When you work with melody and rhythm

Written by Arnab Chakraborty on 08 May 2020

In conversation with Shankar Mahadevan 

– Arnab Chakraborty, Singer and Music composer, Mumbai.

Every melody is made of musical notes. Let’s say we take an X-Ray of a melody. What we would see, then, are the musical notes that make up the melody. Practiced musicians possess that X-Ray vision. And so it goes... When you see the notes in your mind’s eye, can a melody of your making be far away? Now, how does every musician get there? Shankar Mahadevan shares his way, here, in this conversation with Arnab Chakraborty.

Is there a way to practise visualising notes? 

When you become strong in decoding the notes of a melodic pattern to its equivalent swaras (musical notes), and when your speed of communicating between the melody and its swaras starts getting faster and faster – almost instantaneous – that is when you start visualising notes. 

I’m writing a book in which I have described what is a melody. You can imagine a melody as one LED pixel on a screen that glows and travels from one note to another. 

Now let’s say this pixel has to travel from Sa to Pa. So Sa–Pa is the simplest route, or it can take another route Sa-Re-Ga-Ma-Re-Pa or Sa-Ga-Re-Ni-Sa-Dha-Ni-Sa-Ga-Ma-Ga-Sa-Pa or Sa-Re-Sa-Ni-Dha-Pa-Ga-Ma-Re-Ga-Ma-Dha-Pa-Dha-Ma-Pa-Ga-Ma-Re-Ga-Ma-Pa

For all these routes, it is starting from one point and reaching the same point. But the first note and the last note alone do not make up the melody. The melody is the journey travelled by that LED pixel. 

It’s like taking a journey inside the city where you live. In Mumbai let’s say from Chembur you are going to Kalina. You can choose whether you want to go via Dharavi or whether you want to go via Dadar or whether you want to take a flight, go to Bangalore, come back to Pune and then drive to Kalina. All of these are valid routes. And each route is different. Some are bad routes; that’s why it is a bad melody. Some are interesting routes, scenic and beautiful; that’s why it is a beautiful melody. 

The path chosen by a note is the melody of your song. So make that path interesting every time you compose.

Is there any exercise that helps you visualise notes better?

All you have to do is start decoding every song and every sound that you hear – even the doorbell – immediately. The minute the process of decoding gets faster and faster, you start visualising those notes.

I didn’t have formal training in music as a child. Later on, I came to understand that learning the tabla is very important for any beginner. But obviously that time is gone and past. I am a singer and focusing on singing is what I believe I must do right now. But since I don’t have a basic understanding of the tabla, am I missing something?

When they say you’ve got to learn the tabla, what is the purpose? It’s not because you’ve got to play the actual instrument physically. That is not the purpose because you don’t want to become a tabla player at the end of the day. 

Our Indian classical music has the great facility of speaking out the rhythms with your mouth. Trust me, when you are able to recite the rhythms it is as powerful as playing the tabla. What you need in your career is to be mentally very strong in rhythm – that’s the real purpose. And learning to play the tabla may not necessarily help you in that.  

You have to improve your sense of rhythm – understand what the bols (patterns in rhythm) are, what is one beat-to-one note, two beats-to-one note, four beats-to-one note, sixteen beats-to-one note, or odd rhythms such as three beats in a note, five beats in a note. 

The understanding of rhythm is very important for your melodic progression. But I don’t think you need to start learning to play the tabla to understand the concepts of rhythm. Learning to recite will be adequate enough. And understanding rhythm in the context of both Carnatic and Hindustani classical music can really help you in developing a good sense of rhythm. 

When you compose a song do you focus on the musical notes or do whatever comes naturally to you? 

It all happens in one flow. There is no particular pattern. Sometimes, a melody just comes. Sometimes, some interesting combination of notes just comes. For example, there was one song which I did for a film called Dus, our first film. There is a song in that film – Chandni Roop Si – and the melody of that song begins as Re-Sa-Sa, Re-Sa-Sa. That song was a favourite of Ehsan, Loy and I. But that film and that song did not see the light of day. 

I was feeling bad that the melody was gone, lost forever, and nothing happened to it. Then I got an opportunity with another song, Kaisi Hai Yeh Rut. I used the same principle of that earlier composition, and I added one more note, Ga, to each line. It went Re-Ga-Re-Sa, Re-Ga-Re-Sa, and the lyrics were Kaisi Hai Yeh, Rut Ke Jis Mein, Phool Banke Dil Khile. In a sense, I copied my own idea. And that became a superhit song. 

What I’m telling you is sometimes you have to think technically. And sometimes you just think and things just come out. For this song, Kaisi Hai Yeh Ruth, I just first thought of Chandni Roop Si. I said to myself that it is such a good melody that I didn't want to let it go to waste. 

So you have to think on different levels. Sometimes, technically. Sometimes, you have to think in rhythm a lot. For example, I have a song, Bolo Na, Bolo Na, in a film called Chittagong, for which we won the National Award. In that song we have a tihai in the end where it goes: ta da ta di da da, ta da ta di da, ta di da di | da da da, da da da, da da da | Bolo naaa. (“Tihai” is the rhythmic repeating of a phrase in melody three times, identically, with an equal interval in between the repetitions.)

To get Bolo Na in the sam, I had to leave two beats (matra) earlier, after ta da ta di da ta, ta da ta di da. And that gap that we gave initially should also sound smooth. It should not seem like we had to force a gap there so that we could end with a tihai. (“Sam” is the first beat of a rhythmic cycle in Hindustani classical music. “Matra” is a beat in Hindustani classical music.)

So, sometimes you think technically, sometimes you think from the heart. Your composition is your own arena. You are the mother; you are giving birth to that child, the tune. Just feel free; do what you want.

Read next. 

A song is a journey of one musical note.

When you join two parts of a song with a melody.

The fine line between imitation and inspiration.

When you arrange music for a song you’ve created.