How to play chords for Indian ragas – songs and ragas based on the Major scale

You can play the chords for a large number of popular ragas or songs if you know the 'diatonic chords' of the major scale.

Major scale and harmonic minor scale forms the basis of most popular songs. Knowing the 'safe chords' of the major scale lets you play chords for ragas and songs in the minor scale too.

Let us start with the diatonic chords and how it applies to the Raga shankarabharanam, the Indian raga which has the same note positions as the Major scale.

The safe chords – the diatonic chords

Diatonic means 'within the scale'. Chords formed by notes from the scale.

Using chords formed entirely of notes from the scale naturally means that you are safe that the sound won't be completely wrong.

Even if you play a chord which does not have the melody note, if you are playing a safe triad chord, chances are you can bail yourself out because the triad chord + melody note will form a four note chord from within the scale.

Melody note outside the safe chord

For example, the E minor chord (E G B) is part of the D major scale harmony.

If you play the E minor chord and the melody note happens to be D, then are playing an E minor seventh chord (E G B D).

If the melody not is C#, then you are playing the E minor 6th chord, which shares much of the notes and sound with the A7th chord which is the Vth chord of the D major scale, the most obvious choice when going back to the root, for a perfect cadence.

For a complete easy to grasp resource on understanding and using chords, see The Chord Code

Diatonic chords of the major scale

We will use the Diatonic chords of the major scale as the basis for our chord finding tasks.

Diatonic triad chords of the C major scale are: C Dm Em F G Am Bdim (Dm = D minor. Bdim= B diminished)

Diatonic triads of the D major scale are: D Em F#m G A Bm C#dim

Similarly you can transpose and find the diatonic chords for each of the root or pitch.

One more example: The diatonic chords from the root E: E F#m G#m A B C#m D#dim

Using the major scale chords for Raga Shankarabharanam

Raaga Dheerashankarabharanam and the major scale share the same notes.

Singing the Ragam Shankarabharanam from the root C (shruthi 1) will give us the notes C D E F G A B C.

Try using the diatonic chords of the C major scale over phrases of C Shankarabharanam.

All the swaras in each diatonic chord

The C major chord

C major chord notes: C E G (Sa Ga Pa)

The notes of the C major chord correspond to Sa, Ga and Pa of the raga shankarabharanam.

If you have a phrase that emphasizes on the Sa, C major chord is an obvious choice. But since Ga and Pa are also present in the C major chord, you can try the C major chord over melody lines which emphasizes the Ga or Pa too.

Try them, though you may be able to find other chords within the diatonic chord group which will fit better for Ga or Pa.

All the chords for each swara

Chords for Ga – the other way round

Em chord notes: E G B (Ga Pa Ni)

Am chord notes: A C E (Dha Sa Ga)

C major chord notes: C E G (Sa Ga Pa)

Each of the chords above have Ga swara in it, making them candidates to be tried over parts of the melody where Ga is emphasized.

In the section above we saw which swaras each chord has. Understand the chords from the swara perspective also, like we did in this section. We found all the possible Ga chords. Similarly find which all chords are possible for each swara.

Practice

Find the swaras involved in each of the diatonic chords of the C major scale. For example, find the notes in the Dm chord (D F A) and find the corresponding swaras (Ri Ma Dha).

Now group them to show all the possible chords for each of the swaras.

Knowing what swaras are present in the each of the chords and knowing all the diatonic chord options for each swara, gives you three choices of chords for each of the swaras of Shankarabharanam, freeing up the field for you to vary and improvise.

Chords for Janya Ragas

What are Janyas?

Janyas are derived from the parent melakarta raga.

Raga Mohanam – janya by omission

Mohanam is a janya of Shankarabharanam, got by omitting ma and ni from the scale notes of Shankarabharanam. Songs and phrases of Mohanam are formed from the same notes of the Raga shankarabharanam (notes of major scale), but the Ma and Ni (fourth and seventh notes of the major scale) won't be used at all.

Raga Mohanam has the same notes of the major pentatonic scale.

Neelambari – Janya by the order of note usage

Raga Neelambari:

Arohanam: S R2 G3 M1 P D2 P N3 S

Avarohanam: S N3 P M1 G3 R2 G3 S

When ascending, N3 is approached from the Pa and not the Dha. When descending, from N3, the Pa is sung or played without touching the Dha.

These are almost like compositional rules set in the ascend and descend of the raga itself. Playing the notes SNP will have a different sound from if we played SNDP.

The harmonic implications of the phrase is also different. The SNP would  make me think immediately of the major7th chord, while the SNDP would need more consideration before trying a chord.

Janyas of Raga Shankarabharanam

Nilambari, mohanam, bilahari, hamsadhwani are all janya ragas of Raga Shankarabharanam. They all use the same notes as the major scale. Only, some of the janyas will not use all the notes of the major scale. The notes will be skipped in the ascend or descend or in the entire raga. e.g. mohanam, bilahari, hamsadhwani

Some janyas may use all the notes of the major scale, but the rules of which notes precede and succeed each other are predecided and set in the arohana and avarohana definition. e.g. Neelambari as discussed in the previous section.

Chords for nilambari, mohanam, bilahari, hamsadhwani etc…

These ragas being janyas of Shankarabharanam, the diatonic chords of the major scale can be tried on their phrases. Use the logic discussed in the previous section about finding which all major scale diatonic chords are possible options for each of Sa, Ri, Ga etc. Then look at the phrase of the given raga, guess which swara the emphasis is on, and try the chords which have the particular swara.

Fitting chords in practice

First see if there is a chord which has one more swara from the phrase. If you have two swaras from the phrase in one of the possible chords, try it and listen to decide. (Of course if you have all the three notes of a triad chord in the phrase, that is an obvious choice you could try, but then that could be rare.)

Before finalizing the chord sequence, listen to the whole phrase. A phrase moving from Ni to Sa could use G|C as the chords (when Sa is C). But if the Ni moves to a Dha, you could use Em|Am instead. The swara Ni is the same, both G and Em has the note B (Ni when C is the Sa), and based on the next note, we choose which could have a better sound for the current situation.

The final decision is subjective, genre dependent, and a choice of the creator's mind.

The Chord Code shows you the underlying principles of forming chords so that you won't have to deal with them individually, but will know what patterns each type of chord has in it, so that you will know what notes to use to form the chords on your own.

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