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Delight in India







Indian Music

Indian music can be divided into two main types: North Indian and South Indian (or Carnatic). Both systems use voice and instruments. Classical Indian music often sounds odd to a new listener. Some of the keys that the music is played in are very different than European traditions. There are certain notes that do not exist in European music; they are "in between".

Indian music is not based on harmony, chords, or counterpoint. Instead, it uses combinations of melody and rhythm within musical structures called "ragas". A musician then may improvise around this structure.

Raag Taal
Components of a Recital

Musical Instruments

Raag: Melody and Mood

"Raag" literally means "color", and that is a very good way to think of this fundamental part of Indian music. Raag sets the mood of the piece by defining the notes to be used within it. These notes, when used together, set a tone that brings unity to the work. A raag is a pattern of scales and the associated sounds between the main notes. A raag is more than a key signature, however. It is defined by a modal structure, the number of notes in the group, and the "swar", or base tonic note.

There are about 200 main raags and maybe 6,000 in total, each corresponding to a color, seasons, hour, or mood. Each has its own principle note, dominant note, and a cluster of notes that provide identity to the raag.

Taal: The Heatbeat of Music

Taal is the rhythm cycle of a raag. Taals can range from 3 beats to 108 beats. The division of the beat within the taal and the emphasized beats provide the pulse of the music. In Indian music, even if two taals carry the same number of beats, they are separated because of the different accents or divisions within each one.

Even when the vocalist is improvising within the raag or taal, he or she must return to the beat at certain defined moments for a "coming together"; the peak of the music.

A Classical Recital

  1. A classical vocal recital begins with the "alap". This is is a slow, traditional performance of the raag, with exploration of its melody as a whole and the notes within it.

  2. Next comes the "jor", in which the rhythm is introduced, but without a drum. It is then developed and the vocalist can improvise on the raag.

  3. The "gat" is another key moment in the recial. Here, drums enter and begin the taal. The vocalist improvises around the raag and the taal while using different tempos. The "gat" is the point of return that the singer has to find after every improvisions cycle.

  4. The climax of the recital is the "jhala". The music often becomes faster and the vocalist and instrumentalist begin to interact and play off each other. This is much freer and often romantic.


The SARANGI is mostly used in northern India. It is played with a bow, but does not have frets like a violin or cello. It can play semi-tones (the notes between those on the scale).

A sarangi has a short body with a sound board made out of goat skin. The strings are made of gut.

Click for sarangi playing by Nicolas Magriel
(from www.sarangi.demon.co.uk)

The North Indian flute, or BANSURI, is usually made of bamboo. It has six or seven holes that are covered to produce different sounds.

The South Indian flute is called a VENU, and has eight holes.

Click for bansuri music by Hariprasad Chaurasia
(from www.shanmukhananda.org)

TABLA are played with the fingers and wrists of both hands. The right drum is smaller and has a higher pitch than the left. However, the left often has more color and sweeps of sound.

The drums are about 25 centimeters tall and made of goat skin. The skin is stretched so that the sound is different on different parts of the instument. The base of a tabla is wider than the top. Tablas have a range of 2 octaves.

Click for a sample of tabla playing.
(from http://chandrakantha.com)

The HARMONIUM came to India from Europe in the 19th century. It is a type of organ with a hand pump. It is mostly wood, and can play many notes much as a western organ. However, its sound is very different, mainly because of the hand pump.

Click for a harmonium recording by Jitendra Gore
(from http://gore-jitendra.tripod.com/)

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The creator of this site would like to thank:
The Ravi Shankar Foundation and Ravi Shankar for a clear and meaningful introduction to Indian music (http://www.ravishankar.org).
Khazan (at http://www.khazana.com) for information on Carnatic music and instruments