Indian music is as vast and varied as the country from which it comes.
Based upon ancient tradition, Indian classical music is characterized by intricate and subtle melodies and complex rhythms. To a novice listener, the complexity of Indian music might seem overwhelming, but knowing just a few basics can give you the tools to appreciate the art form’s spectacular richness.
Learning about Indian music offers students a window not only to an interesting musical tradition, but also to an ancient and multifaceted culture. Reflected within Indian music’s melodies, rhythmic patterns, sustained pitches, and improvisational nature are thousands of years of oral tradition and a deep spiritual sensibility that pervades many aspects of Indian life.
This background article introduces the basic distinguishing elements of Indian music, instruments, and performance, and includes activities (look for “Try It!”) that you can try yourself or with your students. Enjoy your musical journey to India!
Pitch and Melody
An Ancient System. Listeners unfamiliar with Indian music are often surprised by the unique combinations of pitches that they hear. Melodies in Indian music are classified by an ancient system of ragas. A raga (pronounced RAH-guh) is a collection of pitches, kind of like a scale or mode in Western music. Each raga is defined, however, not only by the pitches themselves, but also by specific formulas for using them. Within a raga, there will be prescribed ways of ascending and descending the scale, as well as specific melodic phrases that can be performed during improvisation.
Learning by Singing. Remember the song “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music? Did you know that Indian music uses a very similar system of note names? The syllables used to sing the notes of an Indian raga are:
Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa
This is called sargam (SAR-gum), which itself is a combination of the first four syllables.
Try It! Try singing a scale with the sargam note names.
Indian musicians learn their craft by practicing these pitch syllables in particular patterns, over and over. You can sometimes hear Indian vocalists singing the pitch names as they improvise within a piece. For example, listen to the great singer Pandit Jasraj as he alternates singing the phrases of a composition with improvising on the sargam syllables in the raga “Bhairav Bahar” (listen for him to begin with the sargam syllables between the first and second minute of the piece).
A Range of Expression. Whereas Western music has two kinds of scales, major (think “Happy Birthday” or “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star”) and minor (think “Greensleeves,” or “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from Mary Poppins), Indian music has dozens of different ragas. Listeners familiar with Indian music can recognize the raga from just a few short melodic phrases. Listen to these examples of contrasting ragas in the Resource Carousel above.
Like scales in Western music, ragas help set the mood for a piece of music—but in much greater detail. Traditionally in Indian music, each raga was itself associated with a very specific emotion. In modern times, the ragas are often still associated with a particular time of day or season.
Try It! Listen again to the three examples above and see whether you can guess which raga is associated with the evening, the rainy season, and daybreak (scroll down for the answers).
Just as the sargam syllables organize the melody, other short syllables support the learning and practice of rhythm, or tala (TAH-luh). Some rhythmic patterns are quite complex, such as patterns in cycles of five, seven, nine, or ten beats. For a three-beat pattern, musicians might say “ta-ki-ta” and a four-beat pattern, “ta-ka-di-mi.” Those two patterns combine to form a seven-beat cycle: “ta-ki-ta ta-ka-di-mi.”
Try It! Try saying this combination of syllables over and over until you can feel the seven-beat rhythm.
In addition, there are special syllables called bols (BOWLS) used by players of the tabla (TUHB-luh), a set of two drums, to learn and practice specific sounds that can be produced on their instrument. The syllables are onomatopoeic; that is, they sound a bit like the sounds produced by the drums.
Try It! Watch musician Anubrata Chatterjee demonstrate the tabla bols. Listen for ga, na, te-te, tun, ghe, and ghe-ghe.
Let’s see how tabla players use these syllables to create rhythms. There is a very common 16-count rhythm used in Indian classical music called teental. It is organized in four groups of four beats each. The bols for each of the counts are given below:
1 2 3 4
dha dhin dhin dha
5 6 7 8
dha dhin dhin dha
9 10 11 12
dha tin tin ta
13 14 15 16
ta dhin dhin dha
Try It! Watch Anubrata Chatterjee explain and demonstrate teental rhythm. You might notice that it sounds like he is saying “na” instead of “dha,” but this is just a variation of the same pattern.
As they’re listening to a long piece of music, audience members often keep track of the rhythm with their hands. So, for teental, they’d clap on beats 1, 5, and 13, and give a wave of the hand on beat 9. That wave corresponds with the variation in the drum sounds that follow beat 9, that is, “tin tin ta” instead of “dhin dhin dha.”
Try It! Try repeating the teental syllables while you practice the clapping pattern. Then try clapping the pattern along with the teental performed by the Taal India Percussion Ensemble at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. In this clip, after the tabla player plays two cycles of teental, the other instrumentalists take turns playing single cycles of teental, and then the group performs together. Keep clapping in tempo, and you’ll find the whole piece ends on the first count of a cycle.
There are different styles of Indian classical music performed in North India and South India.
Although the regions share certain characteristics, they sometimes use different instruments. In both regions, Indian classical music is performed in a small ensemble, including one percussion instrument, one drone instrument, one soloist (on melody instrument or voice), and sometimes another melody instrument. One thing you might notice right away as you’re watching an Indian music performance is that all the performers generally sit on the floor.
Let’s look at some of the most commonly used instruments in Indian classical music. Melody Instruments
Sitar (pronounced si-TAHR)—
a North Indian plucked stringed instrument with a long neck and a round resonating chamber made from a gourd. Of all the Indian instruments, the sitar tends to be the most widely recognized by outsiders to Indian culture. It can have 21, 22, or 23 strings, although musicians only actually play six or seven of these. The rest of the strings are called sympathetic strings, which means that they are tuned to specific pitches and vibrate when the same pitch is played on the main strings. These sympathetic strings give the sitar its characteristic ring. Sarod (suh-ROHD)—
another North Indian plucked stringed instrument with 20 to 25 strings. Like the sitar, the sarod has many sympathetic strings that lend a ringing tone. The face of the sarod is covered with goatskin, which gives it a unique sound. Veena (VEE-nuh)—
an ancient plucked stringed instrument used in South Indian classical music. It is similar in appearance to the sitar, with a long neck, a round resonator, and an additional gourd resonator attached to the neck. It has four melody strings and three sympathetic strings. Violin—
a European instrument used frequently in South Indian music. It was easily adopted into Indian music in the 19th century by virtue of its ability to play the Indian ragas
(RAH-guhs). In contrast to Western violinists, Indian players hold the instrument below the chin and rest the scroll of the violin on the ankle, leaving the left hand free to slide the whole length of the neck while the right hand moves the bow. Bansuri (BUN-soo-ree)—
a transverse flute made from hollow bamboo. Its simple construction contrasts with the complex embouchure (formation of the mouth) required to play it and produce the many embellishments used in Indian music. Harmonium—
a reed instrument played by a keyboard (similar to an accordion) that was introduced to Indian music in the 19th century. It can play either melody or drone and is common in many styles of Indian music. Drone Instruments
An Indian music performance almost always includes one instrument that provides a drone, a sustained pitch or set of pitches that is a background sound against which the melody is played. Since Indian music does not use harmony in the way that Western music does, the drone provides a pleasing contrast to the notes of the melody and brings out the unique sonority of the raga.
The presence of the drone also embodies the concept of om
(pronounced OHM), the elemental and eternal sound from which all other sounds flow. Om is an essential concept not only in music, but also in religion, philosophy, and many other facets of life in India. Tanbura (TAN-boo-rah)
or tanpura (TAN-poo-rah)—
the instrument traditionally used for a drone. Similar in shape to the sitar, it has four or five strings that are tuned to the most important notes of the raga. The instrument is fairly simple to play and is often played in performance by a student of the soloist. Surpeti (sur-PETI) or “drone box”—
originally a simple reed instrument played with a bellows (a compressible chamber). Today, the name surpeti most often refers to an electronic instrument that produces sounds similar to the tanbura. Musicians use the surpeti for practice or in place of a tanbura in performance. Percussion Instruments
a set of two drums used in North Indian music. The drums can be made of metal or wood and are covered with skins that can be tightened or loosened to tune the drums to the main notes of the raga. The player’s dominant hand plays the higher-pitched drum and the other hand plays the second drum. Mridangam (mree-DAHNG-guhm)—
a double-headed drum used in South Indian music. Like the tabla, the heads of the mridangam can be tuned to the main notes of the raga being performed.
Performances of Indian music, especially Indian “classical” or “art” music, typically include long pieces of music in a single raga
(pronounced RAH-guh). Unlike Western classical music, in which musicians play from written scores for a whole piece, Indian classical music includes only a very small portion of music composed in advance of the performance. Most of the music is improvised, or composed by the musician during the performance.
That strong improvisational element comes from India’s oral tradition of teaching and learning music, which favors the passing down of short musical pieces and phrases rather than long compositions or multipart works (like symphonies). Those short elements form the basis for longer works created and embellished by the performer in the moment—grounding each performance in both the past and the present.
To hear an example of this, listen to this Kennedy Center Millennium Stage concert excerpt by Shashank Subramanyam, a young master of the South Indian bamboo flute. It starts with an improvisatory section by the flute and violin with no percussion. Listen to how the violin imitates the flute’s improvisation in this first section. As the percussion enters in the eight-count rhythm called adi tal
(AH-dee TAHL), the performers begin the pre-composed portion of the piece. Can you tell when the composed part is over and the musicians begin improvising again? Hint: Listen for the point at which the percussion recedes in volume and the melody instruments resume taking turns. Try It!
You and your students can explore improvisation with this simple activity: Find a partner and choose instruments (any simple melody instrument, your voice, or even your whistle). One partner leads by singing or playing a short phrase, which the second partner repeats in a similar (but not exact!) fashion. Try this for a few phrases, and then switch leaders. As follower, if you can’t remember what the leader did, make up something that ends on the same pitch. Does this exercise give you some creative ideas for further improvisation?