Fundamentals of Indian Classical Music for beginners

In this blog we will discuss the funadmentals of Indian Classical Music for learning to appreciate the music. This is the music practiced in North India, it is also known as Hindustani Music. The music practiced in South India is called Carnatic Music and it is different from Indian Classical Music.

It will cover :
1. Swara (Notes) 
2. Taal (Rhythm basics) 
3. Raga 
4. How this music is presented in a concert

1. Swara or Notes in Indian Classical Music

Here is a short video about Swara:

The 7 natural (Shudh) notes are :

Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni 

C D E F G A B in Western music

This forms a Saptak or an Octave in Western music.

The notes Re Ga Dha Ni can also be flat (soft) and they are called as Komal Swara:

re ga dha ni

D flat, E flat, A flat, B flat in Western music

The note Ma can also be sharp and it is called Teevra Ma*:


F sharp in Western music

So from Sa to Ni, we have total 12 notes that are defined as musical notes or Swara. The basic 12 notes in music are universal, they are same in Indian music and Western music.

Importance of the note Sa

Indian music is played using the reference of Sa hence it the most important note in the music. Although musician can chose their own Sa, once established it can not be changed. It is a fixed note. When performing, musicians take their time and efforts establishing their Sa. It is important for them as well as for the audience to establish the foundation before building their music on it.

Musicians make use of Taanpura (lute style or electronic) to have a sustained sound of the Sa they chose. 

In Western music each piano key has a specific name (i.e. C, D, E, F etc), any note cannot be randomly established as a reference note. Their C is a specific key (Safed One key in Indian harmonium) and it will always be referred to as C.


Although we have a defined set of notes here, Indian music is based on the concept of Shruti (microtones).
Each note defined above has its range of microtones called Shruti. There are total 22 Shruti in one Saptak. This allows musician to play a note softer or sharper than its natural tone as the music or a Raga demands it.

Three Saptaks or Octaves

Based on natural human voice range, music can be sung in lower octave, middle octave, and upper octave. These are called Mandra Saptak (Lower Octave), Madhya Saptak (Middle Octave), and Taar Saptak (Upper Octave). Similarly, most Indian musical instruments are also designed to have these three Octave.

How did we get 7 notes in a Saptak

According to music researchers and ancient Indian scriptures, music initially began with 3 notes and soon evolved to have 4 notes. 

There are many theories about how we got all  the 7 main notes we have today. One of the theories is  that in the beginning only men used to sing music in 4 notes, let's call them Sa Re Ga Ma.

 Natural female voice is about one and a half octave higher than male voice. When female singers started singing Sa Re Ga Ma they sounded next 4 notes since they were higher than male voice notes, making it Pa Dha Ni Sa'. Female Sa became male Pa, Re became  male Dha, Ga became Ni, and Ma became Sa', thus completing an octave.

 This could be one of the reasons that S and P are both fixed notes. They are called Achal Swara (Fixed Notes). 

2. Taal

Roughly speaking, Taal is the meter to measure the beat or rhythm. When the beats form a specific structure it is called Taal. The most important task of a Taal is to provide a framework for the music. There are many different Taals in practice ranging from 3 beats cycle to 16 beats cycle. The most popular one is TeenTaal which has a16 beat cycle.

The Taal is usually played on Tabla, which is the most common Indian percussion instrument. Some other well-known Taals are Ektaal, Jhaptaal, Choutaal etc.

Another very important role of Taal is that it decides the genre of the music. Mentioned above are the rhythms used in Classical Music. For example; if a Taal played for a song is Bhajani or Dadara then that song is a Bhajan or a semi classical son in Dadara. Others Taals used in semi classical music are Deepchandi, Keherwa, Etc.
Western rhythm is linear whereas Indian rhythm structure is cyclic, it keeps repeating the fixed number of beats cycle.


 The first beat of a Taal is called Sum and is considered the most important beat of the Taal. The different ways a musician can approach the Sum in their performance creates various appealing improvisations, showing his/her command on Taal.


The tempo or speed of a Taal is called Laya. It decides the flow of the music. Music compositions are usually composed for Vilumbit Laya (Slow Tempo), Madhya Laya (Medium Tempo), Drut Laya (Fast Tempo).


Layakari is another very important feature of Indian Classical Music. Layakari makes the music flow. It is the way the music is tied to the rhythm cycle. There are many different styles of Layakari i.e. the music is sung with the same tempo as the rhythm cycle, or it can be presented in twice the speed or thrice the speed of the rhythm.

3. Raga

The concept of Raga is the heart of Indian Classical Music. The literal meaning of Raga is attraction or something the attracts and entertains you. In non-musical terms it can be described as a mood, or an expression of a thought used for music improvisation. That explains another key characteristic of Indian Music, the freedom of improvisation. A Raga provides a set of notes with certain rules and boundaries which creates the structure and the personality of that Raga.

Western music is based on the concept on Harmony, which is a group of three independent notes. Where as Raga music is based on the concept of Melody, which is a relational connection of phrases of notes. These phrases follow the rules of a Raga and thus define a Raga.

Regional culture and art are the foundation of Raga Music. Music has religious and pious importance, it developed and evolved with religion. 

A Raga has a fixed order of ascending and descending notes, called Aaroh and Avroh.

A Raga is defined by phrases based on Aaroh and Avroh.

Each Raga has one predominant  and one dominant note called Vaadi and Samvadi notes.

Although two Ragas can have same ascend and descend, they have different personalities due to different Vaadi-Samvadi notes, and different phrases used to define that Raga.

Bandish or Composition

A Bandish is a song based on a Raga and composed to a Taal (a fixed beat structure). When  a Bandish is composed for a Raga, it brings out the essence of that Raga in such a way that it can be identified as a composition for only that particular Raga. 

A Bandish follows all the rules of a Raga mentioned above. A Raga can have many Bandishes composed in various Taals. The Bandish a musician choses for his presentation will decided the mood or message for  presentation of that Raga. It means, in many ways a Bandish will decide the mood of a presentation and not just the Raga.

Raga-Time theory

Ragas are associated with the time of the day.  Certain ragas are performed at certain time of day. Based on this tradition, ragas are classified as morning ragas, afternoon ragas, evening ragas, and night time ragas etc. This classification is done in details, assigning ragas to very specific hour of day. Performing artists do their best to follow Raga-Time theory when performing.

Ragas and Season association

There are ragas that are to be performed in specific season. Some ragas are performed during rainy season and some in spring. Unlike Raga-Time theory, musicians may not take this as a rule and will perform these ragas in other seasons as well.

4. How the music is presented in a concert

Indian Classical Music concert usually begins with main long presentation of a time appropriate raga. It begins with a very slow pace and concludes with a crescendo in an ultra fast tempo.
It can be divided into the following sections:All these sections belong to the same Raga:

1. Alap, (and Jor-Jhaala for instrumental concert)
    Alap is a slow development of the Raga done without being accompanied by Tabla. It always begins with establishing the base Sa. Then gradually adding each further note to develop the Raga. In instrumental performance, after initial Alap, the musician will add rhythm to Alap using his instrument (and not Tabla) which is called Jod-Jhaala.

2. Slow (Vilumbit) Song composed to a Taal
    This is where Bandish enters the performance along with Tabla. Although it is called Slow Song, the musician will fill it in with intricate phrases and complex fast paced notes structures called Taans.

3. Fast (Drut) Song composed to a Taal
    This is a separate song or Bandish which is composed to a faster tempo. The song and Taans pick up higher tempo in this part of the performance leading to a crescendo where the performance of the main Raga will end.

After the main presentation the musicians either perform a shorter Raga or some semi-classical music i.e. Thumari, Hori, Bhajan, Folk Song etc.

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