(Before I start, I have to credit this wonderful video by the incredible music director Ramesh Vinayagam, which is what inspired me to write this article. Some of the ideas presented in this article are inspired by the video too.)
Often, we might hear about how a song is based on a certain ragam, or scale, particularly in classically inclined compositions. Given that the song in focus in this article (the song “Naalai Intha Velai Paarthu”, brilliantly composed by M.S. Viswanathan and beautifully sung by Susheela) would probably be classified as a “classically inclined composition” by most, it would be reasonable to expect this song to be centred around a certain ragam or scale too. However, I believe this couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, I would argue that this song is “raga-fluid”. There is no section per se where we can distinctly identify a consistent raga throughout. Of course, we can trace certain lines to certain scales/ragas, but it is important to recognise the fluid nature of both the melody and tonality in this song.
“Tonality” is a term I use quite frequently throughout this analysis, so it is important that we gain an understanding of what “tonality” means. A quick Google search for the definition of tonality gives us: “the character of a piece of music as determined by the key in which it is played or the relations between the notes of a scale or key”. I think “character” is a good word – “tonality” is a general representation of what the overall sound feels like. A major tonality means that the general sound is based more on major chords and major scales, which usually results in a relatively bright mood. Conversely, a minor tonality means that the general sound is based more on minor chords and minor scales, which usually results in a relatively dark mood. The relationship between major and minor tonalities, and their corresponding emotions, is important in order to understand the impact of MSV’s melodic choices. Although this is a mild oversimplification, we can think of major scales and tonalities as having a brighter sound, and minor scales and tonalities as having a darker sound.
The first 15-20 seconds or so of the song (the opening string section) is a journey of its own, as it constantly juggles a darker minor tonality and a brighter major tonality.
The first eight notes alone establish the conflict between the minor tonality and major tonality that is prevalent throughout the song. The first four notes – C, Bb, Ab and G – signal a tendency towards C minor, while the phrase right after it – particularly with the countermelody which plays D then E – signals a tendency towards C major. We then have a chromatically ascending line from measures 4 to 7, playing the notes G, then Ab, then A, then Bb. Ab and Bb come from the C minor scale, but then you have the note A, which is only present in the C major scale (rather than C minor). This creates tension, as there is a clear conflict between the C minor tonality and the C major tonality.
There’s a strange sense of conclusion at the end of the chromatic line at measure 7, as we have a Bb major chord. Amidst the conflict between the brighter C major tonality and the darker C minor tonality, Bb major gives a semi-conclusive feeling, as it leans towards a brighter tonality (as it is a major chord, and major chords sound bright). However, we come to findthat this is not a destination, but rather a crucial checkpoint in MSV’s journey to fully resolve the conflict between C major and C minor.
If we look at the notes of a C Major chord (C, E, G) and the notes of a C minor chord (C, Eb, G), the main differentiator is the E and the Eb. Thus, if MSV wants to resolve the conflict between C major and C minor, he must emphasise either the E (if resolving to C major) or the Eb (if resolving to C minor). Let us examine how MSV achieves this using a Bb major chord.
A Bb major chord consists of the notes Bb, D, and F. D and F are notes that are extremely close to both E and Eb. Hence, there is tension here, which sets up the resolution to either the note E or the note Eb. However, Bb is a fair bit away from either E or Eb, and hence Bb cannot quite resolve to either E or Eb too easily. This is why MSV constructs the melodic sequence in measure 8, which descends from Ab to F. Now that he has brought the Bb down to an F, he is preparing us for the resolution to either E or Eb. As expected, we get that resolution in measure 9, with the conclusive resolving chord that is C Major. The notes of Bb Major – Bb, D, and F – led to the note E, which helped establish the C Major tonality. (The points noted above are illustrated in Figure 3 below.)
Even though this passage hardly lasts 15 seconds, it is an incredible piece of music that beautifully prepares us for the clashes in tonality and emotions that we will hear throughout the song, as the song does not stick to either C Major or C minor absolutely.
This confluence between major and minor tonalities continues as Susheela’s voice enters the picture. While I am not going to go through each line, I do want to examine two lines in particular – the “thendrale en thanimai kandu ninru poyvidu” line (at 1:40 in the video linked in the beginning of the article) and the “Vanna vizhiyin…” line (2:17 in the same video).
The “thendrale en thanimai kandu ninru poyvidu” line, I would argue, tends towards a minor tonality. While the words “ninru poyvidu” do incorporate the note E (which is only present in C Major), the whole phrase “thendrale en thanimai kandu” is centred around the note Ab (which is only present in C minor), which gives the whole line a much darker feel.
Through Figure 4 above, you can see that the first two measures are mostly dominated by the Ab, which is a note from the C minor scale. As noted previously, we do hear the note E in the “ninru poividu” line, but I would argue that this small smidgen of brightness does little to disturb the general darkness of this line. This is not for any technical reason per se. Just listening to this line in general, I feel that the dark feelings dominate the small potential bright ones.
The vocal line that comes after this, though (after the interlude in the middle), is the “Vanna vizhiyin vaasalil…ponmaalai sudinaal” line. This line is the complete opposite of the line we previously looked at. There is an overriding brightness to this line, even though there are a few odd notes which may darken things a little bit.
There is almost a sort of euphoric feeling, particularly in the phrases “Vanna vizhiyin vaasalil” and “Medaiyil ponmaalai sudinaal”, which comes about due to two primary reasons. Firstly, these phrases are dominated by notes from the C Major scale, particularly the note E, which has been circled in green in Figure 5. This gives these phrases an inherent brightness. Secondly, the register (or range) in which these notes are sung is quite high. The fact that the notes are high results in a more open sound that feels more outward and liberating, rather than inward and constricting. This open, liberating and bright sound we hear here sharply contrasts with the darker sound we heard with the “thendrale en thanimai kandu” line.
So it is clear at this point that MSV creates direction in his melody by constantly contrasting its tonalities. Sometimes the melody has more of a major tonality and sometimes it has more of a minor tonality: it keeps changing. But the key question is, why? Why does MSV do this? What effect does it have on us listeners? To constantly switch ragas and scales throughout the song, to the extent that no section of the song is exclusively based on one raga or scale, is extremely uncommon. So why does MSV opt for such an uncommon approach?
I think the effect that MSV’s approach here has is very similar to the effect ragam Charukesi has on listeners. This is not to say that this song is based on Charukesi – it is not. I am just saying the impact of the respective approaches – of MSV’s approach and of any composer who uses Charukesi – are similar. Let us explore why.
Charukesi is very unique in the sense that there is a part of it that has a very distinct major tonality, and there is a part of it that has a very distinct minor tonality.
The first half of the scale, consisting of notes C, D, E, and F, has a very strong major tonality to it, due to the simple reason that all of these notes are present in the C Major scale. The second half of the scale, consisting of notes G, Ab and Bb (and C), has a very strong minor tonality, as the notes Ab and Bb are only present in the C minor scale. Hence, with ragam Charukesi, there is a clear separation between the “bright sounding” part of the scale, and the “dark sounding” part of the scale.
This means that a composer can very quickly switch between a distinctly bright sound, and a distinctly dark sound. The sudden nature in which composers can clearly switch between the two moods (based on which part of the scale they use) can have a strong emotional impact on listeners. Have a listen to a particular part of a song in ragam Charukesi: “Ninaithadhu Ellam“, composed beautifully by Joshua Sridhar (listen from 1:31-1:43).
From “unakkum oar kanavu” until “kanavugal”, the melody (ignoring the background instruments for the sake of this analysis) abides strictly by the major scale part of Charukesi. This leads to a more uplifting, positive, bright feeling. For me, listening to this portion of the song makes me feel empowered and strong. But yet, as soon the word “inaivathillaye” comes in, that strength crumbles, as notes from the minor part of ragam Charukesi are incorporated. There’s a deep, scorching pain I feel when I hear the singer, Saicharan, sing “inaivathillaye”. The sharp contrast between these two portions emphasises the respective emotions that each portion emanates. Because the first portion (“unakkum oar kanavu…”) felt much more uplifting (as it sticks by the major scale notes), the painful feeling that the second portion (“inaivathillaye”) gives off feels even more pronounced.
Thus, we can conclude that ragam Charukesi is emotionally powerful through its sharp contrasts in tonality. Because one half of the raga feels inherently much more bright, once the melody goes into the darker half of the raga, the darkness feels much more pronounced and emphasised. The opposite applies too. If we transition from the darker half of the raga to the brighter half, the brighter half will feel especially bright and uplifting because of the darkness of the preceding portion. Hence, we can see the emotional impact a distinct major tonality and a distinct minor tonality have on listeners.
As you may have noticed, MSV pretty much does the same thing in “Naalai Intha”. Instead of going to a different part of the same raga to switch from major to minor tonalities (or vice versa), though, he changes the whole raga/scale instead. He does this with such high frequency that it is difficult to identify even a few lines that align with a certain raga or scale. Despite this, it is obvious that there is an intent to switch tonalities – from a major, brighter-sounding tonality, to a minor, darker-sounding tonality, and vice versa.
Here, the question may arise – why would MSV bother taking the hard route? If he just wanted to switch between major and minor tonalities, then he can just use Charukesi ragam, right? Right: yes, I think he could have. I believe it is just a matter of using a different equation to arrive at the same answer. If you want to produce the number 4, for example, you can produce “4” through “2+2”. Or you can do “8/2”. Irrespective of which method you use, you still arrive at the answer of 4. Similarly, MSV could have used Charukesi raga to create emotional contrast, but instead he chose a different and unique method of his own to achieve a similar effect.
Melodically, this song, as we have explored, is full of shifts and changes. Rhythmically, though, it is pretty much the complete opposite. MSV simply repeats a three-beat, waltz-esque cycle over and over for pretty much the whole song. This is in complete contrast to the melody, which certainly is not repetitive or constant, as it constantly switches ragas, scales and tonalities. However, in a way, the repetitive nature of the rhythms helps emphasise the explorative nature of the melody. Because the rhythms are so repetitive, we as listeners don’t really focus on them, and it operates much more in our subconscious. This places our attention much more on the melody, which allows us to really enjoy the journey that the melody takes us through.
The emotional complexity that is present in the song, through the mixture of brighter tonalities and darker tonalities, is perfectly encapsulated by the ending. The ending chord is a C Major 7 chord, consisting of notes C, E, G and Bb. When the notes C, E and G are played, it sounds like MSV has decided to resolve the emotional complexity in the song by finishing with a clean C Major chord (as C, E, G are the notes of a C Major chord). However, by inserting that Bb, the seventh note of the C minor scale, MSV re-establishes the emotional complexity that has been ever-present in the track. In essence, he finishes the song without ever quite resolving it. If he had finished the song off with a clean, bright C Major chord, it might have ended up killing all of the complex emotions that we had felt throughout the song. Instead he has a very inconclusive ending, allowing listeners to properly absorb the emotional journey the song has taken them through.
MSV has broken all of the rules through this track, particularly when it comes to melody and tonality, by refusing to stick to any particular ragam or scale. But this very fact has an incredibly powerful impact on us, as the confluence of brighter and darker sounds throughout the song evoke a deep and complex emotional response from listeners. MSV was probably a part of a select few who are able to realise music’s potential in helping listeners find such hidden emotions. We can just sit back and soak it all in, letting our minds and hearts wander wherever the song decides to take us.