Introduction to Indian Classical Music

Nada Brahma …. (Nada = sound, Brahma = creation), the ancient rishis (seers) perceived that the whole universe was created from sound and vibration… Om… this is the origin of indian classical music.

Indian Classical Music is generally sattvik in nature and thus is well adapted for meditation & healing.

2 Main Principles of Indian Classical Music

1. Rāga (राग) – melody.  Literal translation: That which colours or leaves an impression

2. Tāla (ताल) – rhythm (literal translation – clap)

Indian classical music differs from western music, which has an emphasis on chords and harmony.

The “First” Rāga – 3 notes – chanted vedic shlokas (verses) … example: Loka Samasta Sukhino Bhavantu

2 Distinct Styles

1. Hindustani – North Indian, influenced by Persian and Moghul (muslim), Rāgas more abstract.

2. Carnatic – South Indian.  Generally more rhythmic and ensemble based.  No time theory, ragas can be played at any time.

Note – they have the same original and there is a lot of crossover between the two.  The rest of this article is predominately for Hindustani but some would apply to Carnatic.

Guru-Shishya Parampara – one on one teaching between teacher/student, how music is handed down and is required for a student to learn the nuances of a Rāga.  Typically no written notation.

Gharana – lineage

Shruti – microtone.  There are 22 in each octave.


– means Note, literal translation “sva” = the Self + “ra” = acquiring.  Thus, acquiring of the higher Self, the potential for personality transformation.  (think of the yama Svādhyāya – self-study)

– Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Da, Ni, Sa   (similar to do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do in western music)

– Sa is the root/tonic note.  Sa can be any western note (C, D, E, Ab, etc.), thus the other svaras are relative to Sa

– Komal – flat note – only Re, Ga, Da, and Ni have flat notes

– tivra – sharp – only Ma has a sharp note

– shuddha – natural (Pa and Sa have no sharp or flats, so they don’t really have a shuddha)

1. Sa2. Komal3. (Shuddha) Re4. Komal Ga5. (Shuddha) Ga6. (Shuddha) Ma7. Tivra Ma8. Pa9. Komal Da10. (Shuddha) Da11. Komal Ni12. (Shuddha) NiSa

Swara Western Note (in scale of C) Western Note (in scale of C) Ratio
1. Sa C unison 1/1
2. Komal Re Db Minor 2nd 256/243
3. (Shuddha) Re D Major 2nd 9/8
4. Komal Ga Eb Minor 3rd 32/27
  5. (Shuddha) Ga E Major 3rd 5/4
  6. (Shuddha) Ma F Perfect 4th 4/3
  7. Tivra Ma F# Augmented 4th 45/32
  8. Pa G Perfect 5th 3/2
  9. Komal Da Ab Minor 6th 128/82
  10. (Shuddha) Da A Major 6th 5/3
  11. Komal Ni Bb Minor 7th 16/9
12. (Shuddha) Ni B Major 7th 15/8
 Sa C octave 2/1

– So there 12 different svaras (notes) – although there are 22 shruti’s (micro-tones) – so, a few svaras (notes) can have several shrutis (eg, Ga has 2), so a Rāga’s mood can be further expressed with using a different shruti (microtone) of a svara (note)

Sa is the root or tonic note.  The tambora is the drone instrument which mostly consists of this note.  A spiritual metaphor is that sa is the unmanifest (parusha), and the other notes of the raga is the manifest (pakriti), and then we return back to the sa (unmanifest, parusha).

Thaat – mother scales, 10 in all, categorization by musicologist Bhatkande in early 19th century. Each Rāga has a Thaat, although not really accurate 🙂

Characteristics of a Rāga

– not just a scale, a Rāga is a mood that is created by the performer(s)

– contains at least 5 out of the 7 Svaras (notes)

– can have different notes that are played ascending (aroha) and descending (avaroha)

– pakad – catch phrase, can have several

– vadi and samvadi – most important and 2nd most important note in the Rāga

– rasa – mood or sentiment – this is for all indian arts including dance.  Classically, there are 9:

  1. Shringaara – This depicts the sentiment of romance, love, and sensuality emotions.
  2. Raudra – Anger, rage, and other violent wrathful emotions.
  3. Hasya – Mirth, joyful, comic, and happy emotions.
  4. Vibhatsaya – Disgust and ludicrous emotions.
  5. Veera – Valour, bravery, heroism, and manliness
  6. Karuna – pathos, sadness, compassion, sympathy.
  7. Bhayanak – Fear, anxiety, and uncertainty.
  8. Adabhuta– Wonder and curiosity, surprise
  9. Shanta – Contemplative, meditative and peaceful emotions

– Two Rāgas can have same svaras (notes), but because of other characteristics, they are different and have different mood and can be completely different

– Ragas are a living creation!   A rendering is improvisation and every artists performs in his or her own way.  Of course one must follow the characteristics of a raga, otherwise, one is not playing that raga.  Because a raga is being created in the present moment, we are brought into the present moment = meditation.

Samay – Time Theory

– Rāgas for different parts of day.  Typically into 3 hour cycles:

  • Early morning 6am – 9am (Rāga Bhairava)
  • Late Morning 9am – noon (Rāga Bilaskhani Todi, Rāga Todi)
  • Early afternoon noon – 3pm (Rāga Shuddh Sarang)
  • Late Afternoon, 3pm – 6pm (Rāga Madhuwanti, Rāga Bhimpalasi)
  • Sunset (Rāga Shree, Rāga Poorvi)
  • Early evening (6pm – 9pm) (Rāga Yaman, Rāga Bhoopali)
  • Late Evening (9pm – midnight) (Rāga Durga, Rāga Bagashri, Chandrakauns)
  • Midnight Rāga (Rāga Malkauns)
  • Very late night, midnight – 3am (Rāga Sohini)
  • Last part of night/pre-dawn, 3am-6am (Rāga Lalit)
  • anytime (common south indian ragas) Charukeshi, Kirwani

In summary – morning ragas are more inward and for meditation.  Afternoon are more relaxing.  Evening ragas are more joyous and celebratory (think performances).  Very late night and midnight ragas are sorrowful.

– Some ragas for the different seasons:

  • Monsoon, rainy season – Mian Ki Malhar and other Malhar ragaas
  • Autumn – Raga Basant
  • Raga Bahar

– Ragas named after gods and goddesses, for example:

  • Raga Bhairava – aspect of Shiva, morning raga, for meditation
  • Raga Durga – goddess


– rhythmic cycles

– Most common Tālas (Note: tāla can also be written taal) :

  • Teentaal – 16 beats
  • Jhaptaal – 10 beats
  • Ektaal – 12 beats
  • Rupak taal – 7 beats

Instruments and most famous artists who play those instruments

  • Tambora – instrument that provides drone in background, 4-5 strings (what Teera is playing)
  • Tabla – percussion instrument, Zakir Hussain
  • Harmonium – accompanies vocalist
  • Vocal – Bhimsen Joshi, Kishori Amonkar, Pandit Jasraj, Amir Khan, C.R. Vyas
  • Veena – means “stringed instrument”, very old instrument not really played anymore, precursor to sitar
  • Sitar – stringed instrument, Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, Nikhil Banerjee
  • Sarod – **Allauddin Khan Saheb (teacher of Ravi Shankar and Ali Alkbar Khan), Ali Akbar Khan, Amjad Ali Khan
  • Santoor – 100 stringed instrument, Shivkumar Sharma, Satish Vyas, Tarun Bhattacharya
  • Bansuri Flute – Hariprasad Chaurasia, G.S. Sachdev
  • Chennai (Indian Clarinet) – Bismillah Khan
  • Sarangi – Sultan Khan
  • Violin (Carnatic, South Indian Music) – L. Subramaniam, Kala Ramnath



– Typically performers consist of

– 1) main instrument (such as sitar, sarod, santoor, bansuri flute)

– 2) tamboura (drone instrument)

– 3) tabla (percussion instrument)

–  Alaap (अलाप)

– First part of the performance, roughly takes about 25-30 minutes.

– instrumentalist + tambora.

– melodic improvisation, The notes of Rāga unveiled one at a time, sets the mood of Rāga.  Literal translation is “to converse”

– (This is what I will perform in this presentation.)

– Consists of three parts:

–  Alap – totally freeform without any rhythm,

– Jod or Jor (जोर) (slow rhythm),

– Jhala (Fast/Climatic Rhythm)

– Gats (गति)

– Gat mean composition.

– This is roughly 45-60 minutes

– Tabla player joins, and the melodic improvisation extends to rhythmic improv.

– Typically will play 2-3 compositions, one in slow tempo (Vilambit Laya), medium tempo (Madhya Laya), and one in fast tempo (Drut Laya)

– Ends in a climax (Jhala)

Vocal Music

a little different than instrumental music

– typically does not have alaap, starts with slow tempo gat (except for Drupad style)

– typical performers would be:

– main vocalist

– 2 big tamboras with players

– backup singers (usually the tambora players)

– harmonium (accompanies vocalist, does not play chords)

–  tabla for rhythm

– lyrics are typically devotional in nature

Thus, a typical Indian Classical Music performance, one Rāga is played for 1-1.5 hours – so it can definitely leave an impression !  Then, usually a short break, and then a whole other Rāga, or, perhaps for a shorter concert, a smaller piece, called Light Classical or Dhun (folk song)



– Online radio stations – can go to pandora – either online or iPhone app – can make a station with any of the artists mentioned in the instrument section…

– Also, or iTunes store, can look up any of the artists mentioned above