by David Courtney, Ph.D.


                                                                                                        Chandrakanta and David Coutney

India has a very rich musical tradition. There is no single genre of “Indian music”; instead, there are numerous genres of popular and 
classical and folk music. Furthermore, there is an extensive variety of musical instruments.

The music is inextricably linked to the world views and culture of  India. The lyrics of the songs, whether they are simple folk music, 
religious songs or the esoteric art music, all reflect the very nature of the Indian psyche. The instruments too, are linked to the musical 
culture of the subcontinent. Just as the lyrics of the songs resist accurate translation into Western languages, so too the instruments 
resist non-Indian interpretations of their technique. The music of India must be taken on its own terms and within the context of the Indian 

This is not to say that it is not possible to describe this system within the larger framework of an English-dominated, internet-oriented 
society; this only means that the readers must be willing to divest themselves of certain musical preconceptions before some of the 
concepts and approaches can be fully understood.

In these pages, we will present a basic introduction to the music of India.

I should make some comments concerning the linguistic diversity of India. India has about 18-20 “official” languages, which are divided into many hundreds of dialects. This will complicate things as we try to generalize about “Indian" music, because the terms, pronunciations and 
transliterations will vary widely. Even in this small introductory work, variations in the terminology are unavoidable. Your indulgence 
in this matter is appreciated.


The basis for Indian music is "sangeet". Sangeet is a combination of three art forms: vocal music, instrumental music and dance. Although 
these three art forms were originally derived from the single field of stagecraft, today they have differentiated into complex and highly 
refined individual art forms.

We will confine our discussions to instrumental and vocal music. Although dance is extremely important in the Indian artistic scene, I 
feel that it is appropriate for it to be considered a separate study.The present system of Indian music is based upon two important pillars: 
rag and tal. Rag is the melodic form while tal is the rhythmic system.

Rag may be roughly equated with the Western concept of a mode or scale. It is also referred to as raag, raga, raagam, or ragam. The rag 
is based upon a system of seven notes which are arranged in a manner that initially seems similar to Western modes and scales. However, 
when we look closely we see that they are quite different.

The tal ,also referred to as tala, taal, talam, taalam, thalam, or thaalam are the rhythmic forms and are very complex. Many common 
rhythmic patterns have evolved over the centuries. 

Our melodic and rhythmic forms will not be rendered consistently across India; they will vary according to numerous factors. One factor is 
geography; different regions adopt their own approaches. They will also vary according to the genre. There are two systems of classical 
music, numerous styles of light and popular music and countless varieties of folk music.


It is very difficult to discuss the history of Indian music. There are invariably clashes between verifiable fact, supposition, political 
correctness and divergent world views. With this caveat in mind, let us look at things in a little more depth.

It appears to be self-evident that music is fundamental to the human condition. Therefore, as long as humans have been living in India 
music has existed.

The earliest written evidence shows that Indians divided music into two classes. On the one hand, there was ordinary music for the enjoyment of the masses. This is opposed to a music whose purpose was for spiritual uplift. The spiritually oriented music is routinely translated as 
“classical music” while the ordinary music is routinely translated as “non-classical”.

There is an interesting legend concerning the origin of “classical” music. According to this legend, there was a period in the past where 
evil and decay began to overpower the world. The gods recognized the danger of such corruption, and decided that some intervention was 
necessary. It was decided that the gift of classical music would have an uplifting effect and counter the decay that was setting in. The 
gods chose the great sage Narada to be the recipient of this gift. From Narada, this celestial art was then transmitted throughout the 
civilized world.

This legend is interesting, but we really need to be concerned with a more objective and verifiable approach to history.

The oldest information that we have on Indian music is the Samaveda. This work is variously dated at about 1000BCE-4000BCE. It is one of the four compilationsof Vedas which are considered to be the foundation of Hinduism. The Samaveda may be thought of as a book of religious hymns.

A better description of the mechanics of Indian music is to be found in the Natya Shastra of Bharata Muni. This work is approximately 2000 
years old. Even today, this work is considered to be the oldest surviving work on stagecraft in the world.

The Natya Shastra discussed in great depth an extremely developed system of stagecraft, music being an important aspect of the study. A 
variety of modes, similar to the Greek modes, was described in great length. These were sung and played upon a variety of sophisticated 
instruments. There was also a system of rhythm described.

As interesting as these early texts are, the rags are conspicuously absent. It appears that the rags developed somewhere between the 8th 
and 10th centuries.

By about the 14th century, the present system of classical music seems to be recognizable from a modern perspective. The two major 
traditions, one in the North and another in the South, are clearly recognizable.

However, the last few centuries have seen many changes. These were changes in theoretical approach to the music, performance practice, as 
well as changes in the social and cultural significance of the music. These will be expanded upon in the discussions of North and South 
Indian systems of music, in their respective pages.


The rag is the melodic form. It probably arose in the last 1000 years out of simpler modal forms of music known as jati.

The rag is based upon seven notes. These notes are: Shadaj, Rishabh, Gandhar, Madhyam, Pancham, Dhaivat and Nishad. However, these names are a bit awkward, therefore there is a tendency to use abbreviated forms. The abbreviated forms are shown in the table below:

Shadaj - Sa
Rishabh - Re (Ri)
Gandhar - Ga
Madhyam - Ma
Pancham - Pa
Dhaivat - Dha
Nishad - Ni

The intervals or position of these notes are a prime concern for establishing the rag. We can start by thinking of these notes as being 
equivalent to the Western solfa (i.e., Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, and Ti). However, there are many more modal possibilities than one normally 
encounter with the Western solfa. These modal possibilities will be discussed in greater length in our discussion of North and South Indian 

Rags take these seven notes in any of a number of modes and gives them a particular character. This character is determined by certain 
melodic structures and restrictions which are particular to each rag.


The tals are the rhythmic patterns. The word “tal” literally means to “clap”. The significance of the term “tal” becomes clear when we look 
at the structure of the rhythmic forms.

Indian rhythm is divided into three different levels of structure. There is the beat, the measure, and then there is the overall cycle. 
So far, this is similar to the Western approach; however, the emphasis is different in India. In the West, the prime importance is placed upon 
the measure. Once a measure is established, it is extremely rare to depart from it. In contrast, Indian music places the major emphasis on 
the cycle. Therefore, mixing measures is very normal in Indian music. For instance, if we were performing in a 12 beat cycle then it would be 
just as normal to structure it as 4+4+2+2 as it would to structure it 3+3+2+4.

The particulars of the tal vary from North to South. There will be further elaboration of this in our discussion of North Indian and South Indian 



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Audio Recordings:

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1968 Hours of the Night: Ragas from Benares. London: Argo Record 
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1981 Music of India. Houston: Kluge Records.
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1986 Kavita o Kavita. Houston: Sur Sangeet Services.
1988 Sangeet Sagar (Vol 1). Houston: Sur Sangeet Services.
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1996 Telugu Vaibhavam. Houston: Sur Sangeet Services.
1998 Amrit. Houston: Sur Sangeet Services.
1998 Realm of Raga Rock. Houston: Sur Sangeet Services.
2000 Bhajans from the Hindu Association of West Texas. Houston: Sur 
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2000 Sri Sri : Kavita o Kavita. Houston: Sur Sangeet Services.
2000 Bhairagi Bhairavi. Houston: Sur Sangeet Services.
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2004 Sacred Sounds of Meditation and Yoga. Houston: ESHA.

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1974 Kashmir: Traditional Songs and Dances. New York: Nonesuch 

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Gurtu, Shobha-
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Harrison, George
1974 Shankar Family and Friends. Hollywood: A&M/Darkhorse Records.

Hassan, Mehdi
1979 Jal Bhi Chukay Parwane. India: Polydor of India.

Jehan, Noor
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Joshi, Bhimsen
1962 Eri Mein Aj. Dum Dum, India: EMI/The Gramaphone Co. of India.

Khan, Abdul Karim-
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1976 Echoes of a Golden Voice: Khansahib Abdul Karim Khan. Dum Dum, 
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Khan, Allauddin
1976 Great Master- Great Music. Dum Dum, India: EMI/Gramaphone Co of 
India ltd.

Khan, Ali Akbar
1974 Alamgiri-Jogiya- Kalengra. Dum Dum, India: EMI/Odeon/ Gramaphone 
Co of India ltd.
No Date Morning and Evening Rags: Music of India by Ali Akbar Khan. 
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Khan, Amanat Ali & Fate Ali Khan
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Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali
1968 Padma Bhooshan Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Dum Dum, India: 
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1973 Great Master-Great Music. Dum Dum, India: Odeon/EMI/Gramophone 
Company of India, Ltd.

Khan, Bismillah-
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Odeon/Gramophone Company of India, Ltd.

Khan, Bismillah and V. J. Jog
1968 Shehnai and Violin. Dum Dum, India:EMI/Gramophone Company of 
India, Ltd.

Khan, Imrat Hussain
1974 Surbahar / Sitar- Raga Shree. Dum Dum, India: Odeon/Gramophone 
Company of India, Ltd.

Khan, Ghulam Husain
1974 Sitar. Bombay: Polydor India Ltd.

Khan, Keramatulla
1975 Tabla Recital: Ustad Keramatulla Khan. Dum Dum, India: 
EMI/Gramophone Company of India, Ltd.

Khan, Nabi Bakhsh
1977 Sarangi Nawaz Ustad Nabi Bakhsh Khan. Pakistan: EMI.

Khan, Rajdulari Aliakbar
1967 Raga Kirwani, Raga Imni Bilawal. New York: Connoisseur Society.

Khanum, Farida
1975 Ghazals. Dum Dum, India: EMI/Gramophone Company of India, Ltd.

Lal, Kanhaiya
1971 Kanhaiyalal: Shehnai Film Tunes. Dum Dum, India: 
Odeon/Gramophone Company of India, Ltd.

no date - Folk Music of India (Orissa). New York: Lyrichord Discs Inc.

Mangeshkar, Lata-
no date - Around India with Lata. Dum Dum, India: Odeon/Gramophone 
Company of India, Ltd.

Mansur, Mallikarjun
1979 Morning and Evening Ragas from Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur. 
Calcutta, India: Indian Record Manufacturing Co.

Misra, Mahapurush
1966 Indian Drums. New York: Connoisseur Society.

Murty, M. Narasimha
1981 M. Narasimha Murty Sings Folk, Light and Devotional Songs from 
Andhra Pradesh. Newark, NJ. Noori Americhetty.

Mohammad, Ghulam
1977 Pakeezah: Rang Barang. Dum Dum, India: EMI/Gramophone Company of 
India, Ltd.

Narayan, Ram
1975 Master of the Sarangi: Classical Music of India. New York: 
Nonsuch Records.

1975 Baiju Bawra. Dum Dum, India: EMI/Gramophone Company of India, 

Musa, Shekhar, and Daksha
1992 Kukado Bolo. Bombay:Crazy Beats/ Time Magnetics (India) ltd.

Pan Orient Arts Foundation.-
no date - Music of India - Jugalbandi Duet for Sitar and Sarangi. New 
York: Decca Records.

Rakha, Alla-
no date - Alla Rakha Tabla!. Los Angeles: World Pacific Records.
1977 Alla Rakha / Tabla Solo. Vangard Records: New York

Rakha, Alla and Zakir Hussain
1972 Ustad Alla Rakha and Zakir Hussain. Dum Dum India: The 
Gramophone Company of India.

Rajapur, Gayathri
1968 Vocal and Instrumental Ragas from South India. New Jersey: 
Folkways Records.

Ramchandra, C.
1969 The Immortal Hits of C. Ramchandra. Dum Dum, India: 
EMI/Odeon/Gramophone Company of India, Ltd.

Rao, M. Nageshwara Rao. -
no date - The Ten Graces Played on the Vina. New York: Nonesuch 

no date - Aarti. Dum Dum, India: Angel/EMI/Gramophone Company of 
India, Ltd.

Sachdev, G.S.
1981 Romantic Rags. San Rafael, CA: Chandi Productions.

Singh, Jagjit and Chitra Singh
1975 Lovingly Yours. Dum Dum India: The Gramophone Company of India.

Saigal, K.L.-
no date- Saigal. Calcutta, India: Indian Record Manufacturing Co.

Shankar, Lakshmi & Nirmala Devi.
1966 Sawan Beeta Jaye. Dum Dum, India: Odeon/Gramophone Company of 
India, Ltd.

Shankar, Ravi-
no date - Two Raga Moods. Hollywood: Capital Records.-
no date - Ravi Shankar: Three Ragas. Los Angeles: World Pacific / 
Liberty Records.-
no date - Raga Parameshwari. Hollywood: Capital Records.
1962 Ravi Shankar: In Concert. Hollywood: World Pacific Records.
1963 Ravi Shankar. Dum Dum, India: Odeon/Gramophone Company of India, 
1967 Live: Ravi Shankar at the Montery International Pop Festival. 
Los Angeles: World Pacific Records/Liberty Records.
1968 Ravi Shankar. Dum Dum, India: Odeon/EMI/Gramophone Company of 
India, Ltd.

Shankar, Ravi & André Previn
1971 Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra. England: Angel/Capital Records.

1984 An Hour of Ecstasy with Parween Sultana. Dum Dum, India: 
EMI/Gramophone Company of India, Ltd.

Sultana,Parween & Mohd. Dilshad Khan.
1978 One Plus One ... In Harmony. Dum Dum, India: EMI/Gramophone 
Company of India, Ltd.

no date- North India: Vocal Music - Dhrupad and Khyal. Holland: 

World Pacific
1967 The Anthology of Indian Music. Los Angeles:World Pacific/ 
Liberty Records.

Yodh, Gaurang-
no date - Music of India. Westminster /ABC Records.