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Scale and Mode in the Music of the Early Tamils of South India

Lewis Rowell
Music Theory Spectrum
Vol. 22, No. 2 (Autumn, 2000), pp. 135-156
Published by: on behalf of the Society for Music Theory
DOI: 10.2307/745957
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/745957
Page Count: 22
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Scale and Mode in the Music of the Early Tamils of South India
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Abstract

In this article I revisit some of the basic questions, hypotheses, and arguments about scale-building in world musics, drawing upon recent interpretations of the modal system of the early Tamil people of South India, as set forth in their national epic, the Cilappatikāram (fifth century C. E.?). The body of the paper consists of an exposition of the Tamil modes, their generation, tuning, rotation, and their pentatonic derivatives. Among the distinctive features of the Tamil system is the circular projection of the modes along the twelve houses of the Zodiac, which allows us to examine the unique nesting of 22, 12, 7, and 5 divisions of the octave and infer their tuning. Further local color is provided by the cultural connotations of the five principal modes, which are mapped across a grid of five landscapes, times of day, seasons of the year, phases of love, sources of water, flowers, beasts, and the like. Mode in music thus encapsulates all the flavors and colors of Tamil civilization. The article concludes with twelve observations on what the Tamil system can teach us about the early history of scales and modes.

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