Introduction to Indian Music

Classical & Carnatic

Compiled by Harsha Chakravarti.
Original usenet posting to soc.culture.indian in July 1991
Article derived from a book titled “Sargam – An Introduction
to Indian Classical Music” by B. Chaitanya Deva

Twenty centuries ago, the essential role of music of India was deemed to be purely ritualistic. Music as entertainment is supposed to have evolved much later. Another part of Indian music is folk music. Indian classical music is said to have evolved out of the mixture of these. It is presumed that folk music existed long before the Aryans came to India, the Dravidians having their own. The art of music practised in India has a special significance, as it has developed from the ritualistic music in association with folk music and other musical expressions of neighbouring nations, developing into its own characteristic art. Matured through “thought, experience and expression”, Indian classical music has become unique in the world.


The origin of Indian music is said to be rooted in the Vedas. It is said that God Himself is musical sound, the sound which pervades the whole universe, i.e. Nadabrahma. The origins of Indian music are therefore considered divine. It is said that the musician has to cultivate an attitude of self-abandonment, in order to fuse with the Supreme Reality, Brahma.

Brahma is said to be the author of the four Vedas, of which the SamaVeda was chanted in definite musical patterns. Vedic hymns were sung in plain melody, using only 3 notes.

It took a long time for music to come to the form found in present-day India. The most important advance in music was made between the 14th and 18th centuries. During this period, the music sung in the north came in contact with Persian music and assimilated it, through the Pathans and the Mughals. It is then that two schools of music resulted, the Hindustani and the Carnatic. Hindustani music adopted a scale of Shudha Swara saptaka(octave of natural notes) and Carnatic music retained the traditional octave. During this period, different styles of classical compositions such as Dhrupad, Dhamar, Khayal,etc. were contributed to Hindustani music, along with many exquisite hymns, bhajans, kirtans, etc.


The music of India is a pervasive influence in Indian life. It pervades the big and small events of Indian life, from child birth to death, religious rites and seasonal festivals. Originally, not all developments of music were reduced to writing. To keep their traditional integrity, they were imparted orally from teacher to pupil — the Guru-Shishya tradition. In the past, there used to be a system of Gurukul Ashram where teachers imparted knowledge to deserving students.


The Indian musical scale is said to have evolved from 3 notes to a scale of 7 primary notes, on the basis of 22 intervals. A scale is divided into 22 shrutis or intervals, and these are the basis of the musical notes. The 7 notes of the scale are known to musicians as Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha and Ni. These 7 notes of the scale do not have equal intervals between them. A Saptak is a group of 7 notes, divided by the shrutis or intervals as follows —
Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22
The first and fifth notes(Sa and Pa) do not alter their positions on this interval. The other 5 notes can change their positions in the interval, leading to different ragas.


The combination of several notes woven into a composition in a way which is pleasing to the ear is called a Raga. Each raga creates an atmosphere which is associated with feelings and sentiments. Any stray combination of notes cannot be called a Raga.

Raga is the basis of classical music. A raga is based on the principle of a combination of notes selected out the 22 note intervals of the octave. A performer with sufficient training and knowledge alone can create the desired emotions, through the combination of shrutis and notes.

There are a limited number of ragas in Hindustani music; as the use of a “KING” note and a “QUEEN” note restricts to a great extent, the creation of new ragas. The raga forms the backbone of Indian music, and the laws laid down for the ragas have to be carefully observed to preserve and safeguard their integrity. The following points are required in the construction of a Raga —
1. Thaats or sequence of notes,
2. Jaatis or classification
3. “King” and “Queen” relation of the notes, i.e. Vadi and Samvadi
4. The Ascent and Descent of the rag, i.e. Aroha and Avaroha
5. Important cluster of notes
6. Pitch
7. Speed.
· Every Raga is derived from some Thaat or Scale.
· Ragas are placed in three categories
o Odava or pentatonic, a composition of five notes,
o Shadava or hexatonic, a composition of six notes,
o Sampoorna or heptatonic, a composition of seven notes,
· Every Raga must have at least five notes, starting at Sa, one principal note, a second important note and a few helping notes.
· The principal note, “KING” is the note on which the raga is built. It is emphasized in various ways, such as stopping for some time on the note, or stressing it. The second important note or the “queen” corresponds to the “King” as the fourth or fifth note in relation to it.
· The ascent and descent of the notes in every raga is very important. Some ragas in the same scale differ in ascent and descent.
· In every raga, there is an important cluster of notes by which the raga is identified.
· There are certain ragas which move in a certain pitch and if the pitch is changed, the raga fails to produce the mood and sentiment peculiar to it.
· The speed is divided into three parts : Vilambit(slow), Madhya(Medium) and Drut(fast).
Another aspect of the ragas is the appropriate distribution in time during the 24 hours of the day for its performance, i.e. the time of the day denotes the raga sung a particular time. Ragas are also allotted a particular time space in the cycle of the day. These are divided into four types —
1. Sandi-prakash ragas or twilight ragas when the notes re and dha are used — such as Raag Marwa, Purvi.
2. Midday and Midnight ragas which include the notes ga and ni(komal).
3. Ragas for the first quarter of the morning and night which include the notes re, ga, dha and ni(komal).
4. For the last quarter of the day and night, the reagas include the notes sa, ma and pa.
All the ragas are divided into two groups — Poorva Ragas and Uttar Ragas. The Poorva Ragas are sung between 12 noon and 12 midnight. The Uttar Ragas are sung between 12 midnight and 12 noon. The variations on the dominant or “King” note help a person to find out why certain ragas are being sung at certain times. This raga classification is about 500 years old and has been adopted by Pandit V. N. Bhatkhande in his textbooks on Hindustani music.
The beauty of the raga will not be marred by the time of the day it is sung. It is the psychological association with the time that goes with the mood of the raga. The object of a raga is to express a certain emotional mood and sentiment without any reference to time and season. For a student of classical music, this classification may give an idea as to how to base his reasons for the traditional usage of ragas.

Another division of ragas is the classification of ragas under six principal ragas — Hindol, Deepak, Megh, Shree and Maulkauns. From these six ragas, other ragas are derived. The first derivatives of the ragas are called raginis, and each of the six ragas have five raginis under them. Further derivatives from these ragas and raginis resulted in attaching to each principal raga 16 secondary derivatives known as upa-ragas and upa-raginis.

All the ragas are supposed to have been derived from their thaats. Every raga has a fixed number of komal(soft) or teevra(sharp) notes, from which the thaat can be recognised. In other words, a certain arrangement of the 7 notes with the change of shuddha, komal and teevra is called a thaat. There are several opinions in this matter. According to Pandit V.N. Bhatkhande, the 10 thaats used to classify the ragas are —
1. Bilaval — with all shuddh or natural notes.
2. Khamaj — with the ni note as komal.
3. Kafi — with the ga and ni notes as komal.
4. Asavari — with the ga, dha and ni notes as komal.
5. Bhairavi — with the re, ga, dha and ni notes as komal.
6. Bhairav — with the re and dha notes as komal.
7. Poorvi — with the re and dha notes as komal and the ma note as teevra.
8. Todi — with the re, ga and dha notes as komal and the ma note as teevra.
9. Marwa — with the re note as komal and the ma note as teevra.
10. Yaman — with the ma note as teevra only.


Classical music is bound by certain laws and restrictions having a definite standard and scale with 22 intervals. Folk music, on the other hand, has different forms depending on the region it belongs to. With flexibility in its expression, it is not bound by laws or any set pattern. Folk music has its peculiar expressions and emotions and has established a tradition of its own.
In classical music, emotions are expressed through a particular raga, though the lyric or composition has its own importance. Classical music can be effective if the musician renders the raga in its various stages and moods. This is not the case with folk music, where the musical notes have less value and the poetic content has greater impact and rythm plays a very important role. Songs and lyrics of folk music portray the common life of the villagers.


The art of appreciation and listening of classical music requires a special approach. In this context, the requirements are love of music and sympathy towards the artist. The people having initial background knowledge of ragas, notes, shrutis and taals are classified as ideal listeners.
The common listener has a general liking for music and has to cultivate and develop patience in listening to classical music. Such a listener may not appreciate the imaginative approach of the performer. To understand and appreciate a raga, one should know, understand and feel the inner meaning of the shrutis and how these create a desired effect on the mind and heart. Basically one has to be initiated into the art of listening to classical music.
The responsibility of a classical musician lies in the mode of his presentation to the listener, in his capacity to make ‘perfect’ and ‘common’ listeners understand and appreciate classical music. The classical musician should have the zeal as a missionary to create the true spirit and essence of classical music, so that he can help in the growth of an appreciative audience.

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