A raga is an Indian piece of music, but it is not a set melody so much as an improvisational framework. It has:
- A collection of between five and seven musical notes. Sometimes the usual Western scale, sometimes a more middle eastern scale, sometimes a uniquely Indian scale, sometimes something simple like a pentatonic scale. The absolute pitch can vary between performances, what matters is the spacing of the notes. Also the notes can be played over several octaves.
- A key note, the "vadi", similar to the Western concept of tonic.
- A second most important note, the "samvadi", similar to the Western concept of dominant.
- Ascending and descending sequences of notes. The improvised melody is constructed roughly based on splicing together parts of these.
- A melody instrument, with a tuned pair of drums as accompaniment.
Each raga is associated with a time of day, a rather clever way of hinting at its character.
Here are some ragas to play with:
A common error I have observed is people trying to improvise a melody of the same complexity as a written melody. No. Start with one note, produce an interesting rhythm. Then add a second note. Mull over the possibilities. Add a third note, and so on.
I like to think of improvisation as moving around an energy landscape, which is just a fancy abstract way of talking about something you encounter every day in all sorts of things. Think of it like riding a skateboard around a bumpy surface, say. The vadi is a depression in the surface where you can come to rest (after jiggling around a bit). The samvadi is like the peak of a hill where you can can seem to pause before rolling back down again. Or perhaps it's a little dimple at the top of the hill. The landscape is somewhat constrained by physics, what is more or less consonant with what else, is somewhat a matter of listener's expectation, and is somewhat something you decide upon yourself and convey by your performance. As you move around the paths you've taken previously are carved into the landscape, to be followed again.
... well, that is to say, to the extent that this is a matter of conscious thought at all. The real trick is to disengage your consciousness and just feel your way around. At school you have been taught to always be in control of spontaneity. Now you need to temper that, and make self-control something you can turn on and off.