Music in Sama Veda

sreenivasarao s
sreenivasarao s / 6 yrs ago /

Music in Sama Veda


Following my post the state of music in Ramayana, there was some discussion about Sama and its relation to music. I was asked to say a little more about the music in Sama Veda; hence this post.

1. Sama Veda samhita

1.1. Sama Veda is linked to music through yajna. It was customary to invoke and invite deities by singing their hymns; and to recite the mantras while the rituals were being performed. Those who sang were designated: Udgatru .They selected those riks (mantras) from Rig Veda that could be sung.  And, they compiled such selection into a collection; and that collection came to be known as Sama Veda Samhita.  Out of the 1,549 mantras in Sama Veda, as many as 1,474 mantras are taken from Rig Veda. It is explained, SA stands for rik, while AMA stands for various notes (Brihad Up: 1-3-22). Sama Veda is thus, virtually, a musical rendering of the selected mantras from Rig Veda. In other words, Sama took maathu (words) from Rig Veda; and provided dhathu   the musical substance to those words. 

1.2. The Sama Veda Samhita has two segments. The first segment is called Sama – Yoni (adhara) mantra Samhita, meaning that it is the basic text. This segment contains the selected mantras as they appear in the Rig Veda .This, virtually, is the source book. The second segment called Sama –gana text, details how the selected mantras are to be sung. This is the text for singing; expanding each mantra of the first segment with notations. This is the Sama Veda as it is generally understood and sung.

2. Sama-gana

2. 1.  As regards the styles of singing, Patanjali says that there were a thousand ways of singing of Sama "sahasravartma samvedah". That might be just a poetic way of saying there were many styles of singing Sama. Of these, only three recensions Viz. Kauthumiya, Ranayaniya and Jaiminiya have survived. The Kauthumiya and Ranayaniya carry the same set of mantras; but they are grouped differently and there are variations in svaras (accent) too. The Jaiminiya is said to be different from the other two, in both the aspects.

2.2. Udgathrus , the singers at the yajna , for whose guidance the Sama Veda came to be compiled , are usually a group of three singers; and the group together renderers the mantras in five stages:

Prasthava: The initial portion of the mantra is sung by an Udgathru designated Prasthothru. He starts with Huuum sound (Hoon Kara).

Udgita: He is followed by the chef Ritwik (designated the chief Udgathru) who sings his portion of the rik. He commences with an Om Kara.

Prathihara: the mid-portion is sung loudly by Prathiharthra.

Upadrava: The chief Udgathru sings again; and

Nidhana: the final portion is sung by all the three together.

When a mantra, as per the above format, is sung three times, it is then a stoma.

3. Elements of chanting

3.1. The shiksha branch of Veda deals with elements of chanting and phonetics. According to Taittereya Upanishad (1. 2) , the elements of chanting includes six factors : Varna (syllable);svara(accent);maatra(duration);balam(time-duration);sama(even tone ) ; and Santana (continuity).The first four deal with correct pronunciation of individual syllables; and the last two with the pronunciation of the entire line or the verse.

3.2. Briefly, Varna is the correct pronunciation of every isolated syllable, combination of consonants and ovals and compound letters. Svara is how a syllable has to be pronounced in one of the three accents (udatta, anudatta and svarita).Maatra is the time duration for pronouncing a syllable. There are four types: hrasva- a short one-duration for short ovals; dhirga- two unit-duration for long vowels; plutam- longer than two –unit duration; and, the fourth is ardha- maatra, half unit, meant for consonants not accompanied by vowels.

4. Sama music

4.1. The music, based on Sama mantras was classified into:

(i). Grama_geya gana: was sung amidst people of the society. It was a natural way of singing.

(ii).Aranya gana: Sung in contemplation, in the woods and groves. This was also a natural singing.

(iii).Uhaa gana: Sung during the Soma yajna. The singing here followed a rather complicated pattern. And,

(iv).Uhya gana: secrect or singing within oneself.

4.2. In the beginning, Sama-gana employed only three notes called Udatta, Anudatta and Svarita. The lyre (Vana-Veena) accompanying the singing had only three strings, one for each note.The songs were perhaps like Ga Ga -Re Re -Sa Sa Sa. This kind of singing might have suited for chanting hymns. 

The three notes were differentiated depending on whether it was produced mfrom above or below the palate (taalu).

Udatta refers to sound produced from above the palate; and is acutely accented (uchchaih) .
Anudatta was gravely accented (nichaih); produced from below the palate.

Svarita is a combination of udatta and anudatta, with udatta in the first-half. It is called a circumflexed accent. 

In the written/printed texts of the Rig Veda, Udatta is not indicated by any symbol; Anudatta is indicated by underlining the syllable; and Svarita is indicated by a vertical line above the syllable.

The Sama –gana texts, however, indicate udatta by writing the Sanskrit numeral –one above the letter; anudatta by writing the numeral –three above the letter; and svarita by writing the numeral –two above the letter. In sama text , the syllables that have  no  symbols are called prachaya.

Please see the following example;

5. Sama svaras
5.1 .But, the scale, gradually, over a period of time, expanded from three to seven notes Narada Shiksha explaining the Sama music states: there were: seven notes (svaras); three gramas; 21 moorchanas; and 49 taanas in Sama music. It also gives the relation between the Sama notes (Sama svara) and notes on the flute (Venu svara):
Sama svara
Venu svara
In the later Sama texts, it became customary to write the numerals (one to seven) on top of the Sama mantras to indicate their note- delineations (Sama vikara).

5.2. Naradiya Shiksha (1.5.3; 1.5.4) explains that each sama-svara was derived from the sounds made by a bird or an animal in its appropriate season. For instance, bulls roar was Rishabha; kraunchaka’s (heron) cry was Madhyama; elephant’s trumpet was Nishadha; and koel’s (cuckoo) melodious whistle was Panchama and so on. Please see the table below.
Name in Sama
Sama Veda
Sound associated

5.3. The Sama notes were of Nidhana prakriti (diminishing nature) and followed a descending order.
The order of the svaras in Sama-music was: Ma, Ga, Ri, Sa, Ni, Dha, and Pa. The order of the svaras was revised in the later texts to: Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha and Ni ; as we are familiar with it today.

Dr. Lalmani Misra, a noted scholar, explained the Vedic priests used a single or two notes. The Sama singers improved on that and used at least three notes. ” The singers explored further and discovered more notes. M G R S D has been determined to be the basic set of notes used in this order by Sāmik singers” he said, “Sāmik notes were exactly those followed in Shadja grāmik tradition.”

Dr. Misra also said that ancient musical scale using notes in descending order can be translated into modern Shadja grām by considering the Madhyam  to be Shadja and moving up the scale. 
(*Please also see the explanation on swaras offered by Shri S Rajam , appended)

6. Muscial instruments

We may make a brief mention about the musical instruments mentioned in Rig Veda, before we go further.  The following musical instruments find reference in the Rig Veda. These instruments later developed into vana (lyre), veena, Venu or vamsha (flute) and mridanga (drums).

Karkari (RV 2.43.3) and Tunabha were veena –like string instruments. In fact, all string instruments were called veena.

Vana (RV 1.85.10; 6.24.9 etc.) was a lyre; a plucked string instrument like a harp. Rig Veda (10.32.4) mentions the seven tones (varas0 of the vana (vanasya saptha dhaturit janah).

Naali (RV 10.135.7) was a wind instrument similar to flute.

Dundhubhi (RV 1.28.51; 6.47.29 etc.) was a drum to keep betas and rhythm.

Adambarara was also a drum made from udambara tree.

Shanka vadya blowing of counch is also mentioned.
Musical instruments were basically used as accompaniments to singing and dancing. There are no references to playing them solo.
7. Development of Sama music

7.1. As sama-gana originated from the yajna, its purpose, at least in the initial stages, was limited to chanting by the udgathrus. Later, as they explored and discovered   more music, the number of notes increased from three to four, then five (which continued for a very long time), then six and finally seven. With that, the number of strings of the lyre too increased. 

7.2. Even then, since the Sama notes were in a descending order there was not much flexibility in music. Dr. Mishra remarks “In those times there were no microphones or loudspeakers. Sam was sung in large, wide, open or canopied spaces, with the intention that all present should be able to hear it. In such a condition if the song has notes M G R S D ( as in Sama) it would be audible at best in a single room, but if the notes, S N D P G starting from Tār-saptak are sung they would be loud enough for all to hear. So, from this angle of usage too, S N D P G seems more appropriate than M G R S D. “

Further since the  raga concept was, then, yet to be evolved, there might not have been much depth and variation in the rendering of Vedic or Sama music. 

As Dr. N.Ramanathan, a noted musicologist remarked, Sama music was to acquire the rhythmic-time- patterns. That is, the taala system was also yet to evolve.

The Sama music, in its later stages, was just ripe; and it was also eager to grow and expand both in scope and content.

7.3. It was during the Gupta period that Indian music started gaining the form which we now call Classical. As a result of the disciplines evolved over the ages, a well structured system of music could be  erected on the foundations of the Sama -gana .From that, a typical way of singing (Marga) emerged .No matter who sang and in which region it was sung, the Sama and the Marga  music had to follow the traditional approved format. The roots of Sangita, the traditional (classic) Indian Music were thus firmly founded in Sama- gana.

7.4. The folk music (Desi) on the other hand, sprang from the common people and varied from region to region. It was inspired from life , spontaneous and fluid. The two systems developed independently.

It is only of late the Marga and Desi; the classical and folk music are coming together, enriching and inspiring each other. It is wonderfully delightful development.
8. Music and spiritual progress

8.1. Music in the Vedic times was sung and played for entertainment. Its other main use was during the performance of the yajna; and it was here that sama-gana was born. However, the concept that music would lead to spiritual development did not seem to have existed then.

8.2. It was only in the later texts, say of 4th to 6th century AD, such as Brihaddeshi, Vayupurana and Narada shiksha assigned the musical taanas, names of the various Yajnas; and said that the benefits of those yajnas could be obtained by singing the relative taanas. The Yajnavalkhya shiksha said, the music would help spiritual practices. The idea that music was a way to liberation (moksha sadhana) seems to have emerged at a later stage, perhaps during the Bhakthi period (10th -11th century and onwards).


While on the subject of swaras, let me append here the wonderful explanation of the swaras in Indian music offered by Shri S Rajam the renowned artist and musician. He says:  The Seven swaras have twelve swara divisions:
Carnatic System
Hindustani System
Suddha Ri
Komal Rishab
D Flat Db
Chatusruti Ri
Thivra Rishab
Sadarana GA
Komal GA
E Flat Eb
Antara GA
Thivra GA
Suddha MA
Komal MA
Prati MA
Thivra MA
F Sharp F+
Suddha Da
Komal Da
A Flat Ab
Chatusruti Da
Thivra Da
Kaisiki NI
Komal NI
B Flat Bb
Thivra NI
 SA & PA are constant. Others have two levels (sthanas). Thus there exist twelve swara sthanas. Four more having shades of other swaras - Suddha Gandharam, Shatsruti Rishaba, and Suddha Nishada & Shatsruti Dhaivata - make up a total of sixteen.
72 Sampoorna Ragas having all seven swaras both in ascending (arohana) & descending (avarohana) emerge as Mela ragas. Each mela has all the seven swaras but drafts varying swarasthana formulations.
Each mela raga applied to permutations & combinations of swara sthanas gives scope to 484 janya (sub) ragas. 72 mela ragas have thus a potential to give the colossal 34776 janya ragas. Of course, this is only an arithmetical projection & not a melodic feasibility.
Of 72 melas, the first 36 have M1 & the second 36 have M2.

Sources and References
Dr. Lalmani Mishra
 By Acharya Chintamani Rath
Sama Veda & its Music
By R L Kashyap
Vaidika sahithya Charithre
By Dr, NS Anantharanga char

Painting by Shri S Rajam

Godwin / / 2 months ago

Hi,Thank you for posting. If you dont mind can I make a suggestion. The equivalent names for shadja, Rishabha, Gandhara etc are not C , Db, D , Eb etc.. its == Pi, m2, M2, m3(A2), M3, P4, A4(Dim5), P5, m6(A5), M6, m7, M7 ,8ve( Higher Shadja)P = PerfectA = AugmentedDim= DiminishedM = Majorm = MinorWhen sung:Ascending and DescendingDo, Di, Re , Ri, Ma, Fa, Fi, Sol, Si, La, Li , Ti, Do -- Do, Ti, Te, La, Le, So, Se, Fa, Mi,Me, Re, Ra, Do

sreenivasarao s / / 2 months ago
sreenivasarao s

Dear Godwin, Thank you for breathing fresh life into an old and a forgotten blog. Thank you also for the corrections suggested. I shall try to edit the blog. But, the problem is that in the present state of Sulekha editing a blog is a risky proposition. I shall wait for a while // Para// Btw, I noticed in the scholarly essay “Samaveda und Gandharva” included in the book “Ritual, State, and History in South Asia: Essays in Honour of J.C. Heesterman “(page 146) it is mentioned that “Madhyama = F28; Gandhara = E; Rsabha = D; Sadja= C; Dhaivata = A; Nishadha = H; and, Panchama = G” . Please let me have your views before I try to edit the blog-post.// Para// Here is the link to the article “Samaveda und Gandharva” Or You may Google “Samaveda und Gandharva”// Regards//

Sablu / / 4 yrs ago

Thank you so much Sir,
I'm highly honored by your kind words and great response. I will love to read thousands blogs of yours in music which made me so glad today to go through your precious blog. Boss such thing is gold and silver even I invest lakhs I will not get such relevant info.
Does not matter you listen to my music as per your convenience and leisure.So you are actually in OH. Oh I'm so sorry I thought you are Bangalore based. Please do welcome here.
And please do write more music blogs like you wrote on samveda. i will go through one by one as you also mentioned some links in your comment.
Kudos to your great knowledge and I touch your feet.

sreenivasarao s / / 4 yrs ago
sreenivasarao s

Dear Shri Sablu, Yes, as you said, it might  very likely be by  chance you bumped into this old  blog while you were lost in the ‘Recent Comments’ page. Thank you. Since you consider it ‘mindboggling’ for a person like you, I reckon you would be interested in a few other articles I wrote on music. The ones that quickly come to my mind are: The state of music in the Ramayana; Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar and Hindustani music; the Music of Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar; and the music of Shri SRajam (a great musician scholar and a creative artist; he was the uncle of our Shri VS Gopal who writes and sings delightfully on Sulekha).You may like to click on the links.

As regards the several things you mentioned in your comment as also in your note, well... I usally live in Cincinnati –OH; and Bangalore is the location with reference to which I check news updates etc. I am now visiting India; may be here for another couple of months.

I am truly not surprised if you have not noticed me on Sulekha during all these four years. The reasons are many and they are quite simple: I am not very active on Sulekha; I did not participate in any of the tag –games; I have also not contested in the ongoing EYC series; most of the friends who kept in touch with me have since migrated out of Sulekha;   now, I do not know many; I have not written or commented much; not many read what I write and, what I have posted is truly not readable (many have groaned about the length). A bright star on the Sulekha horizon once referred to me as ‘the guy who writes about the dead who do not contradict’. I consider that sums me up pretty well and almost aptly. The reasons for not knowing me, you see, are quite many. They are all valid; and without prejudice. It’s OK.

Sablu...Yes, I have, of course, seen the name many times spoken with affection, warmth and regard. I am aware; Sablu is popular and is among the elite here. That is great. And, about why I have not checked into Sablu music: I usually log into Sulekha late in the night when most have done with the computer and gone to bed. I said ‘most’ because, the one who keeps company with me  is a little boy of just over three; and he delights in running round the house, up and down the stairs, jumping and turning somersaults when no one disturbs him.  During those silent hours I prefer to just read or write than turning on music. I normally spend no more than ninety minutes a day on Sulekha.  

Now that I will be here where I am surrounded by sound all the time, I will surely check into your link with pleasure and listen to that with delight.

Thank you for the comment and the Note.

Warm Regards

Sablu / / 4 yrs ago

Your article is mind blowing for person like me.
Hats off to you
Do you know me? Or my music?
Am I in your city? What is you phone number and address?

sreenivasarao s / / 4 yrs ago
sreenivasarao s

Dear Shri Shekharbiwalkar , Welcome to the world of Sulekha . Could you please amplify your question. Regards

Shekharbiwalkar / / 4 yrs ago

Can we get the names of the trees against each of swar

plasticpoet / / 5 yrs ago

whether by intent, or by research or by serendipity, the twelve basic swaras have been discovered time and again by civilisations across the world. Some however have discovered additional quarter tones, and have developed different forms of scales- with upto 31 tones in a scale. The Vedic form of M G R S D- S N D P G (Nidhana or diminishing order- also a convergent order) was converted to the more flexible ascending sequence leading to progressive flexibility as decadence set in...
some civilisations have 5 tonal octaves, some have more. all have to go through till the chromatic notes are (re-)discovered, independently. civilisation has been here longer, and degraded and then revamped. music has always been on the ascendancy!
I liked reading your post- will be keeping note of this!

sreenivasarao s / / 6 yrs ago
sreenivasarao s

dear shri sekhar,

thank you for your detailed response. i greatly appreciate the gesture.

i understand, in sound → color synesthesia, individuals experience colors in response to tones or other aspects of sounds. a lot of that subject is highly technical, and i do not pretend i understand all of that. i am posting a few words from the little i know and from what i read.

the theory of synchronizing music with colors is highly interesting. there have been theories in that regard even from the time of pythagoras. in the subsequent centuries others too followed it . there has, of course, been plenty of debate around the issue. edwin d. babbitt, scientist who has done work in that field confirms (in his the principles of light and color) the correspondence of the color and musical scales:

"as c is at the bottom of the musical scale and made with the coarsest waves of air, so is red at the bottom of the chromatic scale and made with the coarsest waves of luminous ether. as the musical note b [the seventh note of the scale] requires 45 vibrations of air every time the note c at the lower end of the scale requires 24, or but little over half as many, so does extreme violet require about 300 trillions of vibrations of ether in a second, while extreme red requires only about 450 trillions, which also are but little more than half as many. when one musical octave is finished another one commences and progresses with just twice as many vibrations as were used in the first octave, and so the same notes are repeated on a finer scale. in the same way when the scale of colors visible to the ordinary eye is completed in the violet, another octave of finer invisible colors, with just twice as many vibrations, will commence and progress on precisely the same law."

the theosophists too, especially madam blavatsky, putforward theories relating colors to the seven types of constitution of man and the seven states of matter. (please check- it is in the same page).she was primarily trying to relate the aura in and around the human body to their colors.

you made a mention, also, of ragas and colors. the indian music made attempts to translate the emotional appeal of a raga into visual representations. that gave rise to schools of paintings called ragamala, in which each raga was personified by color, mood, a verse describing a story of a hero and heroine (nayaka and nayika). the colors, substance and the mood of the ragamala paintings were determined not by the individual notes that  go to construct the scale of a raga, but by the overall mood , bhava and context of the raga.

in the traditional indian morphology, the colors of the deities represent and convey their attributes. for instance, the highest divinities with sublime attributes (gunas) are sky blue signifying their true infinite nature; shiva, the ascetic the supreme yogi is gauranga the colorless- without any attributes; hanuman and ganesh are red like the blood full of energy, vitality and life; and kali’s black does not signify absence of color but is the sum and culmination of all colors and energies in the universe.

coming back to your subject, you might be interested to check the site that talks of people who "see" music, or sounds. the article says it is another common form of synesthesia, to have colors associated with specific tones, so that listening to music becomes a more intense and complex experience. with your scientific training and background, i am sure  you would be in a better position to appreciate it.

i am told there are musicians in hollywood who find that letters and numbers represent colours, rainbows of textures, rainbows of moods and feelings too.

there have been attempts in the other direction too,of translating individual colours into music with the aid of compute r graphics.

i understand there are schools that help the aspirants’ to hone their synesthesia condition.

much study needed to understand this phenomenon.

thank you for introducing me to a fascinating subject.


sreenivasarao s / / 6 yrs ago
sreenivasarao s

dear shamoli sarkar,

thank you for resuming your reading of the blog; and for the appreciation.


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