Indian Drone Instrument – Tanpura, A Classical Music Instrument
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Tanpura or tambura is a long-necked stringed Indian drone instrument that finds use in multiple styles of classical music across India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. It produces a deep drone-like sound that is immediately recognizable. There are multiple construction styles with slight variations. Generally, they are between three and five feet in length, with a hollow body made of a gourd and wood. The neck has no frets, and there is a resonator and four strings running from the bridge of the instrument, which is on the soundboard (or the front of the body) to pegs in the head at the other end of the neck.
Tanpura strings are made of steel, bronze, or brass metal. The curved part of tanpuras, much like sitars (another Indian stringed instrument), allows for a vibrating string to occasionally graze it to create that identifiable tanpura drone without going off-note and allows for a lot of overtones and natural harmonics to come out.
The wires are pulled in a particular way that creates a melodic, droning, rich sound and always played open – never fretted. This is because they are tuned precisely around the tonic (or first note, function as the SA) in the key that the song or performance will be held in, ahead of time. There is no fixed-pitch tuning in Indian music.
There are variations in the style of this string instrument, differentiated by location and musical culture. In North India and Pakistan, you’ll find the Miraj technique. In South, you’ll find the Tanjore approach. These tanpuras tend to have more ornate decoration, and their neck is smaller. They use teak or rosewood instead of a gourd or other materials in its body and the bridge.
There are different types of tanpura. They fall in three main types or sizes: male, female and a smaller type called a tanpuri (or tamburi).
The Male tanpura is the largest one. It’s matched to the lowest pitch, with the thickest strands, and has a wide, long neck. The Female tanpura has a thinner, shorter neck, with thinner strands. These function to produce a higher pitch for the female tanpura than the male, and can be used to reduce the gap between the male tanpura and the tanpuri.
The tanpuri is a much small-scale variant, typically about two feet in length, and built of wood. It’s used to accompany smaller performances or soloists, because the sound that a full-size tanpura creates could be overpowering in those situations.
There are many famous makers of tanpuras, sitars and other Indian traditional music instruments (page). One held in high regard is Rikhi Ram and Sons, having made instruments for a variety of well-known musicians throughout the years – including the master musician Pt. Ravi Shankar.
Tanpura in Indian Classical Music
The tanpura appears in a wide range of South Asian & folk, devotional and Indian classical music. It is used in different lyrical cultures and systems over the subcontinent. In Hindustani music, you’ll find the Miraj style of this indian drone instrument being played. In Carnatic music, you’ll realize that the Southern Indian Tanjore style is more often utilized.
The tanpura plays a unique role in Indian music. It’s a harmonic role, not suggesting distinct rhythm or melody – only providing a continous tone as the backdrop for a song or a bandish in a particular raga. When one strand is pulled, it resonates and vibrates, a single pitch. When the next strand is plucked, the two notes interact and build on each other. Next, a third strand is plucked, and then the fourth – all of the notes interacting and building a pleasant, harmonic drone that is instrumental in providing the backdrop on which a raga can be developed. The other instruments and vocals layer on top, as the instrumental drone functions as a base. The sound being produced acts as the canvas on which the painter can paint.
There is no singular tanpura tuning. Rather this string instrument can be tuned in a lot of ways. Typically, it is tuned with the cords in sequence, Pa, sa sa Sa. In western notation as So (fifth) do’ (tonic) do’ (tonic) Do (tonic but an octave higher). Additionally, Ma, Dha, and Ni (fourth, sixth, and seventh respectively) can also be added to the fifth cord. This tuning is what gives the instrument its natural harmonic sound, and allows the drone to be in key rather than dissonant.
Tanpura in Eastern Music
The tanpura is a key instrument used in meditation and spiritual music over several religions and belief systems in the subcontinent. Sikhism, Sufism and Hinduism all have practices that involve recitations and repetition of divine names as a method of meditation (Simran, Dikhr and Japa respectively). The tanpura drone can be used to focus the mind to aid in bhakti / kirtan, hatha yoga, meditation, reflection and/or remembrance. Musicians often also use this as a way to relax their mind, a practice that is spilling into spiritual activities.
Tanpura in Modern, Pop Music
Recently, this Indian drone instrument has seen a decline in its usage in modern music across the world. More convenient electronic alternatives (related dedicated apps and shruti box that produces a similar tanpura sound, or websites that act like an online tanpura becoming) are replacing it. This is controversial. Musicians who play this instrument across the world are concerned about the quality of sound being produced, as the digital replacements (Shruti box) for tanpura cannot be considered as robust and truly “artistic”. There are some alternatives, like the Raagini electronic tanpura, that lift the gap between app and acoustic. Yet, it’s still nothing like playing a physical instrument and all the nuances that come along with a true acoustic version of it.