How does the sitar work? What happens at a sitar concert?

The sitar’s many-stringed sparkle is world-famous. Most of the earth’s population have heard its sound at some point, long used to conjure an instant ‘essence of India’ for films, adverts, restaurants, and so forth. But on closer listen, the music is far more mysterious, full of overlapping drones and sweeping bends. The instrument’s mechanics are similarly complex, with different sets of strings layered on top of each other.

So – how does a sitar work?

To put it simply, everything is based around melody. The sitar, like most Indian classical instruments, aims to imitate the human voice, meaning that melodies are played in a ‘singing’ style. Musicians focus on one main playing string, moving up and down the frets and using vast bends to mimic a singer’s intricate ornaments.

The sitar can go beyond the capabilities of the voice too. It has 22 more strings, used either for percussive stabs or ‘sympathetic’ vibrations. Singers can’t add rhythm and harmony to a song as they’re performing it, but sitarists can strike these strings to add rhythmic emphasis to the surrounding music. And the ‘sympathetic’ one, running underneath the frets, are designed to become ‘activated’ by vibrations from the main playing string, blending its notes into a sort of ‘droning echo’.

What can I expect from a sitar concert?

Hindustani instrumental music is based around longform raga performance. A raga, to somewhat oversimplify, is a sort of ‘mood recipe’, with musical ‘ingredients’ (such as notes, phrases, and melodies) and conventions on how to blend them. Ragas also carry specific cultural colours, often being linked to particular gods, seasons, or times of day.

The sitarist will first play an alap – a section without rhythm to slowly introduce the notes of the raga. They will then move to a jor and jhalla, where continuous streams of notes are played unaccompanied, with an even pulse. After this, the tabla drums join in, and the two musicians use the raga’s key phrases and melodies as the basis for long improvisations.

Ragas, which can last over an hour, gradually increase in intensity before ending with a loud, climactic unison sequence. After this, the sitarist will typically play another, shorter raga, often with a contrasting mood. The evening may end with some ‘light’ pieces, perhaps including semi-classical forms such as thumri (romantic song) or bhajan (devotional song).

But you don’t need to know what’s going on to be moved by it. Relax, open your ears, and the music will speak for itself. Listen out for unexpected melodic twists, incredible bursts of speed, and a weird and wonderful range of string bends. The sitar’s full power can only be experienced live!

● Read nextHeresy or progress? Electrified instruments in Indian classical music – exploring Niladri Kumar’s ‘zitar’ and U Srinivas’ electric mandolin

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