Indian Classical Music

The music of India is one of the oldest unbroken musical traditions in the world. The origins of classical music go back to Vedic times, when the sages, deep in meditation, would contemplate different sound vibrations and tonal patterns and the effects it has on our minds and bodies. In later times, temple priests would chant Vedic shlokas (verses) to certain ragas in the temples. In the present day, Indian Classical Music is a mature, rich art form that is analogous to Classical Music in the west. Artists are trained from a very young age and devote their lives to it, and there are many concerts and recitals given all over the world that gives music lovers the ability to experience deeply rich and spiritual music by some of the most talented musicians in the world.

The three main components of Indian Classical Music are:

  1. Drone – this is a pitch or combination of pitches that is played continuously throughout a musical piece (usually on an instrument called the Tanpura), which acts as a base or canvas for melodies to arise from, and return to.
  2. Rāga – this is the melodic part of this art form. The literal translation is “that which colors or leaves an impression” on the listener. The presentation of the notes of a Rāga create a mood based on the note’s intervals, which notes are emphasized, and the different phrases based on specific combinations of notes.
  3. Tāla – the rhythmic component, literation translation is “clap”. A tāla is a cycle of beats (the most common is 16 “teentaal”) with a stress point (Sam) and release point (Khali) which gives a structure yet still leaves ample room for play and improvisation.

There are two styles of Indian Classical Music. Hindustani is more from the north of India and is generally more focused on melody and improvisation, while Carnatic from the south is more focused on rhythm and is more structured.

There is both vocal and instrumental Indian Classical Music. Improvisation plays a big part – when this art form is performed, it is a living being that is created in the present moment by the artists. In instrumental music in the North Hindustani tradition in which I play, after the mood of the Rāga is established in a freeform introduction called “Alāp”, different compositions (“Gat”) are performed. The structure consists of fixed melody lines interspersed with improvisations, both melodic and rhythmic.

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