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Rivers of Sacred Sound



Solveig McIntosh

Rivers of Sacred Sound traces the flow of influences from East to West, from

BC to AD and from wordless jubilations to the setting of texts. It takes the

discussion about western chant beyond a European perspective.

The text of this book, preceded by an introduction, is presented in seven

chapters and covers a period of approximately five thousand years. There are

many references all over the world to praising the divine with sound. Thus

the starting point is the praise song, a fundamental impulse in mankind. The

Rg-Veda requests that our loudest-sounding hymn be accepted, as food most

delightful to the Gods. The Psalms request us to make a joyful noise unto God

and to sing forth the honour of His name. Spontaneous songs became ritual

events. In an aural culture what was the role of gesture and what is its role

now? There are many doors to open in pursuing these and other questions.

This book opens some of them.

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Chapter 3. Scale and Mode


← 48 | 49 →


Scale and Mode

There are two ways of approaching the subject of melodic structure, known as rāga in the Indian tradition, maqam in the Arabic system, dastah in the Persian system, echos in the Greek tradition and, in general, interpreted loosely as mode. The concept of scale which underlies melodic forms is a universal one, though interpreted variously by different cultures at different times. We start with forms inherited through the Indian tradition. The discussion is considerably abbreviated here so as to avoid too much technical detail couched in Sanskrit vocabulary. In brief, therefore, ancient sources of musical knowledge in India use the term grāma meaning a group or collection.1 In music it indicates a collection of basic tones arranged in sequence or scale. It is not the only system of music-making given in ancient treatises, but we start with this model as a basis for further discussion for it was a way of representing both practical and esoteric components of musical understanding.


There were originally three scalar sequences of tones (grāmas) spanning an octave, one of which was abandoned long ago as being obsolete and no longer relevant. Some sources say that its disappearance from popular conception was because of its celestial nature, while others say that it was too difficult to realize on the vīṇā. Discussion is, therefore, usually restricted ← 49 | 50 → to two scalar sequences, namely, ṣaḍja...

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