Uniform Percussion Notation System

by H.S. Sudhindra
Mridangam Vidwan and Convenor,
Youth form, Art Centre

                        Sound in general can be either noise or music. Audible frequencies which are pleasing to hear may be termed as Naada or Musical Sound. the musical sound consists of different swaras. These swaras are confined to different octaves. Each swara is identified by its sthaana, which is given a particular name. This is the basis of evolution and formulation of a written text for music which was later called Notation. Notation is a system of symbols and signs.

The concept of notation system did not exist even during the times of Natya Sastra. People often forgot that every music Grantha has a Tala Adhyaya. The contents of the Tala Adhyayas are not clearly known because of the following reasons:

  •  Non-technical persons (non-percussion artists) could not have understood this.

  •  The persons who understood the literary language, that is the language in which this was written, did  not know the performing aspects.

  • The persons who knew percussion did not know the literary language.

In music, the song has a text (Sahitya) and this text has a meaning. However, there is no meaning for mnemonics (in the literary sense) as a language, but still the language is conveyed through musical strokes. the language is universal and enjoyed by most. Since this is a monotone instrument, everyone cannot appreciate.

A number of students are learning various percussive instruments and it is very ideal to put the lessons in writing. This is highly necessary, for the following reasons:

  • Retentivity

  • Authenticity

  • Useful for an artist himself to recollect a complex korvai he has formed, after some years. We have already lost many Moharas and other technicalities of olden days. In fact, the Mohara was being formed from Samam. (Now we have a method of playing a korvai from Samam to Eduppu).

Most of our earlier percussionists were illiterate though highly cultured. No notations were available due to this factor. However art was propagated more through "Karna Parampara" or "Guru Shishya Parampara". When the question of retentivity and authenticity arose, writting of 'sollus' became essential. Probably no written material or script was given to the disciple before or after teaching. When the question of retentivity arose, disciples gave a thinking to write much against the wishes of their Gurus. Even early in the early part of the 20th century copies of the Trinity's compositions were restricted for a selected few. Much to the opposition of giants in the field, copies were printed. As a result of this, today we have a lot of Keertanas authored by many Vidwans and 'Kriti Mani Maalai' has become a reference manual.

Over the past 50 years a lot has been done in the percussive arts too, with respect to the notation system. Various authors have written useful texts. The highlights of some of these books have been represented below:

In "The Art of Playing Mridangam" by Tinniam Venkatarama Iyer, as illustrated by the author, the basic lesson Tha, Thi, Thom & Nam are represented by KRDN respectively. He clearly states that Tha & Thi are non-vibrating sounds whereas Thom & Nam are vibrating sounds. The letter K also stands for Ku, Ka and Ki, the letter R also stands for Ri & Tha, the letter D also stands for Ja. The kaarvai is represented by a small elipse. (Kaarvai is nothing but "the rest" or "silence").

In "The Art of Mridangam" by T.R. Hariharan Sharma, the author introduces that the mridangam has the capability to produce & distinct musical tones varying in pitch, resonance, timbre and tonal qualities. The 7 fundamental syllables are termed as Tha, Thi, Thom, Nam, Ta, Chapu and Dhin.These are referred to as Major Syllables while Ka, Dhim and Tham are referred to as Minor Syllables. A dot is used to denote a kaarvai. Absolutely no abbreviations are used for any syllables.

In "Mridangam Tatvam" by Dhamala Ramamurthy, the author explains a lot of technical terms and the theory regarding mridangam. As far a sthe notation system is concerned, the book clearly indicates various types of Gumkis with notation. The Gumki varieties are clearly shown in the photographs.The notation consists of Greek Alphabets etc. for notating.

As clearly observed from the above study, each author has used his own notation system. It should not be very difficult to establish uniformity in writing notation for percussions. Finally, uniform notation system is essential for the following reasons:

  • Preserving art through textual material

  • For propagation of art

  • As a teaching material for students

  • This is an era of documentation

  • For retentivity

  • For recordings and symphonies

The essential contents of a uniform notation system:

  • It should represent the strokes and kaarvai

  • It should represent the Mruga

  • Graha should be indicated

  • Soft, hard and vibrating strokes should be mentioned

  • Supporting strokes on the left should be taken care of

  • Gumki should be taken care of

  • Number of times a particular phrase to be repeated should be mentioned

  • The kalam should be represented

  • The Ghana and Naya (Vallinam & Mellinam in Tamil) Should be mentioned

  • Tala and Anga should be clearly stated