By Michael W. Harris
It has been a long while since I wrote anything about music, so I am going to dip my toes back into an idea I have had since the days of teaching World Musics-Asia back at the University of Colorado Boulder: Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” off their 1975 album Wish You Were Here, is a perfect Western adaptation of the Indian music raga form.
Hear me out. I will not argue that they consciously or deliberately did this, I have no proof of that nor do I believe they did. Pink Floyd wrote “Diamond” to be a raga with the same amount of purposeful thought that they wrote Dark Side of the Moon to sync up with Wizard of Oz. Rather, I would just like to lay out my reasoning why it is a great encapsulation of the form, albeit done through the lens of Western musical style and tonalities.
That disclaimer aside, let me take you back to around 2012 when one day, while teaching my World Musics class, the notion just leapt into my head. I never took it the next step and actually taught it in my class. I also never did a paper or presentation on it because I could never definitively prove that it was a purposeful adaptation of the form (as far as I can tell, Floyd never went full Beatles in exploring Indian music), which means that it was probably just a distillation of the various musics they had listened to in London in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And while saying that in a blog post in fine, it is not enough for an academic article. So, while I could do a formal theoretical analysis paralleling the ways to the forms work and how might be an adaptation, I am a historian and not a theorist and never felt comfortable going that route.
So, the idea languished, relegated to the bin of discarded ideas, but I was recently reminded of just how great “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” is as a track and said “what the hey, let’s just do a quick post on it.”
Well, here we are, so let’s get started.
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There is a lot I could say about “Shine On” and Wish You Were Here historically, the recording process, the famous visit by Syd Barrett (for whom the album is actually about), but none of these relate to my thesis of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” specifically the first half (Parts I-V), as fitting into the raga form. And because of that, I’m going to focus solely on the music.
First, I should probably define a few terms for those unfamiliar with Indian music and raga in particular. A lot has been written on raga in the west, and especially its similarities to aspects of jazz (which is probably the short version of why “Shine On” has aspects of raga…Pink Floyd was hugely influenced by jazz improvisation…done). These usually focus around how raga is a largely improvisational style, with the lead musician, usually playing sitar or similar instrument, improvising around a central melody, called the “gat.” The actual “raga” is what we might call the “key” or maybe even “mode” in Western music, though it is actually much, much more complicated that that simple comparison. And the “gat” is part of the raga, though, just like in jazz, this can be broken apart, reordered, and changed up.
Beyond the raga and gat, other parts of a traditional raga performance are the accompanying voices providing the rhythmic and harmonic backing. Rhythm is provided by the tabla drums while the harmonic drone is provided either by the “shruti box” or live by a tanbura or other instrument that provides the drone note.
Okay, to begin a raga performance, you have to establish the pitch space that it will inhabit. This starts with the shruti drone giving the foundation of the raga. This beginning section is called the alapana, which can be defined as a “form of melodic improvisation that introduces and develops a raga,” or so Wikipedia tells me and is what I remember from when I taught it to undergrads at CU. It usually begins very slow as the melodic space is explored by the main performer, and slowly gains speed as the improvisation grows in intensity. At some point, the formal “gat,” the fixed musical composition, will enter as the rhythmic instrument will also begin. This marks the end of the alapana and beginning of the raga performance proper.
This is all very loose and a lot can vary depending on the specific musical tradition a musician follows, but it is enough for my overly simple and broad comparison of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” to Indian classical music.
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So, let’s look at “Shine On,” in its final album form since live recordings, especially early on, do not fit as well with my analysis. I will be using track timings from the 2011 reissue of the album.
What is labeled as “Part I” of the track roughly aligns with what I call the “alapana” section. It begins with the drone on a G minor chord, followed by a solo performed by pianist Rick Wright, somewhat in time, that noodles around the G minor harmonic space. It has some relation to the eventually melody, but is mainly the type of harmonic exploration that is the hallmark of an alapana section.
At 2’09” into the track, David Gilmour enters with a guitar solo, establishing some melodic foundation for the track along with establishing a bit more of a steady beat. You also have the harmony changing for the first time, going from a G minor chord to D minor, C minor, and back to G minor, also known as i-v-iv-i. Not exactly typical, but still a variation on traditional Western harmonic progressions.
Gilmour’s solo rounds off Part I, and Part II formally begins around 4 minutes in with the entrance of the four-note melody sometimes called “Syd’s Theme.” This brings more rhythm and finally the drums and bass enter and the alapana section ends and the gat begins. There is still plenty of improvisation that happens as the gat provides a background to more soloing by Gilmour and the harmony continues to develop into what is the formal structure of the song.
At 6’27”, Part III begins with another mini-moog solo by Richard Wright, developing further what he began in Part I. All the soloing and exploration of the G minor tonal space has developed over the 6+ minutes the song has been going on, building on one another as the composition continues to grow and expand.
It is only at 8’42” that the lyrics to the song actually begins, formally leaving what can be considered “raga-esque” and into more traditional Western song form with 2 verse sections followed by a contrasting section, giving the lyrics an overall AAB form with a slight refrain at the end of the B, though both A sections do end with the refrain of “Shine on you crazy diamond.”
In this Part IV of the song, there are two trips around the lyrics before “Part V” begins at 11’10” with a sax solo by Dick Perry. This time signature also switches from the lilting 6/8 to a more driving 12/8 that eventually falls away as the song disintegrates into a sonic portrait that moves the album into the next track, “Welcome to the Machine,” a scathing and angry indictment of the music industry.
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So, is “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” a perfect raga? No, of course not. Were Pink Floyd consciously adapting the form to suit their ends? I do not believe so. Listen to the version recorded in 1974 live at Wembly and you hear a different beginning, missing of the key elements of raga: the drone. And the fact that harmony does switch in the alapana does destroy one of its most raga-like qualities.
However, between the alapana like opening to the finished track, Pink Floyd’s penchant for long, psychedelic instrumental pieces that already drew on elements of ‘60s jazz that may have been more directly influenced by Indian music (see John Coltrane’s albums Om from 1968 or A Love Supreme from 1965 among many others), it is not an entirely “crazy” parallel to draw. But it is also one best left to a venue like this and not a more formal, academic outlet.
However, there is value in this type of short, speculative musicology: it can help introduce an audience to a type of musical structure or form that they may not otherwise have considered. And that alone gives it value. And, who knows, someday I might take a deeper dive into this material and come away with surprising results. But what do you think? Take a listen below and decide for yourself.