Indian Music as a Cultural System

Topics: Indian Music

Several different ideas have shaped classical Indian music over many centuries, and that has made it so distinctive from the traditional western music that I have become accustomed to hearing. Focusing specifically on North Indian music, known as Hindustani, we see how the music has transformed from focusing on musical status to the prolific industry that it is today.

In the early 1900s, when Hindustani music was becoming popular, it was originally kept for those of wealthier statuses. There were no public concerts at this time and the majority of musicians could only be afforded by those with money or royal status.

The musicians were so costly due to their extensive training and learning of one specific music style. In this period, most students were groomed at an early age for music within a guru-disciple relationship, where the student, or disciple, would live with their guru and immerse themselves in the guru’s preferred method of music. Since then, the relationship between learning music has greatly decreased from such an intensive form, and music has become available to nearly everyone.

Modern Hindustani music now is used for entertainment, traditional practices, and devotional settings. Much of the music serves a prayer-like purpose and is considered to be a gift from God. Using music in this way is incredibly common for Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims.

Much of this devotional element to Hindustani music can be heard in the vocal performances, with their lyrics, or “texts.” These texts are known as Vedas or sacred knowledge.

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It is considered the root of classical music and is typically written and performed in Sanskrit. There are two “main Vedas,” that are used. The first of them is Rig Veda, which happens to be “the oldest of the sacred books of Hinduism,” and is a collection of poems and hymns that mark Hindu heritage. The second is Sama Veda, which is another sacred book of Hinduism, commonly called the “book of the song:” full of melodies and chants. This video is sung by a specialist, or someone who has trained to perform the same Veda, with a special focus on the syllables used. Both of the Vedas mentioned will frequently get lost in translation, though, specifically the Sama Veda. Since Sanskrit is such an old language and many do not speak it anymore, much of the true text cannot be understood in its original form, but the sound of the music itself is sacred.

For the recitation of the same Veda, a special pattern and the way of ordering the syllables is used, called vikriti. Three patterns are most common among the same Veda: Krama, Jata, and Ghana. The krama pattern is broken down to this: 1-2 2-1, 2-3 3-2, …; and each number represents a syllable of the phrase from the text being recited. The data pattern is recited as 1-2 2-1 1-2, 2-3 3-2 2-3, … and so on and is spoken the same way the krama is, with syllables. Lastly, the ghana pattern is spoken like: 1-2 2-1 1-2-3 3-2-1 1-2-3, … and so on, and again, is treated like the two previous patterns. These three vikriti patterns are vital to the preservation of these sacred texts, since most of the Hindustani music, including this Vedas, is passed down through an oral tradition.

Much of the growth of Hindustani music can be attributed to raga. Raga is a set of instrumental or vocal pitches, containing at least 5 notes with an ascending and descending form It is sung with syllables from Indian solfege: sa, re, ga, ma, pa, DHA, ni – where our Western solfege developed from. The raga is greatly associated with different moods, seasons, and times of the day. Many will have morning ragas in which, like the name, they are sung or played in the morning. For example, Raga Bhairavi can be performed at any time in the morning. There are also evening ragas, such as Raga Adana, which should be performed late at the night.

There are many smaller details that raga contributes to creating many parts of a Hindustani fixed composition: a bandish. The “fixed” means there are certain notes decided on as a part of the raga and it’s typically accompanied by rhythmic instruments, like the tabla; and a drone, like a tamboura. Typically, a performance will begin with an alap: a free rhythm, improvised, piece of music that introduces the raga. After the alap, it is typical to have a jor, which is a longer section of composing music that elaborates on that raga. Many times, the rest of the composed piece will transition with a much: a section of music that is continuously referred back to within the composition. It’s like a small melodic section, a “mini” chorus if we put it into Western music terms. Similar to the much in the way that these are shorter passages of composing music is tan (taan). These are very difficult, skilled, and fast passages that are often improvised and use vowels to weave together notes in a fast, melodic section. Mostly, the vowels are the same syllables used and set in the bandish. Another incredibly vital part of the bandish is a star. There are many different types of vistar, but the broad overview is it is a more detailed addition to the raga, done in slower passages of the different notes, helping to establish the mood of the raga.

A vocal genre that is commonly used in Hindustani music is the Dhrupad style. It’s a vocal style that has been incredibly influential in the development of the more modern Hindustani music and the simpler components that have already been previously mentioned. For example, the dagar alap is actually what has made the usage of this nonmetrical, improvised section a standard for common Hindustani music. There is a medium jor, where all notes are introduced, and the phrases are longer, and there is a fast jor as well, where syllables are repeated rapidly and in quick succession. For this fast jor, a popular, intense vibrato technique is used, called Zamak.

These vocal characteristics are not the only components that distinguish Hindustani music from western classical music. There are instrumental techniques, styles, and characteristics that help define it as well. Common to their musical performances are rhythmic instruments like the tabla, as previously mentioned, and a smaller drum, the kanji. There is always a drone as well, like the tamboura. There are also the melodic instruments that help lead the voices in these performances, such as the violin, a sitar, sarod, sarangi, and a bansuri. All of these melodic instruments play compositions in relatively the same way that the vocalist will perform them. Rather than the fixed composition being called a bandish, as it is for vocal music, it is labeled, Vilambit Gat, for instrumentalists. As vocal music has its genre “dhrupad,” instrumental music similarly has “gat.” As it’s been mentioned with vocalist music, these compositions will begin with an alap section. Following this can be branches of the gat, similar to the jor in vocalist music. There is Madhya Gat, which is a medium speed with improvisation, tan, and vistar. Then there is Drut Gat, which is the faster version, with still improvisation, tan, and vistar. Lastly, the fastest is jhala, which consists of shorter phrases.

All three of these sections of instrumental music don’t just differ from vocal music by their names, but by the addition of rhythm, which is significant here when compared to vocalists. The rhythmic element, tala, is much more evident in instrumental music due to the presence of rhythmic instruments like the tabla or kinara mentioned. Tala is a way for performers to keep time and is performed in cycles and helps keep the whole composition together, especially with the amount of improvisation in each performance. Many performers, when they are not themselves playing a section, or if they are singing, have devised a way to visually keep tala: clap-2-3-4, clap-6-7-8, wave-10-11-12, clap-14-15-16; this creates one cycle of tala. For improvised sections, a performer may go on and on with the phrase, but the section will always end on sam, or the downbeat, as a way to complete the phrase. Each performance typically ends with a that, which is a short, and fast passage, that repeats 3 times before it lands on the sam. It is typical to hear it with syllables, with an accompanying tabla, while the phrase occurs in an 11-beat cycle. This way, when it is repeated 3 times, the last syllable lands on that sam.

Overall, I have found Hindustani music to be quite refreshing from all the Western classical music I’ve grown accustomed to. While “composing” our piece of Hindustani music, it proved to be much more difficult than anticipated. We incorporated many aspects typical of Hindustani music like a drone in the background, two kanjira players, a violin, and quite a bit of improvisation, but found it difficult to change phrases. We began with an alap but had trouble determining how long it would last and how we would efficiently move to our composed sections. Eventually, after coming up with a simple mukhra that lasts for one-quarter of the taal cycle, we were able to easily go between improvised phrases to our composed phrases. Although trying to stick to an oral tradition of performing, we found that we did have to write down the order of what we would play, but we have no written sheet music to follow. While thinking it may have been difficult to remember every idea we had come up with – composition-wise – it proved to be easier than I expected. There are small melodic phrases that need to be remembered, but with the amount of improvisation incorporated, it became less of a daunting task.

After learning so much about Hindustani music and being able to apply it to an actual composition of my own making, I feel much more appreciative of the different music around the world. Experiencing it for the first time was odd for me, but after learning about the process of what goes into these compositions and discovering what has changed over centuries, it has become so much more interesting to delve into.

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Indian Music as a Cultural System. (2022, May 14). Retrieved from

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