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Mohanam? KalyaaNi? Bilahari? Which one is it?
Previous: Janya raagas
Identifying the raga of a song is not easy. It takes LOTS of practice. If you're gifted, it's easy, of course, but few of us are really gifted that way. But in general, it's always easier than you think. The best way to learn is to listen to LOTS of music. When you are listening to a song, look at the tape and see what raga the song is in and try to remember the name of the song and the raga. The next time you hear a similar song, you will start to think it might be similar. You'll probably be wrong the first several times (hey, life is tough!) but when you've listened to LOTS of songs by various artists and tried to remember their ragas, a few will automatically creep into your memory. Soon you'll know many ragas.
Keep in mind you can't just learn the song to identify the raga. Identifying a raga includes knowing the swaras and phrases of the raga. Plus, it includes the FEELING that the raga evokes. Many ragas sound really similar and some actually have the same swaras, but still they're very different because of the MOOD, TEMPO, LYRICS they're set to, or FEELINGS they evoke, among other things. These ragas are difficult for beginners to identify without lots of practice, but most of the common ones are quite identifiable with a bit of practice. So turn on your walkman!
The other thing to do is to learn music. When you are learning a song, a geetam, a varnam, or whatever, remember the raga. Make sure you know the swarams of the aarohana and avarohana. Ask your teacher which famous songs are in that raga, what the prayOgams (phrases) and sancaaris are, and the meaning of the song. Be familiar with some raga (aakaaram) in that raga, even if you can't do it yourself. Then when you hear a song in that raga, you will know it's the same one!
The final way to learn is to learn some music theory. Read the raaga page and see how the ragas are made. You will have to listen to songs and the drone notes (S,P,S) in the background carefully to tell what notes are being performed. When you learn the swaras of a raga you can say this raga has shuddha rishabam, small ma, etc. Then when you hear ANY song, you can figure out which of the 12 swaras the song in the ascending scale, and which ones in the descending scale. In this way you can tell which melakarta number it's from with a little simple math. Then, using the katapayadi formula you can tell which melakarta the raga is from!
For example, let's take the ascending scale (aarOhana) of a raga. Knowing that a raga has a small ma (M1) tells you it is in 1-36. If it has small ri (R1) narrows your choices to 1-18. If it has the 2nd ga, it can only be in 7-12. Then knowing the da and ni, you can tell which number is its melakarta. If it is the low da (D1) and high ni (N3), then you have S R1 G2 M1 P D1 N3 S. If it IS a melakarta raga (the same notes in this order in ascending and descending scales) you know which raga, which in this case is dhEnukaa. If it is a janya, you will find certain swaras missing, and these are usually identified only with knowledge of the raga beforehand (and a bunch of practice). You can also find out what raaga it is from the notes using our Reverse Janya List.
A final thing to do is to ask the people next to you at a concert or take notes when the performer announces the song and raga. You can write it down to remember later whenever you hear the song. A few songs even have the names of ragas inside their lyrics so it's to your benefit to remember them! You can benefit greatly from learning how a raga forms - this is what performers are explaining to you in their grand expositions of raga.
All these strategies combined will help you slowly become proficient at identifying ragas. It is not easy and it will take time but with practice you can be great at it. You'll find that learning raga and identifying ragas can be very rewarding and will help you more fully appreciate the beauty of Carnatic music.
A few "starter" ragas to identify:
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