04 September 2009

Why Harmonium should be used in Yakshagana

All musical instruments have a 'type of sound' that make them sound different. This type of sound or quality of sound  is called Timbre. Human voice has a timbre too which is why two voices sound different. However, unlike instruments, it is possible to modulate human voice and change the timbre to a great extent. That is why we have mimicry: imitating others voices.

Yakshagana singing tries to change timbre of voice so that alaapa is close in timbre to Harmonium. Timbre of Pungi which was used earlier in Yakshagana is close to Harmonium if not the closest. Jogi pada still imitates Pungi drone to some extent! Both Harmonium and Pungi are reed instruments. Tanpura on the other hand is a stringed instrument with a completely different timbre. That is why some forms of music including Yakshagana that use reed instruments for drone sound different from those musical systems using Tanpura. It is also true that this is not the only reason why genres (zonra) of vocal musics sound different from others.

Musical harmony is created when frequency (pitch or note such as Sa {on a fixed scale}) and timbre of voice and drone (two notes) are closer (causing resonance - therefore beats). That is why we can not play one note on Tanpur(sa/pa) and other note on Harmonium (Sa) and use it as drone. Doing so creates a dissonance of timbre.

Classical singers mainly care about matching the frequency (pitch). However, more melodious singers also match the timbre of Tanpura. That is why they sound a bit artificial - precisely why Yakshagana sounds artificial as well where there is too much imitation of Harmonium timbre. You may note that Hindustani singers match the Tanpura timbre by widening their voice while Karnataka singers do it by using bit of nasal sound. 

I have been scratching my head on this since 3 years and have some insights. The summary of which is that resonance with reed instruments is the key to melodious and independent sound quality in Yakshagana singing. Therefore, I strongly believe we should use Harmonium as drone instrument in Yakshagana. We already use it but this is my understanding as to why we should continue to use it. The new drone instruments being designed are neither here nor there and are unfit to be used for singing. One of my friends called it a Transformer!!


  1. Good piece of work. Really nice insight. I have much more to talk about this. Hope we sit together one day to discuss music. When will you come?

  2. I think I owe a visit! I failed to contact you twice!! I will definitely let you know inadvance so we can plan to spend sometime. It should be next year. Thank you. How are you doing?


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