polysemic), or otherwise tricky, terminology:  A) The term ālāp” can refer either to just the opening pulseless metreless improvised movement or to the group of three entirely improvised movements (ālāpjoṛjhālā).  B) The term “gat” can be used to refer either to just the pre-composed melody itself or to the whole gat section (also known as gat-vistār or gat-toṛā-tān) which features the gat but also improvised melody and other rehearsed material.  C) A tāla is a rhythmic cycle defined by a particular pattern of drum strokes within a specific metre (time signature).  It is a really important element of the gat sections.  D) There can be two jhālā sections – optional endings both to the ālāp-joṛ and also to the fast gat section.

An intrinsic part of Indian classical music is the slow exploration and enjoyment of sound.  Pianists who improvise or compose – or play around with blues or jazz – will know how deeply absorbing it can be, taking you out of your surroundings and into the intimate sound-world you are creating, producing beautiful sounds, revelling in the resonance of the piano, with the unstruck strings reverberating in sympathy with the played keys.  The rāga is a beautiful form of music which mirrors that experience; and the structure of a rāga is itself a wonderfully crystallized miniature of the whole creative process: it is music which grows organically, starting with slow, spacious, peaceful and pulseless improvisation, gradually unveiling and exploring each small characteristic of an exotic collection of notes and motifs, slowly developing into a complex and intricate musical narrative.

Indian classical musicians spend years mastering their art.  This book is designed to give pianists a way into this wonderfully rich world.  It contains 24 rāgas – one for each hour of the night and day – and all the instructions you’ll need to start your journey.

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

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

A partner can be either lower down the piano, or on a second piano.  Several rāgas in this book also contain harder tālas 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.  A rāga performed on authentic Indian instruments would of course have the different layers performed by different people (eg: sitar melody, tablā percussion, tambūrā drone).  Playing as a duet allows you to concentrate on just one layer, and therefore improvise more complex music (not least, the optional flashy jhālā).  So, player 2, feel free to elaborate further on these 2-hand drone-and-tālas, 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 tāla is, and from time to time particularly emphasize it when you get there.  This is especially true at the end of a tihāī (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 rāgas 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 rāgas (“Bliss” Rāga Kalyāni) and just have a little explore, trying to follow the instructions as best you can.  Then when you’re ready, come back to the Rāga Ingredients” pages and find out exactly what’s what.  There are then 23 other rāgas 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 rāga, you can choose the rāga most appropriate to the event/time/audience, and tailor it accordingly.  Two words of caution:

  • The notated rāgas in this book contain more material than you will need for any single performance – don’t try to perform it all in one go.
  • While your audience doubtless will love your performance, do be considerate to them – it is all too easy to be self-indulgent playing these rāgas 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 rāgas on a piano?

Playing Indian rāgas 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 rāgas 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 rāgas 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.
  • percussion – rāgas are accompanied by drums, normally a pair of drums called tablā 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 tablā that does this – sliding between notes (mīṇḍ) 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 rāga – 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 rāgas.  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 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 rāgas.
  • to immerse yourself in exploring a whole new sound-world from your piano. It is easy to spend many many happy hours exploring rāgas.
  • 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 rāgas.  The Indian rāga is an improvised art-form – but within a clear structure and boundaries and with a distinct set of rules.  Rāgas 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 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 rāga melodies – either in simple augmenting or diminishing of rhythms (laykārī), 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 tihāī, 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.

Slightly more specific instructions (for all 24 rāgas)

    • Full instructions are given in the notated music of each of the 24 rāgas – follow each bit precisely and in order.
    • There’s a typical rāga structure you can get the feel of by reading p.13 – essentially: slow pulseless improvised introduction exploring the notes and little phrases of the rāga, optionally moving into a pulsed but unmetred improvisation, then one or two longer ritornello sections (slower then faster), an optional short flashy section, and a set of musical gestures to end.
    • After the left hand sets the scene briefly, it is both hands throughout. The left hand essentially accompanies the right hand – providing drone notes (never full chords), atmosphere and rhythmic patterns.  See p.24.  Learn the little example left hand patterns, then keep them going while you concentrate on the right hand melody.  See p.25 for more details.
    • Detailed instructions for precisely what to play in each section of a rāga are on pages 26-46.
    • Rāgas are music of melody. For the improvised melody sections, memorise the āroh and avaroh (ascending and descending versions of the particular scale in that rāga ) and at least some of the pakaḍ (the set of typical phrases of that rāga ). See page 25, and pages 47-50.
    • For more details of the pre-composed parts of the melody line, including different types of variations and the tihāī, see pages 51-64.
    • At the back of the book, after the notated rāgas, is a “Pick and Mix” section (pages 214-250) containing a load more ingredients to use – either in the rāgas in this book or to make up your own brand new rāgas. If you are inspired to want to compose your own rāga, start off by picking a ṭhāṭ (pages 214-216), then decide on your āroh and avaroh and come up with a few little phrases to use as your pakaḍ.  Or, find a traditional rāga you like the sound of, research its ingredients (ṭhāṭ, pakaḍ ), then choose a tāla or two (pages 218-232), and compose your own gats and laykārī/chand (pages 51-58).  You’ll also want to plan some tihāīs (pages 238-250).



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

Rāga Kalyāni “Bliss” – Excerpt playlist

Rāga Kalyāni “Bliss” – 12 individual excerpts

 Rāga Hēmavati “Golden Mountain Stream” – Excerpt playlist
Rāga Latāngi “Little Girl” – Excerpt playlist
Rāga Desh “Sweeping Landscape” – Excerpt playlist
Rāga Vāchaspati “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