Train Yourself to Recognize Ragas

Newcomers to Carnatic Music enter a rather intimidating world of knowledgeable rasikas. Invariably at concerts you find some grey-haired denizen keeping tala most enthusiastically in the seat next to you. When a new piece starts, you can hear him humming snatches of music and declaring the raga within the first couple of phrases. Do you stare at him with envy? Well, if you wish you could train yourself to be him!

Some people are just gifted when it comes to raga recognition. I have seen youtube videos of very young children manage to recognize ragas with no trouble. Unfortunately I have neither talent nor training so I need method. This is hard-won knowledge that I share with you! Here is the plan of action for anyone wishing to learn to recognize ragas.

  1. Get an mp3 player if you don’t have one. You are going to listen to a lot of music, a LOT of music. There is no shortcut to this.
  2. Convert all your music to mp3 files and tag them carefully. Rename the titles as Name of Song+Raga. From now on, whenever you look at the player when you listen to a song, you will see this title. You are trying to establish a strong Song-Raga relationship in your mind; Jagadodharana will never occur henceforth without your thinking Kapi with it. This is the only ‘remembering’ part to the strategy but it is crucial.
  3. Even if you prefer instrumental music, listen to vocals only. Words seem to aid memory of the tune, at least for me.
  4. To start your training, select 10 songs in different ragas. I would suggest choosing really well-known kritis by great composers. These will act as ‘reference kritis’ in your mind for ever more so select carefully. Make sure each has an alapana at the start. Use an mp3 editor to strip away the alapana so that you have only the sahityam in a playlist. There are free mp3 editors like Audacity that you can use. I have had Total Recorder ( a paid program) for the last 12 years and am very happy with it.
  5. Listen to this playlist everyday for a week, as many times as you can manage. Set it in random mode so that the songs come in a different order each time.
  6. Now change to a new playlist with the same songs but with alapana included. Again set it to random mode.
  7. When the alapana starts, see if it triggers the thought of one of the 10 songs that you have been listening to for a week. If it doesn’t, don’t trouble yourself. Just check the name and listen attentively to hints of the song (which hopefully you know now) in the alapana.
  8. When you can recognize the song at the alapana stage, it is time to get 10 new songs, of the same 10 ragas. Repeat the process of letting your mind work out pattern-recognition of similar phrases, similar slides, similar frequency-intervals. Funnily enough, one doesn’t need to know the technical details to be able to recognize it.
  9. Continue this process until one day, when an alapana starts, your mind automatically starts singing your reference kriti of the matching raga. Success! It’s time to move to 10 new ragas!

My suggestion is to start with common ragas like Mohanam, Todi, Kalyani, Kanada etc. There are plenty of songs in these ragas so you can set up your training playlists with no trouble. Ragas like Revati, Punnagavarali, Nattai and Hamsadhwani have a very unique sound and are easy to distinguish. One needs to have some easy success built into our playlist otherwise it can be discouraging. Also keep away from including songs of very similar ragas like Bowli and Bhupalam, Purvikalyani and Pantuvarali etc. Basically, after you set up your playlist, if you see that you keep confusing between two specific ragas, leave one of them out. You can get to it when you have built more listening skills.

Good luck! I would love to know how you get on with your training so do write and tell me.

4 responses to “Train Yourself to Recognize Ragas


    The rustic hard facts on learning Canatic music — spelled correctly.
    Thanks .

  2. Thanks a lot Suja, Thats really a great work and you are very kind to share this information on internet. 10 ragas in 1 week. Nothing could work faster than this.

    Aman Sekhon

    • Oh no, I have obviously miscommunicated – it would be hard to learn to recognize 10 ragas in a week! There are many factors which determine the speed of learning – background, familiarity, natural talent for musical note recognition, talent for pattern recognition, time spent listening to music..I could go on and on! There are no guarantees 🙂 I reckon the method has a good chance of success and is worth a go..
      cheers. Suja

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