I listen to some Indian music, but it does not make any sense to me, am I missing something?

Probably, every music has certain things that you must listen for so that the music makes sense.  If you do not know what to listen for, or if you are trying to listen for the wrong things, then you will have a hard time.  In general, do not try to listen for counterpoint, harmony, modulation, or anything like that.  What you should listen for will depend upon what genre of Indian music you are dealing with.

If you is listening to North Indian classical music, there are several things that you should listen for.  The easiest component for a Western musician is to become familiar with the mode.  Beyond this mode there are certain melodic requirements and limitations.  These melodic components transform the simple mode into the rag.  Each rag has its own identity.  It is also helpful to understand how these melodic entities are set against a rhythmic framework; this is known as the tal.


What types of Indian music are there?

There are two systems of classical music (North Indian and South Indian), there are semiclassical forms such as gazal, and rabindra sangit, there are the popular forms such as filmi sangit and bangara, as well as countless varieties of folk music.


What is the difference between North Indian music and South Indian music?

Both North Indian and South Indian music are based upon common concepts such as rag (raga) and tal (tala), however there the similarity ends.  North Indian music, also known as Hindustani sangit, has many elements in common with the music of Afghanistan and Persia.  The South Indian music, known as Carnatic Sangit, shows many regional influences peculiar to the deep South.  In the last hundred years there has been a lot of mixing of rags and other musical elements, but still they are separate systems.


What is Bollywood?

Bollywood is the Bombay version of Hollywood, and relates to the film industry.  Indian movies are generally musicals and the film song is a very popular form of entertainment.


Is there Indian music notation?

Indian music is always said to be an oral tradition; this is only partly true.  Indian musical notation stretches back to the Samaveda, which is several thousand years old, so it is arguable that India has one of the oldest traditions of music notation.  Even today, notation is heavily used in education.

However, since the classical music of both North and South is so heavily dependent upon improvisation, then a strict notation is somewhat irrelevant.  Indian classical music resists notation for the same reasons that Western jazz music resists it.

Musical notation is somewhat analogous to taxidermy. Indian music tied to notation has the same relationship to the actual performance as a stuffed animal does to a living one.


Can I get sheets of Indian music in Western notation?

As of the time that I am writing this, I am unaware of any music available in staff notation.  There are however, a lot of music in traditional Indian notations.  You may wish to check out "Elementary North Indian Vocal".


Can I enjoy Indian vocal even if I don't understand any Indian language?

Even in India, not everybody understands the lyrics.  The singers themselves do not always understand the words that they are singing.  There are simply too many languages.  Since this is not an impediment to the enjoyment of vocal music in India, it need not be an impediment to you.


Is all Indian music in a minor scale?

Concepts such as major or minor are totally irrelevant to Indian music.  Every mode is an entity in its own right .  True, both North and South Indian systems have a concept of a "natural scale" which is referred to as "shuddha swar saptak".  However in practice, this is simply a means to provide a base for notation and for purposed of instruction.  It does not imply in special importance in performance situations.


What is sargam?

The sargam is the traditional Indian solfege.  This is the conceptual framework around which singers and instrumentalists will function.


In North Indian music, why is Ma the only note that has a sharp?

The tivra Ma is the augmented 4th.  This difference in terminology is a recognition of some very important harmonic relationships that exist in the area of the 4th and 5th.  This is a subject that is perhaps best suited to discussions of psychoacoustics rather than traditional musicology, and is beyond the scope of this simple web page.


Why is the key not specified in Indian music?

The absolute pitch at which a performance is rendered is merely a practical detail and is not considered of any musical significance.  Whatever pitch the performers agree upon is the key.  It will vary from artist to artist, and even the same artist may change it according to his/her mood.


Does Indian music have chords?

This is rather difficult to say. In a strict academic sense the answer is yes.  There is invariably a melody set against a drone (usually a tanpura) that includes the tonic and the 5th.  By definition, the first, fifth, and anything else is a chord.  But for all practical purposes the answer is no.  Do not try and listen for chord progressions in any classical music.

However, the situation may be different with the popular genres.  Film songs have absorbed many Western influences.  For such Western inspired genres, there may be a heavy reliance upon chords.


Are the pitches in the Indian scales the same as in the Western scale?

Popular genre such as film songs may use the standard Western tempered scale.  However, traditional Indian music is definitely not based upon the tempered scale.  It is instead based upon some type of just intonation.  Therefore, the "semitones" will sometimes be more than 100 cents and at other times they will be less than 100 cents.

Although there are constant debates as to exactly what the intervals should be, we may make a few general observations.

  1. The 4th, and 5th correspond to their Western counterparts.
  2. The natural 3rd, and 6th correspond to their UNTEMPERED Western counterparts.
  3. A minor 2nd is slightly flatter when descending compared to when it is ascending.
  4. A natural 7th is slight sharper when ascending and slightly flatter when descending.
  5. The minor 3rd and the minor 6th have different intervals depending upon other scalar characteristics.

These are just rules of thumb, so they may not always be applicable.


I keep running across different spellings of musical terms, what is going on?

The variations of spelling make internet searches very difficult. After all, does one look up "rag", "raag", or "raga"; is it "swarup", "svarup", "swaroop", or "svaroop"?  These variations in spelling create many practical difficulties.

There are several reasons for such wide variations.  These include such diverse factors as variations in pronunciation, limitations and inadequacies of the Roman script, and the multilingual nature of India.

Variations in pronunciation are a major factor.  For instance, is potato pronounced "po-tay-toe" or is it pronounced "po-tah-toe".  In a similar way, different parts of India pronounce things differently.

Inadequacies in the Roman script are also a factor.  During the colonial period there was a tendency to transliterate words according to English concepts.  One may still see these tendencies in old spellings such as "tabala" or "thabala".  With the rise in modern linguistics, there was a shift towards Germanic rules of pronunciation.  Therefore "thabala" became standardized to "tabla".  Some Indian phonemes resist being placed into the Roman script.  For instance in India there are various shades that exist between the English "d" and "r".  This will be expressed in confusing terms such as jod vs. jor or mukada vs mukara.  These are just a few of the difficulties that plague attempts to come up with consistent and clear transliterations.

One other reason for ambiguity stems from the multilingual nature of India; there are a lot of languages and dialects.  This will show up in things such as Been (Bengal and Northeast India) vs. Vina or Veena (South and Northwest India).

The result is absolute confusion in the spellings.


I play guitar, will it be easy to learn sitar?

They both have strings and they both have frets; there the similarity ends.  A guitar is generally thought of as an instrument for playing harmonies and chords, while a sitar must be thought of as a melodic instrument like a flute or an oboe.  If you attempt to play chords like a guitar, you will be missing the entire concept of the instrument.  How easily you make this fundamental shift in the way you conceptualize the instrument will determine how easily you can pick up then sitar.


Where can I find a teacher of Indian music?

Check out the "Performers and Teachers of Indian Music and Dance" Page.



© 1998 - 2018 David and Chandrakantha Courtney

For comments, corrections, and suggestions, kindly contact David Courtney at david@chandrakantha.com