How to Learn to Play Carnatic Music on the Keyboard

By Contributing Writer ; Updated September 15, 2017

Things Needed

  • Synthesizer
  • Carnatic sheet music

The term “carnatic music” refers to music performed in the expressive style of a vocalist. The origins of this musical style reside in southern India. Carnatic music is typically performed precisely according to the original composition, though improvisation is allowed in some pieces. Traditionally, keyboard instruments did not suit this expressive method of performance, though modern synthesizer technology has changed this.

Learn about the features of Carnatic music that set it apart from traditional western music. The vast majority of music created and played by the western world utilizes a 12 note scale, whereas Carnatic music employs a 22 note scale. In the world of Carnatic music, notes are called “sruthis.” Playing in the Carnatic style requires the performer to gradually slide from sruthi to sruthi, rather than jumping from pitch to pitch.

Achieve a basic understanding of Carnatic notation. If you’re familiar with traditional solfege, you’ll know that to sing a seven note scale you would pronounce the syllables do, re, mi, fa, so, la and ti. In Carnatic music, these syllables are changed to sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, da and ni. Asterisks can be applied to these syllables to indicate a modified sruthi. Symbols such as / and \ indicate slides.

Purchase a synthesizer with a pitch bender. The pitch bender will come in the form of a wheel, typically found in the lower left portion of the keyboard’s surface. Adjusting the pitch wheel as you play a note will raise or lower the note’s pitch. This will allow you to play the expressive slides necessary to Carnatic music.

Use the pitch wheel to “shake” notes in addition to sliding between them. Some synthesizers have a portamento option that can be toggled on and off. With this feature enabled, the keyboard will automatically slide between notes, freeing up the pitch wheel for note shaking. To shake a note, rapidly move the pitch wheel up and down as you play. This motion should be fast, yet subtle.

Browse the Internet for audio and video samples of keyboardists playing Carnatic music. This will give you a better idea of how Carnatic music should sound and will provide inspiration for your playing. Carnatic music can be simultaneously beautiful and haunting, and this is something you should strive for while performing.

Tip

Consider purchasing a synthesizer with a programmable pitch table. With this feature, each note of the keyboard can be adjusted, allowing you to accurately recreate a 22 note scale.

Warning

Synthesizers are expensive when purchased new. You can save yourself a lot of cash by buying a quality used synthesizer.

About the Author

Writer/Musician