Warning! If you think that music is a mystery that is best left undiscovered for maximum enjoyment, then do not continue reading!
If however you’re curious to get into the musician’s or composer’s head and if you want to improve your musical knowledge and enhance your listening enjoyment, then do carry on!

What is Elucidesia?

Elucidesia’s mission is to elucidate (to enligthen, explain…) musical concepts for the interested reader. Also Elucidesia shows how these concepts are embodied in Western and Indian musical styles. No theoretical knowledge of music is required, just a sincere interest in music and a pair of willing ears!

Elucidesia by no means claims to be exhaustive or authoritative. It only scratches the surface of an incredibly vast area of learning, simplifies often complex subjects using human language. It is recommended to read from start to finish. Along the way you will become familiar with terms that will be used in later parts.

The following Western and Indian musical styles are used to illustrate the concepts, each represented by an icon that you will come across in various parts of Elucidesia:

Elucidesia - Indian classic 2
Indian classical music
Elucidesia - qawwali
Qawwali and ghazal
Elucidesia - bollywood
Elucidesia - Western classic  pre-20
Western classical music …-1800

(Renaissance, Baroque, Classicism)

Elucidesia - Western classic  20
Western classical music 1800-now

(Romantic, Modern)

Elucidesia - jazz
Elucidesia - pop
Electric guitar

Have fun!



What is harmony?

When two or more tones sound simultaneously, we call this a “harmony”. Harmony may have the following functions:

  • provide support and structure for the melody
  • ornament the melody to make it broader or accentuate it

We will use a color analogy to describe harmony. The stacking of tones can be represented by the combination of colors.

Take two tones…

Listen to fragment below. You hear two different tones on a piano, sounding well together. Then follows the drone of the Indian tanpura, playing the same tones.

Elucidesia - harmony - 2 partWe can picture this harmony as two stacked colors. We call this a 2-part harmony. We use the shades of one color, light and dark blue in this case, to indicate that this combination of tones sounds “harmonious” and pleasing.

Elucidesia - harmony - 2 part - dissonantA combination of two tones that sounds “harsh” and unpleasing is represented as contrasting colors.

Note that the harmony in the above fragment was called the “devil in music” in the middle ages. Musicians were forbidden from playing it!

Add some more…

Elucidesia - harmony - 3-4 partsIn Western classical music (before the 20th century), pop, Indian qawwali/ghazal and Bollywood music the harmonies used are mostly pleasing and consisting of three or four parts. Strongly rooted at the lower end of the scale by a clear sounding bass, they form stable harmonies (“root chords”).

In Western music these harmonies most often form the skeleton of the music. The melody is carried by these harmonies.

In the next fragment you hear a 3-part harmony, followed by the entry of a piece by Mozart (1756-1791) using that same harmony.

In Indian (semi-)classical music harmonies rarely form the architectural backbone of the music. Instead, they are used as ornamentation and extrapolation of the melody. As if they were “hanging” from the melody and broadening it. Harmonies are usually played on the harmonium.

Stir and mix…

Elucidesia - harmony - 4 part - inverted To provide more variation and make the harmonies more “unstable” and flowing, the tones of the harmony may be stacked in a different order (“inverted”). For example here the bottom color is light, and the top color is dark. Inversion is often applied in Western classical music, pop and jazz music. An inverted chord, being unstable, yearns for resolution into another chord.

Next you can hear:

  • a “root chord“, sounding defined and final (see previous paragraph)
  • an “inverted chord“, sounding more like longing for resolution
  • a common sequence of root chords
  • a more flowing version of this sequence with inverted chords.

In the fragment below you hear how Johan Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) applies this technique. First you hear a sequence of root chords, then a sequence of inverted chords, and finally Bach’s music on harpsichord:

Add more shades…

Elucidesia - harmony - 5-6 partsHarmonies of five, six or more tones are very frequently used in jazz and 20th century Western classical music.

In the next sound fragment you hear two jazz chords and their breakdown.


…and some coloration

Elucidesia - harmony - modernTo provide more expression, tones may be added which spice up the harmony or “conflict” with the rest of the harmony. The harmonic “foundation” may even be abandoned entirely. This feature is mostly applied in jazz and modern classical music.

Next you’ll hear some typical jazz chords and the breakdown of each of them. Note especially the second and last having a “spicy” nature.

…or add up two harmonies

Elucidesia - harmony - polychordAnother technique often used in jazz and modern classical music is the stacking of 2 harmonies (“polychords”). When you listen to the next sound fragment, follow the breakdown of such a polychord and how composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) has utilized this in his then controversial work “Le sacré de printemps” (The Rite of spring, 1913).


The harmonies of Indian classical music on one hand and 20th century classical music on the other hand seem to be located at the “extremes” of harmonic complexity. Both are “classical” types of music, studied and performed today.

Elucidesia - harmony - spectrum

Both types of music use very different means to express emotion. Whereas Indian classical music focuses strongly on exploring the inherent beauty of a mode and the contrast between melody and monotone, modern classical tends to create a colorful harmonic landscape.


Harmonic progression

What is harmonic progression?

A harmonic progression is a sequence of harmonies, i.e. harmonies sounding one after the other. In many styles of music a harmonic progression forms the basic architecture. Indian (semi-)classical music in general doesn’t have such a harmonic progression, only one harmony provides the backbone for the performance.

Elucidesia - harmonic progression - 2 chordsHere is an example with colors of a progression of 2 harmonies (or “chords”).

In this example each of the individual harmonies sounds pleasing on its own. But when the second harmony sounds after the first, it causes a change in “mood”, which adds to the attractiveness of the progression. The quality and intensity of change in mood depends on the harmonies used. It can range from an almost unnoticeable, smooth change to a very drastic one.

Progressions in different forms of music

Elucidesia - Indian classic 2 Harmonic progression
Indian classical music

A tanpura drone provides a constant harmony throughout the performance to Elucidesia - harmonic progression - dronesupport the introduction, composition and improvisation. The harmony consists of two tones only. So there is no “progression” in the true sense of the word.


Elucidesia - qawwali Harmonic progression
Qawwali, ghazal

Elucidesia - harmonic progression - qawwali-ghazalAlso in qawwali and ghazal the constant drone provides the main harmonic support. The harmonium or other instruments may add harmonies to the melody, 3 to 4 tones. But these harmonies are only ornamental, they are not part of the supporting architecture.

Let’s listen to an example sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-1997 ); you’ll hear harmonies superimposed onto qawwali.


Elucidesia - Western classic  pre-20 Harmonic progression
Western classical music …-1800

Elucidesia - harmonic progression - Western classic  pre-20In ancient classical music, harmonies are simple and support the melody of the composition. By “re-stacking” (inversion) the chord, the composer creates a higher degree of flow and dynamic shifts between tension and release going from one harmony to the other.

Compare the beginning chords of the Brandenburg Concerto 3 by Bach to the qawalli excerpt you saw before and see for yourself:


Elucidesia - Western classic  20 Harmonic progression
Western classical music 1800-now

Elucidesia - harmonic progression - Western classic  20The harmony may support the melody, but may also be an independent factor contrasting with the melody or completely on its own expressing an emotion or mood. Harmonies have much contrast and friction and may be highly instable.


French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) often used rich harmonies such as these:


Elucidesia - jazz Harmonic progression

Elucidesia - harmonic progression - jazzIn jazz music, harmonies are rich and primarily intended to support the soloist’s improvisation. Contrast is added to inspire the soloist, increase tension/release and create a full(er) sound.

In the extract you can hear a progression of jazz chords and the breakdown of each chord:


Elucidesia - pop Harmonic progression

Elucidesia - harmonic progression -popSeveral instruments provide a smooth-sounding harmony (mostly the bass, guitar and keyboard). The harmony is primarily intended to support the singer or instrumental solos. Harmonies are mostly stable, if somewhat simple.

In this sound fragment you can hear a typical pop progression and how it is applied in “Beat it” by Michael Jackson:


Elucidesia - bollywood Harmonic progression

Elucidesia - harmonic progression - bollywoodSeveral instruments provide a pleasing harmonic progression (often through the use of strings). The harmony is primarily intended to support the singer or instrumental solos. As with pop, harmonies are mostly stable.



Major & Minor

What is major and minor in music?

Though playing a major or minor harmony on a polyphonic instrument (an instrument that can play harmonies like a piano or guitar) is only a small difference in fingering, the resulting sound of these harmonies is very distinguishable.

Listen to a major chord being played, followed by a minor chord. Hear how only a small change is required to get the minor chord:

A major harmony sounds bright, optimistic, happy. A minor sounds sad, melancholy.

Major and minor in music

Listen to this progression using only major harmonies:

And this one using only minor harmonies:

Surely you’ll find that the first one sounds more upbeat and cheerful. Now listen to a progression with a mix of major and minor:

Most music has a mix of major and minor chords. “Sad” music in general contains more minor harmonies, while “happy“ music is characterized by a majority of “major” harmonies. This is only a general observation, there are many exceptions to the rule.

Listen to “The Final Countdown” by Europe. Most of the harmonies are minor, and the lyrics are kind of depressing as well (saying goodbye to the Earth). But the choice of instruments (“trumpet”-like, heavy guitars…) and the fast paced, punching rhythm still renders it as an uplifting song.

Elucidesia - Indian classic 2 Elucidesia - qawwali Major/minor
Indian (semi-)classical music

The tanpura drone, which usually plays 2 tones only (root and fifth), is “neutral”. In order to make a harmony major or minor, one needs a third. But the tanpura doesn’t play this note!

This neutral harmony allows it to support the recitation of compositions and improvisations in any mode, from happy and bright to sad and grieving. The improviser doesn’t depend on the tanpura to “define” the mood, he can fill in the blanks with whatever he or she chooses.

Elucidesia - bollywood Elucidesia - pop Major/minor
Bollywood, pop

Bollywood and pop make very frequent use of minor chords, even in up-tempo songs.

By virtue of their nature, ballads make use of mostly minor chords:

But also up-tempo songs use the minor key:

Elucidesia - jazz Major/minor

A fairly good mix of major and minor harmonies allows the jazz musician to surf on the waves of moods.

Elucidesia - Western classic  pre-20 Elucidesia - Western classic  20 Major/minor
Western classical music

Similar to jazz, there is a good mix of major and minor harmonies in classical compositions. Composers love to exploit the contrasts between major and minor.



What is an inversion?

An inversion of a chord is a re-stacking of the notes of the harmony. Let’s take a 3-part harmony, as is common in many forms of music.

Root chord

This is the basic order of the harmony with the root (darkest color) strongly at the bottom, like a firm tree.

Elucidesia - root chord

It sounds stable and definite. There is no need to resolve into another harmony. It could be used as an ending chord of a song, you don’t expect it to go somewhere else. However, it actually allows for a great variety of melodic and harmonic motion.

1st inversion

We take the bottom color of the root chord and shift it up to the top.

Elucidesia - first inversion

The resulting harmony is slightly unstable. This wouldn’t be a good ending to a song, it would feel too open and unfinished.

Like the root chord we also have several options to move to other harmonies after the first inversion, but less so than we had with the root chord. Here you hear how it resolves into a stable harmony.

2nd inversion

Again we shift the bottom color up.

Elucidesia - second inversion

The resulting harmony is even more unstable. If a song would end like this you’d feel quite nervous about it. This chord has fewer options for harmonic progression. Again, listen how it is resolved.

If we re-stack a fourth time, then we are back to the root chord, so we’re done. But if it were a 4-part chord, then we could turn it into a 3rd inversion!

3rd inversion

This harmony is very unstable. If a song would conclude with this chord, you’d rip your clothes off!

Elucidesia - third inversion

It has only very limited options for resolution. Hear how it resolves to the 1st inversion chord, then to the root chord.


As you can see, the higher the inversion, the more unstable the harmony is and the less options it has to move to another harmony.

Elucidesia - inversions

Use in music

The available set of inversions offers a rich palette for the composer to paint with. If the composer wishes to create a fluid harmonic structure with a smooth bass line, he will make use of many inversions. If he wants to make a “statement” at some points in his composition, he will use root chords.

Listen to this harmonic progression with root chords only:

It sounds pretty good as a composition, but the bass jumps up and down. Now listen to it with some of the chords inverted, creating a smooth descending bass line:

The bass line now has a melodic quality as well. Which one will stick in your ears? Right, the latter one: “A whiter shade of pale” (1967) by Procul Harum!

Note that the harmonies at the end of the fragment are mostly root chords to create the feeling that this is “the end of sentence”.



What is a melody?

Melody is a sequence of tones. It can be sung or played on an instrument.

Melody in different styles

Elucidesia - Indian classic 2 Melody
Indian classical music

Elucidesia - melody - Indian classic

In Indian classical music the melody gets the complete focus. In the image we see the melody above the 2-part continuous harmony. Tension (represented by non-blue colors) and release (represented by blue colors) are created by the melodic phrasing and the length of notes.

The next fragment illustrates this tension-release pattern. You hear the bansuri flute playing a tense “re komal” against the drone, then via some ornamentation resolving it into a “sa”.


Elucidesia - pop Melody

Elucidesia - melody - simpleThe melody follows the harmonic progression (or as we say “is in harmony”) and vice versa. They are constantly in line.

Elucidesia - jazz Melody

Elucidesia - melody - jazzThe harmonic progression offers many possibilities to the improviser. He may play “inside” the harmony or go “outside” the harmony to generate a higher level of tension/release. When playing “outside”, the melodic line may conflict with the harmony, but it is the art of the performer to make it sound logical within the context.

In this fragment you hear an improvisation over one chord. The improvisation starts inside the harmony, then goes outside, then returns inside again.




What is a mode?

A mode is a set of tones, picked from all possible pitches in an octave. The human ear can distinguish about 66 pitches in an octave, represented in below image.

Elucidesia - mode - octave continuous

We obtain a mode by picking tones from these pitches.

Elucidesia - mode - random 5This is a random 5-tone mode.

Elucidesia - mode - random 7

And this is a random 7-tone mode.

In theory an infinite number of modes can be derived from the above continuous scale. In practice only a few modes are used commonly in contemporary music.


Elucidesia - Indian classic 2 Elucidesia - qawwali Elucidesia - bollywood Mode
Indian styles

In these types of music 10 modes (“thaat”) are prevalent: Bilawal, Khamaj, Kafi, Asavari, Bhairavi, Bhairav, Kalyan, Marwa, Poorvi, Todi.

Elucidesia - mode - TodiHere is an example of the mode “Todi”, a very colorful 7-note mode.

In this fragment you hear the singer singing the Todi scale, from bottom to top with some turns on the way.

6 of these Indian modes are also very common in Western music. 4 of them are not, which make them exotic to the Western ear (for example the above illustrated Todi mode).

In Indian classical music one has to strictly adhere to the mode related to the “raag”. Only in certain circumstances and for a very brief time is one allowed to sing outside the mode. In Indian semi-classical music the rules are more loosely adhered to. The chosen mode may be adorned with notes foreign to the mode.

Bollywood music makes interesting use of these 10 modes. Though Bollywood music is much influenced by Western music, it is still distinctly recognizable partly because of the use of these modes.

Elucidesia - Western classic  pre-20 Elucidesia - Western classic  20 Elucidesia - jazz Elucidesia - pop Mode
Western styles

Western music is based on about 10 prevalent modes, 6 of them are in common with Indian music (ionian, dorian, phrygian, lydian, mixolydian, aeolian, locrian, harmonic).

These modes have their origin in Western religious music.

In jazz and 20th century classical music there is a tendency to explore uncommon modes. Modal jazz is a form of jazz somewhat similar to Indian classical music, where one or more modes are explored in improvisations.



A modulation is a change of key center. It is one of the most popular techniques in music to create a change in mood.

To illustrate modulation let’s listen to the following example, taken from David Bowie’s “This is not America” (1985) :

After 15 seconds you clearly hear the change in key center, causing an uplifting mood change. In this case the key change (modulation) is fairly “abrupt”, though not disturbing at all.

Elucidesia - abrupt modulation

This kind of very obvious modulation is rather rare in music. In general, modulations are smooth. The music brings you in the different moods via secret backdoors.

Elucidesia - smooth modulation

Note that many compositions have their start and ending in the same key center (the “home” key). In between these home keys; sidesteps are taken to other key centers.

Elucidesia - return to home modulation

Elucidesia - Indian classic 2 Elucidesia - qawwali Modulation
Indian classical music

Since Indian (semi-)classical music has a constant tanpura drone, there is no change of key center (i.e. no modulation).

Elucidesia - no modulation

Elucidesia - bollywood Elucidesia - pop Modulation
Bollywood, pop

Most pop and Bollywood songs have a small number of smooth modulations.

Elucidesia - pop modulation

Elucidesia - Western classic  pre-20 Elucidesia - Western classic  20 Modulation
Western classical music

Modulation is one of the most important features of Western classical music. Many works have an abundance of key centers.

Elucidesia - classic modulation

Though modulation was already very popular in the Baroque era, the romantic and modern era have gone much further in the use of modulation. To the extent that the notion of a key center has lost its meaning (in atonal music).

Elucidesia - jazz Modulation

In general jazz musicians love modulations because it allows them to surf on different moods with their solos, at times making a coalescence with a mood and at other times, contrasting it.

“All the things you are” by Jerome Kern has a total of 6 key centers and 8 modulations in the span of 1:30 minutes.

Elucidesia - modulation all the things you are

Starting off as an “ordinary” musical song, it has become extremely popular with jazz players, from beginners to advanced students.




Homophony – polyphony

What is homophony?

Homophony (“homo-” = same) means that one voice carries the melody, while other voices provide the harmonic foundation for that melodic voice.

Elucidesia - melody - simple

What is polyphony?

Polyphony (“poly-” = multiple) means: multiple independent voices sounding simultaneously. Each voice has the same “value”, there is no hierarchy between voices. Here is an example where 3 voices sound at the same time:

Elucidesia - polyphony

Though each melody differs from the others, jointly (vertically) they form well sounding harmonies. Contrary to homophony, where the harmony is explicitly played, in polyphony the harmony is not added but is implied by the stacking of the voices.

Homophony and polyphony in different genres

Elucidesia - Western classic  pre-20 Elucidesia - Western classic  20 Elucidesia - jazz Elucidesia - pop Elucidesia - Indian classic 2 Elucidesia - qawwali Homophony & polyphony
Western and Indian styles

Most contemporary genres are homophonic, i.e. one voice is singing/playing the main melody accompanied by harmonizing instruments. Think of a pop singer accompanied by a band, an opera singer with an orchestra or a guitar solo on a synthesizer soundscape.

In homophony some background melodies may be present (think of background singers) but in general these voices play a less important role and are added to enrich the overall sound.

Elucidesia - Western classic  pre-20 Homophony & polyphony
Western classical music …-1800

In the Renaissance and Baroque period of Europe, polyphony was very popular. Thousands of religious and secular works were written for multiple voices.

Here you hear an example of a madrigal by Italian composer Monteverdi (1567-1643):

Sometimes polyphony is used in jazz improvisation. Here you hear the interplay between baritone saxophone player Gerry Mulligan and trombone player Bob Brookmeyer:

Since polyphony is rather complex in nature, both in composition as in the listening experience, it has lost much of its popularity in recent times.



Counterpoint is a form of polyphony in which multiple melodies interact with each other. In classic counterpoint the composer has to follow certain rules. In Western classical musical education, the study of counterpoint is an essential requirement to becoming a composer.

The works of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) near the end of the Baroque period (18th century) are a culmination of counterpoint composition.

The most intricate form of counterpoint is the “fugue“, where the main theme and secondary themes are regularly cited. See the video display of an organ fugue by Bach. Note the interplay of the 4 voices, each represented by a color. On the organ the top 3 voices (orange, green, magenta) are played with the hands, the bottom voice with the feet. As each voice enters, it plays the main theme.

Composing a fugue feels very much like solving a mathematical puzzle. The challenge is to create an exciting piece of music with a natural sound, while adhering to the rules.



Elucidesia - Indian classic 2 Rhythm
Indian classical music

Rhythm (“taal”) in Indian classical music is very complex and highly developed. Rhythm is categorized in classes, each with its own set of rules. Teentaal, Ektaal and Jhaptaal are very common taals. These are quite regular taals, easy to memorize. Other taals exist with irregular patterns which can only be mastered by experts.

Here is a video demonstrating Teentaal, a structure consisting of 4 sections of 4 beats (in total 16 beats). Each beat is represented by a “bol”, a syllable that represents a certain sound (strike) on the tabla:

dhaa dhin dhin dhaa | dhaa dhin dhin dhaa | dhaa tin tin taa | taa dhin dhin dhaa

Elucidesia - bollywood Rhythm

Rhythm is derived from Western and Indian rhythmic structures. Usually the rhythm is basic and danceable.

Keharvaa taal (8 beats), dadra taal (6 beats) and rupak taal (7 beats) are the most commonly used rhythms.

The next fragment is from the song “Mehandi laga ke rakhna” (movie Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge – 1995). You hear the swinging rhythm of the keharvaa taal.

Next we listen to the rupak taal in the song “Mere humsafar” from the movie Refugee (2000):


Elucidesia - Western classic  pre-20 Rhythm
Western classical music …-1800

Though rhythm is an integral part of music, in ancient Western classical music it has not reached the complexity that is present in other forms of music. Few percussion instruments are used, rhythms are mostly regular, rooted in folk and court dances. Rhythms are implied rather than explicitly played on percussion instruments. The harpsichord, a keyboard with a percussive sound, mostly served as the “rhythm battery”.

Let’s turn our ears to the rhythm-accentuating role of the harpsichord. As was not unusual in that time, the harpsichord player is also the conductor.

Elucidesia - Western classic  20 Rhythm
Western classical music 1800-now

Over the centuries, rhythmic sophistication has increased in classical music. Gradually from the 19th century onwards, percussion instruments were introduced. Influences from other genres like folk, jazz, African, Latin-American and Asian music have expanded the rhythmic vocabularly. Exotic percussion instruments are being introduced and new notation systems for percussion are being developed.

Elucidesia - jazz Rhythm

Rhythm is a very important part of the jazz form. Jazz rhythms are rooted in the polyrhythmic systems of Africa, featuring elements like layering (multiple layers of rhythm) and syncopation (offbeat accent) etc. The whole rhythm section of a band (drums, double bass, piano/keyboard) contributes to the rhythmic foundation and the soloist plays in a “swinging” fashion, adding unexpected accents.

The majority of jazz standards are based on regular rhythms like 3 or 4 beats per measure, now and then some musicians experiment with other rhythms. The popular sixties jazz number “Take five” by Dave Brubeck (1942-2012), which has 5 beats per measure (count 1 2 3 1 2 – 1 2 3 1 2 – …) is a good example:

Elucidesia - pop Rhythm

The drums usually provide a basic rhythm with a strong beat. The other parts of the rhythm section (rhythm guitar, keyboard…) may use syncopated rhythms. These have been inherited (and usually simplified) from the jazz idiom.

Some pop hits make use of unusual rhythmic patterns, like this one with 13 beats in a measure (count 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 4):

The rhythm is strongly accentuated by the harpsichord, an ancient instrument with a very percussive sound, but very rarely used in modern music.


Composition and improvisation

Though most people would make a distinction between “composed music” and “improvised music”, in reality, music is often a combination of both.

Elucidesia - Western classic  pre-20 Elucidesia - Western classic  20 Composition & improvisation
Western classical music

In the early days of Western classical music there was much room for improvisation. In fact, scored music was often only providing a structure and giving hints to the performer. In the last centuries this improvisational component of classical music has gradually disappeared. It is still very much alive in the pipe organ tradition, but in other forms of music it has almost disappeared completely.

One “remnant” of the improvisational tradition can still be heard in some classical music as the “cadence”. This is a short solo performance in an orchestral piece where the soloist can show off his musical and technical skills by improvising. Unfortunately today these cadences aren’t improvised anymore, but are learned from an existing cadence and prepared long before the performance.

Elucidesia - jazz Composition & improvisation

Jazz is mostly improvised, the theme melody and the harmonic framework are provided by the composer. In big band jazz however, all instrumental parts are carefully notated with little room for improvisation. This is required because of the rhythmic accents and divisions and harmonies which only sound well when played just so.

The jazz repertoire consists of hundreds of “jazz standards”. These pieces are well-known, regularly performed and are part of the collective memory of the majority of jazz musicians. Many of these standards have their origin in other genres, like musical, film music and light music.

Listen to the original version of “All the things you are” from Jerome Kern, from the musical “Very Warm for May”.

Listen how Charlie Parker (1929-1955), virtuoso jazz saxophone player, performs this melody and “paraphrases” it (= plays around (with) it).


Elucidesia - Indian classic 2 Elucidesia - qawwali Composition & improvisation
Indian classical music

A whole range of “themes” (bandish) exist, some of them closely related to certain ragas. These however are scarcely notated and mostly orally transmitted. During a performance the bandish or part of it will be recited repeatedly, alternated with improvisations.

Listen to the bandish “Eree aali piya bin”, here sung by Sanjeev Abhyankar (°1969):

This bandish is sung in the raga “Yaman”. The raga Yaman in turn is based on the mode “Kalyan” (“lydian”).

Elucidesia - bollywood Composition & improvisation

Bollywood music being recorded in a studio, it is composed by professional composers/arrangers and played by professional musicians who can read Western style notation.

Elucidesia - pop Composition & improvisation

Though not notated on score, pop music is composed music and intensely rehearsed before performance or recording. The composition process is rather organic, where one member of the band may come up with an idea, and the other band members will contribute adding to the sound according to experience and personal taste. During production of a record in a studio, the producer may give compositional advice to improve the end product.

During performances solos (guitar solo, keyboard solo, drum solo…) may be improvised, but most often they have been very well-prepared before the performance.

Let’s listen to one of the great guitar solos of all time by Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd in the song “Comfortably numb”. Though the solo sounds like it is improvised, it is a brilliant example of a solo composition:

Now listen to this masterpiece of a solo by guitarist Eddie Van Halen on Michael Jackson’s “Beat it” was created impromptu in the studio:




A motive is a small, easily recognizable fragment of music, a few notes only, which is repeated one or more times in a composition or improvisation. The repetition can be literal or transformed in various degrees.

The use of motives is very common in all types of music. It is the musical “glue” that brings unity and coherence.

Elucidesia - Indian classic 2 Elucidesia - qawwali Motive
Indian classical music, qawwali, ghazal

The main motives of a performance are usually taken from the bandish (theme/composition). The motive may be incorporated in improvisations or paraphrased (played around).

Elucidesia - bollywood Elucidesia - pop Motive
Bollywood, pop

One of the key features of pop and Bollywood music is the “hook” by which a listener is drawn into a song. This often coincides with the motive and is used to instill the musical theme in the ear of the listener. These catchy motives give rise to the phenomenon of “earworms”, pieces of a song that get stuck in your head. Motives are usually repeated often and literally, to strengthen their recognition. The success of a song is often related to the impact of such a motive.

Bollywood songs have plenty of motives, more than Western pop. Apart from the chorus and refrain alternation (as in Western pop), Bollywood songs often introduce other themes (“anthara”) as the song progresses. This structure is derived from Indian classical music. These antharas allow for introduction of new motives. Also instrumental interludes are longer, providing extra space in the song for new motives.

Listen to this fragment of Europe’s “The Final Countdown”.

In the fragment you’ll hear the same motive up to 6 times (“tadadaa”), each time with the same rhythm but with different tones.

Elucidesia - final count down tada.png

The motive is simple and very effective, it is no surprise this song became a world hit.


Elucidesia - Western classic  pre-20 Elucidesia - Western classic  20 Motive
Western classical music

In classical music motives are introduced in the first section of a piece. In consequential sections (the “development” sections) they are transformed to provide variation for the listener. Usually in the end section the original motives are repeated again literally.

In this example you hear a few fragments from the fifth symphony of composer Beethoven (1770-1827). You first hear the famous opening motive, and in other fragments you hear how this motive is re-used in different ways, especially the rhythmic aspect of it.


Elucidesia - jazz Motive

A jazz musician will often incorporate certain improvised motives in his solo to make it sound “composed” and/or to bring unity to the narrative.

An example of this is the solo of Miles Davis, which abounds with motives:





Every genre of music has its own common ways of instrumentation, i.e. the instruments used to perform a piece. In Western classical music you’ll often find strings (violin, viola, cello, double bass). In Indian classical music we hear instruments like sitar, sarod, bansuri, tabla etc. But as music is universal, it can be re-arranged with a different instrumentation.

Listen to the original “Billy Jean” by Michael Jackson, performed with typical pop instruments (synthesizer, electric bass, drums):

And compare it to this classical instrumentation (flute, hobo, French horn, strings – digitally simulated, arr. by Wim Vanallemeersch):

Despite the use of a very different instrumentation, the quality of the music itself still stands out.

Original instruments

In recent decades there has been a strong tendency in ancient Western classical music to play on (copies of) instruments of that era, i.e. use the instruments and techniques which the composer had in mind when composing the music.

Listen to these 2 versions of a piece La Follia from Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741).

This one is played on modern instruments…

… and this one on instruments common in Vivaldi’s time:



Orchestration means adapting music for an orchestra. An orchestra may range from a few to 10-20 different instruments, each adding a certain color to the performance.

Though many instruments may be used, usually they play only three to six different lines. In other words, groups of instruments play the same lines (this is called “doubling”). For example the hobo, flutes and violins may play one line, the double bass and cellos another one.

Usually a composer creates 3 to 6 lines. After this job is done, he will assign each line to an instrument or a group of instruments.

For example, suppose a composer creates a passage for four voices:

Elucidesia - 4 voices

Then he could assign the following instruments to the voices:

Elucidesia - 4 voices orchestrated

In this example the violin, hobo and flute will play the same line. The timbres of these instruments blend very well together and they operate more or less in the same register.

In another passage of the piece he may change the assignment, for example let the horn and cello play voice 1.

Quite often, e.g. in film music, orchestration is not done by the composer, but by a dedicated “orchestrator“. The orchestrator receives a piano score (a “reduction”) from the composer, and expands it into an orchestral score. Orchestration requires special skills. One needs to make optimal use of instruments and sounds available to create the targeted mood. The orchestrator needs to have a profound knowledge of the characteristics (range and timbre) of all the instruments he prescribes and the techniques that are possible for these instruments. Some composers from the early 20th century (like Debussy, Ravel…) were known to be great orchestrators and their work offers many excellent examples for students of orchestration.

Hear how French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) evokes the sea (“La Mer”, 1905) with a traditional orchestra:



Throughout history several forms of musical notation have evolved, especially in the West. Various reasons lie at the base of the success of these systems. Notation was a way to distribute religious songs throughout Europe and thus Christianize this continent. And since playing or singing in groups (polyphony, harmony) requires perfect melodic and rhythmic alignment, a common reference came in very handy.

In the last centuries, Western musical notation has democratized music education, but to a certain extent has also caused a decline in improvisation, especially in Western classical music.

Elucidesia - melody notation

Western musical notation has a very graphic appearance melodically, one can clearly see the contours of the music (high, low). And rhythmically it is quite easy to read.

Elucidesia - Western classic  pre-20 Elucidesia - Western classic  20 Notation
Western classical music

Most classical music is notated in scores using the western notation. In orchestral or other group performances the musicians read from individual scores (for example the violin player has a violin score). The conductor reads from the full score, so that at any moment he can anticipate on what a certain (group of) instrument(s) will be playing.

In solo performances (e.g. a piano recital) the performer generally has learnt the score by heart. This allows him or her to fully focus on the music and its moods during the performance.

Having prepared the wrong piece can be a gigantic problem. Not so for this world-famous pianist, Maria Joao Pires (°1944), who after an initial panic plays the half hour long Mozart concerto from long-term memory.

Example of an individual score

Example of a full score (what the conductor would use):

Elucidesia - jazz Notation

Notation is based on classical notation but with the addition of chord symbols. The chord symbols help the jazz musician to quickly grasp the harmonic progression of a song. The soloist needs this information for the development of his/her solo. The rhythm section (bass, piano…) uses this information for their accompaniment choices.

The score (melody) and chords are usually learnt by heart by the band members, except for big band, where musicians read from individual scores.

During training the jazz musician may “transcribe” solos from records, i.e. writing down what is played. This is done for solo analysis, but also as a starting point to learn the solo by heart.

Here’s an example of a jazz score, “Dolphin Dance” by Herbie Hancock (°1940). Above the staffs are written the chord symbols defining the harmony.

Elucidesia - jazz score

The first written chord is “Ebmaj7”. The soloist knows that this symbol represents the notes Eb – G – Bb – D and will use this knowledge to improvise while at the same time anticipating the next chord Bb-7. The bass and piano player will play notes fitting with the chord to provide the harmonic foundation for the soloist.

Listen to this tune as recorded by the Herbie Hancock quintet in 1965:


Elucidesia - pop Notation

Very rarely pop music is notated. Thousands of “transcriptions” and chord tablatures of existing pop music are commercially available, but these are mostly used for personal training, not for performance. A pop band will hardly ever read from a score, usually they have learned the material by rehearsing many times together. Studio musicians and professional accommpaniment bands however may read from scores, since these musicians are expensive, play a huge amount of songs and don’t have the time to learn each of them by heart.

Example of notation of Michael Jackson’s “Beat it” guitar riff with guitar tablature staff below the musical staff:

Elucidesia - guitar tablature

The tablature staff shows the six strings of the guitar and for each note the fret position where the finger should be put. Note that there are different ways to play a line on a guitar, the given tablature only shows one of the options.

Elucidesia - Indian classic 2 Elucidesia - qawwali Notation
Indian classical music

Indian music is rarely notated. Though a notation system does exist, it is primarily used in education to take notes (as a memory aid). The student is expected to imitate the teacher in real time and to assimilate the material as quickly as possible without depending on notes.

Example of sargam notation (red framed):

Elucidesia - sargam notation 2

Each symbol is written in Devanagari script (the common script in India) and represents a note of the Indian sargam scale:

saa सा – re र – ga ग – ma म – pa प – dha ध – ni नि

(translated: do re mi fa sol la si)

The Final Countdown’s theme would be sung as follows:

“ga re ga dha… ma ga ma ga re… ma ga ma dha…. re saa re saa ni re saa”

(translated: mi re mi la…. fa mi fa mi re…. fa mi fa la…. re do re do si re do)



Elucidesia - Western classic  pre-20 Elucidesia - Western classic  20 Education
Western classical music

Elucidesia - conservatoriumClassical performers in the West are mostly formed in musical universities or “conservatories“. After admission through an audition, a student studies musical theory and instrumental practice during several years. Instrumental education is based on a one-on-one teacher-student approach. The student may also attend masterclasses with experts in the field. At the end of their studies the student obtains a degree. If a musician wishes to join an orchestra he/she will have to audition. Besides playing in ensembles and orchestras, most educated classical musicians also have a teaching job to provide a steady income.

Elucidesia - jazz Education

Elucidesia - jazz classIn the early eras of jazz, musicians mostly learned by imitating the masters from records (LPs) and by playing in (big) bands. Formal jazz education was not available. In the last few decades, however, professional schools and conservatories have started to cater to jazz students and there are is a wide range of educational material in form of books and software. Jazz theory, based on analysis of performances of the masters, helps to acquire harmonic knowledge quickly. Schools and conservatories offer many opportunities to play together and develop the ear.

Elucidesia - pop Education

Though “pop-schools” do exist, they are still kind of a rarity in musical education. Many pop musicians didn’t have formal musical education, can’t read notes and learned the tricks of the trade in an autodidact way (playing by ear). Studio musicians and professional accompaniment bands on the contrary are usually very well-schooled to be able to quickly master new songs.

Elucidesia - Indian classic 2 Elucidesia - qawwali Education
Indian (semi-)classical music

Classical Indian music is usually taught in a personal guru-shisha (teacher-student) framework. Typically a guru may teach one student or a small group. The transfer of knowledge is mostly oral and by imitation, and goes beyond teaching the musical subject. Having a spiritual aspect, the pedagogic approach is more holistic Elucidesia - bansuri class.pngincluding many “lessons in life”.

In comparison to Western music, little is documented about Indian classical music theory. Preference is given to the oral tradition as a medium to transfer knowledge. There are some Sanskrit reference works, but the few very detailed theoretical/scientific works that are available are written by Western musicologists, such as “The ragas of Northern Indian music” by Alain Daniélou.




Elucidesia - Western classic  pre-20 Elucidesia - Western classic  20 Elucidesia - jazz Elucidesia - pop Elucidesia - bollywood Equal temperament

Western music has often evolved around the abilities of the keyboard (harpsichord, organ, piano…), and to make playing easier on certain instruments, frets (guitar), valves (horn, trumpet…) etc. were introduced which matched the pitches of the keys on a keyboard instrument.

To accommodate the need for one tuning system that can be used in every tonality, in the 18th century the “equal temperament” tuning was introduced. In this tuning the distance between every one of the 12 chromatic tones of an octave is equal. Though this may sound logical, it has a consequence. Some intervals cannot be played “purely”.

In the next sound fragment you hear the piano playing the interval of a fifth. The interval is slightly less “pure” than the fifth played by the tanpura after it.

The impurity is so small that the untrained ear usually can’t hear the difference. Other intervals, like the third and sixth have a higher degree of impurity in equal temperament.

In conclusion, the equal temperament tuning system is very practical, but compromises had to be made.

Elucidesia - Indian classic 2 Elucidesia - qawwali Shrutis

Indian classical music is based on the “shruti” system. An octave comprises 66 shrutis distinguishable by the human ear. In practice 22 shruti’s of these 66 are used regularly in Indian classical music. Exactly which shrutis are used in a performance depends on the raag and the thaat (mode).

Since the violin has no “frets” it is possible to play all 22 shrutis on it. Hence the violin can easily be used in Indian classical music. But there is a problem when using Western instruments with frets (guitar), valves (sax, trumpet, clarinet…) or keys (piano…). These usually have 12 fixed shruti’s (the 12 chromatic tones of the Western scale).

For example in the 20th century the harmonium, a keyboard instrument; was introduced in Indian folk music (ghazal, qawwali). The harmonium is based on the equal temperament, and as a consequence only has 12 “shrutis”. This can be problematic when using this instrument in a mode (thaat) that uses other shrutis. Due to this reason, the harmonium is not yet fully accepted in Indian classical music.

In recent decades the Indian shruti system has found its way in experimental Western music. Some instruments, operating with frets, valves or keys, require a mechanical adjustment of the instrument, or a different technique to form the sound.




Words vs syllables

Though most sung music uses everyday language, sometimes nonsensical syllables are used to sing. Often (but not always) to mimic the sound of instruments.

Elucidesia - jazz Lyrics


A common improvisation technique with jazz singers is “scatting”. The singer uses different syllables, mimicking the sound of a certain instrument, like a trumpet or a saxophone. For example: “dee-da-bee-doo-da pabebidee-doo”.

One of the famous scatters was Ella Fitzgerald. Here you can hear her on a live performance:


Elucidesia - Indian classic 2 Elucidesia - qawwali Lyrics
Indian (semi-)classical music


In sung improvisation often the sargam syllables are used. Instead of using words, the singer will sing the syllables of the corresponding notes, derived from the Indian scale: sa re ga ma pa da ni sa (= do re mi fa sol la si do/ C D E F G A B C)

Listen to the qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan reciting in sargam style:


Another common technique, especially used by percussionists (like tabla-players) is using syllables (“bols”) that represent percussion sounds.

For example: “dhin tirakita dhin dhin dha”

Each of the (combination of) syllables represents a certain sound (=strike) on the instrument.

This technique may be used to replace the percussion sound in a performance, but is mostly used in tabla education. Before playing a certain pattern on the tabla the student must imprint the pattern in memory by reciting the pattern multiple times individually or in group (often hundreds of times).

Thanks to its attractive sound, this technique is sometimes used in fusion music as well. Listen to these “bols” sung by the tabla player in Night in Lenasia by Deepak Ram:



Perfect pitch – relative pitch

What is perfect pitch?

Perfect (or absolute) pitch is the ability to instantly identify the pitch of a sound. Eg. when playing a G (sol) on the piano, a blind-folded perfect-pitch possessor will identify the played pitch as a G, or a very nearby tone. This ability is genetic and – whatever claims by commercial sites – can’t be acquired without having a predisposition. It has to be fostered in the child for years to become permanent. There is a higher percentage of perfect pitch possessors among musicians compared to the normal population.

Here’s an example of a young boy with perfect pitch. He is able to break down “polychords” as well (chords consisting of 2 harmonies).

What is relative pitch?

Relative pitch is the ability to identify intervals, i.e. the distances between 2 pitches. A common belief is that perfect pitch is required to be a good musician. This holds little truth, as a matter of fact relative pitch and other musical qualities are much more important.

Perfect and relative pitch compared

Perfect pitch is similar to being able to identify a color instantly. “This is red, that is yellow, this is blue…”

Relative pitch is similar to being able to identify the differences between the colors, and being able to identify the colors after one of them has been identified. “So if this is red, then this complementing color must be orange, this contrasting color must be green…”

Elucidesia - Western classic  pre-20 Elucidesia - Western classic  20 Elucidesia - jazz Elucidesia - pop Elucidesia - bollywood “Absolute” systems

The notation of Western music is absolute (a fixed reference is used, usually tone A=440hz), and in this system having perfect pitch can at times be an advantage. Relative pitch however offers more advantages since the musical (melodic and harmonic) narrative is primarily based on intervals .In fact, often music is transposed (up or down) to accommodate the range of the singer or instrument.

In Western musical education much attention is given to developing relative hearing to this end.

Elucidesia - tuning fork

When rehearsing a song, the choir conductor or piano player will sing/play the first note of one or all voices to ensure that every voice group starts with the correct note. The conductor may also use a tuning fork (which sounds an A=440Hz) to help him find the correct pitch.

Elucidesia - Indian classic 2 Elucidesia - qawwali “Relative” systems

Indian music is relative, ie. there is no absolute reference for tones. The tanpura provides the frame of reference (playing the root and fourth or fifth of the mode), and can be tuned to any pitch, depending on the singer’s or instrument’s range.

In other words the “sa” (do, C) is movable. A Western person with perfect pitch may have some difficulty in adapting to such a system, he will have to rely mainly on his relative hearing skills.


Hope you enjoyed reading Elucidesia! Will be continued.

With thanks to Joris Lemoine for brushing up above text into proper English.