Sound Production on the Sarod: Some Perspectives

I recently had the opportunity to discuss sound production as a subject with senior indian classical instrumentalists.

Discussion on sound production in the context of Indian Classical music has been very limited – Indian classical music discussion seems to be limited to unstructured discussions with very little “shop talk” among the musical fraternity on any operational issue that they face.
For an active musician, sound production is probably a huge topic by itself. However, an objective discussion is not possible on this topic, given that the product itself cannot be well defined. And to me, that’s perfectly ok, as the whole topic of music is by its very nature, a human experience. So much of what follows recognizes the subjective nature of the topic – the idea is to stimulate thinking, and share ideas, rather than come up with a definitive model.
Our key topics for discussion were:
1. How important is sound production?
2. What makes for good sound production?
3. What are some operational considerations  re: sound production especially for a practicing musician?
The outcomes and consensus items are discussed below.
Sound production remains one of the most critical tools to enhance the entire experience for both listener and artist. The sound is essentially what the performer  is “selling” to the audience.
Sound production consists of :
1. The primary source : say the instrument or the voice
2. Secondary devices: amplification, recording or sound distribution devices.
Leaving the second category alone for the moment,  let’s consider the primary source: the voice or instrument.
My particular point of interest is the instrument (sarod), so let’s further restrict our discussion to this one instrument.
As our discussions with the maestros progressed, several key points were recognised:
1. Sound production is very individual – two people can pick up the same sarod, and produce very different sounds, playing the same notes. I have first hand experience of this, with Ustad Amjad Ali Khan.
2. Attention to detail in the technique plays a huge role in sound production. Especially on instruments like the sarod, with infiinite nuances of sound possible due to the construction of the instrument as well as the playing style, attention to detail is fundamental to improving one’s sound. As instruments have become more refined compared to older variations, the fingering and stroke technique is vital in producing the desired sound effect.
3. There is no “right” sound by itself, however, clarity, tunefulness, volume and space play a vital role. The exact combination of these  is left to the performer. Silence, or space is also very much a part of the sound.
4. In turn, the technique needs to be modified to achieve one’s desired sound. If you wish to emulate Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s sound, clean picking and smooth string changes without  noticeable loss of volume is a pre-requisite. This can be achieved to a degree with good scale practice, but the final ingredient remains elusive (this is why his disciples sound similar, but not exactly the same as him – the X factor !)
5. The musicians I spoke to summarised all these factors into one word : the musician’s “touch”. The touch is the total package of the sound production technique.  Each person needs to  develop their own touch. This takes years of study, reflection and practice to develop. Musicians often spend decades developing their final, unique touch, which is their hallmark.
The starting point of a good “touch” is tonal accuracy. This is incredibly hard to do. Even the greatest maestros have some tonal imperfections (however, senior maestros have an error rate of six sigma or less !).
Which then takes me to the next point- how do you maintain tonal accuracy if you are deliberately focussing on it? In a 3 hour concert, you cannot focus on every microtone at all times- your creativity and spontaneity will be impacted by this. The answer, as discussed by the maestros is that there is a point of technical mastery in which the instrument becomes an extension of the person. Basic technical accuracy then becomes a given. Yes, the finer points do merit special consideration, but the artist is almost running on rails as far as tonal accuracy is concerned. In that situation, the only risk is if the artist is attempting something which is highly complex or intricate. Say a “murki” (a type of embellishment) which is hard to execute. The maestros felt that with practice, these can be overcome to produce a consistent level of performance.
The key takeout for me was to focus on the attention to detail in each and every microtone and to make better use of space in my practice to further develop my desired sound and to constantly record and review my own sound to keep improving it continuously.

4 thoughts on “Sound Production on the Sarod: Some Perspectives

  1. Hi Rahul. This is an older post but just read it for the first time and am reflecting on it. You and I have discussed before the importance of sound production. In my case – on the tabla. One of the joys of learning from a senior musician like Pt Abhijit Banerjee is experiencing the immense clarity and crisp volume of his sound no matter what he is playing or at what speed. He gave me several hints and tips on how to improve my sound during my recent trip to Kolkata. A lot of those things are very subtle things that really only can come from someone with experience about what works well (e.g. at higher speeds) and what doesn’t. He shared an anecdote about his guru the great Jnan Prakash Ghosh who used to take video recordings of the great muslim ustads of the day, and play back the recordings in slow motion to see what exactly they were doing to get such a crisp and high quality sound at high speeds! As those techniques were kept closely guarded.

    Techniques and practice aside, certainly that “x factor” or “musician’s touch” is something that differentiates the legendary players from us lesser mortals 🙂 One of the great players of the Delhi Gharana (now sadly deceased) was Ustad Latif Ahmed Khan, whose clarity of tone was just unbelievable. I can’t believe that it was due to technique and training alone, although those things obviously would have played a huge part. I am reminded of an observation from Pt Nayan Ghosh who has spoken in several interviews about his experiences with Utd Ahmedjan Thirakwa, who apparently had very large and fleshy palms, which he believes was one of the factors behind his unique sound.

    The key take-away for me from all this is – it is hugely important to pay close attention to and attempt to constantly improve one’s sound production. Many tabla players (and others too I’m sure) seem hell bent on just playing fast, or playing tricky compositions etc. But without clarity, good tone and volume, it is all for naught. One of my pet peeves is hearing otherwise good tabla players playing a tabla that is obviously out of tune. It is so jarring to my ears that I am immediately turned off! No matter how well they are playing otherwise.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts on sound production. The journey continues!

    1. Thanks for that… sound production technique starts in the mind. The first step is to know what good or great looks like. Once the bar has been established, riyaaz and reflection will get us there. That’s why it’s important to listen to maestros…

  2. Hi there,
    I stumbled upon this article (I realized you posted this a while back, so not sure if still tracking, but anways) while searching for an answer on audibility of higher notes. I’ve noticed pro players (Ud Amjad Ali Khan etc.) have much better audibility on higher notes, especially on the Ma string (ni, sa,… onwards).
    I’ve experimented with filing my nails better, stronger plucking, just as an experiment keeping the one finger directly on the note but still not able to produce the volume/sustain.
    At this point, I’m leaning towards the conclusion that they must be using special strings or something (mine’s after all a “student” sarod… not damaged/second-hand or anything but nothing special/custom-made either) or the string thickness (my ma string is 0.23 mm) but they seem too naive conclusions to me.

    Wondering if you had any thoughts on that?


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