Tonal hierarchies in the music of north India

J Exp Psychol Gen. 1984 Sep;113(3):394-412. doi: 10.1037//0096-3445.113.3.394.


Cross-culturally, most music is tonal in the sense that one particular tone, called the tonic, provides a focus around which the other tones are organized. The specific organizational structures around the tonic show considerable diversity. Previous studies of the perceptual response to Western tonal music have shown that listeners familiar with this musical tradition have internalized a great deal about its underlying organization. Krumhansl and Shepard (1979) developed a probe tone method for quantifying the perceived hierarchy of stability of tones. When applied to Western tonal contexts, the measured hierarchies were found to be consistent with music-theoretic accounts. In the present study, the probe tone method was used to quantify the perceived hierarchy of tones of North Indian music. Indian music is tonal and has many features in common with Western music. One of the most significant differences is that the primary means of expressing tonality in Indian music is through melody, whereas in Western music it is through harmony (the use of chords). Indian music is based on a standard set of melodic forms (called rags), which are themselves built on a large set of scales (thats). The tones within a rag are thought to be organized in a hierarchy of importance. Probe tone ratings were given by Indian and Western listeners in the context of 10 North Indian rags. These ratings confirmed the predicted hierarchical ordering. Both groups of listeners gave the highest ratings to the tonic and the fifth degree of the scale. These tones are considered by Indian music theorists to be structurally significant, as they are immovable tones around which the scale system is constructed, and they are sounded continuously in the drone. Relatively high ratings were also given to the vadi tone, which is designated for each rag and is given emphasis in the melody. The ratings of both groups of listeners generally reflected the pattern of tone durations in the musical contexts. This result suggests that the distribution of tones in music is a psychologically effective means of conveying the tonal hierarchy to listeners whether they are familiar with the musical tradition. Beyond this, only the Indian listeners were sensitive to the scales (thats) underlying the rags. For Indian listeners, multidimensional scaling of the correlations between the rating profiles recovered the theoretical representation of scales described by theorists of Indian music.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Cross-Cultural Comparison
  • Humans
  • India
  • Music*
  • Pitch Discrimination*
  • Psychoacoustics