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Rafiji’s Voice Range

By Santhanakrishnan Srinivasan
I would like to dedicate this article to the uncrowned king amongst playback singers of our times, Rafi ji, on his 89th birth anniversary.

Mohammad Rafi

Human voice has many qualities.  Of these some such as melodious, pleasing, and gaambhirya are unexplainable and not measurable but can only be experienced.  Some qualities such as range are measurable.  What is range of voice – It is basically the range of musical notes  – that is the difference between  lowest note and the highest note that can be sung by a human voice.  Typically a human voice that can reproduce musical notes would cover in the range of 2 octaves.  An octave has 12 notes,  Shadja, Komal Risabh, Shuddha Rishabh, Komal gandhar, shuddh gandhar, shuddha madhyam and teevra madhyam, Pancham, komal dhaivat, shuddha dhaivat, Komal nishad and shuddha nishad. The note above Shuddha nishad, will be the Shadja of higher octave.  Well trained singers can cover more than two octaves. 

While notes can be denoted using western notation C, D, E, F, G, A and B, to cater to the Indian audience, I have chosen to write using Indian scale (sa, re, ga, …. Ni).  Songs  may have notes in three octaves – sthayee.  The lower one is called mandra sthayee, middle one is called Madhya sthayee and the higher is called taara sthayee.  Songs that are within a single octave are rare, but do exist.

Usually playback singers will choose appropriate frequency of their voice to be shadja of Madhya sthayee so that they can cover notes of mandra sthayee and tara sthayee comfortably.  Also playback singers mainly give songs for the actors on screen and hence the notes when sung should be free of strain unlike classical singers who have the liberty to demonstrate their range with whatever syllable that they choose to sing.

How do we find a true range of voice of a singer?  An ideal way would be by making the singer sing the lowest and highest notes possible. Since the singers that we are interested are not alive today, it is not possible.  However, an approximation can be made by the lowest note and highest notes sung by a singer in a song.  If we collect data from a large set of songs we can possibly find out the range.  However, we should also be aware that the natural range of a human voice shifts downward with age – as the readers might have noted that voice of  Rafi in his later years, covered lower range and he did not try to reach very high notes.  With these considerations,  I have taken the following approach.

  1. Get a first approximation of the widest range by finding out the range of notes in a song sung by singers.
  2. Make it more accurate by comparing notes (actual frequencies) across songs sung by the singer around the same period (within 0-3 years).
  3. Check if live recordings are available and see what is the range of notes sung by the singer across songs in the live program.

This article covers only the first step as that itself establishes some well known and expected facts.   Having heard Hindi film songs since my childhood until the demise of Kishoreda, I have registered in my memory many songs that test the range of human voice. Blessed with some musical sense I used to check if I could emulate the range.  Needless to say, repeating some of Rafiji’s songs were the most difficult.

Now, how do we measure the range?  The different songs that a singer has sung gives us an idea of what is the range of the singer, but the singer might have been able to sing more notes than that were covered in the song.   However a comparison of set of songs sung by each singer gives us an approximate idea of the typical range of songs, that were offered to a singer.  Or if song has been composed,  the range requirement of the song helped in the selection of singer who can do justice to the song.

We can measure the range by counting the number of musical notes that are covered between the lowest and highest notes.  For example, if a song’s lowest note and highest note are the same from two subsequent octaves, the range of the song is 13 (12+1) notes, if the song covers two octaves, then it is 25 (12+12+1) notes.  If we have a keyboard, then the range can be found out by counting all the keys (black and white) between the lowest note and highest note including them.

Here is a comparison of songs of Rafiji and his contemporaries  Manna Dey, Mukesh, Talat and Kishore.

As a fan of Rafiji, I happened to register in my memory  a lot of  his songs which cover a vast range of notes. I have validated the range of notes using my keyboard.  There are some songs where the highest note is a khand swar  (a note that is sung for a small fraction of a maatra instead of sustaining in that note for even as short as half a maatra).

I have denoted the notes on the Indian scale assuming a raga.  But some songs are not based on pure raga.  There could be errors in notes referred to – because the song does not have fixed raga structure.  Since they are validated using a musical keyboard, the range measured will still be accurate.

Here are my observations – Rafiji has atleast two songs where he has covered two full octaves with one khand swar – Yeh zindagi ke mele  – lowest note Mandra sthayee komal dhaivat and highest note is taara sthayee komal dhaivat – 25 notes) and Pyar ki raah dikha duniya ko from Lambe haath (mandra shuddha dhaivat to tara shudha dhaivat khandswar 25 notes).  The next highest is Mori vinathi suno bhagwan from the movie Taj – lowest Mandra Komal dhaivat, highest taara pancham – 24 notes and Tune mera yaar na milaya from Shama Parvana Lowest – Mandra Komal Nishad and Highest taara shuddha dhaivat – 24 notes,   The next are Yeh duniya ke rakhwale from Baiju Bavra – Mandra pancham  and  Taara shuddha madhyam – 23 notes,  Kunj Kunj Gunjan bhanvre ka from Anjali – Mandra Pancham and Taara shuddha madhyam  – 23 notes,  Nigahein na Phero from Black Prince Mandra pancham  and  Taara shuddha madhyam – 23 notes  – Dil ho unhe Mubarak from Chandni Raat – Mandra Pancham and Taara shuddha madhyam  – 23 notes.  I could count at least 15 songs that covered 22 notes – Akhiyan sang akhiyan from Bada Admi, Jaan-e-bahaar husn from Pyar kiya to darna kya,  Yehi armaan lekar aaj apne ghar se from Shabab,  Jaane kya doondhthi rahti hai from Shola aur shabnam,  Tu hindu banega na musalman banega from Dhook ka phool, Chand kitne door tha sitare kitne door the from Afsana  and Woh kaunsi muskhil hai from Maa  Beta. There is also one duet of Rafiji and Lataji – Dekho rootha na karo from Tere ghar ke saamne – that also covers 22 notes. Zindagi bhar gham judai ka  from Miss Bombay, Zindagi mujhko dikha de rasta from  Saanj aur savera, Dekho bina savan baras rahi from  Sawan,  Dil ki dil mein hi rahi from  Chakori, jaayega jab yahaan se kuchh bhi na saath hoga from  Moti Mahal,  Ab koi gulshan na ujhade from Mujhe jeen do, Allah teri khair kare from Heer and  Hazaron rang badlega zamana   from Shirin Farhad.   Like wise there are many of Rafi ji that cover 21 notes.  The last one that he sung was Parda hai parda from Amar Akbar Anthony (Mandra Pancham to taara Komal Gandhar) where he had to strain a bit but none of his contemporaries who had also aged were given that song.

I have not registered in my memory all the songs of other singers but here are some which demonstrates their voice range.  I can not claim to have exhausted their songs while trying to find out their voice range.  But songs that demanded a vast range of voice usually drew my attention.  May be some of their fans would be able to single out some songs which show greater range.

Mukesh ji, among the four, considered less gifted with voice capability surprised me with – Mujhe raat din ye khayal hai from Umar Qaid 23 notes (mandra Pancham  to taara shuddha madhyam – khand swar).  Jhoomti chali hawa – from Sangeet Samrat Tansen (Mandra shuddha dhaivat to taara Teevra madhyam) 22 notes – the next song that I found was Jaane kahan gaye woh din – 20 notes.

Talat –Two songs – of  22 notes –  Zindagi denewale sun  ( Mandra pancham  to taara shuddha gaandhar) and Raahi Matwale tu chhed ek baar – 22 notes  ( Mandra pancham  to taara shuddha gaandhar)

Manna Dey  One song of 22 notes – Bhaya Bhanjana vandana sun hamari ( Mandra Komal Nishad and Taara Pancham).  Laga chunri me daag and Phul gendwa na maaro cover 20 notes.

I found two songs of Kishoreda one covering 22 notes (Thandi hava yeh chandni suhani from Jhumroo (mandra pancham to Tara gandhar) and another 21 notes – Koi hota jisko apna from Mere Apne – (Madhya Shadja to Taara komal dhaivat) and one of 20 notes – Matwale hum matwale tum fom jhumroo.

I have not collated the songs by lady singers of that era – Geeta, Lata and Asha.

Some inferences which can be drawn are  – songs that require range of 22 notes seem to be within the reach of all of them.  Mukesh did reach up to 23 notes in a song with a khandswar. But the number of songs by Manna Dey, Mukesh, Talat and Kishore that demanded a vast range are very few.  But Rafiji is in a class of his own.  The difference in singing songs that have more than 23 notes is this.  Beyond 22 notes, the strain on the voice starts showing.

Now the question is, if a singer did not get songs that cover a wide range, could we be mistaken to say that he/she had a limited range.  Yes, but the sheer number of songs that Rafiji has sung with range of 22 notes are more far out numbers other singers songs, hence I would conclude – that possibly Rafiji’s voice range was the widest.   And his songs have been composed by a variety of composers, some well established composers and some who did  very few films.  Some of the lesser known composers were instrumentalists in the orchestras and were probably inspired by Rafi’s voice and range to take to composing music. Rafiji was also generous in not charging them much, and secondly encouraged them.

The list of music directors who gave songs to Rafi of 22 notes or more are Anil Biswas, Chitragupta,  Dulal Sen, GS Kohli, Hansraj Behl, Hemanat Kumar, Husnlal Bhagatram, Jaidev, Khayyam, N Datta, Naushad, Ravi, SD Burman, Shankar Jaikishan and SS Mohinder –  which is a true acknowledgement by all the music directors of Rafi’s voice range.   Some other reasons could be that Rafi could sing any syllable at a high pitch. One can hum a high pitch than singing an open syllable at higher pitch  which is difficult.  Rafiji seems to reach high pitches effortlessly.  This fact is also mentioned by one fan of Rafi ji (Swaminathan), who has observed many singers at close range.

But how does one find his true range – by listening to songs that were recorded around the same time (same movie, same year, etc.) during which the lowest and highest frequencies from the collection of songs can be compared to find out the range.

There are recordings of a live programs of Rafiji singing Naushadji’s compositions available in youtube.  I know for sure that in that live program, Rafiji sang one extra higher note in the song Yeh duniya ke rakhwale making the range to 25 notes.  May be when time permits I will listen to all the songs sung in that program and come out with a more authentic information on Rafiji’s voice range.  Till then thanks for reading.

My thanks are also due to the individuals who have loaded on youtube the Hindi film songs that are listed here.  And also due apologies to the readers for any mistakes and omissions that might have occurred without intent.  I also welcome mails from readers who would like to discuss this further! Jai Hind!

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56 Blog Comments to “Rafiji’s Voice Range”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Chetan ji, Your observation is indeed good. Ghantashala, the great singer he is has touched the lowest note of Komal dhaivata of mandra sthayee. However,as you have stated the highest note is NOT Kaisiki Nidhadam (carnatic notation) or Koma nidhsada (Hindustani notation).
    The highest note touched is komal dhaivat of tara sthayee. This is done when towards the end he touches tara panchama in aakra and touches the komal dhaivata (half note above panchama) as a khand swar. That is the note is touched momentarily – that is he does not stay on the note.That makes it ony 25 notes (and not 27 as you have noted).

    Certainly Ghantashala was a very gifted signer. It would be very difficult and also unfair to compare them. Rafi catered to a different set of audience, and sang classical, had shown so much modification of his voice while signing for various actors – Dilip Kumar to Johny walker, Dev Anand.

    Mahendra Kapoor, had very good voice control, and suffered in comparison to Rafi’s voice quality. Also Mahenddra Kapoor did not get good songs – since his time did not overlap with those MDs who gave Rafi the songs (SD Burman, etc). His songs were mainly sang for Kalyanji Anandji (for Manoj Kumar).

  2. Chetan says:

    Kd chitnis ji – I agree with you.

    Mahendra kapoor from hindi film industry was also a good singer. He had a great sincerity in his renditions like Kishore kumar. Nevertheless could not achieve fame as mohd rafi achieved due to his attractive voice in hindi film industry. To my knowledge Maximum range of rafi lasted 25 notes and that is a very good range. No other hindi film singer could achieve that status to my knowledge. I would be interested if more range songs for rafi are there and if anybody can share that. I have heard siva sankari song of ghantasala (southern telugu singer) from telugu film Jagadeka Veeruni Katha (1961) in darbari kannada raga – it is clear 27 notes – the toughest song ever rendered in indian film singing. It covers Shuddha Dhaivata (lower range) and touches Kaisika Nishadha in tara sthayi (highest range) – clear 27 notes with full clarity & depth rendered without any strain. Any musician will agree with this.

    One striking point – santhana Krishnan srinivasan ji – Appreciations for the article and effort on concentrating on notes. It would have been great if female hindi singers songs were also taken into account. Of course, in hindi film industry rafi is unmatchable.

  3. Kumar says:

    The Article Compares the great Rafi with Hindi singers and that should be respected. Mahendra Kapoor was also a great singer for his style of singing. The author’s effort in depicting the talents of great rafi from a holistic point of view should be respected. Nevertheless one point in the article, the author says he has missed lady singers collections for research. That seems to be a bit a negative point here. Lata Mangeshkar is equally celebrated singer like rafi ji in hindi and her high pitch songs also should have been considered in this article.

    Moreover, keeping aside the wider ranges, the presentation of song is more important. In my opinion Rafi had special qualities in that area, which makes a song appealing to whoever listens to the rendition. Perhaps, only Ghantasala and Lata Mangeshkar were the others who had this great quality of making a song appealing.

    In a finer way, Ghantasala and Balamuralikrishna, the distinguiished legends of the south cannot be mixed up here as the research is restricted to only hindi singers and rafi. The southern legends are without any doubt, in a different elevated class and are incomparable and peerless in their own areas and music – even on occasions mohd rafi and other great singers have acknowledged this. If there is an article on Indian singers, then certainly the top order would include these southern legends.

    Anyhow it was tragic to note the passing away of Balamuralikrishna – He was a towering personality in carnatic music and the era comes to an end with his demise.

  4. Mr S Srinivasan
    Oh my God..! What a deep and authentic study you have done, man !
    You really deserves many congrates and thanks that you wrote such a
    beautiful blog on Legendary Playback Singer Rafi Saheb.

    For your observation and marking, I would give you the name of songs
    where we can find his craftmanship or art of uncommon singing. In song
    of Udan Khatola, O door ke…go and hear second stanza’s first line…suni
    hai dilki rahen…. Here carefully listen the word “raahen” that is sung in
    very unique way which is absolutely difficult. I have heard many copy
    maker singers in live stage shows, but they could not copy “raahen”
    how Rafijl sang. One more unique quality or mastery he was able to
    perform during the recording, was his careful attentiveness towards
    singing the same word in slight different way if he has to sing it twice Example- saathi na koi manzil….of Bumbai ka Baabu. In this song,
    every time while singing word akela “kahan” is crafted in four-five
    different ways. This artistic application of the repeated word, in recording is an Intelligency and exclusive technique of him was his
    own experty. No composer has suggested him. One more Uniqueness
    I found in his song, is mastery on “humming”. Listen it in Chaudvi ka
    chaand ho…or in Zingagi bhar nahi bhoolegi….or in Loafer song.. aaj
    mausam bada beimaan hai….

    These are few notable specialities of his singing art which is a God
    gift to him. Every singer don’t possess it. That’s why it is told that
    if anybody wants to be a singer, he need not to go in any music
    learning class/institute, but he just need to listen only Rafi’s songs attentively for 6 months. Of course, the speakers should be powerful
    and clarity-proven.

    Mr Srinivasan, I am simple fan of him from Ahmedabad Gujarat. My
    phone-9824930655.

  5. kdchitnis says:

    The singer matching the voice culture and range of Mohammed Rafi was Mahendra Kapoor which is missing in this article. As rightly mentioned Mukesh Manna Dey and Kishor Kumar too had capacity to sing in more notes however Mahendra Kapoor had the best range to compare with Mohammed Rafi who was versatile and slunded sweet in whatever ragne. Mahendra Kapoor too has reached to comparision of Moh Rafi who admitted this fact. Well whatever Moh Rafi remains on the top like uncrowned King in the minds of savoury.

  6. Anonymous says:

    M Balamuralikrishna is a multi talented musician, great singer, composer, instrumentalist, percucssionist and musicologist. He had a voice range which used to go into falseto in the higher octaves. Ghantashala had a voice which also had a wide range

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