Classical Music

Origin and Evolution of Classical Music:
  • It is generally believed that Indian classical music has its origins in the religious observances of the Aryan people who arrived in India some 3,000 years ago
  • The Aryans brought with them their sacred texts known as the Vedas, meaning ‘knowledge’ forming the core of ancient Hindu scriptures with their worship rituals largely centering on the highly structured and organised recitation of these verses.
  • Thus, the roots of Indian classical music can be traced back to its origin in the recital of Vedic hymns of the Hindu temples
  • There are four main Vedas, of which the one known as Samaveda (from saman, roughly translating to ‘melody’) is the most relevant – as the texts contained in it were clearly meant to be sung whilst also acting as treatises about music, dance and theatre.
  • The seven swars of music – Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni represent different scriptural deities: SA – Agni, RE – Brahma, GA – Saraswati, MA – Shiva, PA – Vishnu, DHA – Ganesha, NI – Surya
  • Ancient musical treatises show that by 300 BC, there was already a marked difference in classification for what was known as marga Sangeet (music of the gods) and Desi Sangeet (music of the people).
  • The latter formed the basis for what evolved as folk music, varying region by region, but the former remained the sole domain of those who were considered adequately trained by a master
  • The earliest treatise on music, drama and dance is Bharata’s Natyashastra

Basics of Music

  • Svara: The basic scale (grama) of India music is heptatonic and it has seven notes. It has seven notes or svara- saa, re/ri, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni which Indian musicians collectively designate as saptakor saptaka.
  • Sruti: A shruti is the smallest gradation of pitch available, while a swara is the selected pitches from which the musician constructs the scales, melodies and ragas. The Natya Shastra identifies and discusses twenty two shruti and seven swara per octave

Classical Music

Figure: Evolution of 22 Shrutis from Shadja (Sa) (Fundamental) and their natural arrangement on a string


  • It is a collection of pitches, kind of like a scale or mode in Western music. Each raga is defined, however, not only by the pitches themselves, but also by specific formulas for using them. It has been named and classified in Matanga’s Brihaddesi


  • The word ‘Tala’ finds its derivation from the Sanskrit root ‘tal’, meaning the base or pivot upon which a thing rests. In Sangeet Ratnakar, defining ’Tala’ Pt. Sarangadeva says, ‘Tala’ has been derived from the Sanskrit root ‘tal’, which is the base upon which an object is fixed.
  • In the same way, ‘Tala’ is the base upon which vocal, instrumental music and dance is established.

It is believed by many that Hindustani music started to take a distinctive form since the medieval period. Many credit Amir Khusro for this evolution. However, this remains contested. The forms of Hindustani classical music were designed primarily for vocal performance, and many instruments were designed and evaluated according to how well they emulate the human voice.

Some of the salient features of Hindustani classical music:

  • The six primary ragas in Hindustani classic are- Bhairava, Kausika, Hindola, dipak, sriraga and Megh
  • Ragas in Hindustani classic music used to strictly observe the time theory. Ex: Bhairavi at dawn, Megh in the morning
  • Ragas in Hindustani music are also associated with feelings and moods. Ex: Bhairavi with awe and fear, Kausika with joy
  • It has a highly formalized grammar, dictated by textual as well as oral tradition.
  • Hindustani music places more emphasis on improvisation and exploring all aspects of a raga
  • Slow and sometimes even leisurely introductory section (alap) followed by solfege and fast section with fast melodic phrases and rhythmic play
  • There is significant emphasis on space between the notes
  • Hindustani classical music has been influenced considerably by Persian traditions
  • Musical instruments used in Hindustani are Tabla, Sarangi, Sitar, Santoor, Flute and violin.
  • Main styles in Hindustani music– Dhrupad, Khayal, Tappa, Chaturanga, Tarana, Sargam, Thumri and Ragasagar, Hori and Dhamar.

Major Hindustani musical compositions and their features


  • It is ancient form, probably developing from the Prabandha
  • Raja Man Singh Tomar of Gwalior and Emperor Akbar played a significant part in the growth and development of Dhrupad
  • Other personalities who contributed to the development of Dhrupad are: Tansen, Baiju bawra, Swami Haridas
  • The lyrics are generally in Braj Basha and involve veera and sringar rasas
  • Some of the major gharanas of Dhrupad are– dagarvani gharana, bishnupur gharana, darbhanga gharana, mallik gharana, bettiah gharana

Hindustani Music

Figure: A miniature painting of Akbar and Tansen Visiting Haridas

What is a Gharana?

It is a system of social organization in the Indian subcontinent, linking musicians or dancers by lineage or apprenticeship, and more importantly by adherence to a particular musical style.


  • The term Khayal has Persian origins and means ‘idea or imagination’
  • Its origin is attributed to Amir Khusro and Sultan Mohammed Sharqui
  • Khayal is a delicate and romantic composition
  • It provides more freedom in structure and composition
  • Some of the major gharanas associated with this style include: Gwalior, Kirana, Patiala, Agra, and Jaipur Gharana
  • It is usually accompanied by a tabla(pair of drums) and a tambura (lute) in a variety of talas (metric cycles).


  • It is a light form based on the romantic-religious literature inspired by the Bhakthi movement
  • It became famous under the patronage of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah
  • It employs folk scales and text of the songs is of primary importance
  • Themes from the lives of Lord Krishna and Radha are common
  • Lyrics are primarily in Braj basha
  • Main gharanas of this style are: Benaras, Lucknow and Patiala.


  • It is believed to have been developed from the songs of camel drivers
  • It is noted for its quick turns of phrase
  • Poetry full of expressions of love and physical intimacy is the salient feature of Tappa.
  • It was developed as a form of classical music by Mian Gulam Nabi Shori or Shori Mian, who was a court singer for the Nawab of Awadh, Asaf-Ud-Dowlah.
  • Tappa employs Ragas like Khamaj, Jhinjhoti, Kafi, Tilang, Bhairavi, Des, which conveys affection and light tempers or sadness, with its vigorous Taan and irregular musical tones of voice.
  • The lyrics in Tappa are very short and not as richly controlled as in Khayal or thumri.
  • This style of Tappa singing is a specialty of Gwalior gharana, with its beautification with geetkari, khatka, mukri and harkat.


  • It is a product of Persian influence
  • It is composed of independent couplets
  • Though love theme is predominant, it also has the element of Sufi
  • The traditional Ghazals are similar to the Hindustani classical music forms such as “Dadra” and “Thumri”.
  • The Golconda and Bijapur rulers encouraged this tradition of Urdu. Some important patrons of Ghazal and Urdu were Nusrati, Wajhi, Hashmi, Mohammad Quli Qutab Shah and Wali Dakhini. 
  • Then there are some Ghazal forms that are similar to Qawwali. India has produced some of the exceptional talents in the field of Ghazal singing like Begum Akhtar, Jagjit Singh and Pankaj Udhas.

Hindustani classical music was used extensively during the Bhakthi movement to preach the gospel of love and devotion by various reformers in the country. Ex: Kirtans of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Abhangs of Eknath, Jnanesvar and Tukaram etc.

The origins of South Indian music are traced to prehistoric times. Musical instruments form a favorite subject for sculptors, painters and the authors of ancient Tamil and Sanskrit texts.

Carnatic music owes its name to the Sanskrit term Karnātaka Sangītam which denotes “traditional” or “codified” music. The corresponding Tamil concept is known as Tamil Isai. These terms are used by scholars upholding the “classical” credentials and establish the “scientific” moorings of traditional music. Besides Sanskrit and Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam have long been used for song lyrics.

Purandara Dāsa (1484-1564), a prolific poet-composer and mystic of Vijayanagar, introduced a music course that is followed to the present day. Since the 17th century, hundreds of rāga-s (melody types) has been distributed among the 72 melakarta rāgas (scales).

Carnatic Music

Figure: Statue of Purandara Dasa at Hampi

Purandaradasa was a Haridasa philosopher and a follower of Madhwacharya’s Dwaitha philosophy. He is believed to be born in the district of Shimoga Purandara Dasa is noted for composing Dasa Sahithya, as a Bhakti movement vocalist, and a music scholar. His practice was emulated by his younger contemporary, Kanakadasa,  Purandara Dasa’s Carnatic music compositions are mostly in Kannada, though some are in Sanskrit. He signed his compositions with the ankitanama (pen name) “Purandara Vittala”

Venkatamakhi is regarded as the grand theorist of Carnatic music. In 17th century AD, he developed “Melakarta”, for classifying south Indian ragas. There are 72 Melakartas presently.

The birth of the Musical Trinity – Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri – at Tiruvarur between the years 1750 to 1850 A.D. ushered in an era of dynamic development in Carnatic music.

Some of the salient features of this form of classical music are:

  • It is an indigenously developed style of classical music
  • The Melakarta scheme is a highly comprehensive and systematic formula which includes within its fold all the modes used in ancient as well as modern systems of music of the different parts of the world.
  • It is strongly kriti-based
  • Unity of raga, tala and shruti in every piece
  • The system gives equal importance to melody and rhythm.
  • Mixing the three degrees of speeds
  • Fewer instruments are used in Karnatak than in northern Indian music, and there are no exclusively instrumental forms.
  • There is an even balance between re-creativity (soulful interpretation of the compositions of great masters) and creativity (on the spot improvisations).
  • Some of the important Carnatic music compositions are- Gitam, suladi, svarajati, Jatisvaram, varnam, kritanam, kriti, pada, javali, pallavi etc

Some of the most important Carnatic compositions are:


  • It is the simplest type of composition
  • It is very simple in construction, with an easy and melodious flow of music.
  • It is sung without repetition from the beginning to the end.
  • The theme of the song is usually devotional, though there are a few gitas in praise of musical luminaries and Acharyas.
  • Gitas have been composed in Sanskrit, Kannada and Bhandira bhasha.


  • It is very much like Gitam in musical structure and composition
  • The Suladi is a talamalika, the sections being in different talas.
  • The sahitya syllables are fewer than in the gitas and there is a profusion of vowel extensions.
  • The theme is devotional.
  • Suladis are composed in different tempos vilambita, madhya and druta.
  • Purandaradasa has composed many Suladis.


  • More complicated than the gitas
  • It consists of three sections, called Pallavi, Anupallavi and Charanam.
  • The theme is devotional, heroic or amorous.
  • Syama Sastri, one among the Musical Trinity, was famous for the use of svarajati


  • It is noted for its rhythmical excellence
  • This is a musical form belonging to the realm of dance music. In some Jatisvaram, the Pallavi and Anupallavi are sung to jatis and the Charanas are sung to a mixture of svaras and jatis.


It is a complete composed piece, designed to show the characteristic phrases and melodic movements of a raga and is usually performed at the beginning of a concert


Clothed in simple music, the kirtanam abounds in Bhakti bhava. It is suited for congregational singing as well as individual presentation.


It is a highly evolved musical form. Kritis form the mental backbone of any typical Carnatic music concert and is the longer format of Carnatic song.


Padas are scholarly compositions in Telugu and Tamil. Though they are composed mainly as dance forms, they are also sung in concerts, on account of their musical excellence and aesthetic appeal.


It is a composition belonging to the sphere of light classical music. They are songs which are sensuous in concept and spirit. Javalis are composed in Telugu, Kannada and Tamil. This form resembles the Thumris of Hindustani Music.


It is mainly a dance form, but on account of its brisk and attractive music, it sometimes finds a place in music concerts as a conclusion piece. It usually begins with jatis.


This is the most important branch of creative music. It is in this branch of manodharma sangeeta, that the musician has ample opportunities of displaying his or her creative talents, imaginative skill, and musical intelligence.


It is one of the methods of raga improvisation (manodharma) in the Carnatic classical music tradition, suited mainly for vocal, violin and veena. Tanam is the second part of a Raagam Taanam Pallavi, and comes immediately after the raga is sung but before the pallavi is about to begin.


Some of the important differences between Carnatic and Hindustani music are:

Hindustani MusicCarnatic Music
It originated in North India. It was influenced by foreign traditionsIt originated in South India. No such foreign influence
No strong emphasis on kriti as in CarnaticIt is strongly kriti-based
No strict adherence to unity of raga, tala and Sruti as in Carnatic musicUnity of raga, tala and Sruti in every piece
Note by note raga developmentPhrase by phrase raga development
Prevalence of significant number of gharanasNo such prevalence of gharanas
More importance to vocal than instrumentsEqual importance to both
Various sub-styles of singingOnly one sub-style of singing