Just as the conception of Raga and Tala are unique features of Indian classical music, so also is sargam.
Sargam is singing note syllables in performance. In other musical cultures, slow and fast phrases resembling aalap or tana can be found, but to my knowledge, the usage of notational symbols in performances or even in practicing voice is distinct to Indian music.
In Indian classical music, the proper dignified names of seven notes are : shadja, rishabh, gandhaar, madhyama, panchama, dhaivat, nishaad, which is sung in its abbreviated form as sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni sa respectively. The word sargam itself is based on the first four abridged note names…sa re ga ma, i.e. sa-r-ga-m. Singing these notes with various patterns making it an organized phrase play a vital role in the development of raga while performances. In fact, raga improvisation at some point, or after adequate slow intonations, explicitly take support of sargams or singing syllables in the form of Badat or taans. This embellishes the improvisation in totality and revitalizes the mood of the audiences in a different rhythmic pathway.
In Indian vocal music, sound can be emitted and carried only through vowels, syllables and words.
Vowels are sounds —a aa i o e u whereas syllables are the consonants prefixed to vowels for example ‘k’ preceeding aa or a makes ka or kaa. In Indian music, slow and fast musical phrases that are composed through vowels are called alap and taan respectively. On the other hand, phrases which are composed through words are known as bolaalaap, bolbani, and boltaan. Likewise, phrases attached with the abbreviated note names or note syllables sa re ga ma pa dha ni are called sargam.
Decorated and beautifully organized sargams with set patterns are also called ‘alankaar‘. Here are some of the examples of sargams which is sung during the recitals.
Sa re sa ga ma ga re sa, re ga re ma pa ma ga re, ga ma ga pa dh pa ma ga, ma pa ma dh ni dh pa ma…
ga ga re ga re sa…ma ma ga ma ga re….p p m p m g…dh dh pa dha pa ma etc…
Sargams also make it much more practical to do note-exercises and intonation exercises. Music students as beginners are taught the sargams initially in order to enhance their vocalization capacity. As symbols of notation, when sargam syllables are sung, they help to produce and identify a note simultaneously. Sargams also help in gaining familiarity with the tempo and rhythmic structure of tala by composing phrases in such a way that the various rhythmic divisions of a particular tala becomes more obvious.
Similarly, westerners have Do re mi fa so la ti do which is called the solma names. But I have not heard them singing these syllables even in their practices or voice ensembles. They never play with notes like, do-re-mi…re-mi-fa…mi-fa-so..fa-so-la…so-la-ti…la-ti-do...may be for the reason that all other music cultures like western are more dependent upon the instruments. Anyways, sargams or singing notes syllables enhances the aural expressions and durability in Indian music performances, which makes Indian classical music more distinguishing and symptomatic.