by David Courtney working tools


It is well known that Indian music is based on an oral tradition.  However, it is often erroneously presumed that this oral tradition precluded any musical notation.  This is not the case; musical notation in India extends back to the Vedas.  Musical notaton, known as swar lipi has existed in India from ancient Vedic age up to the modern internet age.


Historical Overview

The history of Indian musical notation is very rich.  Musical treatises have appeared througout Indian history going all the way back to the Vedas.

The Vedic hymns were typically sung in three notes.  The central note was referred to as the "swarita". This was the default state and needed no notational element.  The upper note was called the "udatta".  This was denoted with a small vertical line over the syllable.  The lower note was called the "anudatta" and was denoted with a horizontal line underneath the syllable.

The Sangeet Ratnakar is a musical treatise written in the 13th century by Sharangdev.  It is replete with well notated musical examples.

Musical notations were used in a variety of texts through the next few centuries.  They were in many languages and a variety of scripts.

Modern musical notation may be said to have begun with Vishnu Digambar Paluskar at the turn of the 20th century.  Paluskar's notational system was used by music colleges in Northern India for the next few decades.  An example of Paluskar's notation is shown below:

Lippi #1

Although Paluskar's system was precise, it was difficult.  It was soon to be replaced with an equally precise system, but one which was more intuitive. This system was introduced by Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande.  Today it is his system which has become the standard.  An example of Bhatkhande's notational system is shown below:


Lippi #2

There are a few other minor systems that may sometimes be found.  One of which is Western staff notation.  Although this makes Indian music accessible to Europeans and Americans, it has a poor acceptance within India (this will be discussed later).  Another is the system in use by the Ali Akbar College.  There are probably other minor systems as well, but any notation other than Bhatkhande's is marginal and may be discounted.  They clearly do not have a wide acceptance.


Basics of Bhatkhande Notation

Let us become familiar with the particulars of Bhatkhande's notational system.  The previous example is reshown below with annotations to make it easier to follow:


Lippi #2

The above example was taken from Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati - Kramak Pustak Malika (Volume 4) (Bhatkhande, 1985).  However we must not forget that Bhatkhande's system does not specify a script, therefore it can be written in other scripts such as the Roman script.

The above example shows two lines of a sthai in rag Basant.  We see that there is a melody line with the corresponding lyrics underneath.  This particular example is in tintal so the four vibhags are delineated with vertical lines.  The clapping arrangement is shown with the numbers underneath each line.  (Some authors place these symbols at the top.)  There are also occasional grace notes which may be indicated.

The Bhatkhande system is a model of elegance and simplicity.  The basic notational elements are shown in the figure below:

Lippi #3

In the above table we see that one simply has to write out the Sa, Re, Ga, etc.  The komal swar (flattened notes) are designated with a horizontal bar beneath.  The only note which may be sharpened is the Ma, this is designated with a vertical line over it.  The various claps of the tal are designated with their appropriate number (e. g. "2" for the second clap, "3" for the third clap etc.)  the khali is designated with a zero.  The sam is designated with an "X".  Some authors may use a "+".  The vibhag is just a vertical line.  A rest is indicated with a dash.  The register is indicated by placing dots either above or below the swar.  Finally complex beats (matras) are indicated by a crescent beneath the notes.

Although Hindi (Dev Nagri) is the most common script, this is not specified in Bhatkhande notation.  One often finds Roman, Kannada or a variety of scripts used.


Musical Notation and the Internationalization of North Indian Music

There have been two overall approaches to the internationalization of north Indian music notation.  One approach is to translate everything into staff notation, and the other is to use a Bhatkhande notation, but shift the script to Roman script.

The use of staff notation for Indian music is a very controversial issue.  It is true that staff notation has the widest acceptance outside of India.  This is no doubt a major advantage.  Unfortunately, the use of staff notation distorts the music by implying things that were never meant to be implied.

The biggest false implication of staff notation is the key.  Western staff notation inherently ties the music to a particular key.  This is something that has never been implied in Indian music.  The key is merely a question of personal convenience.  Material is routinely transposed up and down to whatever the musician finds comfortable.  Over the years a convention of transposing all material to the key of C has been adopted; unfortunately, this convention is usually not understood by the casual reader.

One other problem associated with staff notation is the implication of equal-temperament.  This clearly is not implied in Indian music.

Staff notation is not the only approach to the internationalization of North Indian music, simply writing in Roman script is the another approach.  There are advantages and disadvantages to this.

The biggest advantage of writing Bhatkhande notation in Roman script is that it does not distort the original material.  Since Bhatkhande's notation was never actually tied to any particular script, it is arguable that this is really no change at all.  Furthermore, the widespread acceptance of Roman script, even in India, means that it has a wide acceptance.

However, the use of Roman script / Bhatkhande notation is not without its deficiencies.  The biggest problem is that it absolutely requires a firm understanding of the structure and theory of North Indian music.  The practical realities of international book distribution and more especially the Internet, means that information should be instantaneously accessible.  One should not expect a casual visitor to a website, or a musician browsing through a music book, to invest the energy required to master the Bhatkhande notation.

An easy way to promote the internationalization of North Indian music is with a combined notation.  An example of the basic structure of rag Lalit in a combined notation is shown below:

Rag Lalit

ascending structure of lalit
ascending structure of lalit

Let us look at this example in greater detail.  We see that it starts with the staff notation.  This is an approximation of the Bhatkhande notation shown below it; in this particular example there are two sections.  the first section is the ascending structure of Lalit while the second section is the descending structure.

This notation presents all of the clarity of Bhatkhande notation as well as the instant accessibility of staff notation.  This is the reason why we use this extensively throughout this site.



© 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 David and Chandrakantha Courtney

For comments, corrections, and suggestions, kindly contact David Courtney at