Carnatic Violin 101

If you are thinking of learning a string instrument, the violin is a great place to start.

It is, definitely, one of the most popular instruments that Indians choose to play. Your next choice will centre around whether you want to learn the Western or the Indian Carnatic violin. If you choose to learn the Indian Carnatic violin, welcome to a world of delightful melody! We wouldn’t be exaggerating if we suggest that you just might change your choice of expressions from ‘as sweet as honey’ to ‘as sweet as the sound of the violin’. For, when you have mastered this graceful instrument, you will have the power to melt a stone!  

As a beginner, you will generally sound scratchy and squeaky but when you persevere and move past those initial hiccups, you won’t be sorry! Like with everything else in life, practice makes perfect. So, ensure that you practise for at least 10-15 minutes every day and slowly increase the time you spend on it according to your schedule. On our part, we have made a beginner’s guide to help you learn how to play the violin online at home for free – for Indian Carnatic violin players.

Parts of the violin

This diagram will help you identify different parts of the violin:

Equipment required to learn the violin – for beginners:

If you are learning to play the Carnatic style violin, you will need to ensure that you have the following:

  • Violin – Buy one that suits your age and build. As a rule of thumb, you could follow this chart to get an idea of the appropriate size of the violin to buy:
Age (years)Violin SizeTotal length of violin in inches ()*Total length of violin (in cm)*
Below 6 ¼ 19    48.25 
6-8 ½20.552
9-12¾ 2153.3
Above 12Full size23.560

*These are approximate measurements as the length of the violin will vary from maker to maker.

You could also ensure that your violin is strung at the store where you bought it to make it easier for you. Ensure you store it in the violin case that comes along with the instrument, to protect it from dust and other physical harm.

  • Bow – Ensure the bow is newly-haired and of uniform colour and width along the whole length – it should be tight enough so you don’t have hair dangling. 
  • Rosin – This is used to give the bow a proper grip when sliding across the strings of the violin. There are two types of rosins you could use – the dark rosin that is suited for dry climates and the light rosin that  is suited for humid climates.
  • Tuner – This is to help you tune the strings to the right base sounds.
  • Music notation with beginner-level notes 

Basic steps before you learn the violin

  1. How to tune the violin – There are two ways to tune the violin – one is using the pegs and the other is with the fine tuners. When to use which one is a function of how out of tune the violin is and also how comfortable you are with tuning. 

Pegs are for large changes in pitch while fine tuners are for the small tweaks. It is a good practice when using a peg to first loosen it (even if you want to increase the pitch of the string) and release the extra tension before you tune up.  

Beginners would be advised to use the services of a professional to tune the violin. If you are doing it yourself, use the fine tuners to tune the violin as by turning the pegs indiscriminately you could risk breaking your strings. The open strings, in order from lowest to highest tones, should be Sa (lower Sa), Pa (lower Pa), Sa, and Pa. You could also consider using a tuner to help you get the right sounds.

  1. Playing posture – When you play the Carnatic violin, you have to sit cross- legged on the floor, preferably on a mat. Your right leg should be slightly pushed forward to enable the scroll of the violin to be placed on it. Your back should be erect – this is very important to avoid lower back pain. Depending on your height, you can move your right leg forward or backward to support the violin and, at the same time, ensure that your back is straight.
  1. How to hold the violin – The scroll of the violin will rest on your right foot. The upper part of the violin should rest on your shoulder a little above your left collar bone. Your violin should be balanced in this position to leave you free movement of the hands – the right for the bow and the left for playing different notes on the strings. 
  1. How to hold the bow – Before you start your violin practice, you must tighten the bow so the hair is firm and tight. To hold the bow, you must ensure that your fingers are all bent (as if they were holding an egg) with the first crease on each finger touching the lower part of the bow. The grip is important because it allows you free movement over all the four strings of the violin. If you grip it too tightly, you might not be able to move across all the strings fluidly and you might produce those scratchy sounds that beginners are famous for! If you hold it too loosely, you are in danger of dropping the bow. 

Note: Typically, even left-handed people hold the violin and bow in the same way. In the rare instance that you would like to use your left hand to hold the bow, just switch your hands in the steps mentioned so far.

Special tips for playing the Carnatic violin 
Always play with a tambura and metronome.It would help to know Carnatic vocal music as well when you learn the Carnatic violin to get an idea of how the song should sound. Keep your hand in an L position when you hold the bow and then move only the lower arm as you move up and down the length of the bow while playing the violin.Initially, focus on getting the plain notes clear and in tune, don’t worry about the gamakas at this stage.Focus on getting the basic technique right; it may take a bit of time, but once your formation is solid, your progress will be exponential. 

  1. The notes of Indian Carnatic music

These are the Sapta Swaras (Seven Notes) of Indian Carnatic music:

  1. Sa – Shadja 
  2. Ri – Rishabha
  3. Ga – Gāndhāra
  4. Ma – Madhyama
  5. Pa – Panchama
  6. Da – Dhaivata
  7. Ni – Niṣāda

Sa and Pa are fixed irrespective of the raga you are playing, and are called natural or Prakriti Swaras. Consequently, these are the open string notes. The other five notes can change depending on the raga and are called Vikruti Swaras. Various permutations and combinations of these swaras are the basis of different ragas (tunes), the essence of Carnatic music.

Gamakas/gamakam

In Carnatic music, and especially the Indian Carnatic violin gamakas/ gamakam plays an important role. Gamakas are ornamentations or embellishments of notes. They are peculiar to Indian classical music and greatly add to the graceful and mellifluous sounds that emanate from this instrument. More particularly, they add to the uniqueness of the performance since the performer adds these oscillations to the notes based on his/her notions of the raga (tune). These improvisations, based on the player’s personality, understanding, mood, and sense of the tune, set the performance apart from the rest. 

        6. Playing the violin

Before you go about playing the notes and scales, every beginner should move the bow over each of the four strings of the violin, appropriately moving/lifting the elbow so you play only one string at a time. Try to move the entire length of the bow over each string – lower Sa, lower Pa, base Sa, and base Pa. Expect a scratchy (some might call it screechy too!) sound at first but try to play as smoothly as you can with most of your movement made by your wrist. 

Start playing exercises with only the top two strings first. Once you are comfortable with these, you can play the same exercises on the lower two strings.

We leave you with a slice of heaven that you, as a Carnatic violin player, can aspire to visit as you pursue this soulful instrument: 

So, how has your journey been so far? We’d love to hear from you. Write to enquiry@sapaindia.com.  If you’d like to join Carnatic music classes with one of our Carnatic violin teachers at SaPa to explore a journey with us, we’d love to have you on board! You could also try out our self-paced course where you get to learn the fundamentals of the Carnatic violin from maestros Dr. L Subramaniam and Dr. Ambi Subramaniam! 

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