The music of India includes Indian classical music, multiple varieties of folk, popular, pop, and, most recently, rock music. The origins of Indian classical music can be found in the oldest Hindu scriptures, the Vedas. The Samaveda is said to have laid the foundation for Indian music, and consists mainly of hymns of Rigveda, set to melodies that would be sung using three to seven musical notes during Vedic sacrifices. Indian classical music was regarded as a means of self-realization and salvation, rather than simply a means of self-expression. The two main traditions of Indian classical music, Carnatic, found predominantly in the peninsular regions of India, and Hindustani, found in the northern and central parts, began to diverge the two traditions began to diverge from a common musical root around the thirteenth century, with the establishment of the Islamic Delhi Sultanate in the north. Hindustani music is considered to have absorbed Persian and Turkic features, introduced by musicians from Persia and Central Asia.

Indian classical music has one of the most complex and complete musical systems. Like Western classical music, it divides the octave into 12 semitones, but the base frequency of the scale is not fixed, and intertonal gaps may also vary. Music remains fundamental to the lives of Indians today as a source of religious inspiration, cultural expression and pure entertainment.

Indian Classical Music

Like all art forms in Indian culture, music is believed to have a divine origin, from the Devas and Devis. But it is also generally accepted that music had natural origins. Ancient treatises describe the connection of the origin of swaras (the notes of Indian music) to the sounds of animals and birds, and man’s keen sense of observation and perception in trying to simulate these sounds. According to ancient theory, after hearing and distinguishing between the different sounds that emanated from bamboo reed when air passes through its hollows, man designed the first flute. In this way, music is venerated as an aspect of the supreme (nāda brāhmam)[1].

The origins of Indian classical music can be found in the oldest Hindu scriptures, the Vedas. Sound was considered to have an important impact on the governance of the cosmos. The correct chanting of the Rigveda, and the singing of the Samaveda, were thought to be fundamental to maintaining order in the Universe and in the human world.[2] The Samaveda is said to have laid the foundation for Indian music, and consists mainly of hymns of Rigveda, set to melodies that would be sung using three to seven musical notes during Vedic sacrifices.[3] The Yajur-Veda, which mainly consists of sacrificial formulas, mentions the veena (plucked string instrument) as an accompaniment to vocal recitations during the sacrifices.[4] The Samaveda, created out of Rigveda so that its hymns could be sung as Samagana (a practice of uniting thought, sound and music while chanting the hymns), established the first principles of classical music.

Indian classical music was regarded as a means of self-realization and salvation, rather than a means of self-expression. References to Indian classical music are found in many ancient religious texts, including epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Yajnavalkya Smriti states, "Veena vadhana tathvangna sruti, jathi, visartha talanjaaprayasena moksha margam niyachathi" ("The one who is well versed in veena, one who has the knowledge of srutis and one who is adept in tala attains salvation without doubt.")[5] In esoteric teachings, different forms of ragas are believed to affect the various "chakras (energy centers, or "moods") in the body. There is little mention of these esoteric beliefs in Bharat's Natyashastra (third to fourth century C.E.), the first treatise explicitly laying down the fundamental principles of dramaturgy, which contains six chapters on music. Other important texts on music include Brihaddesi (eighth to ninth century), in which raga were first named and discussed; and Sangitramakara (thirteenth century), a compilation of excerpts from earlier texts and treatises on contemporary music practice. [6]

Indian classical music has one of the most complex and complete musical systems. Like Western classical music, it divides the octave into 12 semitones of which the 7 basic notes are Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa, in order, with five interspersed half-notes, resulting in a 12-note scale. Unlike the 12-note scale in Western music, the base frequency of the scale is not fixed, and intertonal gaps (temper) may also vary; however with the gradual replacement of the sarangi by the harmonium, an equal tempered scale is increasingly used. The performance is set to a melodic pattern ([[raga]] or raag) characterized in part by specific ascent (Arohana) and descent (Avarohana sequences, which may not be identical. Other characteristics include King (Vadi) and Queen (Samvadi) notes and a unique note phrase (Pakad). In addition, each raga has its natural register (Ambit) and glissando (Meend) rules, as well as features specific to different styles and compositions within the raga structure. Performances are usually marked by considerable improvisation within these norms.

Indian classical music is monophonic in nature and based around a single melody line which is played over a fixed drone. The performance is based melodically on particular ragas and rhythmically on talas.

Historical continuity has been maintained through the transmission of the music directly from teacher to student; though notation systems exist, they are mainly intended only as mnemonic devices. Contemporary musicians associate themselves with musical lineages (gharanas) descended from particular composers or performers. Modern classical music of India has not only preserved its ancient heritage but, through innovation and experimentation, attained new heights. The modern writings of Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, Lalit Kishore Singh, Dr. Lalmani Misra, and Acharya Brahaspati have given a scientific basis to Indian music system which was set forth in the fundamental rules of the ancient texts.

The two main traditions of classical music have been Carnatic music, found predominantly in the peninsular regions of India, where Dravidian languages are spoken; and Hindustani music, found in the northern and central parts where Indo-Aryan languages are spoken. While both claim Vedic origin, history indicates that the two traditions began to diverge from a common musical root around the thirteenth century, with the establishment of the Islamic Delhi Sultanate in the north. Hindustani music is considered to have absorbed Persian and Turkic features, introduced by musicians from Persia and central Asia. In the thirteenth century, Sharngadeva composed the Sangita Ratnakara, which has terms such as the turushka todi (Turkish todi), revealing an influx of ideas from Islamic music. This text is the last to be mentioned by both the Carnatic and the Hindustani traditions, and is thought to date the divergence between the two.

Hindustani musical performance is based on a composition which is set to a meter and from which extemporized variations are generated. Carnatic music gives greater emphasis to a fixed and memorized composition and its memorized variations, which are longer and take up more of a performance. Carnatic music performances may include a dozen or more pieces, while Hindustani music performances rarely have more than four or five[7]. Although Carnatic and Hindustani traditions can be analyzed as variants of a single underlying system, in India they are considered as distinct, with separate systems of musical theory, histories, compositions, and performers. Both systems share fundamental concepts of pitch (svara), melody type (raga, known as rag in the north and ragam in the South) and meter (tala, tal in the North and talam in the South) Both use similar types of performance ensembles, with a solo vocalist or instrumentalist, a drummer as rhythmic accompanist, and a drone provided by a tanpura. A vocal soloist is always accompanied by an instrument.[8].

Hindustani music

Hindustani music is an Indian classical music tradition that took shape in northern India during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries from existing religious, folk, and theatrical performance practices. Developing a strong and diverse tradition over several centuries, it has contemporary traditions established primarily in India but also in Pakistan and Bangladesh. In contrast to Carnatic music, the other main Indian classical music tradition originating from the South, Hindustani music was not only influenced by ancient Hindu musical traditions, Vedic philosophy and native Indian sounds but also by the Persian performance practices of the Mughals. The terms "North Indian Classical Music" or "Shāstriya Sangeet" are also occasionally used.

Hindustani musical performance is based on a composition which is set to a meter and from which extemporized variations are generated. 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. The major vocal forms associated with Hindustani classical music are dhrupad, khayal, and thumri.

The most influential musician from the Delhi Sultanate period was Amir Khusrau (1253-1325), sometimes called the father of Hindustani classical music. A prolific composer in Persian, Turkish, Arabic, as well as Braj Bhasha, he is credited with systematizing many aspects of Hindustani music, and also introducing the ragas Zeelaf and Sarparda. He created the genre of the qawwali, which fuses Persian melody and beat on a dhrupad-like structure. A number of instruments, such as the sitar and tabla, were also introduced in his time. The work of composers like Kabir or Nanak、composed in the popular language of the people (as opposed to Sanskrit)part of a larger Bhakti tradition, (strongly related to the Vaishnavite movement) which remained influential across several centuries; notable figures include Jayadeva (eleventh century), Vidyapati (1375), Chandidas (fourteenth-fifteenth century), and Meerabai (1555-1603).

The legendary musician Tansen is recognized for having introduced a number of innovations, ragas as well as particular compositions. According to legend, upon his rendition of a night-time raga in the morning, the entire city fell under a hush and clouds gathered in the sky, and he could light fires by singing the raga Deepak, which is supposed to be composed of notes in high octaves.

In the twentieth century, as the power of the maharajahs and nawabs waned, their patronage of Hindustani music declined. In modern times, the government-run All India Radio and Radio Pakistan has helped to bring the artistes in front of the public, countering the loss of the patronage system. The advance of the film industry and other public media, has allowed musicians to begin making their living through public performances.

Carnatic music

Carnatic music, which was based in South India), was substantially influenced by the pan-Indian bhakti movement which inspired the use of religious themes. Though the earlier writers on music, Matanga, Sarangadeva and others, were also from Karnataka, the music tradition was formally named Karnataka Sangeetha only in the thirteenth century when the Vijayanagara empire was founded.[9] Carnatic music experienced renewed growth during the Vijayanagar Empire through the Kannada Haridasa movement of Vyasaraja, Purandara Dasa, Kanakadasa and others.[10]

Purandara Dasa (1480 – 1564), known as the father (Pitamaha) of Carnatic music, formulated the basic lessons of Carnatic music and is said to have produced around 475,000 compositions.[11][3]. Venkatamakhin is credited with the classification of ragas in the Melakarta System and wrote his most important work; Chaturdandi Prakasika (c.1635 C.E.) in Sanskrit. Govindacharya expanded the Melakarta Scheme into the Sampoorna raga system, which is the system in common use today.

Carnatic music is completely melodic, with improvised variations. The main emphasis is on vocal music; most compositions are written to be sung, and even when played on instruments, they are meant to be performed in a singing style (known as gāyaki).[12] Like Hindustani music, Carnatic music rests on two main elements: rāga, the modes or melodic formulæ, and tāḷa, the rhythmic cycles.

Folk Music

Indian folk music reflects India's vast cultural diversity and has many forms, including bhangra, lavani, dandiya and Rajasthani. The instruments and styles of folk music (desi) have had a historical influence on the ragas of classical music, which is viewed as a higher art form. It is also not uncommon for major writers, saints and poets to have large musical libraries and traditions attributed to them, often sung in thumri (semi-classical) style. Most of the folk music of India is associated with dance. The arrival of movies and pop music weakened the popularity of folk music, but the technology to record music and make it easily affordable to the public has made folk music easier to find and helped to revive the traditions.


Bhavageete ('emotion poetry') is a form of expressionist poetry and light music. Most of the poetry sung in this genre pertain to subjects like love, nature, and philosophy. This genre is quite popular in many parts of India, notably in Karnataka and Maharashtra, and may be called by different names in other languages. Notable Bhavageete performers include P. Kalinga Rao, Mysore Ananthaswamy, C. Aswath, Shimoga Subbanna, Archana Udupa, and Raju Ananthaswamy.


Bhangra is a lively form of music and dance that originated in the Punjab region in South Asia. Bhangra began as a part of harvest festival celebrations, and eventually became a part of such diverse occasions as weddings and New Year celebrations. Bhangra is a fusion of music, singing and the beat of the dhol drum, a single-stringed instrument called the iktar (ektara), the tumbi and an instrument reminiscent of an enlarged pair of tongs called chimta. The accompanying songs are small couplets written in the Punjabi language called bolis. They relate to harvest celebration, love, patriotism or current social issues. In Punjabi folk music, the dhol's smaller cousin, the dholki, was nearly always used to provide the main beat. Today the dhol is used much more frequently, with and without the dholki. Additional percussion, including tabla, is less frequently used in bhangra as a solo instrument but is sometimes used to accompany the dhol and dholki.

During the last 30 years, Bhangra has enjoyed a surge in popularity worldwide, both in traditional form and as a fusion with genres such as hip-hop, house, and reggae.


Lavani is a popular folk form of Maharashtra and southern Madhya Pradesh. Traditionally, the songs are sung by female artistes, but male artistes may occasionally sing Lavanis. The dance format associated with Lavani is known as Tamasha. The word Lavani comes from the word Lavanya which means beauty. There are two types, Nirguni Lavani (philosophical) and the Shringari Lavani (erotic). The devotional music of the Nirguni cult is popular all over Malwa.


Dandiya is a form of dance-oriented folk music that originated as accompaniment to devotional Garba dances, which were performed in Durga's honor. The dance form is actually the staging of a mock-fight between the Goddess and Mahishasura, the mighty demon-king, and is nicknamed "The Sword Dance." The sticks (dandiyas) of the dance represent the sword of Durga. The women wear traditional dresses such as colorful embroidered choli, ghagra and bandhani dupattas (traditional attire) dazzling with mirror work and heavy jewelry. Men wear special turbans and kedias, but can range from area to area. The dancers whirl and move their feet and arms in a choreographed manner to the tune of the music accompanied by dominating drum beats. The dhol is used, as well as complementary percussion instruments such as the dholak, tabla and others.

The origin of these dance performances or Dandiya Raas can be traced back to the life of Lord Krishna. Today, Raas is not only an important part of the Navratree (Nine Nights) festival in Gujarat, but extends itself to other festivals related to harvest and crops as well. The Mers of Saurastra are noted to perform Raas with extreme energy and vigor. Dandiya has also been adapted for pop music.


Rajasthani has a diverse cultural collection of musician castes, including Langas, Sapera, Bhopa, Jogi and Manganiyar. The Rajasthan Diary describes it as a soulful, full-throated music with harmonious diversity. The haunting melody of Rajasthan is played on a variety of delightfully primitive- looking string instruments, including the sarangi, rawanhattha, kamayacha, morsing and iktara. Percussion instruments of all shapes and sizes range from the huge nagaras and dhols to tiny damrus. The daf and chang are a favorite of the Holi (Festival of Colors) revelers. Local flutes and bagpipes include the shehnai, poongi, algoza, tarpi, been and bankia.

The essence of Rajasthani music is derived from the creative symphony of these string instruments, percussion instruments and wind instruments, accompanied by the melodious renditions of folk singers. It enjoys a respectable presence in Jollywood (Indian Film Fratenity) music as well.


The Bauls of Bengal were a mystical order of musicians in eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth-century India who played a form of music using a khamak, ektara and dotara. The word "Baul" comes from Sanskrit batul meaning divinely inspired insanity. They are thought to have been influenced by the Hindu tantric sect of the Kartabhajas as well as by Sufi sects. Bauls travel in search of the internal ideal, Maner Manush (Man of the Heart). The music of the Bauls, bAul saMgeet, refers to a particular type of folk song which carries influences of Hindu bhakti movements as well as the shuphi, a form of Sufi song, mediated by many thousands of miles of cultural intermixing. Their music represents a long heritage of preaching mysticism through songs in Bengal, like the Shahebdhoni or Bolahadi sects.

Bauls use a number of musical instruments to embellish their compositions. The "iktara" is a one-stringed drone instrument, and by far the most common instrument used by a Baul singer. It is the carved from the epicarp of a gourd, and made of bamboo and goatskin. Other commonly used musical instruments include the dotara, a multi-stringed instrument made of the wood; the dugi, a small hand-held earthen drum; percussion instruments like dhol and khol; small cymbals called "kartal" and "mandira" and the bamboo flute.

Rabindra Sangeet

A towering figure of Indian music was Rabindranath Tagore. Writing in Bengali, he created a library of over two thousand songs now known by Bengalis as rabindra sangeet, whose form is primarily influenced by Hindustani classical thumri style. Many singers in West Bengal proudly base their entire careers on the singing of Tagore musical masterpieces.


Qawwali is a Sufi form of devotional music Qawwali (Urdu: قوٌالی, Hindi: कव्वाली) is the devotional music of the Chishti Sufis of the Indian subcontinent. Qawwali is a vibrant musical tradition, based on the principles of Hindustani classical music. It is performed with one or two lead singers, several chorus singers, harmonium, tabla, and dholak. Originally performed mainly at Sufi shrines throughout the subcontinent, it has also gained mainstream popularity. Qawwali music received international exposure through the work of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Listeners, and often artists themselves are transported to a state of wajad, a trance-like state where they feel at one with God, generally considered to be the height of spiritual ecstasy in Sufism.

Pop Music

The most widespread form of Indian pop music is filmi, or songs from Indian musical films. The film industry of India has promoted traditional music by according reverence to classical music, while utilizing Western orchestration to support Indian melodies. Composers such as C. Ramchandra, Salil Chowdhary, S.D. Burman, Vasant Desai, and Shankar Jaikishan employed Western principles of harmony while retaining classical and folk flavor. Reputed Indian classical musicians, such as Pandit Ravishankar, Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and Pandit Ramnarayan, have also composed music for films. Independent pop acts such as Asha Bhosle, Alisha Chinai, Shaan, Sonu Nigam, Sukhwinder Singh, KK, Kunal Ganjawala, Sunidhi Chauhan, Alka Yagnik, Shreya Ghoshal and rock bands like Indus Creed, Indian Ocean, and Euphoria have gained mass appeal with the advent of cable music television.

Interaction with non-Indian Music

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, rock and roll fusions with Indian music were well-known throughout Europe and North America. Ali Akbar Khan's 1955 performance in the United States was perhaps the beginning of this trend, which was soon centered around Ravi Shankar, playing his sitar.

In 1962, Shankar and Bud Shank, a jazz musician, released Improvisations and Theme From Pather Pachali and began fusing jazz with Indian traditions. Other jazz pioneers such as John Coltrane, who recorded a composition entitled 'India' during the November 1961 sessions for his album Live At The Village Vanguard (the track was not released until 1963 on Coltrane's album Impressions), also embraced this fusion. George Harrison (of the Beatles) played the sitar on the song "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" in 1965, which inspired Shankar to take Harrison as his apprentice. Jazz innovator Miles Davis recorded and performed with musicians like Khalil Balakrishna, Bihari Sharma, and Badal Roy in his post-1968 electric ensembles. Other Western artists like the Grateful Dead, Incredible String Band, the Rolling Stones, the Move and Traffic soon incorporated Indian influences and instruments, and added Indian performers.

Guitarist (and former Miles Davis associate) John McLaughlin experimented with Indian music elements in his electric jazz-rock fusion group The Mahavishnu Orchestra, and pursued this with greater authenticity in the mid-1970s when he collaborated with L. Shankar, Zakir Hussain and others in the acoustic ensemble Shakti.

Though the Indian music craze soon died down among mainstream audiences, diehard fans and immigrants continued the fusion. In the late 1980s, Indian-British artists fused Indian and Western traditions to make the Asian Underground.

In the new millennium, American hip-hop has featured Indian Filmi and Bhangra. Mainstream hip-hop artists have sampled songs from Jollywood movies and have collaborated with Indian artists. Examples include Timbaland's "Indian Flute," Erick Sermon and Redman's "React," Slum Village's "Disco," and Truth Hurts' hit song "Addictive," which sampled a Lata Mangeshkar song, and the Black Eyed Peas sampled Asha Bhosle's song "Yeh Mera Dil" in their hit single "Don't Phunk With My Heart." In 1997, the British band Cornershop paid tribute to Asha Bhosle with their song Brimful of Asha, which became an international hit. British-born Indian artist Panjabi MC also had a Bhangra hit in the U.S. with "Mundian To Bach Ke" which featured rapper Jay-Z. Asian Dub Foundation are not huge mainstream stars, but their politically-charged rap and punk rock influenced sound has a multi-racial audience in their native UK.

Rock & Metal Music

The rock music "scene" in India is small when compared to filmi or fusion music "scenes" but has of recent years come into its own. Rock music in India has its origins in the 1960s and 1970s when international stars such as The Beatles visited India and brought their music with them. These artistes' collaboration with Indian musicians such as Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain have led to the development of Raga Rock. However Indian Rock Bands began to gain prominence only much later, around the late 1980s. It was around this time that the rock band Indus Creed gained recognition on the international stage with hits like Rock N’ Roll Renegade. Other bands quickly followed. The introduction of MTV, in the early 1990s, exposed young Indian musicians to various forms of rock such as grunge and speed metal. This influence can be clearly seen in many Indian bands today. The cities of Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore have emerged as major melting pots for rock and metal enthusiasts. Some prominent bands include Parikrama, Pentagram, Thermal and a Quarter, Zero, Half step down and Nexus. Entities such as DogmaTone Records, are dedicated to promoting and supporting Indian Rock.

See also

  • Indian musical instruments

  • List of regional genres of music


  1. ↑ D. Balasubramanian, Jan. 13, 2005, The music of we primates: Nada Brahmam, The Hindu. Retrieved December 14, 2007.

  2. ↑ Francis Robinson. 1989. The Cambridge encyclopedia of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives. (Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press), 445

  3. ↑ Jump up to:3.0 3.1 History of Music, Origins: history of Carnatic music. accessdate 2007-07-03

  4. ↑ L. Subramaniam, "Music of South India," Veena in Yajurveda.trumpet.sdsu. Retrieved December 14, 2007.

  5. ↑ Sangeet Marga, Path to Moksha. Yajnavalkya on Retrieved December 14, 2007.

  6. ↑ Francis Robinson. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives. (Cambridge, UK), 445

  7. ↑ Robinson, 446

  8. ↑ Robinson, 445

  9. ↑ Fountainhead of Carnatic music. The Hindu, December 02, 2000, accessdate 2007-07-03

  10. ↑ Fountainhead of Carnatic music, The Hindu. Retrieved December 14, 2007.

  11. ↑ Vasanthamadhavi. Theory of Music. (Bangalore: Prism Books, 2005. ISBN 8172863551), 183

  12. ↑ Barbara Breyer, "Composers and Tradition in Karnatik Music." Asian Music 3 (1972): 42-51


ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Balasubramanian, D. Jan. 13, 2005, The music of we primates: Nada Brahmam, The Hindu. Retrieved December 14, 2007

  • Basu, Pushpa, 2007. Raga-Rupanjali. Ratna Publications: Varanasi. A collection of Compositions of Sangeetendu Dr. Lalmani Misra by Dr. Pushpa Basu.

  • Breyer, Barbara, "Composers and Tradition in Karnatik Music." Asian Music 3 (1972): 42-51.

  • Hunt, Ken. 2000. "Ragas and Riches." In Simon Broughton, and Mark Ellingham, with McConnachie, James and Orla Duane, Ed. World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific. 70-78. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1858286360

  • Killius, Rolf. 2006. Ritual Music and Hindu Rituals of Kerala. New Delhi: B.R. Rhythms. ISBN 818882707X

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  • Maycock, Robert and Ken Hunt, 2000. "How to Listen – a Routemap of India." In Simon Broughton, and Mark Ellingham, with McConnachie, James and Orla Duane, Ed. World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific. 63-69. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1858286360

  • Robinson, Francis. 1989. The Cambridge encyclopedia of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521334519.

  • Sangeet Marga, Path to Moksha. Yajnavalkya on Retrieved December 14, 2007

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