Introduction to Shruti – The Foundational Pitch


Shruti is a term with many meanings, ranging from the simple to the complex.

One of the technically sound definitions of Shruti is that it refers to musical positions which are a certain distance away from the starting frequency, which is called Tonic. Many claim that there are 22 such positions in an octave. I don’t quite buy into that theory, but that topic of discussion is for another day.  Dr. Vidyadhar Oke has an interesting website with detailed research regarding the topic.  For many of your novices, this definition might not make sense.

So we move on to the colloquial use of the term Shruti, which refers to the foundational pitch or frequency chose by the performer. All the subsequent notes get the frequency position depending on the starting frequency. This key point is that Indian musical notes are all relative based on the starting position. This foundational musical note is called the Shajama (or Shadja) which is sung as ‘Sa’ in short. Only after establishing the position of this ‘Sa’ can we move on to exploring the rest of the musical notes. In western music terminology, this ‘Sa’ is called the Root note or Tonic.




Tanpura providing Shruti

Tambura: (or Tanpura)

This is the instrument that the performer uses to cement the Shadja (Sa). The Tambura is as important to a practitioner of Indian classical music as is a solid foundation in the building construction of a high-rise structure. In many ways, this is the instrument that can be considered as the very essence of Indian classical music. Plucking the 4 strings of this instrument provides a stable foundation for the artist to explore melody in Indian classical music. The video below does an excellent job in briefly explaining the nature and importance of this instrument. There are electronic equivalents (called shruti box) which try to replicate the role of the tambura, but none yet have come close to provide anywhere the level of richness that a real instrument provides. In the absence of the real instrument, well recorded tracks are the closest you can get. Some smartphone and tablet apps also do a decent job in replicating the tambura. iTanpura for iOS and Bheema Tanpura for Android and Windows Mobile.



Sa and Pa – The Root Note and Fifth Note

One of the most basic of skills required of a student of Indian classical music is having the ability to identify the root note and fifth note, The Shadjama (Sa) and Panchama (Pa). One can use a Shruti box or a keyboard and try recognizing both the notes at a variety of different shrutis. Only once the student is reasonably adept at identifying these two notes can the basics then be taught. Traditionally, it is very common to have the student hold out these two notes at the start and end of every class.

Seek the help of the teacher in ensuring the accuracy of these two notes.

Finding your Shruti:

The choice of the starting note is not arbitrary. It is the result of range and tonal quality of the voice/instrument we are trying to use. I shall explore this topic with more depth in future. But for now, just use some approximations as rules of thumb to choose the tonic note.

Men (or adolescent boys with dropped voices): C or C#

Women and Children: G, G# or even A at times

Instruments: D, D# or E. If the instrument has fixed tuning, like a flute, make sure that the tonic note matches well.

2 Responses to “Introduction to Shruti – The Foundational Pitch

  • Pattabhi Malavalli
    12 months ago

    Very good and understandable demonstration.
    Apprecite if you can add oOctave definition and demonstration too from indian music perspective.

  • Yasoda Aravapalli
    10 months ago

    Thanks for the post.

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