Indian classical music for dummies

Indian classical music is part of an ancient tradition in which music formed the core of worship rituals. Gradually it diversified into two main forms: music for the gods, marga-sangeet, and music for the people, desi-sangeet, the latter forming the roots of what we now know as folk music.

Another very gradual and long-drawn-out evolution through complex historical and social factors led to two distinct traditions of classical music in India — North (Hindustani) and South (Karnatic).

In Indian classical music there are no chords — only notes and their fractions (or microtones known as shruti) — with each note played one at a time to maintain the purity of the note. There is usually just a solo instrument — or a single voice — with a minimal accompaniment consisting of tambura (a lute that produces a drone), some kind of melodic instrument (now usually a harmonium) and percussion.

Vocal music is considered the highest form of music and every musical instrument is said to be fashioned to imitate the voice.
The mainstay of all Indian classical music, whether Hindustani or Karnatic, is the concept of raag (in English spelt and pronounced “raga” after its Sanskrit form). In North Indian languages the vowel or the “a” at the end is quite redundant.

The word raag is derived from the Sanskrit word “rang” which literally means colour. It can be translated very loosely as scale (in the musical sense) but there is more to it. There are up to 525 known raags but we usually hear only the same favourite two dozen or so. Raags carry strict rules and are ascribed to a particular time of day, but with concerts mostly taking place in the evenings, it is becoming rarer to hear live recitals of early morning or afternoon raags.


A distinguishing component of both kinds of Indian classical music, Hindustani and Karnatic, is taal (again, spelt and pronounced “tala” in English). Loosely speaking, one may define it as “rhythm” but the concept of taal is more complex than plain rhythm and works by time being divided cyclically rather than in linear fashion. Each cycle, in turn, is subdivided into segments of varying measurement. There are several hundred kinds of cycles.

The most puzzling thing for those who are new to Indian music is that the completion of a rhythm cycle does not happen on the final beat of the cycle but on the first beat of the next cycle. But, it is a very visual affair and easy to spot as musicians, as well as audiences, will be seen to nod or clap or raise their hands as this beat, known as sum, is reached.

The soloist and percussionist will often nod to each other with great satisfaction — as though to say “all is well, we are on track”.

The end of each rhythm cycle forms a high point when the soloist and accompanist seem to renew their bond and reaffirm their togetherness on the journey that gradually unfolds in a raag.

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