Chapter 1 – Sur, Sargam, and Saptak

Indian-ArtMy Intro

Before I get into Sur, Sargam and Saptak, I like to share something with you, the reader. Back when I was learning HCM, I was just 15 or 16 years, living in the USA in the year 1995. Not only did I not know anyone who could teach me HCM, but I couldn’t even go online to get the information I needed. Back then, the internet had already started but very few people had it. Hardly anyone that I knew could even afford it. Very few people even had computers.

A good family friend was informed of my dilemma and decided to scout a book for beginners and sent it to my dad for me. The book was called “Abjada-e-Mosiqi” by H. Iqbal. I was very fortunate to have come across this book and even more so because the book was in easy-to-read Urdu font. This book literally established my HCM theory. I’m not an expert by any means. However, I am a hobbyist and do not boast about myself as anything more. My reasons for creating this guide are two folds:

  1. I’m a big fan of the Qawwali genre, which I was introduced to by my father. And I admire the fundamental core of Qawwali and those that helped to pass it down to us in contemporary times. It brings me joy to see people be uplifted by Qawwali as well as its Poetry and Message. A few of us may even end up with some profound understanding through Qawwali.
  2. I would never want anyone to go through a harder time getting an understanding of HCM than I did. We now have the internet, and with that, we have Google, Youtube, Text, Videos, Images, etc…everything that one can require to learn concepts. Well, then let’s put them all to good use and teach people and help them find information and learn concepts easily.

What This Guide Is and Isn’t

This guide is to teach the basics of HCM to a beginner. It’s for anyone who wants to learn HCM, and likes music in general, but has no idea where to begin. This guide is for those that came from the Indian Sub-Continent and may have even lost a lot of grasp of their language, maybe relying on English for daily conversations and so on. It’s also for those that have NOTHING to do with the Indian Sub-Continent, were born in any other part of the world but still like to learn HCM. This guide is for you!

If you’ve read other guides and things got really technical, really quickly. Things became very Hindi for you to handle, this guide is for you! If you have tried other guides and you’ve noticed that there are chapter after chapter discussing one-minute never-ending topics that may never be applied in your lifetime, this guide is for you!

This guide is NOT written to create an expert musician out of you. It’s not there to explain every single point of HCM. The goal of this guide is to simply give you some basic concepts to learn about HCM. Next, it will explain some heavier concepts that you as a musician WILL use 100% if you sing or play HCM. By the end of this guide, you will come to a point, where you can now understand HCM to a degree, where you can all by yourself learn further, by using a plethora of other guides on this website.

So let’s start

Sur Sargam

Before we start, we need to define what Sur is. Sur is simply a musical note in Hindi. It is NOT a key on a keyboard. Keys are fixed whereas a Sur is based on a tone. First, we need to learn how many Sur there are in Hindustani Classical Music. For now, just assume there are only 7 Sur. These Sur are as follows: Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni

The accumulation of these is what’s known as Sargam, but when we do sing a Sargam, traditionally we add another Sa at the end for completion, as follows: Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa'

Consider this addition as an important part of Sargam. The Sargam is completed when this ascending order is sung backward in descending order as well like this: Sa' Ni Dha Pa Ma Ga Re Sa

This ascension and descension of Sargam are known as Arohi and Amrohi. If you’re still unclear, I’ll put it this way. Arohi is going up the Sur, and Amrohi is when you go back down the Sur. And together, Arohi and Amrohi make up Sargam. I’ll show you what they would look like below:

Arohi: Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa'
Amrohi: Sa' Ni Dha Pa Ma Ga Re Sa

Notes: Many beginners memorize Arohi very quickly and don’t give much thought to Amrohi, whereas a student of HCM, should memorize both very well. Memorizing the general 7 note Sargam should not take more than 5min. And once done, it will help you in future chapters of this series. You may hear similar but different phrases for Arohi and Amrohi, such as Aroh, Arohi, Aroha, Avroh, Avrohi, Avroha, but these are simply due to changes in languages and dialects. Remember to understand the core idea behind these words and don’t get bogged down in the language as such. We are students of music and our principle is to not fight over language. But to have a better understanding of music itself.

Sur Types

If you’re already a bit overwhelmed, I suggest that you stop that this point and go over the information above and try to fully digest it before moving forward, because this is the portion that gives half of the beginners a mild headache.

What you should know is that 7 Sur are what’s common knowledge. But you’re not after the commonalities now are you? Of course not! Let’s learn why there are more Sur on your keyboard than 7.

I need to explain to you that there are 4 types of Sur: Komal, Tayvar, Atal, and Shudh. However, you may not really understand the real-world implications of this just yet. I’ll explain more about this in a later chapter. For now, what is important is to understand the vocabulary.

Komal: Stands for delicate, fragile, and subtle. This indicates that Sur that are known as Komal will have these properties for sure.

Tayvar: Stands for bold, fearless, head held high. Some websites say it means frown, but that’s NOT what Tayvar means at all. So the Sur that are Tayvar, will be bolder than their Komal counterparts.

Atal: It’s also known as Qayam, Achal, Mazbut, and so on. But it stands for the meaning firm. These Sur do NOT have a Komal or a Tayvar. They are by themselves firm.

Shudh: It literally means correct or straight. These Sur can come from Tayvar or Komal types. We’ll discuss that when we get to that bridge.


Now, let’s take a look at a music keyboard or harmonium below:

Click To Enlarge

A beginner might be taken back a bit if they are not familiar with how keyboard keys are structured. You’ve been told that there are only 7 Sur and here you see so many, what’s the deal? I’ll explain!

The reality is that there are only 7 Sur, but on a keyboard, these Sur is repeated, going from left to right, in an ascending form. The sages of music realized that 7 Sur would not have been enough to form a song and would have limited range. Therefore, they segregated these 7 Sur into 3 general octaves. These octaves are called Saptak in HCM terms.

Let’s take a look at this keyboard image to get a better sense of what is really going on.

Click to Enlarge

Take this picture and try to analyze it a bit. There is a lot of stuff here to take in as a beginner. Things you’ll notice but may not be sure of yet are:

  1. Names of Saptak and what they mean. What are the differences between them?
  2. You see the names of 7 Sur repeating but what are these symbols next to some?
  3. What do these dotted lines represent?

Well, let’s go and solve each of these things, one at a time. As briefly explained before, the Saptak is basically just an octave, and it goes from left to right. Far left being the lowest sounding Sur, going towards the right, each Sur ascends slightly forming a new Sur. So the far right would be the highest of all these Sur. The names of the Saptak here are just First Saptak, Second, and Third in Hindi/Urdu. But you’ll hear terms like Mandra, Madhya, Taar, Nichli, Ehem, Ounchi, and so on. Really, these are just terms in various languages to mean the same thing. Originally I was told that they were referred to as Teyh Saptak for lower, Aam for Medium, and Boland Saptak for higher Saptak by those that augmented HCM with Persian elements. Again, language doesn’t matter as much as the core understanding.

The symbols next to them represent which Saptak these Sur belongs to. So you see the last Ni in Pehli Saptak is written as 'Ni. This symbolizes that this particular Ni is of the Saptak to the left, or lower than the middle or Doosri Saptak. The same goes for  Sa of the Teesri Saptak. They write this as Sa' to symbolize that this Sa belongs to the right Saptak or higher Saptak than my standard middle Doosri Saptak. It is EXTREMELY essential that you understand this concept because all the following lessons within this series and even blog items will be based on these fundamentals.

The dotted line as you may have guessed just gives you a visual border for each Saptak. Where one begins, and where one ends. In this manner, the last Sa on this image is even higher than the Teesri Saptak and not part of Teesri Saptak.

Sur Names

Now let’s take a deep breath, we are over halfway through this chapter and we just have to cover a few more things. For one, do you ever wonder why the names of Sur are single syllables? That’s because it makes it easy to say in speed. The full names are Sur a bit longer. Did you know that your A B Cs in English are also short forms of longer-named alphabets? It’s true! Imagine how life would have been if you had to recite; Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon…Aren’t ABCDEFG…so much easier? Of course, it is.

Why would musical alphabets be any harder? I’m just showing you what each Sur is really called by name. You’ll hardly ever need to use them in this form, but it’s always better to know than to not know.

Let’s break these down a bit:

  1. Sa = Kharaj
  2. Re = Rikhab
  3. Ga = Gandhaar
  4. Ma = Madham
  5. Pa = Pancham
  6. Dha = Dhaivat
  7. Ni = Nikhaad

Each one of these has a precise name and each name has a precise meaning. My personal bewilderment set in when I heard a friend use slightly different names for each. Well folks, this again is based on the language background. The important thing is to understand the core concept and readily be flexible to minor changes in terminologies. We come from a rich and diverse culture of an even richer and diverse world. Being flexible goes with the territory.

Now…if you’re still reading, I like to congratulate you and I do believe that you have at least enough motivation to read to the end of this chapter. There are several topics discussed here. I would suggest you take time to go over and properly digest this info before going further. The next chapter will explain to you all those Sur that we have NOT labeled, such as those in the black keys, and what the differences are between them.

See you next time, stay sharp.

Comments are closed.