Some reflections on the use of Electronic Tanpura and the intricacies of tanpura tuning by Martin Spaink

With the following article I would like to share some observations and reflections on the use of the Electronic Tanpura (ET) during concerts, recordings and practice, and more specifically, about the finer details and the wide range of options available for tuning of the real tanpura. I would like to state explicitly that it is not my intention to scorn or condemn musicians who do use ET, although I would never choose to do so myself. Nor am I a scholar or do I want to pose as an authority, nevertheless I have ample experience as a professional player of the tanpura. Also I have done a lot of work on many tanpuras, including redressing the bridge that produces the "jivari". This combined musical and practical experience enables me to get the best out of any instrument, and tune it in function of the chosen raga.

It is not my intention to write yet another theoretical or scientific article, rather, I would share some first-hand practical observations and offer some thoughts about the consequences of the now pandemic use of ET in Indian Classical Music (ICM) in the long run. Apart from my own practice and accompanying my own teachers, I have played tanpura for many Indian musicians on concert-tours in Europe, most of which were organized by the Royal Tropical Institute of Amsterdam, though I have played for other organizations as well. All visiting artists were most satisfied and inspired, having let me take care of the tuning of the tanpura(s). As a musician-in-learning I have been studying Dagarvani Dhrupad (vocal) and sarangi. In addition, I am active as a performer of Medieval Chant and as a harpsichord repairer and tuner, which has contributed substantially in the developing of my aural perceptive faculties.

I understand that the ET were originally introduced to facilitate solitary practice for instrumentalists who need both their hands to play their instrument, but in the past fifteen years or so they are being used more and more on international concert stages and I have heard them in many recordings. I have asked various musicians in a diplomatic way why they use ET. Judging from their answers, practical reasons play a big part: tanpuras are fragile and cumbersome travel companions. Also doubts or complaints were expressed regarding both the quality of tanpuras and their players that are provided by concert organizers. These are realistic and valid observations, but I disagree that using ET instead is a good way to deal with these problems. It is taking the easy way out, which only leads to a loss of refinement in the performances. The artificial and standard sound of ET is a poor imitation of the real thing. It lacks the rich, vibrant and animated resonance of a properly tuned and played tanpura. In my perception and opinion, it casts a dull, grey color over the whole performance that clouds the finer resonances of the voice or other instruments and it does not enhance inspiration. But there are other reasons why I personally do not consider it wise to use ET which go a bit further than to point out poor sound quality.

First of all, the daily business of tuning the tanpura is a valuable stimulation to further develop our aural perception. Tuning a tanpura makes great demands on our hearing faculties and invites us to make a conscious effort (svara-sadhana). When tuning the tanpuras, the artists attune themselves to the raga that is going to be performed. I firmly believe that for the audience these are also valuable moments of involved anticipation. The audience is given time to settle down and can appreciate the atmosphere which is being created by the tuning process. The late Dagar-brothers (if not all members, past or present, of the family and their respective students) would not previously decide what they were going to sing at a concert, sometimes to the distress of organizers. This decision was made spontaneously during the tuning process, or rather, some raga manifested itself while tuning. This conscious effort or svara sadhana is so important as in the tuning process the artist seeks to create a particular resonance that will enhance the tonal qualities of the chosen raga. This is related to the concept of raga svaroop, which means essentially that a specific intonation of one or more svaras can evoke the image or feeling (rasa) of a particular raga. All these essential and subtle elements of svaroop are excluded by the use of ET. No fine-tuning of Ma or Pa is possible and the timbre (jivari) of each "string" is fixed. Some controls are provided, but a standard, uniform sound prevails, however smart the electronics may be. I believe it was Zahiruddin Dagarsaheb who once said that tuning the tanpura creates intelligence. Obviously, fiddling with the controls of an ET is not quite as edifying.

I would like to address the matter of the usefulness of the electronic tanpura in the juxtaposition of two categories, one being ‘convenience’ , the other being ‘quality’.  The matter of convenience is  most readily grasped on a purely practical level, while more musically essential matters are often conveniently ignored.  Seeing that these electronic commodities have been largely  accepted by most musicians, it would seem that practical convenience is rated far above quality. Using cloned tanpuras imposes an unnatural uniformity on music, which in the long run will undoubtedly corrupt the tonal purity of ICM.  With sadness and frustration I have noticed over the years that the quality that I have  been so devoted to (giving optimum tanpura support) is no longer appreciated by many artists, who appear to be more comfortable singing (or playing) with their ET-boxes.  This may be illustrative of another way in which the electronic tanpura is found to be  convenient, in that it is less critical and demanding in its use: it is far easier to appear generally tuneful singing or playing with ET than to bring a raga to life with immaculate intonation with properly tuned and played tanpuras.  It is for this reason, apparently,  that many musicians prefer to do without the real thing that will expose a lack of sensitivity to the finer qualities of svara and shruti.  We find ourselves in the situation where, for sheer convenience, authentic tonal purity and variety of tonal shade and definition is denied to the audience who are given a bleak surrogate instead.  In a contrary sense to what Zahiruddin Dagarsab said, “ tuning a tanpura creates intelligence”,  using pre-programmed synthetic  and artless sounds as the basis of shruti is debilitating and desensitizing.  Not only do we get bland performances, devoid of surbhava or real charm, the very essence of raga is mutilated and reduced to mere formal patterns,  an empty form without blood and soul.  If however, both musicians and the audience are contented with more superficial performances filled with empty pyrotechnics instead of surbhava, the electronically cloned tanpura will reign undisputed and will indeed be found very useful. I firmly believe that there are no shortcuts possible in Art, if the end result be worthy of such title. The esthetic perception  of musicians needs to be carefully groomed over many years, and tuning and playing tanpuras is an essential part of  the training to sensitize our faculty of hearing.  The current malpractice is also robbing students of their rightful place behind their gurus, denying  them invaluable experiences and create a decline in the level of tanpura playing and maintenance altogether. I have been asked why I devote my time sitting out a concert strumming an instrument that nobody pays any attention to when there’s a thing that does it all for you?  In the face of such blatant insensitivity and indifference,  I wonder what has befallen the community of musicians that they are so quick to follow  ‘progress’ and turn a deaf ear to previously highly developed cultural values, that will obviously not last under such distressing circumstances. The lore of the tanpura is, in short, an important part of the cultural heritage of India that is in real danger of extinction, or at least, a dramatic decline in quality. Meanwhile, electronic engineers may eventually produce ET’s that can be programmed to give the proper tonal shade for a wide range of raga’s, like for instance the slightly different Ma of Malkauns or Bageshri, and produce a better sound. Even if these were available today, I think it would be wise not to have blind faith in electronic engineering but to learn to develop and trust our own human faculties. If shortcuts are used on a daily basis, we tend to loose the ability to do it ourselves, and thus create a greater dependence on electronic gadgets. When living in Italy, I was asked to give a workshop for little children. It was inspiring to see their response to the sounds of my tanpura , as they were filled with a sense of wonder and awe. I was able to hold their attention for several hours, which I think would not have been possible had I simply turned on an ET-box with its flat sound. If those responsible for the teaching of Indian music at institutions would hold on to traditional values and see to it that students are properly introduced to the correct use of tanpuras, they would have both properly maintained instruments and students capable of playing them. This would be the ideal situation, as students are offered a healthy and nourishing stimulus and can, when seasoned, assist in accompanying visiting artists, which to them will be an irreplaceable and educational experience.      

Intricacies of Tanpura tuning

With a properly set-up tanpura with sensitive jivari various secondary tones can be evoked to emanate from its sustained resonance, even within the basic PssS tuning. In short, there is not only one "right" way of tuning in PssS (or MssS, NssS) as it is possible to adjust the finer resonances in function of a particular raga. A tanpura with this kind of subtle tuning can inspire both the musicians and the audience with its animated presence. Further on I will try to describe some of the basic principles that lie behind the intricacies of tuning.

Tuning a tanpura is such a complicated process as every single string resonates with many harmonics which with some practice can be distinguished individually as a range of secondary tones. Thus we are not dealing with simple fundamentals but with extended chords that develop in time. The slightly curved bridge of the tanpura functions like a sonic prism: just as a prism will refract white light in the various colors of the rainbow, a bridge of proper shape with the thread in the proper position will refract the constituent harmonics of the fundamental tones. In daily use, the word "jivari" has different meanings: the word translates as "soul" or "live-giving" but also refers to the threads and the carefully filed sloping curve of the bridge which "animate" the tone of the tanpura. The cotton threads that are passed between the bridge and the strings allow us to adjust the "prismatic function" of the jivari process. When we move the thread, the slightest change of position creates a shift in the harmonic content of the resonance. Also, with a sensitive jivari the tanpura becomes very responsive: at the touch of one string all others will vibrate as well in sympathetic resonance. This phenomenon will manifest only under optimum circumstances when the sonic energy from one string has a number of common harmonics with the others, so that the whole can resonate as one vibratory system. The sustained resonance of the tanpura, when in full accord and played properly, can create a seemingly continuous halo of sound. An image that has often come to my mind in comparison to the dynamic sound of a tanpura is that of the concentric ripples on the surface of a lake or pond caused by the impact of a small stone being dropped in it. The concentric ripples keep spreading out from a precise point until the energy runs out. If another stone of the same weight would be dropped in the same place at the proper moment, the movement would begin anew, giving the travelling waves a push in the back, creating a seemingly continuous motion.

It will be obvious that a properly shaped and polished bridge in function of string thickness and tension is absolutely essential, as a badly shaped or worn bridge will never give a satisfactory sound. With a worn or otherwise defective bridge, the sound will be shrill and thin and the resonance will fail to build up. The descending movement along the harmonic series is obstructed so that it will not reach the lower register. Instead, the sound will get stuck on some high and dissonant harmonic.

As harmonics play an important part in both the sounding process and the tuning, I present the following matrix of the harmonic series. This chart offers helpful insights and gives the full range of harmonics according to the physics of sound. In the present chart I have used the Indian sargam and Sa for the fundamental. It is important to realize that this chart of the harmonic series as such represents a fixed series of natural intervals relative to the fundamental, regardless of the precise pitch or what nomenclature is used. Whether or not these harmonics will be audible depends on the acoustical qualities of our instruments, specifically the jivari, and of course our ears and mind, which can never be left out of the equation. The matrix is to be read from bottom to top, as the fundamental tone is at its base. Small-type k stands for komal (flat), small-type t stands for tivra (augmented). As can be seen from this matrix, the octaves are most present (nrs 1,2,4,8,16,32) then the fifths (3,6,12,24) and the third place is shared equally between the natural major third (5,10,20) and the natural minor seventh (7,14,28). Note also that the amount of harmonics increase in every successive higher octave as new harmonics appear in between the octaves of the harmonics of the previous level, presenting ever smaller successive intervals. Next to the octave of shuddh Ni, nr. 30, two variant pitches appear, one slightly lower, the other slightly higher. Also noteworthy are the variants of tivra Ma and komal Dha, nrs 23 and 25 (tivra-tar Ma and ati-komal Dha). The next level 32 - 64 is tightly packed with harmonics in even smaller successive intervals, but I have not written them out as they are not very relevant for our purposes. Also one would need to have an extremely low fundamental in order to be able to hear these harmonics (and hyper-sensitive and trained ears!).

















































































































As a further example, I will give harmonics 8 - 16 of the fundamentals Pa and Ma.




























Note that in writing out the harmonic series of fundamentals other than Sa some problems of nomenclature arise. In Indian music theory, a tivra Sa is not recognized, but an augmented fourth over Pa is just that (Pa11, being the 11th harmonic of Pa). Pa23 (twice the number plus one) would be a tivra-tar Sa, just as Ma17 would be a komal Pa, Ma33 ati-komal Pa. But no matter, these are theoretical problems involved with nomenclature only. The matrix of harmonics, being a timeless and universal phenomenon, remains the same, regardless of the pitch of the fundamental. More of such difficulties can be found when writing out the harmonic series of shuddh Ni.

The first thing to realize is that in tuning the tanpura, we try to create a single, unified vibratory system. This means that the relevant harmonics that are emitted by the octave sa strings (jora, the sound of which should be completely identical) and the first string (Pa or Ma) have to be aligned with those of the low Sa string (karaj) so that the desired continuity of sound will manifest. As an example, when tuning Sa-Pa, optimum consonance will be achieved when both share the lowest common harmonic, Pa, which is the 3rd harmonic of Sa and the 2nd harmonic of Pa (Sa3:Pa2). When these harmonics sound in conjunct, their octaves may sound as well (Sa6,12,24:Pa4,8,16) so there are many sonic links between the two tones. According to the jivari, shuddh Re can be a clear secondary tone, coming from the conjunct of Sa9:Pa6, also shuddh Ni may sound from Sa15:Pa10, even Ma from Sa21:Pa14. Note that all these conjuncts are in a perfect 3:2 relation. In a MssS tuning, Sa4:Ma3 is the lowest common harmonic as a fifth on Ma gives Sa. Other conjuncts are the octaves, Sa8,16:Ma6,12; then Pa on Sa12:Ma9 and Ga on Sa20:Ma15. In a shuddh NssS tuning (Marwa, Sohini) there is only one conjunct on Sa15:Ni8 (and octave) which explains why it is quite difficult to tune NssS with accuracy as there are not as many exact sonic links in the resonance. To complicate matters even more, a number of disjunct harmonics can be present in the resonance which can create instability. For instance, Sa9,Ni5 are two different pitches for Re; Sa11,Ni6 gives different pitches for tivra Ma; as neither 9:5 or 11:6 equal 15:8. However, there is a useful harmonic link at the natural major third between the Pa harmonics of Sa (Sa3,6,12,24) and the octaves of Ni (Ni2,4,8,16)

The other important thing to realize is that when we pluck a string, we perceive a dynamic, evolving sounding process in which two phenomena occur simultaneously. One is the cascading descent of the harmonics from each separate string, from the highest numbers down to the fundamental; the other is the building-up of the sustained resonance. This is then why the relative timing of plucking the next string is so important, as the sounding process of the next string has a reciprocal effect on the ultimate resonance of both strings, and so on. This explains why the unrelenting and mindful attention of the tanpura player is required, as a slight irregularity in plucking (timing and relative strength of plucking) can create a disturbance in the resonance of the tanpura. In the basic PssS tuning, we do not only hear the tones PssS and their octaves as some secondary tones will manifest. These secondary tones can ring out quite clearly and demand our full attention. As the sound of one single string is already very rich in harmonics, playing all four strings in succession can easily turn in to chaos. So both our acuteness of hearing and our mental concentration is required to create order - and life - within this plenitude of harmonics. When tuning a tanpura, one needs to know what is possible and what one is aiming for. As it should be, one has to internalize the experiences given through example by one’s teacher. I have already mentioned the secondary tones. To be more precise, I should point out that not only secondary tones but also tertiary tones are generated. These include difference-tones and combination tones. Particularly the difference-tones help to create a fullness in the lower register as they expand the resonance below the fundamental, as if one would hear a "Sa" two or three octaves below the karaj. However, the secondary tones, the sustained harmonics that are generated by the jivari of the single strings, are the most important tones to focus on when tuning. These secondary tones can be aligned in such a way that they will create a recurrent pattern, for instance "rppg". This pattern will result from carefully aligning the harmonics Pa6,sa6,sa6,Sa10. Without having to change the micro-tuning, "rrrg" (Pa6,sa9,sa9,Sa10) can also manifest as a result of a slightly different way of plucking. Here it is also our focal point of attention that is very important: we have to listen intently and check continuously what is the resultant sound of our playing. As another possibility for a pattern of secondary tones I mention "mmmg" (Pa14,sa21,sa21,Sa20). These ways of tuning are perfectly suited for shuddh-scale ragas, having all natural notes. It is a bit more complicated to tune in function of a komal-svara raga, having for instance komal Re and Ga, as the shuddh Re and Ga harmonics are usually clearly audible in the sustained resonance. By changing the position of the threads and the micro-tuning through the beads below the bridge, one can try to create a resonance in which Sa and Pa harmonics dominate, trying to subdue the shuddh Re and Ga harmonics (it is impossible to completely eliminate them). Again, plucking is very important, as is the focal point of attention of the player.

I am aware that the descriptions of the mentioned tunings and my explanation thereof are not in accord with what has been written elsewhere in the annals of Indian musicology by some eminent scholars such as Shri H. G. Ranade. In his book "Hindusthani Music, an outline of its physics and aesthetics" (1951, pages 88-89) he states that we need not consider any harmonics higher than nr. 9. This is a biased statement that I can not accept as my own first-hand experiences contradict it, as higher number harmonics do play an important part. At some occasions I was able to hear how Ustad Sayeeduddin Dagar tuned the tanpura (for raga Desh) in such a way that the pattern "mmmg" was clearly audible. At a glance at the harmonic chart one can readily see that a shuddh ma harmonic of the fundamental Sa does not appear in the series until nr. 21. The pancham string will emit a shuddh Ma as its nrs. 7 and 14, which can reinforce the more distant nr. 21 from the jora through sympathetic resonance.

This has already become a bit analytical and technical and as such the descriptions offered here may be far removed from the experiences of Indian musicians. I am quite aware of this, but while it is one thing to demonstrate these sonic phenomena with a tanpura at hand, I felt that for the sake of this article I had to analyze and describe as precisely as possible what I hear or what I aim for when I tune the tanpura. Also, I hope to have explained why I am so much devoted to my tanpura and her sonic refinements which I feel can never be replaced by some smart electronic device. Furthermore, I would not hesitate to admit that I have often felt that my tanpura had become a "living being" in my hands, as she instantly procreates her sonic offspring and she has also shown to be very sensitive to her sonic environment. Once I accompanied a Dhrupad concert during which the pakhaavaj would not stay in tune. This had a disturbing influence on my tanpura which also would not stay in tune on the harmonic level. On the positive side however, when both the instrumental soloist and the percussionist take great care to tune into the resonance of a properly tuned tanpura, true miracles can happen. In a concert-tour in 2003 I accompanied two excellent Carnatic musicians, Shriveedhya Chandramouli and T.R. Sundaresan, who played Sarasvati Veena and Mridangam. For these concerts I played a very good Tanjore-style tambura, which blended beautifully with the other instruments. The tones of the Veena and all her subtle inflections were prolonged and suspended by the resonance of the tambura, so that they would hover in the air and could fully blossom. I was filled with awe and admiration when I clearly heard the percussionist responding melodically with great tonal accuracy to the melodic phrases played on the Veena. I realized these delicacies could not have manifested when accompanied by ET. Physics alone could not fully explain these phenomena.

Also in my own practice, when I sing with my tanpura, she clearly responds to how and what I sing. When I sing with delicateness and precision, the resonance of my tanpura responds and opens up even more, manifesting an immediate interaction with my voice. Here I would like to remind my readers of the meaning of the word "tanpura", which is derived from "tana" which means a musical phrase and "puura" meaning fullness or completion. The resonance of the tanpura is both full and transparent, which allows me to sing (when I can muster the required precision and adhere to the character of the raga) any svara so that it completely blends in with the resonance of the tanpura. Numbers of times I have experimented with ET of various make and type, both singing and playing sarangi. These were always short sessions as it does not give me the same inspiration or satisfaction. The times I have tried to tune my sarangi with ET-accompaniment I found the ET lacking in pitch definition. With a properly tuned tanpura it is possible to create a steady and radiant Sa which is as straight and precise as a laser-line. The ET on the other hand - in my ears - produces a tone that is too thick and blurry. Maybe I am over-delicate or too demanding, but why settle for less if one knows what is possible?

Yes, it does take time and effort, every time when we sit down and tune the tanpura, and for the next session we have to do it all over again. But when we make it a svara sadhana we learn from it, we focus and concentrate and attune to the raga that we want to play or sing. Then we will be blessed with the animated and inspiring presence of a properly tuned tanpura which will allow us to sing or play with great precision of melodic intonation in which the svaras can manifest rasa and bhava. No ET can give the same experience, and furthermore, it does not offer any teachings or stimulations to help us to advance in the subtle art of Indian music... Aum Nada Brahma...

As a post-scriptum to this article I would like to share some practical considerations which might be useful.When preparing for a concert, bring all instruments to the stage and leave them there to acclimatize whenever possible. Ask the light-technician to set and adjust the stage-lights before the soundcheck and then to leave it like that. Some technicians like to change the color of the stage-lighting, thinking to enhance the creative atmosphere, but it will change the temperature as well, and thus possibly affect the tuning. Also, check for possible drafts which can be a nuisance. Sometimes ventilation or climatization systems can produce some interfering frequency, making careful tuning almost impossible. As far as solitary practice is concerned, when I play the sarangi, I personally prefer to use a good quality CD-recording of a properly tuned and played tanpura, which I find is the next best thing to having a good instrument and player sitting next to oneself.

To conclude, I would like to dedicate this article to all the inspiring musicians that I have had the honor to accompany in concert. Especially to Ustad Sayeeduddin Dagarsaheb, who is by far the most demanding and critical person as regards the tuning of tanpuras that I have ever met. I have accompanied him in many concerts and we have worked together on the bridges of many tanpuras, which was a great learning experience. When he finally let me tune my own instrument, I knew I should be able to satisfy all other musicians. Also I would like to thank mr. Felix van Lamsweerde, former ethno-musicological curator of the Royal Tropical Institute. He has been very influential in introducing classical Indian music in the Netherlands. In 1963 he had my present tanpura made in Miraj, part of a twin pair, of which he still keeps the one sister, and as a mentor and friend he has been most supportive.

Martin Spaink, 2003, revised 2011

Feel free to circulate this article or to quote from it, as I would like to stimulate some discussion on this topic. Reactions can be sent to the following e-mail-address: