Classical Indian Music 101

What Is Indian Classical Music?:

Indian classical music, like Western classical music, has a long and storied history and has changed in many ways over hundreds of years. However, the two are quite different, both in notation and instrumentation. Also, unlike Western classical music, which is written about a variety of themes, Indian classical music is primarily either based on tenets of the Hindu religion or about nature.

Hindustani vs. Carnatic:

Simply put, Hindustani music is the music of Northern India and Carnatic (Karnatic) music is the music of Southern India. Both genres are similar in that they use one raga per song and one tala per song, and improvisation is an important element. However, Hindustani music tends to be more heavily influenced by Persian music than Carnatic music. Carnatic music emphasizes a vocalist far more than Hindustani music does.


A raga, very basically, is the equivalent to what Western music would call a scale or mode. However, in ragas, the actual tonal distance between the notes may be completely different than "Do, Re, Mi". Furthermore, ragas also dictate which of these notes may be used, and how frequently, thereby laying a framework for improvisation. The concept of ragas and their functions is something that many musical scholars study for their whole lives.


A tala is a rhythmic pattern, generally kept on the Indian drums known as the tabla.

Some talas are very simple (yet very difficult to keep), some are extremely complex. Talas are all cyclical, and hold down the rhythm of the piece while the melodic instruments improvise. The drums do solo at some point during the song, but come back to the steady tala thereafter.

The Sitar:

Perhaps the best-known Indian classical instrument is the Sitar, which is a stringed instrument with moveable frets (allowing for tuning to different ragas).

Ravi Shankar is the best-known sitar player in the West, and his student, Beatle George Harrison, certainly helped the popularity of the instrument spread.

Other Instrumentation:

Other musical instruments used in Indian classical music are the tabla, kanjira and mridangam (drums), tanpura or tambura (droning lute), veena, sarod and gottuvadyam (stringed instruments), and both the Western violin (whose fretless nature makes it able to fit into the ragas) and the Indian bowed string instrument known as the sarangi. Flutes are also used, including the bansuri and the nadaswaram.

Starter CDs:

Hindustani Music:
Ali Akbar Khan: Traditional Music of India Compare Prices
Ravi Shankar: Sounds of India Compare Prices
Hariprasad Chaurasia: Raga Darbari Kanada Compare Prices

Carnatic Music:
Ramnad Krishnan: Vidwan: Songs of the Carnatic Tradition Compare Prices
Dr. L. Subramaniam: Karnatic Violin Compare Prices
Chitravina Ganesh: South India: Carnatic Music Compare Prices