Indian Music

The music of India includes multiple varieties of folk, popular, pop, and classical music. India’s classical music tradition, including Carnatic and Hindustani music, has a history spanning millennia and developed over several eras, remains fundamental to the lives of Indians today as sources of religious inspiration, cultural expression and pure entertainment. India is made up of several dozen ethnic groups, speaking their own languages and dialects, having very distinct cultural traditions.


Classical Music

The origins of Indian classical music can be found from the oldest of scriptures, part of the Hindu tradition, the Vedas.Samaveda, one of the four Vedas, describes music at length. Indian classical music has its origins as a meditation tool for attaining self-realization, though available mainly to an elite audience. All different forms of these melodies (Ragas) are believed to affect various “chakras” (energy centers, or “moods”) in the path of the Kundalini. However, there is little mention of these esoteric beliefs in Bharat’s Natyashastra, the first treatise laying down the fundamental principles of drama, dance, and music. The Samaveda, one of the four Vedas, created out of Riga-Veda so that its hymns could be sung as Samagana, established its first pop.

Indian classical music has one of the most complex and complete musical systems ever developed. 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, replacing Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do. However, it uses the just intonation tuning (unlike Western classical music which uses the equal temperament tuning system).

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.


Instruments typically used in Hindustani music include sitar, sarod, tanpura, bansuri, shehnai, sarangi, and tabla. Instruments typically used in Carnatic music include Flute, gottuvadyam, veena, mridangam, kanjira, ghatam and violin.

The two main genres of classical music have been Carnatic music (Karnataka Sangeeth), found predominantly in the peninsular regions and Hindustani classical music, found in the northern and central parts. While both traditions claim Vedic origin, history indicates that the two traditions diverged from a common musical root since the 13th century.

Hindustani Music

Hindustani music is an Indian classical music tradition that took shape in northern India circa the 13th and 14th centuries AD from existing religious, folk, and theatrical performance practices. The practice of singing based on notes was popular even from the Vedic times where the hymns in Sama Veda, a sacred text, was sung as Samagana and not chanted. 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.

Players of the tabla, a type of drum, usually keep the rhythm in Hindustani Music. Another common instrument is the stringed tambura (also known as tanpura), which is played at a steady tone (a drone) throughout the performance of the raga. There are different ragas like bhupali, kafee, shivranjani, bhairav, bheempalasi and others. This task traditionally falls to a student of the soloist, a task which might seem monotonous but is, in fact, an honour and a rare opportunity for the student who gets it. The prime themes of Hindustani music are romantic love, nature, and devotionals of Rama, Krishna and Allah.

In Hindustani Music, the performance usually begins with a slow elaboration of the raga, known as alap. This can range from very long (30-40 minutes) to very short (2-3 minutes) depending on the style and preference of the musician. Once the raga is established, the ornamentation around the mode begins to become rhythmical, gradually speeding up. This section is called the jor. Finally, the percussionist joins in and the tala is introduced. There is a significant amount of persian and arabic influence in Hindustani music.

Carnatic Music

The present form of Carnatic music is based on historical developments that can be traced to the 15th – 16th centuries CE and thereafter. From the ancient Sanskrit works available, and the several epigraphical inscriptional evidences, the history of classical musical traditions can be traced back to about 2500 years. 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 gayaki). Like Hindustani music, Carnatic music rests on two main elements: raga, the modes or melodic formula, and tala, the rhythmic cycles.

Carnatic raga elaborations are generally much faster in tempo and shorter. The opening piece is called a varnam, and is a warm-up for the musicians. A devotion and a request for a blessing follows, then a series of interchanges between ragams (unmetered melody) and thaalams (the ornamentation, equivalent to the jor). This is intermixed with hymns called krithis. This is followed by the pallavi or theme from the raga. Carnatic pieces can also be fixed; these are famous compositions that are popular among those who appreciate Carnatic (especially vocal) music.

Carnatic music is similar to Hindustani music in that it is mostly improvised (see musical improvisation), but it is much more influenced by theory and has stricter rules,thus making it one of the toughest forms of music to practise. It emphasizes on the expertise of the voice more than that of the instruments. Primary themes include Devi worship, Rama worship, descriptions of temples and patriotic songs. Sri Purandara Dasa(1480 – 1564) is known as the father of Carnatic music. Tyagaraja (1759 – 1847), Muthuswami Dikshitar (1776 – 1827) and Syama Sastri (1762 – 1827) are know as Trinity of Carnatic.


Folk Music


Bhavageete (literally ‘devotional song’) is a form of expressionist poetry and light music.


Bhangra is a form of dance-oriented folk music that has become a pop sensation in the United Kingdom and North America. What no one knows is why it has this name. Most people claim that when a low note is played during the piece that is known as bhangra, as the first note of every piece. It isn’t usually heard clearly.


Lavani is a popular folk form of Maharashtra. 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.


Dandiya is a form of dance-oriented folk music that has also been adapted for pop music worldwide. The present musical style is derived from the traditional musical accompaniment to the folk dance of Dandiya called by the same name, dandiya. (DANDIYA means small sticks and are used in place of swords to train and practice martial art in form of dance by tribals in interior Gujarat in India. it is believed to be in practice since the days when Lord Krishna migrated from Mathura to Dwaraka).


Rajasthan has a very diverse cultural collection of musician castes, including Langas, Sapera, Bhopa, Jogi and Manganiyar. Rajasthan Diary quotes it as a soulful, full-throated music with Harmonious diversity. The haunting melody of Rajasthan evokes from a variety of delightfully primitive looking instruments. The stringed variety include the Sarangi, Rawanhattha, Kamayacha, Morsing and Ektara.Percussion instruments come in all shapes and sizes from the huge Nagaras and Dhols to the tiny Damrus. The Daf and Chang are a big favourite of the Holi (the festival of colours) revellers. Flutes and bagpipers come in local flavours such as Shehnai, Poongi, Algoza, Tarpi, Been and Bankia. The essence of Rajasthani Music is derived from the creative symphony of string instruments, percussion instruments and wind instruments accompanied by melodious renditions of folk singers. It enjoys a respectable presence in Bollywood (Indian Film Fraternity) Music as well.


The Bauls of Bengal were a mystical order of musicians in 18th, 19th and early 20th 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 a group of mystic minstrels. They are thought to have been influenced greatly 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).


Rabindra Sangeet

A towering figure of Indian music was Rabindranath Tagore. Writing in Bengali, he created a library of over 2,000 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 based on the principles of Hindustani classical. It is performed with one or two lead singers, several chorus singers, harmonium, tabla, and dholak.

Indian Pop Music

The biggest form of Indian pop music is filmi, or songs from Indian musical films. The Film industry of India supported music by according reverence to classical music while utilizing the western orchestration to support Indian melodies. Music composers like C. Ramchandra, Salil Chowdhary, S.D. Burman, Vasant Desai, Shankar Jaikishan employed the principles of harmony while retaining classical and folk flavour. Reputed names in the domain of Indian classical music like Pt. Ravishankar, Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Pt. Ramnarayan have also composed music for films. Independent pop acts such as Asha Bhosle, Alisha Chinai, Shaan, Madhushree, Shreya Ghoshal, Nihira Joshi, Kavita Krishnamurthy, Chinmayi Sripada, Sonu Nigam, Sukhwinder Singh, KK, Kunal Ganjawala, Sunidhi Chauhan, Alka Yagnik and rock bands like Indus Creed, Indian Ocean, and Euphoria exist and 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.

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 also embraced this fusion. George Harrison (of the Beatles) played the sitar on the song “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” in 1965, which sparked interest from Shankar, who subsequently took 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.

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. Since the 90’s, Canadian born musician Nadaka who has spent most of his life in India, has been creating music that is an acoustic fusion of Classical Indian music with a contemporary sound.

In the new millennium, American hip-hop has featured Indian Filmi and Bhangra. Mainstream hip-hop artists have sampled songs from Bollywood 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.


Indian Rock & Metal Music

The rock music “scene” in India is extremely small when compared to filmi or fusion music “scenes” but has of recent years come into its own, achieving a cult status of sorts. Rock music in India has its origins in 1960s and 70’s 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 formerly known as The Rock Machine got itself noticed on the international stage with hits like Rock N Roll Renegade. Other bands quickly followed. As of now, the rock music scene in India is quietly growing day by day and gathering more support. With the introduction of MTV in the early 1990s, Indians began to be exposed 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, PRITHVI, and Nexus. The future looks encouraging thanks to entities such as DogmaTone Records, that are dedicated to promoting and supporting Indian Rock.

One of the most famous rock musicians in the world is the late Freddie Mercury of Queen. Born Farrokh Bomi Bulsara to Indian parents in Zanzibar, he was raised in Panchgani near Mumbai. Mercury was influenced early on by the Bollywood playback singer Lata Mangeshkar along with western influences such as Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, and The Beatles.

Film Music

India is the largest film producing country in the world. It produces around 1,000 films in 27 official languages. Every film must contain five to six songs which are based either on classical Indian music or light music. It also contains devotional songs. The Indian audience loves music from films. There are number of music recording studios based in different film cities of India in Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Chennai and Noida Film City.