A Short Take on Modes and Thaats

“Without music, life would be a mistake” ― Friedrich Nietzsche.

Without a doubt music is one of the most beautiful creations of human kind. Music has lived and evolved with us for more than 3000 years. Different geographies and cultures have developed their own forms of music. Despite of those cultural and geographical disparities there are striking commonalities in different forms of music.

When talking about world music, India enshrines a very rich repository and lots of different forms of music evolved over many years influenced by invasions, trade and cultural exchanges. The classical form of music in India has its roots dating back several thousand years. Since then it has been fused with many other forms of music. Today the classical music in India is largely divided in 2 categories —

  1. Hindustani or North Indian Classical music
  2. Carnatic or South Indian Classical music

Classical forms of music have also evolved independently in the west through several centuries molded by religion, migrations, renaissance and many other factors. Different composers have given different dimensions to harmonies, melodies and rhythms. Lot of melodic and rhythmic structures grew out, these structures have provided musicians a canvas and several tools to express their art.

Musicologists have come up with lot of systems and structures to classify music. Two specific structures I want to talk about is the Thaat system in the Hindustani classical form and the Mode system from the western classical form.

Before that, for simplicity lets fix our key to C which means the Sa from hindustani music will correspond to C in the western notation. The whole correspondence looks like the picture below. I’ve used an underline for komal swar or flat note and a dot over the character for teevra swar or sharp note.

The thaat system in Hindustani or North Indian style of music is accredited to Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande who was an Indian musicologist in late 18th century. He came up with this classification system of thaat. Bhatkhande in my opinion was a genius in devising the thaat system who researched and traveled extensively to create this classification. His genius is revealed in the way he has classified the raags and assigned them to different thaats.

Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande

A Thaat is only a group of abstract tonal forms. A thaat can be imagined as a container or a parent scale for raags. For example a specific group of notes is called Kalyan Thaat, raag hindol, kedar, yaman and many other raags belong to this thaat. Pandit Bhatkhande created 10 different sets of notes which are called thaats.

As I said the thaats are more than just the grouping it is also loosely tied to emotions and have their own character as well. Though raags have the real power of generating and creating emotional values.

Also known as church modes, they are a part of western music since the middle ages. Modes are inspired by the theory of ancient Greek music. Their traces are much older than the thaat system which was devised in early 1900s. A mode much like a thaat is a group of notes with certain melodic characteristics. Much like a thaat there is more to modes than just being a set of notes. In early writings of both Plato and Aristotle (approx. 350 BC) there are large sections that describe the effect of different musical modes on mood and on character formation. For example an excerpt from Aristotle’s “Politics”-

“The musical modes differ essentially from one another, and those who hear them are differently affected by each. Some of them make men sad and grave, like the so called Mixolydian; others enfeeble the mind, like the relaxed modes; another, again, produces a moderate or settled temper, which appears to be the peculiar effect of the Dorian; and the Phrygian inspires enthusiasm.”

For a simplified comparison we will just treat them as group of notes. The modes in the western form as used today are -

There are 7 modes and 10 different thaats. Each thaat and mode has 7 notes and if we use our initial correspondence between Hindustani notation and western notations we can see the similarities between the two.

Comparative table for modes and thaats

We can see beautiful similarities between the two forms of music. Although there is no thaat which matches the Locrian mode and there are no modes parallel to Todi, Purvi, Marwa and Bhairav thaats. Here is how these modes and thaats sound —

Ionian Mode or Bilawal Thaat
Dorian Mode or Kafi Thaat
Phrygian Mode or Bhairavi Thaat
Lydian Mode or Kalyan Thaat
Mixolydian Mode or Khamaj Thaat
Aeolian Mode or Asavari Thaat
Locrian Mode; No thaat corresponds to this mode
Bhairav Thaat
Marwa Thaat
Purvi Thaat
Todi Thaat

Of course this is a very shallow comparison based on the abstract tonal forms. There is a lot more to modes and thaats. Modes are loosely associated with a sentiment or an emotion described by Plato and Aristotle and so are thaats. Thaat system also serves as a framework to classify a raag based on the notes there are in the raag. Raags are much more nuanced and have lot of other structures rather than just being a set of notes. I must stress that Pandit Bhatkande’s thaat-raag theory is hardly infallible, but it is nevertheless an important classificatory device with which to order, and make sense of, a bewildering array of raags. Pandit Bhatkhande has shown his ingenuity in using the thaat framework to classify raags. For instance the behaviors and movements of raag Bhoopali and Deshkar are entirely different despite their sharing a common scale, a striking illustration of the conceptual power of raga. Assigning them to two different thaats points to Pandit Bhatkhande‘s insight into the nature of raga and his genius.

Modes much like thaats play an important part in western form of music as a framework for compositions. A lot of famous compositions are based on different modes. For instance the famous song Another brick in the wall by Pink Floyd is based on Dorian mode, Phrygian mode is used and adopted a lot in Flamenco music.

The beauty of music is immense and transcends geographical, cultural and linguistic boundaries. Even though music has been developed across geographies and cultures and has taken different evolutionary paths but there are lot of uncanny similarities in different forms of music. Discovering those differences and similarities are delightful and inspiring.

I’ll leave you with two beautiful compositions in the Ionian mode or Bilawal Thaat —


Thanks for reading and claps

Thanks to Manas Karkare for sound pieces

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