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Background Information

India is the second most populous country on earth (after China) with a population of 1.3 billion. It is the world’s largest democracy, the seventh largest in land size (about one-third size of the United States), and the sixth largest economy. The official language is Hindi, but English is commonly used in business.


The country is divided into twenty-nine states and seven territories. Some land along its borders is held by India but claimed by Pakistan or China. 


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The earliest writings of the Hindu religion date from about four thousand years ago including epic classic literature such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita. Each contain ancient stories that give sacred teachings and life lessons that are pertinent today. In the mid-eighteenth century, it came under the control and colonization of the British Empire.


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India gained independence from Great Britain in 1947 through nonviolent protests led by Mahatma Gandhi.


The currency is the Indian Rupee and there are currently about 68 rupees to the US dollar. As noted earlier, the culture spans more than four thousand years. It is home to several major religions including Hinduism and Buddhism.


Socially, India has a history of the caste system—hereditary (involuntary) classes of Hindu society, distinguished by degrees of ritual purity (or impurity). The caste system began more than two thousand years ago and is still intact today, but the rules are not as rigid as they were in the past, nor is the caste system legal. Castes consist of social classes that largely differentiate groups according to profession, economics, background and color. Traditionally, the highest class consisted of priests the lowest class of untouchables, with castes that consist of rulers and warriors, as well as tradesman and farmers. If interested, here’s a brief article:


Jati: The Caste System in India 


Discrimination based on caste is legally forbidden, though practiced, more so in rural areas. Modern society is slowly easing away from this system, with legislation similar to our affirmative action (positive discrimination). Intercaste marriages are on the rise and it is more and more possible for people from lowest castes to attain good paying positions. How are social classes divided in your own country of origin and in the United States? For example, is it likely that you may date one of the President’s children or hang out with the quarter-back of a successful football team?


One of the most beautiful feats in architecture is the iconic Taj Mahal. It has a fascinating and somewhat disturbing story behind its commission. Find out more about the Taj Mahal and the reasons it was built here:


The Real Reason The Taj Mahal Was Built


India’s most acclaimed “international” musician, Ravi Shankar, passed away December 11, 2012 and remains an important recorded and YouTube artist.




Hindustani Music in the North/Carnatic Music in the South

India has two main regions or styles: divided into Carnatic music that is prevalent in the south and Hindustani music that is popular in the north. Both styles incorporate similar scales and distinctive sounds of the sitar and tabla instruments. This makes the timbres similar, but upon closer listening and as you learn more details about the music, you may start to hear interesting differences between the two.


Both regions have vocal music as well as instrumental music. But for the purposes of this course, most of the musical examples of the north (Hindustani) will be instrumental. I am using mostly vocal musical examples when talking about Carnatic music, the regional style of the south.


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If you remember from Chapters 1 and 2, music can be made up of many elements. Primary among these elements is melody, harmony, rhythm, expression and timbre (sound color of instruments and voices).


Both regional styles of India have complex rules concerning melody and rhythm. Harmony is of much less importance here. Both styles make use of a characteristic “drone” sound. In music drone is defined as a sustained, unchanging note or pitch. It may be interesting to note that if you look up the definition, it is also a male bee and it is the name for unmanned aircraft. Classical Music from India takes a very long time to learn and students often live with their gurus (teachers) for many years before they are permitted to perform in public. It is a very complex music to understand in which you will need to learn several technical terms. There are several explanations below – hang in there!


Carnatic style tends to be more “composed” music, whereas in a performance of Hindustani music, a great percentage of the music is improvised—composed as it is being played. Like composition, improvisation is based on musical rules that apply to the specific style in which one is playing. For example, when Jimi Hendrix improvised or made-up music on the spot, it sounded very different than a famous blues musician like Robert Johnson.



Regular Beat and Meter versus Free Rhythm

Most Western music nearly always has a regular beat. It may be fast, it may be slow, or it may vary, but it is usually steady and clear. This is not the case with all musics of the world. Some of our examples will feature music with free rhythm while others will feature talas, a complex system of rhythmic patterns that will be explained later.


Remember from the musical terms defined in the early chapters of this text: rhythm is the use of long and short sounds and silences that propels the music from beginning to end. Free rhythm propels the music from one point to another, but it does this with no clear beat or rhythmic pattern. (One way of demonstrating this is that you cannot tap your foot in a steady pattern that matches free rhythm. It is “outside” of the rules of a steady where rhythms may stretch.)


American music is nearly always in rhythmic patterns of two or three (or multiples of two and three). Many world musics are in free rhythm OR other groupings that can feel unfamiliar or awkward to us. Rhythms in India consist of complex cycles with specific beats that can stretch or speed up depending on how the ensemble improvises or how the music builds.



Instrumental Music

Follow the link below to a performance by Pandit Kartik Seshadri, a sitar player brought to Naples by the local Indian Cultures association a few years ago. The term “Pandit” comes before some names we will see in our musical research. It designates a Hindu scholar and/or philosopher and sometimes a practicing priest. 


The lead melodic instrument is the sitar. The small, double hand drum is a tabla (tahb’-lah). You will also see an instrument resting on the lap of a third player. It is a tambura that produces the shimmering drone string sounds. 


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This example is NOT free rhythm. HINT: When the tabla accompanies the sitar, they must share an understanding of beat and meter to be able to match one another. In fact, in most cases, free rhythm involves a single player.


Kartik Seshadri and Yogesh Samsi – Sawai Gandharva Festival, December 2011 (1 of 2)



Hindustani Classical Music is performed by master musicians or virtuosi. A virtuoso is a highly skilled musician. Can you think of any Western classical virtuosi? The training for such master musicians is similar to that of early Western Classical musicians where a musician would start learning his or her instrument as a child and would live near their teacher. In India, if a parent noticed that their child had musical talent, they would be sent to live with a musician (often a member of their family) to not only take lessons everyday, but also to learn the literature, customs and culture. In exchange, they would do such things as household chores and babysitting. Students from other countries might be accepted into the household of a well-known musician and teacher and move to India to do the same thing. These days, many foreign students start with learning via online video lessons. When the master teacher or guru thought the student was ready to become part of the professional world, they would arrange a debut performance that introduced the “student” to the world with their blessing and support. Teachers and students become part of an historical lineage that is known to those who listen to Indian classical music




The sitar is a chordophone, a plucked stringed instrument in the lute family, with a long, broad, fretted neck and large gourd (calabash) body. The sitar is a plucked lute. It is predominantly used in Indian classical music. It derives its resonance from sympathetic strings, a long hollow neck and a gourd resonating chamber. The sitar has 6 or 7 playing strings on which the musician presses down and slides his fingers to change pitches and 12 to 14 sympathetic strings that are located below. These sympathetic strings vibrate without ever touching them, creating fundamental tones and shimmery harmonics.


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Watch the speed with which Ravi Shankar improvises on the sitar.


What is a sitar?


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Used widely throughout the Indian subcontinent, the sitar became known in the Western world through the work of Ravi Shankar beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s.




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Tabla consists of a set of membranophones—drums. It is a pair of small barrel drums that in addition to playing rhythm can play different pitches to create melodies!


The tabla is a popular Indian membranophone used in Hindustani classical music and in popular and devotional music of the Indian subcontinent. The instrument consists of a pair of hand drums of contrasting sizes and timbres. The term “tabla” is derived from an Arabic word, tabl, which simply means “drum.” The playing technique involves extensive use of the fingers and palms in various configurations to create a wide variety of different sounds. Check out the most famous tabla player of all time who explains Tabla and Tala in a very fun way and gives examples of popular Western melodies that you may recognize.


Ustad Zakir Hussain Tabla duet





The tambura looks similar to a sitar. But it has no frets and it only plays the drone. The tambura plays a background fundamental tone with open strings. The player does not use their fingers to change any notes. It has four or five wire strings that are strummed one after another in a regular pattern to create a harmonic resonance on the basic note. Today an electronic tambura is often substituted in contemporary Indian classical music performance. The timbre of the tambura is sometimes described as aural incense as it provides a shimmery background that one often recognizes as an Indian sound.




An additional instrument is common to Indian music. The harmonium is a keyed aerophone, a small, portable organ-type keyboard instrument.


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Harmoniums consist of banks of brass reeds (metal tongues that vibrate when air flows over them), a pumping apparatus, stops for drones, and a keyboard. The player pumps the organ bellows with one hand and plays the keys with the other. During the mid-nineteenth century, missionaries brought French-made, hand-pumped harmoniums to India. The instrument quickly became popular because it is portable, reliable and easy to learn. It has remained popular to the present day and the harmonium remains an important instrument in many genres of Indian music.


Harmonium solo




Animation of hand drum

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DESTINATION #1: Hindustani Instrumental Music

Let’s begin with a video lecture about how to understand Hindustani music. The performer is giving a demonstration of the sitar as he explains the set of pitches used in the melody (raga) and the importance of improvisation. While the Western tuning system has twelve pitches, the Indian system is usually said to have twenty-two pitches before reaching the octave. Some notes fall “between” the keys of a piano, i.e. microtones and semitones or halftones. Both Indian and Western scales have eight notes that dominate the scale. I recommend listening to the first few minutes at least two times in a row. As you listen, note that a fundamental drone is almost continuously played as he talks. The young sitar performer explains Indian music in ways that are relatively easy to understand. As we learn more concepts, we will refer back to this video in order to understand them more.


Understanding the Basics of Indian Raga Music


The style of improvisation found in Indian music is based on very specific rules that I like to refer to as a “composition kit.” Within this kit are various musical and non-musical elements that one learns over the course of their lifetime. Since Indian music is one of the more complicated musical systems, I will introduce only a few of the basic elements.



Indian Classical Music “Composition Kit”

RAGA – a complex melodic system that consists of everything having to do with.


· a set of pitches organized in an ascending and descending scale

· framework of pitches that tells the performers how to approach and leave notes, for example: how you might slide up to one note and slide down to another

· degrees of importance of specific notes in the scale

· what other ragas are related that you may shift to as you improvise to a new section of the piece

· ornamentation and melodic patterns

· named after historical events, towns, deities, spices, scientific inventions

· associated with different days, time of day, seasons of the year

· express different moods, ideas and philosophies

· thousands of ragas


Some scholars have described the raga as just a scale or mode, but as you can see they supply so much more information which is why I prefer to put it within the classical Indian music composition kit. In terms of pitch, to someone schooled in Indian music, Western classical and popular music all seems to be in the same raga! The meaning is that Western music is nearly always in a major key (associated with a happy mood), sometimes in a minor key (associated sad or mysterious) and almost never in anything different.


TALA – a complex rhythmic system that consists of everything having to do with rhythm.


· a rhythmic cycle that repeats with accented and non-accented notes

· similar to the concept of meter or group of beats

· contains specific sub-divisions of beats within one long cycle, such as a cycle of 103 beats divided into 9’s and 2’s.

· some tala consist of uneven beats such as 10 + an 1/8 cycle that repeats

· the most common tala is called

· over 122 tala

· usually a strong emphasis on the first beat that all of the musicians land on together

· tala may stretch during improvisation and musicians listen carefully to the tabla in relationship to his rhythm


A short story: I once heard a tala that was in 103 and as I watched the musicians, they landed together on the first beat, before continuing the cycle again! I had a first-hand experience with tala when I was honored to play with Karsh Kale, a well-known contemporary tabla and electronic tabla player who I will introduce later. He taught me a 15-beat tala and its raga (melody) and played it in units of 3, while the hand drummer that was playing with us had a totally different cycle. With their rhythmic sounds and body expression they showed me when the one came back so that we could all meet on that strong beat together. Being classically trained in western music and very new at Indian classical music, I had to write down my 15-beat melody in in order to keep track. I was unable to learn it quickly through oral transmission. In Western music, we are used to rhythmic cycles or what we call meters that are in groups of 2’s and 3’s with our most common meter being a group of 4, not usually 5’s or 10’s or 103.


Raga refers to anything that is melodic and Tala refers to whatever is rhythmic.



· mood and emotions, or story contained within the raga

· may be associated with feelings of romance, heroism, anger, religion, tradition, humor



· Indian musical scales or modes consist of eight main pitches with a total of twenty-two sruti (potential pitches) to draw from. The additional pitches may be used to ornament eight chief tones.



Structure in Hindustani Music

It is common for traditional Hindustani instrumental pieces to have two sections. The first section, alap, is an introductory section that explores and presents the pitches that make up the raga selected for that particular piece. It is without rhythmic accompaniment and is an example of free rhythm.


Please go back to the last video “Understanding the Basics of Indian Raga”, where you will hear the alap being played between 5:20-6:20. There is no set beat in this section as he plays just two pitches … then a third … a fourth … and so on. Listen for the free rhythm.


In the same video listen from 12:40-15:20 for the second section is called the gat-tora. It is played to a rhythmic beat provided by the tabla. The “gat” is a composed section and the “tora” is improvisation based on the gat. This is the section where it is possible to tap your foot and match the beat of the players.




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A well-known piece for sitar and tabla uses a raga called Yaman. Yaman is meant to express the ultimate humility, shaking off ego and arrogance where one may completely surrender one’s soul by becoming immersed in its melodies. The tala called Tintal is a 16 beat cycle counted and clapped in groups of four. Audience members often know the more well-known tala and keep the time through claps, finger taps and hand waves during the performance.


Below find the names of the beats along with the corresponding hands gesture. 


clap, 2, 3, 4, clap, 2, 3, 4, wave, 2, 3, 4, clap, 2, 3, 4 


DHA     DHIN   DHIN   DHA/    DHA     DHIN   DHIN   DHA/

Clap                  tap                    tap                    tap/                   clap                  tap                    tap                    tap/


DHA     TIN                  TIN                  NAA/    NAA     DHIN   DHIN   DHAA

Wave    tap                    tap                    tap/                   Clap                  tap                    tap                    tap ://


Tabla players lead the rhythmic cycle and will stretch the beat to allow for improvisation while emphasizing the first beat so everyone in the ensemble may be together on that beat.


Western Jazz musicians and Hindustani musicians have been fascinated by each other’s different styles of improvisation, collaborating and exchanging complex rhythmic and melodic improvisation on many recordings and live performances. This fusion has become popular in contemporary Indian ensembles.


Follow along with the students with hand gestures (noted above) in this next video. Also listen for:

1. alap – slow melodic free rhythm

2. gat – added rhythm

3. When does the fast improvised section occur?

4. What instruments and timbres do you hear?


Raga Yaman in Tintal



Invitation to a Cultural Side Trip

Much of the traditional music and dance of India involves stories familiar to the audience. These might frequently be stories from epic poems of India.


Please read Appendix 4: A Ramayana Story. This version is a reconstruction (rewriting the story from memory and notes after seeing it) of a story narrated to a small group of music graduate students by teacher and performer from Java, Indonesia. It is a short, entertaining read that is relevant to both India and Indonesia. 



A Summary of Terminology

This is a complex chapter. Let’s review some musical terms that are important to Indian music and help define some more.

· Raga—pertaining to melody. This impacts the scale or set of notes in the piece, and the relationship or hierarchy of values given to the pitches. Remember the concept of composition or improvisation kit – that supplies much more than just pitch, but also the framework for composition and improvisation, ornamentation, melodic phrases, and form?

· Tala—pertaining to rhythm (the meter and tempo of the music). This impacts the sounds as they pass though time. There are rules about rhythms that are somewhat parallel to the rules about scales and melody that the performers must keep in mind.

· Rasa—pertaining to emotion (the emotional state or other information associated with a selection. For example, the music may involve feelings of romance, heroism, anger, religion, tradition, humor, etc.)

· Sruti—Whereas our Western music has twelve pitches in an octave, seven of which are used in most of our scales, Indian music has twenty-two sruti (potential pitches) to draw from. For all practical purposes, these twenty-two potential pitches are used in a way that matches our Western scale. The additional pitches may be used to ornament the chief ones.


DESTINATION #2 Vocal Music – Kriti and Hindustanti Ghazal

North and South: Hindustani and Carnatic Systems and Vocal Music

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Once more: Hindustani is the music of North India and Carnatic (or Karnatak) is that of South India. During the thirteenth century, northern India was greatly influenced by Persian and Turkish culture and Islamic religion. Some of this was accepted in the south, but they also retained much of their old heritage. This division has endured more than seven hundred years.



Learning to Sing

The use of vocal syllables is common in Indian music. Svarakalpana (or svara or swara) is similar to western solfege which you may recognize in your own musical studies. It is common for vocal pieces to use what is called sargam syllables rather than words. They are: Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, and Ni. Collectively these notes are known as the sargam (the word is an acronym of the consonants of the first four swaras – sa,ri,ga,ma).


Western Solfege:









Indian Sargam:










As mentioned earlier, there are specific rules as to how you approach and leave a pitch through ornamentation or sliding that incorporate microtones.




Kriti is the major song type in traditional Carnatic vocal music. In the link below, listen as the singer and the violin player imitate one another’s segments of the melody.


Earlier in this chapter, I mentioned that it is not common to have free rhythm when there is more than one player. This is because musicians need to “time” their music to match one another. This is an exception. The singer and violin player are responding to one another. So they can still do this “outside of time,” meaning it is still in free rhythm.


Bantureethi Kolu




In the image, here, you see Saraswati, the goddess of all knowledge playing a veena with four hands! 



Heterophonic Texture

Melody is much more esteemed than harmony in this culture. Sometimes several people and instruments perform the same melody at about the same time, using their own individual qualities and expression.


When music is heterophonic, we hear multiple combinations of instruments and/or voices performing the same melody, but not doing exactly the same thing. Musicians may add ornaments or emphasize parts of the melody differently.


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For example, think of all of us reciting a dramatic poem at the same time. We will not be precisely together. If we were to sing it “from the heart,” we would have much more variety. Some would sing some notes longer, some shorter; some louder, some softer; some husky, some mellow; some “swooping” and some not. Now, imagine that going on between different instruments and voices.




Another important style of music from Northern India is the ghazalGhazal is both a form of poetry and the style of song set to that poetry. It originated in seventh century Arabia and traveled through the Persian/Arabic Muslim culture. It is commonly found in Northern India and Pakistan and sung in the Urdu language. The topics of most of the poems is usually about the many facets of love—happy, melancholy or sad.


What better image of the concept of love can there be than the Taj Mahal, built as the mausoleum of a loved wife in the early 1600s.


This poetic form is simple and rather short—five to fifteen couplets, all of the same length. Since each line of the poem is the same length with the same number of syllables, it is easy to set to a melody. Of course that is relative since it is only easy for someone familiar with the musical rules of the melodic ragas and rhythmic talas! The traditional ensemble for this style of music is vocal solo, tabla, harmonium, and tambura.


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Mere Rashke Qamar- RFAK- Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan


Another example of ghazal


Best Ever live Song of Nusrat Fateh Ali


DESTINATION #3: Contemporary Music of India

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Filmigit (or filmi) refers to music from India’s vibrant film industry. This is not India’s classical or traditional music, but . But, like music styles in the United States, popular music (insert space)is the largest body of music. Here in In India, filmi-related music makes up the great majority of music sales in the countr


Choose three of the five questions below to answer:

Dinner Conversation

1. Can you describe some of the complexity of Indian Classical Music?

2. How would you describe the timbres of the instruments? Which do you like the best and why?

3. How was the patronage system in Western and Indian Classic Music similar and what are some of the differences? How do students study classical music today in both areas?

4. What traditional elements influenced the contemporary music in the filmi, Beatles and Kale examples?

5. Choose one video that you think is a great example of Hindustani music and explain why.