What is Hindustani Music?

In Indian classical music, there are two systems. Hindustani music is performed and understood throughout North India, and Karnataka music is confined to the Southern peninsula. As both of them have intricate theories, it is impossible to explain both in this limited space. Here I will try to give some general ideas about Hindustani music.

Characteristics of Hindustani Music

 There are various types of music in India. Popular songs, folk songs, religious songs, classical music, music to accompany classical dance, "fusion," a mix of India with Western music, and so on. But compared with Japanese traditional music, which has almost been abandoned as obsolete, Indian traditional music has been fairly well preserved. Indian music has been retained its traditional grammar obstinately, while branching off into many varieties. Although threatened by the new trend of fusion music, traditional music basically consists of the following characteristics:
 1.There is no concept of harmony being common as in Western music. Notes are not sounded simultaneously with different notes. The music of India is essentially melodic. Whether it be the yell of the most primitive tribes or a sophisticated form of art, whether it is vocal or instrumental, the music is 'linear'. This concept is popular not only in India, but also in other 'ethnic' musics throughout the world, including Japan. In Japan, traditionalsongs are not sung using harmony.
 2.The concept of rhythm in India is similar to the concept of the cycle of life as found in Hinduism and Buddhism. According to this concept, the death of all living things, including human beings is not the end of the life, but the start of another. The concept of rhythm in India is quite similar to this concept. Every variation of melody and rhythm is concluded on the first beat of the rhythm cycle known as tala. The thought that the end is the beginning is related to Indian cosmology.
These two characteristics are found in every form of Indian music. Among them, the most sophisticated and developed form is classical music. Therefore, it is quite necessary to understand classical music by studying other Indian musical forms.

The art of improvisation

 Hindustani music has another important characteristic. It is improvisation. This is music that the performers try to improvise melodies on the spot, rather than faithfully playing the score as it has been written by the composer. Although both are called'classical', this is what differentiates Indian from Western classical music,which is almost all pre-composed and designed elaborately like a building designed by an architect. Hindustani music is similar to jazz. Improvisation is the essence and life of jazz. A performer is expected to develop variations and to create improvisational melodies with his or herown idea, and technique is based on a given theme or pre-composed melody. If the words 'given theme' in this definition are replaced with 'raga', it could be said that Hindustani music has almost the same concept as jazz. What the musicians of Hindustani music try to understand though goes beyond the development and creation of the melodies. As they say "the ultimate aim of the performance is to figure out the Nada-Brahma", the god of sound. Their attitude is to create and feel universal beauty that exists beyond human emotion.


 "A raga may be defined broadly as a melodic scheme, characterized by a definite scale or notes, order or sequence of notes, melodic phrases, pauses and stases and tonal graces." --An Introduction to Indian Musicby B.C. Deva.
The number of variation in scales with 12 notes in a octave is theoretically nearly infinite. Combinations of notes are arranged in scales in an esthetic way and are given certain names. As these scales have their own mood, they are characterized with emotions, times, or seasons. (However, the Karnataka system usually does not give these characteristics to ragas.)
So we should not simply understand raga as the different varieties of scales. Ragas can be given different names, while using the same scale. The late and much renowned musicologist B.C. Deva defined the grammar of the raga as follows:

  1. It has a definite set of notes ,which are its alphabet.
  2. The minimum number of notes for a raga is five and maximum nine. There are, however, exceptions.
  3. It has a permitted manner of ascent (arohana) and descent (avarohana).
  4. A raga uses characteristic melodic units (pakad, chalan, tan, sanchara or varna) .
  5. Certain notes (svaras) in its alphabet find to varying degrees ( vadi, samvadi, anuvadi) . Melodic sections commence and end on defined notes (graha and nyasa) .
  6. While there are graces and accents common to all ragas, most of them have gamakas all their own, which give them distinctive qualities.

As an expedient way of classifying ragas, there are in general ten different scale patterns in the Hindustani system. Although the names of notes are written on the C scale, the scale of raga does not necessary have to have C as its basic note because there is no absolute pitch. If these are played on a piano or other keyboard, it is easier to understand the idea of raga.

  1. Bilaval/C D E F G A B C'
  2. Khamaj/C D E F G A B♭ C'
  3. Kafi/C D E♭ F G A B♭ C'
  4. Asavari/C D E♭ F G A♭ B♭ C'
  5. Bhairav/C D♭ E F G A♭ B C'
  6. Bhairavi/C D♭ E♭ F G A♭ B♭ C'
  7. Kalyan/C D E F# G A B C'
  8. Marwa/C D♭ E F# G A B C'
  9. Poorvi/C D♭ E F# G A♭ B C'
  10. Todi/C D♭ E♭ F# G A♭ B C'


 The essential characteristic of tala is its cyclic or repetitive nature. The original meaning of the word tala is "palm" or "clapping". This is easy to understand if we compare it to the flow of time, and cycle of the week. Time goes forward in a linear fashion. But a Monday, for example, repeats itself making the week a cycle. Similarly musical time flows ahead. But a certain rhythmic phrase returns again and again. The first beat of a rhythmic phrase that repeats is called sam. The improvisational melodies and variation of rhythms finally arrive at sam and are concluded at sam.
Popular talas include bol , a system of mnemonic syllables corresponding to the beat and the way of beating tabla in Hindustani music.

  1. Teen tala 16 beats (4+4+4+4)
    dha dhin dhin dha /dha dhin dhin dha /dha tin tin dha /dha dhin dhin dha
  2. Ek Tala 12 beats (2+2+2+2+2+2)
    dhin dhin /dhage trkita /tu na /ka tta /dhage trkita /dhin na
  3. Jhap tala 10 beats (2+3+2+2)
    dhi na / dhi dhi na / ti na / dhi dhi na
  4. Rupak tala 7 beats (3+2+2)
    ti ti na / dhi na /dhi na
  5. Dadra tala 6 beats (3+3)
    dha dhi na / dha ti na

What the Musicians Do on Stage

 Now let's have a look at what a musician is doing on stage from the beginning to the end of an actual performance.
Before sitting on the stage, the main performer decides the raga. The factors involved in selecting a raga are time, season, mood, and so on. After deciding on a certain raga and tala, he or she roughly constructs the whole performance according to the given time. The structure of the performance follows a traditional pattern. The performance usually consists of two parts. In the first part, called alap, the performer introduces the notes of the raga one-by-one without tabla accompaniment. The second part is called gat. The proportion of the time given to each is decided by the performer. Alap is sometimes more elaborate and long, but sometimes very short.
Then the main performer and the accompanists start to tune their instruments. Tambura is tuned according to the raga and tabla to a basic note. This process is important for the musicians to concentrate on the performance. Sometimes there is no gap between the tuning and the commencement of the performance.

Alap and Gat

Alap is the process of introducing scale and certain expressions of the chosen raga. It consists of three parts. The main performer adds notes one-by-one and creates the mood without a tempo, as if he or she were slowly climbing up steps. Alap is followed by jod, a certain tempo, and jhala, which has a faster tempo than jod.
When a theme melody based on a certain tala (rhythmic cycle) is introduced by a main performer, the gat begins. Listening to the theme melody, a tabla accompanist catches the tala immediately, then begins the basic pattern (theka) of the tala. In the gat, the main performer shows variations of the theme and improvised melody with various techniques. When the improvised melodies are concluded, he or she comes back to the theme again. While the main performer repeats the theme, a tabla accompanist plays improvised rhythmic variations. In this process, the tempo is gradually accelerated. Tala sometimes changes in the middle. In the final part, the musicians play in a very fast tempo, which makes the audience excited. When the performance reaches the fastest and the most exciting part, it means the whole performance will end.
Gat allows both the main performer and the tabla accompanist to show their virtuosity. The exchange between them, guessing each other's next pattern, reproducing the same patterns, and shuffling them makes the audience excited and thrilled.

The Aim of the Musicians

As mentioned above, the performance of Hindustani music starts slowly and builds toward a climax. But a peaceful mood (shanta) is preserved from the beginning to the end. Although there is a certain emotion in the music, there is no actual feeling expressed like sadness, anger, or joy. Though the actual performance is played by humans, the music itself is considered a phenomenon beyond human activity. In this way, Indian classical music is not separate from Indian philosophy, which seeks a state of unity in Brahma, the Universe, and Atman, the Self.
The musician Kosugi Takehisa, who has been perfecting the art of improvisation says in his book Ongaku no Picnic,
"Music is a transcendental vibration in the universe. A musician is an antenna and a receiver with the tuned circuit. A musician is not an expressionist, but a medium, which tries to catch a transcendental vibration."