What is a Swar?

A Swar is a distinct tone that is reproducible and pleasing to the ear. There are 7 main Swars (Shadaj or Sa, Rishabh or Re, Gandhar or Ga, Madhyam or Ma, Pancham or Pa, Dhaivat or Dha and Nishad or Ni) and 5 variants (Komal Re, Komal Ga, Tivra or Tivra Ma, Komal Dha and Komal Ni). The main Swars are also referred to as Shuddha Swars. Shadaj and Pancham are “Achal” or fixed. There are no variants for them. A Komal Swar is half-way before the corresponding main Swar. As an example, Komal Re is between Shadaj and Shuddha Rishabh and the Tivra Madhyam is midway between the Shuddha Madhyam and Pancham.

From a linguistic point of view, “Swar” is a Sanskrit word which means “my voice”. The word is derived from “Swa (i.e. mine) and Ra (i.e. sound or voice)”. Every member of a sufficiently evolved specie on this earth is gifted with a Swar, which is uniquely their own.  Scientifically speaking, each Swar has a definite frequency. For example, Shadaj in “Kali Ek” scale has the frequency 277 Hz. The next swar which is Komal Re has a frequency of 296 Hz which is 1.07 times 277 Hz. “Kali Ek” is a specific key on the Harmonium and the sound it emits when pressed is the base Swar or Shadaj for the “Kali Ek” scale.

The human voice-box is the oldest musical instrument on earth. By expanding and contracting the vocal cords, various Swars are produced. The human ear responds to various frequencies logarithmically and the relationship between different Swars is also exponential (or logarithmic). The Shadaj in the upper or the “Tar” octave has the frequency twice that of the Shadaj in the middle octave. Since 12 Swars share the frequency spectrum in one octave, the frequency of each Swar can be computed by multiplying the frequency of the previous Swar by the twelfth root of 2, which happens to be 1.07.

The ascent and descent through Swars is analogous to stations along the route of a train or a bus. Each station has a discernible identity. Very often while presenting a Raag the vocalist seems to just pass through a certain swar before he or she lands on the next Swar. This is analogous to a train that passes through a certain station but does not stop there!