Updated: May 25, 2020
What is a Tanpura?
A tanpura is a musical instrument used in several forms of Indian music. The instrument acts as a drone for the rest of the ensemble. The tanpura will be tuned to the key center of a particular piece which allows for the other instrumentalists to play around the drone without ever losing sight of the key center of the piece.
Indian music moves through several scales (also known as Ragas) over the course of a piece. Each of these scales will use the same key center despite moving through different scales. In Western music terms, this would be like having a song with a C drone and having the soloist move between C Major, C Dorian, C melodic minor, and C Mixolydian—all within a single piece!
How Can a Tanpura Help?
Learning how to move seamlessly between different modes and chord qualities can go a long way to helping broaden your palette as a musician and can add some creativity to your soloing.
Often, students want to learn how to play various scales and arpeggios on their instruments. Emphasis is often placed on getting the scales and arpeggios "under their fingers," and emphasis is placed on developing muscle memory when playing the scale. While being able to seamlessly move from one mode to another, focusing solely on the technical elements of playing scales creates a shallow understanding of how to use these scales and arpeggios in a musical context.
The tanpura can help you to get scales "into your ear" when practicing scales. Learning how each scale or chord tone sounds over top of the key center gives a deeper understanding of the "sound" of each scale or chord. Understanding the sound of each scale allows us to translate the mind to the instrument in a more nuanced way.
Using the Tanpura in the Practice Room
Turn on your tanpura app as well as a metronome set at a slow to moderate tempo. The goal of the exercise is to absorb the "sound" of each note and how it relates back to the key center. Therefore, you will not want to play the notes quickly at first. Play the notes of any arpeggios or scales that you want to practice that match the key center.
Take your time and play each note with the tanpura and listen deeply. Ask yourself: can you hear the relative consonance and dissonance of the notes that you are playing? Can you describe the character of the scale (happy, sad, wistful, angry, etc.)? Does the scale make you think of any songs or pieces that you know?
You should use this technique through several scales, modes, chords, and arpeggios, and singing along with yourself as you play can really help to internalize each note.
Using the Tanpura Outside the Practice Room
Tanpura apps can help you practice outside of the practice room as well!
Try to use solfege to see if you can find the pitches without your instrument in front of you. Being able to match pitch without the instrument is useful as it forces your ear to work without the "crutch" of having an instrument in front of you. I find this to be very helpful in developing my ear during long car rides (make sure to stay focused on the road!)
In addition to trying to sing scales and arpeggios that you are working on, try to sing melodies over top of the drone. This is a great way to help deepen your understanding of the melody—by putting the intervals that make up the melody into stark relief. It can also be a great way to isolate and focus on trickier intervals, such as distinguishing the major and minor third or the tritone.
Using the Tanpura as a Tuning Tool
In addition to helping in the practice room, the tanpura can be a really good way to tune your instrument. The droning pitches can be used in the same way that a pitch pipe or other tuning object can.
If your instrument is out of tune with the drone, you will feel a dissonant "rubbing" between the two notes. This will sound abrasive and is an important thing for your ears to learn how to hear it when it happens. As your instrument becomes more in tune, the abrasive rubbing will begin to slow down until eventually the two notes will blend together.
Checking your tuning across the full range of the instrument can also be helpful in determining if your intonation is correct all across the instrument. The note that you should play will vary a bit as you move up and down the neck as guitars and basses are never truly 100% in tune; however, they also should not be wildly out of tune as you move higher up the neck. If the notes higher up on the instrument are very out of tune, it may be a good idea to take your instrument into a shop to have it looked at by a professional as it can be a sign of warping.