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Indian Classical Music

Have you always wanted to know more about Indian classical music? Here is an introduction to its basic concepts.

Many of us have, at some time or the other, been mesmerised by the magic of Indian classical music. The sheer grandeur of Ustad Vilayat Khan performing the Darbari raga, or the sublime beauty of Kishori Amonkar's rendition of Megh Malhar is enough to transport us into another world. And yet, for the uninitiated amongst us, Indian classical music also often comes across as esoteric and impregnable. Here is a basic introduction to this great art form.


Indian classical music is believed to have originated from the Vedas, the oldest of scriptures of Hinduism. It mainly evolved as an aid to self realisation and its original principles were expounded in the Samaveda, one of the four Vedas.

Difference between Indian and Western Classical Music

Over the years, Indian classical music has evolved into a complex musical system. It has some main points of difference from Western music. Western music is polyphonic, which means that it depends on the resonance of multiple musical notes occurring together. In contrast, Indian classical music is essentially monophonic. Here, a melody or sequence of individual notes is developed and improvised upon, against a repetitive rhythm.

Again, in Western classical music, a performer strictly abides by a written composition. In contrast, in Indian classical music it is common to have the performer improvise on the composition he is rendering, similar to the way a jazz musician does in the West.


Many of us often confuse Indian classical music with Hindustani classical music. In fact, Indian classical music can be divided into two distinct streams, Hindustani and Carnatic.


Hindustani classical music mainly evolved in North India around the 13th and 14th centuries A.D. It owed its development to the religious music, as well as popular and folk music, of the time. A very important aspect that differentiates it from Carnatic music is the deep Persian influence imparted by the Mughals to it.


Carnatic music, also known as Karnataka sangitam, developed in South India around the 15th and 16th centuries. It drew on existing popular forms of music and probably also retained the influence of ancient Tamil music. This can be seen in its use of the 'Pann', a melodic mode, which was earlier used in Tamil music.


As mentioned earlier, Indian classical music is mainly melodic rather than harmonic. It consists of a basic melodic line sung or played against complex pattern of rhythm. The melody is usually based on a raga, while the rhythm is called tala.


A raga is a series of five or more musical notes. Ragas (Sanskrit for colour or passion), are supposed to evoke various moods in the listener. In Hindustani music in particular, certain ragas are specific to different seasons or times of the day. The monsoon ragas, belonging to the Malhar group, are mainly performed during the rains, while morning ragas, such as Bibhas and Bhairavi, or night ragas, such as Kedar, Malkauns, or Naika Kanhra, are performed at specific times of the day.

The Hindustani and Carnatic systems usually have different ragas. There are some ragas which are similar but use different names in both systems. Others have similar names, but differ in the actual form. Also, Hindustani music classifies ragas into ten thaats or parent ragas, as organised by Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande in the early 1900s. The Carnatic system, on the other hand, depends on an older classification having 72 parent ragas. The melodic composition is sung or played, against a musical drone provided by the tanpura, a string instrument. The strings of the tanpura are played in a regular pattern based on the base or tonic note of the raga to provide a rich harmonic drone to the performance.


Tala or taal is literally a 'clap'. It roughly corresponds to the 'metre' in western music, but is different from it. The tala is the rhythm provided by the percussionist in the form of a cyclic pattern. Most talas can be played at various speeds. While some talas are very commonly employed, others are rarely used.


While the raga forms the basic melodic structure, the Hindustani or Carnatic music performer renders a composition based on the raga he is performing. The common forms of composition in Hindustani classical music are dhrupad, khayal, and thumri. Some of the other forms include dhamar, tarana, trivat, chaiti, kajari, and tappa.

Common forms of compositions used in Carnatic music include geetham, swarajati, varnam, taana varnam, pada varnam, padajati varnam, keerthana, kriti, padam, javali, thillana, and virutham.


Students and performers of Hindustani classical music belong to different gharanas or schools. Gharanas have their origins in different traditional musical styles. A gharana is usually begun by an exceptional musician whose students incorporate and popularise his innovative approach to interpretation or performance. Gwalior, Agra, Kirana, and Jaipur are some of the famous gharanas of Hindustani classical music.


Both, Hindustani and Carnatic music, include either vocal or instrumental performances. Instruments commonly used in Hindustani music include the sitar, sarod, bansuri, sarangi, violin, and shehnai. Instruments typically used in Carnatic music include the veena, gottuvadyam, or violin. Often, the main singer or player may be accompanied by a harmonium, sarangi, or violin. The most commonly used percussion instrument in Hindustani music is the tabla, though sometimes another type of drum called the pakhavaj is used. Mridangam, ghatam, kanjira, and morsing are the percussion instruments used in Carnatic music.

Do you enjoy Indian classical music? Are you familiar with the subtleties involved in appreciating this music? Can you recognise the major ragas? To share your views and experiences, click here.


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