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A critical assessment of the principal

features of
Indian Classical music
Josh Quinn

The music of India is as diverse as the number of languages and dialects that
exist there; officially recognised as sixteen by the Indian government but in
reality some 1,652. The modern and most widely recognised languages that are
mainly spoken today are English and Hindi mostly in the north, and a variety of








geographical divide also places a distinction between north and south Indian
classical music Hindustani music of the north, primarily influenced by the
Muslim invasions and cultural influences from travellers through historical trade
routes and; Carnatic music of the south, more preserved from foreign influence
and closely associated with Hinduism (Miller, Shahriari). The north is culturally
diverse with the coexistence of many religions due to its history of IndoEuropean invaders. This has given rise to a more secular society. Comparatively,
the south which saw less influence as a society draws little difference between
sacred and secular life (Miller, Shahriari). The most prominent place for western
ethnomusicological study of Indian music is Hindustani classical music and to a
lesser extent Karnatak classical music. This reflects the popularity that
Hindustani music has over Karnatak music in western societies such as Europe
and the USA (Miller, Shahriari).

The purpose of this essay is to assess the

principal features of Indian classical music. Such is the diversity of cultures in

India and thusly, the complexities of the Indian classical music systems, we must

discuss these elements broadly to achieve a level of overall understanding. To

critically evaluate this musical system we will examine the musical organisation
and instrumentation of the music types. First, we will assess Hindustani music
and its instrumentation and ensemble arrangement, outlining the melodic and
rhythmic structure, and examine the role of improvisation. We will also briefly
analyse the Karnatak music of southern India and draw comparisons to the
northern music. Here we will expand on the principal differences from the two.
Both Hindustani and Carnatic music emerged from the same principal features of
an ancient musical system. By the 16 th century however, a cultural separation
occurred between north and south due to political divisions emerging from the
conquest of the Muslims in the north. Both types, although related and
originating from the same systems and ancient traditions, then began to evolve
according to their distinguished cultures (Wade).
In Ravi Shankars My Music, My Life, Shankar describes guru-shishyaparamparathe continuity of tradition through master to disciple as the
ancient system of learning which begins at a young age for Indian classical
musicians. He summaries the importance of this system to three factors; the
guru the master who can teach a vishya, or student; vinaya the quality of
utmost humility a vishya must have toward his guru in order to draw meaningful
insight from his teachings and; sadhana the strict discipline one must have
toward their instrument and guru in order to eventually gain self-actualization
(Shankar). This system of learning and four thousand year old musical history
has been passed on orally and is part of a wider art of vocal music, instrumental
music and dance that is said to have been passed on by Hindu gods (Shankar).
Indian classical music is tied intrinsically to spirituality. As Shankar says, We
view music as a kind of spiritual discipline that raises ones inner being to divine
peacefulness and bliss., and that The highest aim of our music is to reveal the

essence of the universe it reflects, and the ragas are among the means by which
this essence can be apprehended. This indicates the extra spiritual importance
that Indian classical music holds.
It is also a highly virtuosic performance art, the main focus usually on one
musician but sometimes two, performing within a strict improvisatory structure
accompanied by a rhythmic instrument, a melodic instrument and an instrument
that provides a drone (Wade). The instrumentation for the north and south
divides vary slightly, but are related. The two main solo instruments in
Hindustani music are the sitar and sarod two lute like chordophone instruments.
The sitar is the most popular solo instrument in Hindustani classical music. It has
seven strings which are plucked while the right hand touches the strings, and it
also has sympathetic strings giving it a rich tonal quality (Shankar). Some sitars
may have up to two extra hollow gourds giving it a different tonal quality. The
sarod is said to have developed from the Afghani rabab and is small in size but
allows for intricate variations in timbre and texture. It has seven strings with
sixteen sympathetic strings (Shankar). These solo instruments are usually
accompanied by a sarangi, a bowed four string lute type of instrument with
sympathetic strings (Wade). Unlike western art music, Indian classical music did
not develop in the same harmonic way but rather deeply developed the melodic
line to have many intricacies which we will also examine. The purpose of the
sarangi is melodic support as opposed to harmonic support. A Hindustani
ensemble will always have a rhythmic instrument, usually the tabla which can
also be a solo instrument. This instrument spans an octave and consists of two
drums, the tabla right-hand drum and the banya left hand bass drum. Lastly, a
drone is always present in Indian classical music and provided on the tampuri in
the Hindustani tradition. The drone is played throughout the piece and provides a

structural base around the root note of the raga (Shankar). This root note keeps
the listener and musicians grounded to the tonal centre of the particular raga.
Indian music is based on the development of melody that has and infinite
variety of subtleties that are completely unknown in Western music (Shankar).
This is a major difference between Indian classical music and western art music.
Raga is the all-encompassing term for a melodic structure with musical and
extra-musical components and is the most important element of Indian music
both north and south (Wade). These are the frameworks and tonal material
through which a musician will improvise (Miller and Shahriari). Ragas, although a
framework for improvisation are very stable and have strict instructions which
define and individualise them. The term raga means colour or atmosphere
(Miller and Shahriari). There are many ragas and they are associated with certain
moods and feelings which are set by the Indian theory of aesthetics known as
rasa (Wade). Ragas are also associated with seasons and times of day and
historically were to be played in accordance with these associations (Miller and
Shahriari). This means that a raga will evoke particular feelings, thoughts and
ideas within both the listener and performer that are revealed by both the
musical and extra-musical elements of it.
A raga will have a fixed set of ascending pitches and a fixed set of descending
pitches which are correspondingly called aroha and avroha. These pitches are
named in accordance to the Indian equivalent of the western solfge system
called sargam (Wade). A raga will have a pitch hierarchy like a western scale,
although unlike the western tempered scale, there is no fixed pattern of intervals
from one raga to the next.
Each raga will have a distinct melodic shape. Wade, outlines two ways this
happens the first being the difference of notes between ascending and

descending pitches and pakads; one or more notes that form small musical
phrases that outline the raga (Wade). Each raga can also be manipulated
through the use of ornamentations called

gamaks which are open to

interpretation within a raga by the performer but may also be dictated by

tradition (Wade). These gamaks may be the adding of slurs, vibrato or grace
notes. In the case of grace notes, the overall availability of pitches, depending on
the ragas set pitches, is in the region of twenty two spanning three octaves
(Shankar). This availability of such a vast array of tonal colour is due to structure
of Indian instruments and the use of quarter-tones.
The tonal centre is vital to the performance of the raga and is defined by the
vadi the most important pitch, and samvadi the second most important pitch.
These pitches will be an interval of a fifth from each other. Usually the sargam
notes sa and pa, respectively, will comprise these hierarchal structural points of
a raga but this depends on the raga being played. These structural points are
repeated throughout the raga by the drone instrument, commonly the tampuri
The Indian metrical system is based on a cyclical framework called tala. This
system is organised into subdivisions of beats but does not always adhere to
equal subdivisions. The metric beats are called matras and can be anywhere
from 3 to over 100 in a given tala but generally the most common are from 7 to
16 matras (Miller, Shahriari). The rhythmic framework of each tala has fixed
structural points marking the subdivisions of matras. It is vitally important for
each musician in an ensemble to know where they are in the tala and is up to
each performer to know this. Audience members may also signal the metrical
count in a process of gestures which point to the structural points called tali emphasized by a clap gesture, and khali - emphasized by wave gesture (Wade)

(Miller & Shahriari). The tala is the framework through which melody and rhythm
are grounded. These expansive cyclical frameworks are expressed with much
rhythmic intricacies on the tabla.
The tabla student will learn intricate rhythmic patterns through a phonological
system called theka. This is the entire cycle of a tala, made up of different bols the phonetic words which match the drum strokes on a tabla. A drummer in the
Indian classical tradition will learn this phonetic language from an early age to
develop deep intricacies of the rhythm in a tala (Miller, Shahriari). The
instrument is also played with a variety of textures and timbres and can follow
the melodic phrasing of the raga as well as playing a supporting rhythmic role
(Shankar). The tabla may also have a solo role within an ensemble (Wade) and
may correspond as dual soloist with a solo melodic instrument.
The role of improvisation of the raga and tala is the most distinguishing element
of Hindustani classical music. Pieces can last anywhere from minutes to hours
depending on the soloists intention and their assessment of the audience (Miller,
Shahriari). Although this improvisation is intrinsic to the music, the musicians
must not deviate from the rules and structures of the raga they are improvising,
as this would mean aberration of the raga and therefore an interruption of the
prescribed musical and extra-musical meanings of the raga (Shankar).
Just as the raga has prescribed elements, the complete performance of ragas
have a prescribed framework or genre. The genres differ depending if it is a vocal
or instrumental performance. One such framework for instrumental music is alap
jor jhala gat. The opening section, alap, is an improvisatory exploration of
the mood and characteristics of the raga. It is in a free rhythm and moves from
midrange, to low, back up through mid to high and creates relaxation and
tension in the music. The jor section is recognised when the rhythm becomes

steadier and melodic phrases are used to create cadential phrases and brings us
to the jhala the section orientated around speed and rhythm and can be defined
by alternation of drone strings and melodic pitches (Wade). As the climax
approaches with this speed and rhythm, the drummer will enter announcing the
entrance to the gat. This section is a skeletal pre-composed framework that is
highly rhythmical and is performed both in slow gat and fast gat (Miller &
Shahriari) (Wade). These sections while prescribed are filled with improvisation
of the soloist who becomes both the performer and the composer in the same
Karnatak music while containing many of the elements mentioned above, and
evolving from the same ancient system, has some elements which differentiate it
with Hindustani music. Karnatak music is based more upon the voice and fixed
compositions. The most prominent form of song type is kriti, a devotional Hindu
prayer song. The ragas used are of the same principal only the possibilities of
pitch combinations and prescribed ornamentation way outnumber the raga
possibilities in Hindustani music. The pitch ascent and descent may become
crooked and follow a contour that ascends, descends and then ascends again.
The ornaments in song are also generally codified initially and unlike Hindustani
music, improvisation of the raga is not the primary attribute of the music. The
composition is performed as it was written and then improvisations of this will
take place (Miller & Shahriari). The instrumentation is also different. The violin is
used in songs to mimic the vocal line and the drum used mostly is quite different
from the tabla; it is called a mridangam, a double headed drum that sits
sideways across the knee of the performer. This drum enters very early in
Karnatak compositions compared to Hindustani music. The tala system is
generally the same although the number possible cycles in Karnatak music is
much greater much like the raga combinations.

The differences and similarities of both Hindustani music and Karnatak music are
extensive and it is easy to understate this in a brief survey. Our brief dissection
of the two styles, however, does show how expansive and complex each system
is and while elements are both shared, some definite differences such as the
improvisatory role of Hindustani and the codified sacred songs of Karnatak music
still exist. These traditions are hundreds and thousands of years old and implore
a level of deep exploration we are unable to define in a short essay.

Wade, Bonnie C. Some Principles of Indian Classical Music. In: Elizebeth May
Musics of Many Cultures. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. P83-110.
Miller, Terry E. E, and Andrew Shahriari. World Music. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis,
2012. Print.
Shankar, Ravi. My Music, My Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968. Print.