The vocal tradition is especially strong in Indian music. It goes without saying that the song is probably the most ancient form of music. Vocal music occupies a considerable part of the Natya Shastra.
One may argue that the Vedas, especially the Samaveda, is the oldest musical text in India. It is true that the Samaveda is written in a crude musical notation. However, it is probably more appropriate for us to look at contemporary music.
Contemporary musical forms are built up from very well defined structures. These structures such as a primary theme, a secondary theme and other elements form a structured framework in which a largely improvised system of music can work.
There are many genres, some old and some new. Dhrupad and dhammar are some of the oldest in use today; they go back to the Mogul era (circa 16th century). Equally old, but stylistically quite different, is the tarana; this is based upon meaningless syllables. More modern (by Indian standards) are the highly improvised kheyal, dadra, and thumri. Another classical style is the tappa of Punjab.
Most of the classical songs of north India are devotional in nature, but there are a few genre which are especially oriented toward religion. Most notable is the bhajan, dhun or kirtan for Hindus, the kawali (qawwali) for Muslims, and the shabad for Sikhs.
Not all the music is serious, for there are also many popular genres. The gazal is one style which is known for it rich poetic, and romantic content. the Hindi geet is basically just a song. Undoubtedly, the most popular is the film song.
There are also a few genres which are oriented specifically toward musical education. The most notable example is the lakshan geet. In this style the words of the song actually describe the rag which is being performed. Another genre which is used for pedagogic purposes is the swarmalika. This style uses the sargam of the piece instead of words.
India also has a rich tradition of folk music. These will vary from region to region.
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