I started studying North Indian vocal music back in the early 80’s, first with Dr. Tapan Kumar Bhattacharyya, and after Dr. B moved to Chicago, for many years with Narenrda Datar.
I’ve always found the music beautiful, and I wanted the experience of confronting a highly developed system of classical music that had evolved along completely different lines than the European tradition. It’s sort of a cliché to say that the best way of understanding something is to step away from it, to look at it from a distance or a different point of view, and it is certainly the case that my take on music in general was changed a lot by my exposure to the Hindustani tradition.
But even on the humbler level of musicianship, this was true. To get into this music, I had to learn not only a new system of solfa (sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni, sa), but a new way of thinking about what it means, basically, to be a musician at all. I am eternally grateful to my teachers and friends in this music (see the link to the Toronto Gharana) who helped me to open these doors and, perhaps unbeknownst to them, to use myself as a guinea-pig in my own crazy experiment.
Indian music uses a drone. The drone is a very useful for intonation, for comparing the qualities of different scales, and so on. Besides, drones are known all over the world, from Scotland to Central Asia. Of course, one thing that a drone renders impossible is modulation, since modulatory music, a unique product of the European tradition, requires that the tonic note be transferable to any pitch. But even Bach and Beethoven used a procedure, known as a pedal tone, which is related to a drone. With a pedal tone, one note, usually the bass, is maintained while the harmonies, some of them sharply dissonant with the bass, unfold above it. For a couple of examples, listen to the opening of Bach St. Matthew Passion, or the opening of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in D major, op. 28. Also, any piece entitled “Musette,” since a musette was a type of bagpipe. Many of the exercises available through the “Ear-Training and Musicianship” portion of this website sound beautiful when sung over a drone. Of course, you can always just play a note on your uke or your piano – not quite as rich, but usable. Or download the app. Recommendation: start with the twenty-five basic pentatonic scales, and go slow!