Raga: The Real Reason Some Songs Sound Similar

When I recently got my brother to listen to Kangal Irandal, the first thing he said is, “This sounds EXACTLY like Jeevamshamayi!” Surely you’ve also had such moments of musical deja vu, when your perky ear comes across a tune that you’ve definitely heard before….but in a different arrangement. Sometimes you identify the “original song” you have in mind, and immediately jump to the conclusion that a copy-adi has taken place in broad daylight

Of course, there definitely is a set of songs that seem super-inspired by other pieces of music. I’m sure that there are times when composers look for inspiration and end up creating a very similar sound. (Jassie Gift stunned everyone by admitting, in an interview to Kaumudy, that he has copied tunes!). But to say that any two similar-sounding songs are related by copy-adi alone would be an exaggeration. There is, ultimately, a science behind why songs sound similar; a science that is enunciated by Indian classical music. The idea of ragas. 

In simple terms, a ragam is a unique set of notes. When we say that a composition is based on ‘X’ raga, we mean that the music comprises notes from that raga. And what are these notes? 

Broadly, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni and Sa. (Pop culture has taught you this, of course :P)

But here’s the interesting part: each of these notes has variations. For example, Ma has 2 variations; it can be a higher sounding version (Prathi Madhayamam) or a lower one (Shudhha Madhyamam). So the total number of combinations of these variations (1x3x2x2x1x2x3x1) gives us a mammoth 72 ragas from which music can be made!

Now how do composers choose ragas for their songs? (There’s just too many options on the menu, clearly.) This is where another interesting aspect of music comes into play – its effect on our neurological system. It has been proven that certain frequencies induce certain effects on us.  Low-frequency waves are linked to “delta” and “ theta ” states which can boost relaxation and improve sleep. Higher frequencies boost your brain waves into a “ gamma ” state which may make you more alert, focused, or better able to recall memories, and so on.

Traditionally, a composer who wants to make a relaxing song would look for ragas which have low-frequency use cases. The universality of a raga lies in the fact that whether a composer is consciously using the raga or not, whether the listener is aware of the raga or not, the neurological impact is delivered. Every time I listen to Pranasakhi, I cry. Simple.

We’ve taken 8 super popular ragas (in terms of use) and compiled an array of songs derived from each. Also, these lists aren’t exhaustive. Malayalam cinema has produced way too many classical-based songs, for these lists to be exhaustive! So go ahead, listen to them all, and let us know your additions in the comment section! 

Arabhi (derived from the 29th raga, Shankarabharanam)

Arabhi is essentially a happy raga, generally associated with a festive mood. Explains why many Onam songs – from “Maaveli Naadu Vaaneedum” to “Thiruvona Pulari” – use this raga!

Darbari Kanada (derived from the 20th raga, Natabhairavi)

This Hindustani raga, that arguably originated in the South, is known for the deep emotional impact it creates in listeners. It also happens to be a favourite among Ghazal singers. 

Desh (derived from the 28th Raga, Harikamboji)

Despite the Hindustani origin, this pleasant-sounding raga is equally used in the South (via Carnatic music). It has often been used to evoke patriotic feelings: case in point, Vande Mataram.

Hindolam (derived from 20th Raga, Natabhairavi)

With a very peculiar feel to it, this pentatonic raga can be suited for a variety of moods depending on the usage. It can express feelings of longing, romance and even loneliness. Talk about versatility!

Madhyamavati (derived from 22nd Raga, Kharahara Priya)

Considered a “mangala” (or auspicious) raga, songs in Madhyamavati are often sung at the end of concerts to denote good endings. One of those ragas that has an immediate calming effect on you!

Mohanam (derived from 65th raga, Mechakalyani)

One of the most popular choices for film music directors owing to its inherent pleasantness and ease of songwriting, the Mohana ragam is another super-versatile set of notes.

Shanmukhapriya (56th Raga)

The raga probably derives its name from the fact that it was used in many compositions praising Lord Muruga from Hindu Mythology. Because of its strict Carnatic nature and devotional mood, it is generally used in semi-classical film songs, although there are (surprising) exceptions!

Sindhubhairavi (derived from 8th Raga, Hanumatodi)

A pathos raga that instils feelings of sorrow, separation and remorse in the minds of listeners. Because it uses all the notes in the scale in special ways, composers often get to explore different levels of pathos. In short, sed aakki kalayum.

You might also like: 9 Times Music Composers Invoked Déjà Vu In Us

PS: It is to be noted that the roots of the derivative ragas (also called janya ragas) are debatable. For example, while some believe that Mohanam is derived from Mechaklayani by the look and feel, others argue that these notes could technically be derived from other ragas such as Harikamboji or Shankarabharanam. 

Bonus links:

  • Next time if you want to know which raga a Malayalam song is based on, just search for the song on Malayalam Sangeetham. It’s a legendary website covering a host of songs, right from the 1950s up to the present.
  • If you found the neurological effect of classical music intriguing, do check this research paper. Gets very nitty-gritty, but definitely a great read. 
  • Also, for a broader (and definitely more fun) version of the neurological impact of music, check out this stream feat Tanmay Bhat and Sid Warrier. 
Navaneethakrishnan Unnikrishnan
When I'm not working or sleeping, I'm mostly observing people and making notes on my phone for content. (Hope to be) Your go-to man for laughs, good music and useless trivia around movies.


  1. […] A few months ago, Anand and I posed a question: “Why do some songs sound similar?” En route, we introduced a key concept that we believed, had a major role to play in the said similarity of tunes: the Carnatic idea of ‘raga’. We also explored compilations of some of the most popular ragas used in Malayalam movies, thereby trying to nudge you to think of music in terms of permutations and combinations of notes. (Do check out the article for better context to this one) […]

Tell us what you're thinking

Subscribe to our newsletter

We'll send you a monthly newsletter with our top articles of the month

Latest Posts