Science News

How Hindustani classical ragas tickle our emotions

Subhra Priyadarshini

doi:10.1038/nindia.2015.60 Published online 8 May 2015

The various ancient schools of Hindustani classical music have long upheld the merits of ragas (or melodic modes) in evoking diverse emotional responses among audiences. Brain scientists have now scientifically confirmed this saying ragas indeed evoke a gamut of responses ranging from ‘happy’ and ‘calm’ to ‘tensed’ and ‘sad’ among listeners1.

Different Indian classical ragas evoke different emotions.

© S. Priyadarshini

That music has its effect in triggering a multitude of reactions on the human brain is no secret. However, there has been little scientific investigation in the Indian context on whether different moods are indeed elicited by different ragas and how they depend on the underlying structure of the raga.

Scientists at the National Brain Research Centre (NBRC), Manesar, Haryana and the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, University of Reading, UK sought to look at this known everyday experience through the eyes of science. They conducted a study for the first time to investigate what kind of emotions people experience when listening to North Indian classical ragas.

Playing music pieces composed by Pandit Mukesh Sharma, an eminent sarod player from New Delhi, the scientists got 122 study participants from India to rate their experiences across ‘alaap’ (slow, free flowing introductory part) and ‘gat’ (faster, rhythmic part) of twelve ragas.

Ragas indeed evoked an entire gamut of emotional responses,” says Avantika Mathur, who conducted the study led by Nandini Chatterji Singh at NBRC.

The scientists found that emotions changed as the tempo picked up from alaap to gat. For instance, emotional ratings for ragas like Desh and Tilak Kamod shifted from ‘calm/soothing’ in the slower arrhythmic alaap to ‘happy’ in the faster rhythmic gat. Similarly, the emotional responses for Shree and Miyan ki Todi shifted from ‘sad’ to ‘tensed’.

Chatterjee Singh says specific tonic intervals also emerged as robust predictors of emotional response. “Ragas that were rated as happy and calming comprised primarily of ‘shuddh swaras’ (pure notes) but the addition of ‘komal swaras’ (softer notes) introduced sadness, longing and melancholy,” she says.

In specific, ‘komal re’ was found to be a direct predictor of aversiveness (or negative valence). The scientists suggest that ‘komal re’ with its tension and high ‘yearning’ towards the tonic may build a narrative of hope or fear, the resolution of which brings associations of tension, yearning and a release of energy.

In Hindustani music, a tonic interval is defined in terms of its relation to the tonic which is the base ‘Sa’. 

Chatterjee Singh says the mood-defining qualities of Hindustani ragas have been documented in ancient Indian performing arts treatise such as the 'Natya Shastra' by Sage Bharat. The word ‘raga’ originates in Sanskrit and is defined as 'the act of coloring or dyeing' (the mind and mood or emotions in this context) and therefore refers metaphorically to 'any feeling or passion especially love, affection, sympathy, desire, interest, motivation, joy, or delight’. 

Mathur, who wants to conduct the study on a bigger scale with musically untrained and trained people, adds that their future research will try to look at the neural networks underlying emotion perception using functional magnetic resonance imaging.


1. Mathur, A. et al. Emotional responses to Hindustani raga music: the role of musical structure. Frontier. Psychol. (2015) doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00513