Tuning the Tanpura

Generally, tuning is done with an outside reference. The reference may be an already tuned tanpura. For example, a person can play the Sa (madhya saptak) on the first already tuned tanpura. Listening to it, another person can tune the second tanpura. Or if there is no already tuned tanpura, then the reference can be an electronic tanpura. Or if there is no electronic tanpura also, then the reference can come from an harmonium. Or if there is no harmonium also, then the reference can come from any person who is an expert tanpura tuner. A tanpura tuner having more than 20 or more years of experience, develops a sense of perfect pitch, and he/she can tune it to the exact pitch of Sa (madhya saptak) without any reference.

Whichever outside reference (another tanpura, electronic tanpura, harmonium, expert tanpura tuner) you may use, you have to tune to Sa (madhya saptak) the 2nd string (if you are using a 4-string tanpura, which is the normal case), or the 3rd string (if you are using a 5-string tanpura, which is rare). Once that is tuned, then you do not need the outside reference. The tuned string becomes the inside reference for the other strings. The remaining strings can be tuned with the inside reference of the Sa (madhya saptak) that you have already tuned. For a beginner, tuning a tanpura may take anywhere between 30 to 60 minutes. For an expert tuner, it takes hardly a minute.

Expert tuners may also place a small piece of cotton thread between the bridge and the string, to achieve perfect tuning. Perfect tuning is Right tuning, which as is related in Jataka tales that Buddha had heard: If you tune the string too tight, it breaks and no music is produced; and if you tune it too loose, it does not break but still no music is produced. To produce music, you should neither tune it too tight nor too loose. It has to be just right. Hence, while tuning the tanpura, you must strive to achieve the right tuning or the perfect tuning and make it just rightly tuned.

Usually, a tanpura has 4 strings; however, they may be of five, six or seven strings also.

They may be classified as ‘male’ or ‘female’ tanpuras, however there is no fixed classification. Generally, male tanpuras are tuned between C and D, they use lighter gauge strings; whereas female tanpuras are tuned around G or G#, they use heavier gauge strings. Again, there is no fixed rule and it can be tuned to any desired scale or may use any gauge strings.

Another classification may be vocal tanpura (bigger in size) and instrumental tanpura (comparatively smaller in size, usually between 95 to 115 cm in length, 4 or 5 strings, flat neck and wooden resonance box). Again, there is no fixed classification, singers and instrumentalists may perform with instrumental or vocal tanpuras, as per their own liking.

As a rule of thumb, tanpuras are tuned according to the raga for which it is being played. The first string is tuned according to the note predominant in the raga. For example, in raga Bhairav, the vadi (predominant note) is Komal Dhaivat or soft/flat Dha. So, the first string may be tuned to flat Dha. Again, there is no fixed rule and the first string can be tuned to any desired note, as per the specification of the singer.

For example, in a 4-string tanpura:
1. For raga Yaman, Deshkar, Bhupali, Shankara, etc., where pa is predominant, ma may be omitted in tuning the tanpura. Then the tanpura may be tuned as follows:
pa (mandra saptak. Mandra saptak is also known as kharaj) – first string,
Sa (madhya saptak) – second string,
Sa (madhya saptak) – third string,
sa (mandra saptak) – fourth string.

2. For raga Malkauns, Bageshri, Lalit Pancham, Lalit, etc., where ma is predominant, pa may be omitted in tuning the tanpura. Then the tanpura may be tuned as given below.
ma (shuddha ma in mandra saptak),
Sa (madhya saptak),
Sa (madhya saptak),
sa (mandra saptak).

3. For raga Puriya, Marva, Sohani, Poorvi, etc., where ni is predominant, both ma and pa may be omitted. Then the tanpura may be tuned as follows:
ni (shuddha ni in mandra saptak),
Sa (madhya saptak),
Sa (madhya saptak),
sa (mandra saptak).

Sometimes tanpuras with five or more strings are also used. For five strings, generally the tuning may be:
1. pa (mandra saptak), ni (shuddha ni of mandra saptak), Sa (madhya saptak), Sa (madhya saptak), sa (mandra saptak)
2. ma (shuddha ma of mandra saptak), ni (shuddha ni of mandra saptak), Sa (madhya saptak), Sa (madhya saptak), sa (mandra saptak)

Singers usually sing with two tanpuras, where the first string is tuned to the same pitch but with two different notes on two different tanpuras, as per the dominance of the notes in the ragas or specification of the singer.

Some tanpuras may need to be tuned to scale E (for example accompanying a bansuri recital), for which the best option may be to contact an expert tanpura tuner, unless you are one yourself.

Daily practice of tuning is very important as it gives a very strong grasp of the 22 shrutis that go on to make the 12 swaras of a saptak. Harmonium is not a perfect instrument for Indian classical music. All the 22 shrutis of a saptak can be heard in a tamboura or tanpura, but all cannot be heard in a harmonium. So, for Indian classical music, a tanpura is undoubtedly much better than a harmonium.

Remember, a tanpura is an accompanying drone instrument. It accompanies the main performing artiste. Therefore, in all performances, the specification of the performing artist, who may be a singer or an instrumentalist, should be eagerly sought, on how to tune the tanpura. Strictly following the specifications of the performing artiste, enables the best tuning for a tanpura.


OK. I got requests to update this post with some videos. So, I am placing two videos as follows. I hope it helps.

Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty:

Ranjani Sivakumar:

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