Tanpura Tuning

Tuning the Tanpura

There are many tanpura (droning instrument) tunings for Indian classical music. In this blog post, we will explore the basics of tanpura music tuning and some variations that can be applied to suit different raags.


Photo by Martin spaink/CC BY-SA 3.0

Bridge and its Construction

Playing the strings will create some natural harmonics, sure. But the real magic is in the bridge. Each of the metal strings rests on the bridge. It’s off-white and is found in the middle of the gourd. The instrument has unbelievable harmonics (sympathetic vibrations that originate from the interaction of a string that rests between each metal string and the bridge.

Also read how to play tanpura instrument to learn more about it.

tuning tanpura

Photo by Martin spaink/CC BY-SA 3.0

Use in Indian Classical Music

In Hindustani and Carnatic music, tanpuras (one of the indian instruments) typically have three strings tuned to Sa (solfege). The other one, two, or three strings are used in various ways depending on the raga being performed, and the preference of the musician. For example, normal tuning (4- stringed tanpura) calls for the first string be tuned to Pa, the second and third tuned to the higher SA, and the fourth to the anchor Sa. Tuning with these rules creates a standard tanpura sound, heard often in performances.

First String is Tuned to Pa or Ma

On a four-stringed Tanpura, the first string is tuned to Pa (Fifth). For rare cases where Pa is not in the raag, the first string can be tuned to Ma. This is in the mandar / mandr saptak.

To the touch, this string is thicker than the others on a tanpura. This string provides a bass sound, given it is tuned to the lower octave. Other than varying between the fourth and the fifth, the first string usually doesn’t get tuned to anything else in most performances.

Second String and Third is Tuned to Sa (higher)

The second and third strings are harmonically related. These strings also harmonically relate to the second. They have an octave relationship since there are twelve notes in a musical scale and these two strings have eleven harmonics between them and the next (fourth) string.

When a string is plucked, it vibrates. This vibration creates different frequencies of sound that are called harmonics or overtones. Since there isn’t much space between the harmonics, one can begin to hear the other notes in a musical scale due to these vibrations.

The first, second, and third strings when plucked one after the other, create some wonderful overtones. One can begin to hear the other notes in a musical scale with just these two strings being played.

Fourth String

Without fail, the next metal string of a tanpura is tuned to the Sa. This is the anchor pitch. It is the first note of the raga. It is consistently tuned to Solfege.

Alternate Tuning for four-stringed tanpura

In a four-stringed male tanpura, strings are tuned pa Sa SA SA. They can sometimes be tuned Ni Sa SA SA or Dha Sa SA SA. While it is not common tuning for the first string to be tuned to the sixth or seventh, the performance of the raga can have a unique feel with this slight change.

Five and Six stringed Tanpuras

With the six-stringed tanpura, a player has the ability to create a more complex listening environment from which he can build a musical landscape.

Optional Fifth String

The fifth string is tuned to Pa. This note, like Sa, harmonizes well with everything else because it has overtones that are close in proximity to other notes on the tanpura. These harmonics create a beautiful resonance which helps make music more pleasing and aesthetically appealing for listeners.

Setting dictates the Tunning

As the instrument gains popularity, the normal rules of Hindustani or Carnatic classical music are secondary to the setting for which the tanpura is being used. For example, recorded instrumental music is often used for healing and meditation. In this case, there are no restrictions by Hindustani or Carnatic ragas. Its simply judged by what is pleasing to the ear of the practitioners.

Riyaaz Qawwali