Listening to Indian Classical Music

Indian classical music consists of two distinct traditions – the North Indian and the South Indian, which share many similarities.

The exoticness of Indian music to the Western listeners stems mainly from the differences in tuning and scales from that of Western music. Both South Indian (Carnatic, Karnatak or Karnatik) and the North Indian (Hindustani) traditions share many similarities in terminology and concept – the Raga (mode + motif), Tala (hyper-rhythm), and the dominant presence of theme and variation, are basic concepts in both traditions. The following discussion is an exclusive and basic overview of both the traditions. However Hindustani music forms the major part since it is the more famous form of Indian classical music.

History and Geography

The two musical traditions seem to have branched out of a common ancestor. The Carnatic tradition, as it stands today has three revivalists – Muthuswami Dikshitar, Shama Shastri and Thyagaraja, – whose work has been seminal in creating the repertoire and the form as it exists today.

The northern branch of the tradition, Hindustani music, which is also performed in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh – has been influenced by persian and mughal influences.  The dominant form of the tradition, the Khyal, is supposed to have found its roots in the mughal courts.

The predominant difference between the traditions, textually speaking, is the dominance of religious and prayer-related material in the carnatic form. The modern khyal was born as a new idea of having compositions that are still based around Raga, and improvisation that is set to the particularities of each ‘khyal’ or idea.

Raga and Tala which affect the melody and Rhythm respectively are the building blocks of any classical Indian piece of music. However, the approach towards other basic elements such as tuning, texture, harmony, timbre and improvisation against composition differs from that of western tradition.

Most Indian classical music is improvisational unlike the Western classical tradition. A musician improvises upon the basis of raga and tala of his choice, based on pre-composed material, which is sometimes compared to jazz standards.

Some things to know:

The performance of classical music is called a ‘Baithak’, literally means a ‘sitting’ of music. This term is literal in its concept – it’s a group of people sitting together to enjoy music. This is different from the other polar concept of a great performer entertaining somebody. The experience of a performance is shared amongst the people through physical as well as musical engagement. The relationship between the audience and the performers is not as hierarchical as in the western tradition, and the audience is often even encouraged to participate.

Khyal – is a performance of a raag. Literally, it means an idea – it is an idea in the raag. There are two forms – Bada / big, and Chhota / small. Bada comes first, chhota comes later. Bada khayal is slow moving, and sets the mood. Chhota is fast, shows the technique and skill of the singer, broadly. The poem has about 4 – 10 lines.

Alaap – Slow improvisation.

Taan – Fast improvisation.

Dhrupad – A singing style ancestral to both Hindustani and Carnatic music. Sung with long phrases, prosodic syllables.

3 thoughts on “Listening to Indian Classical Music

  1. Sanjeev Kelkar says:

    As the basic explanation at the beginning of understanding Hindusthani Music this piece serves well. The links to renditions for different aspects hs made it a useful tool.

    I believe this musicologue if extended in to series of small steps to take the reader deeper in the wide sea of Hindusthani Music it will not only serve the people not born in tradition but even the younger generation to know. Not all young generation venerates the pops and all the dhan dhan that goes on.


  2. hindustani music lover says:

    Carnatic music being “older” and “pure” is a fallacy that thoroughly needs to be debunked, in its current form what it really is an attempt of taking traditional indian music and makeing it sound like a western music orchestras, most of what and how of what is played now was written in late 1800s and 1900s where western music already had a foothold in south indian culture, if you look at Dhrupad music from north india(Tansen used to sing dhrupad) the focus is never on large ensembles and coordination of musicians,its always the raaga that takes the central position, in fact Tansen’s teacher himself was taught by one of the students of Purandhardasa who is the founder of carnatic music. Current Khayal froms are very similar to Dhrupad which was the music of ancient india. the RTP in carnatic music too is very similar in performance.

    All musical forms change over time, but there is a difference between being a sellout and taking whats good in other form and incorporating it in your music. and that is why i think like Bollywood music. carnatic music too sounds uninspired and vile.

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