How to interprete the signs used on the music sheets

Tone pitch and transposition

Chords and Changes

Numbering

Fundamental thoughts about sheet music

Relativity of notation

Complex notation and possibilities of simplification

Embellishments

 

How to interprete the signs used on the music sheets

Usually the precentor sings one line and then the group repeats it. The whole bhajan is first sung at a slow or medium speed, in the course of which every line is usually repeated i.e. precentor - group - precentor - group. When we want you to proceed like this you find repeat signs at the end of a line. If a line is only to be sung once (precentor - group) at the slower speed you only find a thin double line without repeat signs at the end of a line.

After that the bhajan is sung again at a faster speed and usually without repeating the single lines. To conclude the bhajan the last line is repeated, and then all together slowly sing the first line - sometimes also the second one.

Repeat signs with an asterisk (*, e.g. Hari Narayana Hari Narayana / line 3: ||: A || B :||) mean: A B A B. By the sign |* ... *| an interjection is marked (e.g. no. Daya Karo Shiva Ganga Dhari / line 4). This is usually sung during the fast repetition of the bhajan: whole line - interjection - whole line again.

When changing from full beat to upbeat a dashed line marks the strike in (e.g. no. Allah Ho Akabar / line 5). In the reverse case (changing from upbeat to full beat) the additional note is added at the end of the line (e.g. no. Allah Ho Akabar / line 6). These notations replace the usual brackets for first and second ending.

 

Tone pitch and transposition

All bhajans are by default noted with tonic keynote C (*C). When recommendable - considering different pitches of the singers' voice - we added an alternative version at a different keynote (e.g. *F). This procedure has various reasons and advantages:

- Many bhajans are good to sing with keynote C.

- The modes (tones of a scale, raga and thaat) are more easily comparable.

- Accompaniment with tabla, sitar or harmonium gets easier. Using a scale changer harmonium you can play all bhajans in C and transpose them to any other tonal keynote by shifting the scale.

When deciding which transposed version would be appropriate, we tried to see that it covers that part of the voice spectrum not covered by the version in C. When C version is low the alternative version is higher - and vice versa. Thus we also indicate the rough bandwidth of versions you can sing. If there is apart from the version in C an alternative version in Ab this means you could sing the bhajan also in B, Bb or A.

Furthermore we tried to put the alternative version to such a keynote that the resulting scale contains the tone c and that this c has a relatively consonant relationship to the drone of the raga. This naturally leads to scales with flats rather than with sharps, which is not going to please the guitarists, but the tabla players will enjoy it as their instruments are on default tuned to C. This choice is of course based on our way of performing the bhajans the Indian way using tabla, harmonium, sitar or other melody instruments.

 

Chords and Changes

Guitar or keyboard players will look in vain for chords and harmonisations. Bhajans are based on modal Indian music culture where the tones of the melody establish a relationship to the drone, which stays constant during the whole piece of music. The drone or tonal keynote is usually played by a tanpura a shruti box or a harmonium. This way of performing goes back to ancient Vedic tradition.

We are aware that certain bhajans with their scale material can sometimes be harmonized beautifully for harmonium or guitar, and we don't fundamentally disapprove of that either. We consider the most important criterion when singing bhajans is that the song is uplifting and opens the heart. If an accompaniment with chords facilitates that, then why not? But we leave the creative elaboration of changes to the individual player, because there are lots of different possibilities to do so depending on the instrument, the way of playing or the skill and knowledge of the arranger.

And interesting approach to harmonization is the use of chords over a constant drone - a technique well known as Orgelpunkt (pedal-note) in the western music tradition but rarely used in the West to accompany bhajans. Like that, western and eastern traditions could be joined without infringing upon the rules of both cultures.

 

Numbering

The bhajans of each volume are alphabetically ordered and numbered. Thats why you find strange numbering here on the website, which is the result of putting all bhajans of both historically grown volumes in one alphabetical list.

 

Fundamental thoughts about sheet music

The question whether the use of western pentagrams is appropriate for learning Indian bhajans may sound counterproductive in this context, but it's fairly legitimate. Answering it will hopefully dispel doubts.

We are well aware that even in the occident there are a lot of people who can't do anything with music notation. Many prefer the olden way of learning by listening - be it from other singers or from audio sources. In this case a textbook is sufficient to remember a song. We consider listening not only the most widely spread but also the most natural way of learning. Even the music notations of this book were only possible because someone repeatedly listened very exactly. That's why we consider the transcriptions at hand as a complementary learning tool for those who can do something with western music notation.

Logically music notation constitutes a familiar and useful tool for the professional or amateur musician. Still, our experience has proved that even people who are not 100% able to read music can do something with it, as the music notation graphically follows the course of the melody, thus being useful for memorizing a tune. Such people will even understand the rhythm signs better by the time they continuously work with bhajan music notation.

In any case we recommend listening to the original source and comparing with the notation when learning a bhajan. It might also be interesting to compare with other sources of the same bhajan.

 

Relativity of notation

Notation can help us to seriously and thoroughly learn a bhajan as text and translation but also rhythm and melody are clearly mapped. On the other hand the notation could suggest a fixed and universally valid form, as music readers know from occidental music practice, where fidelity to notation plays an important role. In spite of all the advantages of bhajan notation listed above the assumption of a universally valid form could also have a negative effect on our way to cope with bhajan notation by suggesting the singer: your bhajan is good only if you can sing it exactly as its notation. But that's not at all how it is with bhajans: We may and shall more openly approach the music notation, as it is only the reflection of one possible form of the song among many others.

Listening to the same bhajan sung by various singers clearly shows that within certain musical boundaries and regulations there are different possibilities how to interpret a song. Even if we compare different recordings of the same bhajan by the same singer we have to conclude: within musical rules every interpretation is unique and seldom congruent. All those variations have a special charm, a peculiar beauty and a difficulty of their own. The liberty of interpreting a bhajan is greater than that of a Lied by Schubert, although even here you will find differences.

Taking all this in consideration the transcriptions of this book are not meant to suggest a universally valid form. They only truthfully and helpfully represent a chosen version from a chosen source.

Even the aim of truly mirroring the chosen source can only approximately be attained, so that the validity of the notation is becoming even more relative. A frequent example: Although at slow speed a line is sung twice (precentor - group - precentor - group) it normally just appears as one line in the notation. When the precentor sings slight variations - regardless of he does so deliberately or not - or when the group sings differently from the precentor, we have to decide which version to transcribe. Therefore the notation cannot render every detail truthfully unless it's getting extremely bulky, complex, and consequently useless.

That does not mean that you can do whatever you like with a bhajan. Apart from charming variations there are definitely blatant mistakes and deformations. Within the musical rules of the game, which we can generally describe by the terms râga, tâla and bhava (tone material, type of rhythmic metre and mood or humour of the bhajan), there is some liberty of interpretation and for improvisation. We'll describe the above-mentioned rules and creative liberties more clearly in the following chapter.

 

Complex notation and possibilities of simplification

Transcribing this volume mainly from sources in which Swami's students sing, we are portraying a sometimes very sophisticated style of singing not easily imitated by western people. An unconstrained skilful voice is useful to perform certain embellishments. Even more our rhythm capabilities are challenged. For these reasons we'd like to show you some examples how to perform complex rhythms and embellishments or how to simplify them if necessary.

Quintuplets are often used as a rhythm pattern in bhajan singing. First some basic explanation for those who don't know quintuplets:

Per definition a quintuplet asks for a subdivision of two crotchets (quarter notes) in five quavers (eighth notes) instead of normally four quavers, resulting in a speed 5/4 as fast because a quintuplet-quaver lasts only 4/5 of a normal quaver.

This mathematical insight won't help a lot to perform quintuplets. But it might be helpful to know that the beginning of the second crotchet is exactly in the middle of the third quintuplet-quaver. The third quintuplet-quaver starts shortly before the second beat and the forth quintuplet-quaver start shortly after the second beat. It's really difficult to describe in words, most success is guaranteed by direct experience, listening to and reproducing the source.

In the bhajans the quintuplet variation is mostly used like this: Instead of singing four tones (syllables) as normal quavers beginning on the first beat of the bar you first put in a quintuplet-quaver rest and then sing the four tones or syllables on the second, third, forth and fifth quintuplet-quaver.

Example 1: 139 Daya Bhi Rama, line 5

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As you can see in the second bar the game also works with two syllables sung over four tones, and of course it would also work with three syllables.

He who for whatever reasons doesn't like to sing quintuplets can simply reduce them to the basic form with the normal quavers. This would make the fifth line of Daya Bhi Rama look like that:

Example 2: 139 Daya Bhi Rama, line 5, simplified

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You can freely handle this and spontaneously decide to sing a line the normal way or with a quintuplet variation.

The amount of quintuplets appearing in the transcription of a bhajan has mainly to do with the chosen source and the preferred rhythm variations of the singers in the audio source. Like this, a bhajan sung in our source with many quintuplet variations could also be interpreted quite simply. The following example of Daya Bhi Rama lets you compare a complex and a simplified variation:

Example 3: 139 Daya Bhi Rama, complex version with quintuplets and triplets

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Example 4: 139 Daya Bhi Rama, simplified version without quintuplets, triplets and embellishments

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Apart from - and between - the simple variation with normal quavers and the complex quintuplet variation there are lot of other rhythmic solutions how to put two, three or four tones or syllables into two beats. As you see in our example (139) triplets are often used. Quaver triplets indicated by a bracket and a small “3” are performed singing three instead of two quavers over one beat. Triplets express softness, thus underlining the devotional, flowing mood of many bhajans.

Example 5: 139 Daya Bhi Rama, line 3

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Example 6: 139 Daya Bhi Rama, line 1

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Example 4 has showed how to simplify the triplet variations. Of course you can also develop a quintuplet variation out of these triplet variations, compare example 7 to example 6 and example 8 to example 5.

Example 7: 139 Daya Bhi Rama, line 1, quintuplet instead of triplet in the second bar

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Example 8: 139 Daya Bhi Rama, line 3, quintuplets instead of triplets

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Instead of changing quintuplets to normal quivers like in example 4, you can also perform a triplet variation. For 139, line 2, there are the following possibilities for the first bar:

Example 9: 139 Daya Bhi Rama, line 2, bar 1, triplet variation A (see examples 3 and 4)

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Example 10: 139 Daya Bhi Rama, line 2, bar 1, triplet variation B (see examples 3 and 4)

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Examples 3, 4, 9 and 10 show four possible interpretations of one bar, thus indicating the rhythmic liberty of bhajan singing within the basic rhythm pattern, rhythm cycle or tala.

Another good example is the first bar of line 4. Let's list some variations you could sing:

Example 11: 139 Daya Bhi Rama, line 4, bar 1, variation A (‚original', see example 3)

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Example 12: 139 Daya Bhi Rama, line 4, bar 1, variation B (with quintuplets)

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Example 13: 139 Daya Bhi Rama, line 4, bar 1, variation C (closer to A again)

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Example 14: 139 Daya Bhi Rama, line 4, bar 1, variation D (simple syncopation)

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Example 15: 139 Daya Bhi Rama, line 4, bar 1, variation E (crotchets and quavers)

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All these examples underline two things:

Firstly, you can interchange the rhythmic forms explained. Which variation sounds good and which one is rather theoretic depends among other things on the bhajan's character, on the musical context of the passage, on the meaning of the text, on personal preferences and customs and many other factors. But we think that all chosen variations (examples 11-15) sound good. Other theoretical possibilities were omitted.

Secondly, the resulting music sheet always depends on the choice of the audio source and the process of approximating it as closely as possible by listening, transcribing and correcting. As we said before the notation finally just represents one of many good possibilities to interpret a bhajan.

 

Embellishments

You recognize embellishments by the smaller size of the notes. The chosen note value indicates the approximate speed to perform the embellishment. The embellishment always has to be performed within the time of the main note it's joined to by a legato-slur, i.e. the embellishment value is not counted, but has to be subtracted from main note it belongs to.

In most of the cases the embellishment starts on the very beat (or more exactly: the instant the main note would start), whenever it's written before the main note.

Example 16: 139 Daya Bhi Rama, line 1 (embellishments before the main note)

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Compare - the same passage written in normal notes:

Example 17: 139 Daya Bhi Rama, line 1 (embellishments written)

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The embellishment begins after a non-defined duration of the main note, when it is written after the main note, and it must end as soon as the next note starts.

Example 18: 139 Daya Bhi Rama, line 4 (embellishments after the main note)

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Example 19: 139 Daya Bhi Rama, line 4 (embellishments written)

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Of course you can leave out embellishments, which is even recommendable when learning a new bhajan, mainly when learning it from the music notation and not from the source or live. Still, embellishments are an essential part of the style of (Indian) music, and without embellishments a bhajan often sounds flattish and less spirited than with the embellishments. That's why we'd like to encourage singers to learn the embellishments if possible, at least the simpler ones consisting of just one note before the main note (like example 16, line 1, beat 3 ‚Ra-ma').

Sometimes it's hard to decide whether a certain progression of the melody should be transcribed as an embellishment or in normal notes. In general we use normal notes, if the course of the melody is very convincing in the precise form, or if the notation of the basic melody together with the embellishments would result in a too complex notation pattern. Whenever there is a clearly audible basic melody behind the embellishment, and the resulting notation pattern is readable, we chose to write embellishments.