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Re: Indian music/"shruti"/tamboura/harmonium/etc.
Sorry I didn't get to respond until today. Looks like other list members
gave some good links for these items. I'll add a few, as well as make some
general comments on the different instruments, both acoustic and
A few more places to look:
The House of Musical Traditions http://www.hmtrad.com/
Mid East Manufacturing http://www.mid-east.com/
Radel Systems http://www.ttce.org/radel/
The term "shruti" comes from Sanskrit where it literally means "that which
is revealed" or "that which is heard." In common practice it has many
different meanings. It can mean "drone background," "tonic note," but is
most frequently used to describe the microtones used in Indian music (the
notes "between the cracks" of the piano keys).
Harmonium: these are small, hand pumped "organs" which have an
accordian-like sound, very rich in harmonics, almost like a keyboard
harmonica. They're played by pumping a bellows with one hand while the
other plays the keyboard. Most have several stops to change the timbre;
some even have "drone" stops. They are generally tuned to the western
"equal temperment" (like a piano). Sometimes individual players will adapt
the reeds for microtonal tunings according to the Indian system, but to do
justice to this you'd probably need to have a different harmonium for every
raga! But almost any harmonium that you'd purchase would be tuned (more or
less) to the western standard. This is still a cause for raging debates in
Indian classical music circles, since the harmonium cannot duplicate the
microtonal inflections that are essential to the music. Don't be confused
by the term "scale-changer" used in regard to a harmonium. This does NOT
alter the tuning or temperment, it's actually more like a "keyboard capo."
Since most players accompany vocalists they wind up playing either around a
C# (for male singers) or F# (for female vocalists). Some players learn
one fingering (usually the C#), so this "scale changer" makes it easy to
the same fingering for playing in a different key (i.e., playing the keys
for C#, while sounding F#).
Shruti box: The acoustic version is also a small hand-pumped,
bellows-driven instrument about the size of a standard hardback dictionary
[some of us old-timers still remember those;) ]. These have reeds for only
about three or four notes, so that by combinig them you can tune the drone
to tonic/fifth or tonic/fourth in one or two keys. They're mainly used to
give an additional background drone to wind or bowed instruments, often
in combination with the stringed tanpura. (I've even seen the fantastic
bansuri player Steve Gorn pump one with his foot throughout entire
concerts!) Unless you're restricting yourself to the one or two keys
available, a tuneable electronic "shruti box" would probably be a better
Tanpura (also spelled tamboura, tambura, tamboora, etc.) is a stringed
instrument used in all Indian classical music. There's a slight difference
between the North Indian "tanpura" which has a gourd resonator (and is
consequently very fragile) and the South Indian "tamboura" which uses a
sturdier carved wooden resonator. The standard instrument has four strings
tuned Fifth (or Fourth), Tonic, Tonic, lower octave Tonic. Some modern
instruments have five or six strings, in which case these either double
existing strings or are tuned to other important notes in the raga (e.g.,
Third, Sixth, Seventh). The bridge on a tanpura (and on sitar and some
other instruments) is about an inch deep and has a slight curve called
"jawari" which causes the string to vibrate against the edge of the bridge,
giving that wonderful metallic twang characteristic of Indian instruments.
A special feature of the tanpura is a small thread is inserted between the
string and the bridge. When the thread is pulled into just the right
position the string is further pressed against the bridge, releasing
numerous overtones (think BUZZING) as well as giving it a greatly increased
sustain. The neck of the instrument is hollow, making it in essence a
secondary resonating chamber. All in all the tanpura is an incredible and
versatile instrument, even if it plays only one or two notes. You'll see
them listed as being "male," "female," and "instrumental." The "male"
tanpura is large (about 4and1/2 feet long) and tuned in the general range
C#. (A tanpura really sounds good only within a very limited note range)
The "female" tanpura is somewhat smaller and is tuned around an F#. The
instrumental tanpura is somewhat more versatile. It's generally made with
wooden flatback resonator (nice and sturdy, easily carried) and is pitched
an octave above the usual tanpura range (although a recent trend is to put
wound guitar strings on for a lower register). Depending on the gauge of
string used it can be tuned to almost any tonic pitch.
Electronic tanpura: Imitates the sound of each string being plucked. Can
usually be tuned by sliders or knobs for pitch of each "string" as well as
volume, etc. More versatile than an acoustic "shruti box" since the pitch
is not predetermined or fixed to a specific interval. These have become
increasingly popular and many styles are available.
Electronic shruti box: Instead of a "plucked string" sound this generally
gives only a long sustained single tone (sometimes a fourth or fifth may be
added). This can easily be imitated by any electronic keyboard, so for
looping, I would think the electronic shruti box is a real "Johnny
Electronic tabla: Doesn't even come close to approximating the rich tonal
range of real tabla. In fact the sound is more like some tinny plinks and
thuds. This is really used more as a practice tool, since it only plays
"theka" (basic rhythm pattern) of a variety of taals (rhythm cycles). In a
sense, a "theka" is nothing more than a rhythm loop which provides the
"time" while a soloist improvises. Electronic tabla could never match the
grace and versatility of a live tabla player. In India it's common to hire
a tabla player to come over for a practice session. But this serves as a
good substitute when no one's available. Once again though, for looping I
would find this prohibitively expensive when a good drum machine is
much cheaper, more easily available, and more versatile.
As far as cost, these instruments all tend to be on the expensive side.
They're all much more readily available than when I began learning Indian
music, but they do cost a lot. If anyone you know is going to India, it's
almost always better to have someone try to find something there than to
at least 10 times the cost here in the States or in Europe.
I apologize in advance for going on at length. I also don't want to steer
the looping talk exclusively to my interest in Indian music. If anyone
would like more information (such as instrument makers in India, etc.)
please contact me off-list.
From: Sanford I. Forte <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: email@example.com <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Saturday, April 10, 1999 2:41 AM
Subject: Indian music
>I saw your response to Mattius Brob on the looping list; I have some
>First, where would be a good place to buy a relatively good quality
>electronic tanpura; also, an electronic tabla. What should one expect to
>pay for these instruments.
>One more thing. I'm looking for either a shruti box or a harmonium to help
>train my untrained voice and ear to just-intoned scales. I was told that
>it's possible to use a shruti box for this and some harmoniums. Can you
>help yo steer me in the direction of what I'm looking for and where to
>buy/see some of this stuff.
>btw, I live about an hour from the Ali Akbar school of music and I know
>they have some of these things, but they sound kind of pricey.
>Anyway, help/advice would be appreciated.