Svara or swara is a Sanskrit word that connotes a note in the successive steps of the octave. More comprehensively, it is the ancient Indian concept about the complete dimension of musical pitch.

The swara differs from the shruti concept in Indian music. A shruti is the smallest gradation of pitch that a human ear can detect and a singer or instrument can produce. A swara is the selected pitches from which the musician constructs the scales, melodies and ragas. The ancient Sanskrit text Natya Shastra identifies and discusses twenty two shruti and seven swara. The swara studies in ancient Sanskrit texts include the musical gamut and its tuning, categories of melodic models and the raga compositions.

The seven notes of the musical scale in Indian classical music are shadaj (षड्ज), rishabh (ऋषभ), gandhar (गान्धार), madhyam (मध्यम), pancham (पञ्चम), dhaivat (धैवत) and nishad (निषाद). These seven swaras are shortened to Sa, Re (Carnatic) (Hindustani), Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, and Ni. Collectively these notes are known as the sargam (the word is an acronym of the consonants of the first four swaras). Sargam is the Indian equivalent to solfege, a technique for the teaching of sight-singing. The tone Sa is, as in Western moveable-Do solfège, the tonic of a piece or scale.


The word swara (Sanskrit: स्वर) is derived from the root svr which means "to sound". [In Tamil and Karnatic, Tamil Alphabet and suram are one and the same and represent the places of articulation (பிறப்பிடம்), ie alphabet/suram do not represent sound but represent PoA, where one generates sound and the sounds can vary in scale].

The word is found in the Vedic literature, particularly the Samaveda, where it means accent and tone, or a musical note, depending on the context. The discussion there focusses on three accent pitch or levels: svarita (sounded, circumflex normal), udatta (high, raised) and anudatta (low, not raised). However, scholars question whether the singing of hymns and chants were always limited to three during the Vedic era. The word also appears in other texts. For example, it appears in Jaiminiya Upanishad Brahmana section 111.33, where the cyclic rise and setting of sun and world, is referred to as "the music of spheres", and the sun is stated to be "humming the wheel of the world". According to Ananda Coomaraswamy, the roots "svar, meaning "to shine" (whence surya or sun), and svr, meaning "to sound or resound" (whence swara, “musical note”) and also in some contexts "to shine", are all related in the ancient Indian imagination.

The swara concept is found in Chapter 28 of the ancient Natya Shastra, estimated to have been completed between 200 BCE to 200 CE. It calls the unit of tonal measurement or audible unit as Śhruti, with verse 28.21 introducing the musical scale as follows,These seven swaras are shared by both major raga systems of Indian classical music, that is the North Indian (Hindustani) and South Indian (Carnatic).

In the general sense swara means tone, and applies to chanting and singing. The basic swaras of Vedic chanting are udatta, anudatta and svarita. The musical octave is said to have evolved from the elaborate and elongated chants of Sama Veda, based on these basic swaras. Siksha is the subject that deals with phonetics and pronunciation. Naradiya Siksha elaborately discusses the nature of swaras, both Vedic chants and the octave.


The solfege (sargam) is learnt in abbreviated form of swara: sa, ri (Carnatic) or re (Hindustani), ga, ma, pa, dha, ni, sa. Of these, the first that is "sa", and the fifth that is "pa", are considered anchors that are unalterable, while the remaining have flavors that differs between the two major systems.

Notation and practice

A dot above a letter indicates that the note is sung one octave higher, and a dot below indicates one octave lower. Komal notes are indicated by an underscore, and the tívra Ma has a line on top which can be vertical or horizontal. {Or, if a note with the same name - Sa, for example - is an octave higher than the note represented by S, an apostrophe is placed to the right: S'. If it is an octave lower, the apostrophe is placed to the left: 'S. Apostrophes can be added as necessary to indicate the octave: for example, ``g would be the note komal Ga in the octave two octaves below that which begins on the note S (that is, two octaves below g).}

The basic mode of reference is that which is equivalent to the Western Ionian mode or major scale (called Bilaval thaat in Hindustani music, Dheerashankarabharanam in Carnatic). All relationships between pitches follow from this. In any seven-tone mode (starting with S), R, G, D, and N can be natural (shuddha, lit. 'pure') or flat (komal, 'soft') but never sharp, and the M can be natural or sharp (teevra) but never flat, making twelve notes as in the Western chromatic scale. If a swara is not natural (shuddha), a line below a letter indicates that it is flat (komal) and an acute accent above indicates that it is sharp (teevra, 'intense'). Sa and Pa are immovable (once Sa is selected), forming a just perfect fifth.

In some notation systems, the distinction is made with capital and lowercase letters. When abbreviating these tones, the form of the note which is relatively lower in pitch always uses a lowercase letter, while the form which is higher in pitch uses an uppercase letter. So komal Re/Ri uses the letter r and shuddha Re/Ri, the letter R, but shuddha Ma uses m because it has a raised form - teevra Ma - which uses the letter M. Sa and Pa are always abbreviated as S and P, respectively, since they cannot be altered.

Swaras in Carnatic music

The swaras in Carnatic music are slightly different in the twelve-note system. There are three types each of Rishabha, Gandhara, Dhaivata and Nishada. There are two types of Madhyama, while Pancham and Shadja are invariant. In Carnatic Music, swaras have prakruti and vikruti swaras. The vikruti swaras are Ri, Ga, Ma, Da and Ni. The rest—Sa and Pa—are prakruti swaras.As you can see above, Chatushruti Rishabha and Shuddha Gandhara share the same pitch (3rd key/position). Hence if C is chosen as Shadja, D would be both Chatushruti Rishabha and Shuddha Gandhara. Hence they will not occur in same raga together. Similarly for two swaras each at notes 4, 10 and 11.