She was a new student. Eager to learn, she had many questions. Toward the end of the conversation, she nervously asked, “Do I really have to learn Sargam to lead Kirtan?”
My response immediately set her at ease: “Absolutely not.”
“That’s a relief,” she sighed, “because Sargam makes my head hurt!”
What Is Sargam?
Sargam is an Indian musical system for assigning syllables to the notes in a musical scale. The Sargam syllables are: Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni and Sa. In the West we have a similar system that is called Solfege. You have likely heard the song “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music and know the Solfège syllables are: Do, Re, Me, Fa, So, La, Ti and Do.
Make sense? If not, don’t fret. You don’t need to know.
If you are like 99% of the students I have taught, neither Sargam nor Solfege are necessary to learn to chant at home or share Kirtan with others. This is really good news for those who would prefer to not spend valuable time wracking their brain, trying to penetrate the mysteries of bass clef, treble clef, Western musical notation and… Sargam!
Music Theory and Sargam Are Not Required
What’s behind my claim that you don’t need to know Sargam or Western music theory? Here’s an example I have been giving for years. Let’s imagine you are excited about writing a novel and approach me for guidance and support in making it happen. I say to you, “Great! First become fluent in French, then you can write the novel in French. It will be so much better.” How would you respond? I predict you’d ignore my advice.
Why? Learning French (assuming you are not already fluent) is a HUGE project that could take years. Learning French well enough to write a novel could take decades. I suspect you would very wisely decide the quickest, easiest and best way to share your creative ideas would be through your native tongue of English.
The same goes for Sargam. Why spend time learning a frustrating and often confusing system that can take years (or decades) to fully understand and embody?
Sargam can distract students from what drew them to Kirtan. The vast majority of the many hundreds of students I’ve worked with since 2010 do not show up with a desire to learn a complicated Indian musical notation system or the intricacies of Western music theory. They aren’t excited about practicing scales at home, and many who attempt to understand Sargam so they can learn basic chants find themselves confused and frustrated.
Rather, they come to step into Western Kirtan in a new and deeper way. They have a deep longing to play the harmonium (which is easy to play and immediately sounds great) while chanting at home or with others. They want to play and sing chants by their favorite Kirtan artists like Krishna Das, Snatam Kaur and others!
My orientation is to meet students where they are and help them learn to chant and share Kirtan as quickly as possible. For almost a decade I have used a system of notation that is extremely clear and pragmatic. It does not require knowledge of Solfege, Sargam, Indian Music or Western Music. It’s practical, makes logical sense to those with ZERO musical background, and boy, does it work!
Students are often constantly at how EASY it is to learn chants by their favorite Kirtan artists using this system. One recently exclaimed, “this makes so much sense! All music should be taught this way.” I don’t think we can teach all music this way, but it has proven to be a fast and efficient way to learn both simple and complex chants.
KLI student Fred Haas recently shared,
"For year I have wanted to learn the harmonium to support my chanting, but was not able to make it happen. I attempted lessons that began with scales and music theory that felt too overwhelming for what I wanted. I just wanted to chant. I came across Mike Cohen’s classes, and in about 20 minutes or less, I had downloaded the chant sheet, watched a couple of short videos, and was chanting. What I loved most about the design of the KLI online intro course was its efficiency. I spent a fraction of the time during the week on 'course material' and the remainder was spent doing what I want to do, play the harmonium and chanting."
Kirtan is a Social and Spiritual Practice
At the Kirtan Leader Institute, we see the social and energetic aspects of sharing Kirtan as essential and of utmost importance.
Rather than practicing Sargam scales at home (a solo/musical practice), we see the true power of Kirtan as residing in the energetic experiences created by chanting in Sanskrit, and the devotional and energetic exchanges created via call and response with others (a social/spiritual practice). Our orientation is to make it as easy as possible to play the harmonium and sing chants from your favorite Kirtan artists.
New Kirtan practitioners who get pulled into the world of Sargam unfortunately spend a lot of valuable time trying to figure out a complicated musical system, wrestling with complex mathematical formulations and sitting at home practicing scales on their own.
We prefer they focus on learning chants and sharing them with others. What’s essential is learning “how” to create potent and transformative energetic experiences, and serving others through this exquisite social, energetic and spiritual practice.
Step Into Sargam When You’re Ready
When we start something new, it’s wise to keep it simple.
Only after KLI students have been DOING Kirtan for a while do we take time to build a deeper understanding of musical theory. We present theory from a “practical” perspective. After students have learned to play/chant a number of songs we explore how to understand and communicate what they are already doing through the lens of Western or Indian Music.
Advanced students can certainly request teachings around Indian scales, Sargam, music theory and more. However, they must first demonstrate the ability to serve others through the amazing energetic and social practice of sacred chant.
For virtuoso Kirtan artists like Jai Uttal, Sean Johnson and Gina Sala, Sargam is an incredible practice, discipline and musical expression. In the hands of a master, Sargam is a potent tool for expressing musical virtuosity through improvisation. If you are approaching that level of musicianship, or find yourself strongly drawn to Indian Classical Music, I suggest you dive deep into Sargam and have a blast.
However, for beginning and intermediate level practitioners of Western Kirtan, Sargam (in my humble opinion) frequently becomes a “heady distraction” from what is truly exquisite and essential about the practice of sacred chant.
Empower Yourself and Serve the World
Hold off on Sargam, especially when you are starting out. This choice will free you up to focus on learning to play chords, chant, develop a strong sense of rhythm and build a repertoire of compelling chants. This will empower you to generate potent energetic experiences and gift others through the exquisite spiritual/energetic practice of sacred chant.
The world needs more chanting, and there’s no time to waste. Focus on what’s truly important, and you will soon make a much needed contribution to others and our world.