Classical Music of India

Understanding the Classical Music Of India

My initial training in Western music started at the age of seven. Learning “Hawaiian” steel guitar from a Hawaiian man in Toronto. I remember my mother used to help me practice and help my intonation with the ‘steel’ when I was 7 years. “Do it again until it’s right”, she would say to me from our small dining-sewingroom where I’d be practicing ‘Aloha-Oe’. Thus began my musical education with an unfretted instrument – a key ingredient in the classical music of India.

Years later I would see how valuable those lessons were when I started learning sarode. Until then I had immersed myself in music (plus school of course – my parents insisted on a post-secondary education) with more and more ‘improvising’ and segueing into jazz. Around that time (early 1960’s) jazz was beginning to encompass ‘World’ musics as well as more ‘abstract or free’ improvisation. I started to become more and more influenced by world musical traditions and in particular, that from India. It was interesting to see how the division in music has yielded such different styles of music in ‘Western’ and Indian classical forms. Both are highly expressive with the great Western composers and their harmonic complexities and the Indian raga system based on melodic themes and variations.

Even within the Indian subcontinent we have diversity that has yielded two very distinct and great classical music traditions: one from northern India encompassing an area north of an imaginary line drawn from Kolkata-Delhi-Mumbai (called Hindustani); and one from the area to the south labelled Karnatic. The two traditions seem similar at first listening and are based on the same origins in Vedic times back to around 1000 BC.  My familiarity with jazz influenced my decision to explore the ‘northern’ style and to explore what at the time I thought was essentially jazz influenced improvisation. How naïve I was as I would later come to appreciate.

My first hurdle was to reach some understanding of Indian classical music and that of course was to listen to it. Since most readers who would read this page are relatively new to the music I am reminded of liner notes from an old Ali Akbar Khan LP* written by a jazz historian, Nat Hentoff. I decided to include an excerpt of these notes:

“I often wonder abut people who have no passion for music – who would feel no sense of loss if months and even years went by without listening to music.  I’m sure there are a number of reasons in each particular case for this indifference.  But I do have an unproved theory that a major contributing cause is the way we in the West are to listen to music.

“I was often forced to ‘pay attention’ to the way music was put together rather than what it was doing to me.  ‘Follow the theme; follow the subtheme; see how it returns to the tonic; this is a variation.’  And on and on into increased irrelevancy.

“I am not saying that the knowledge of musical structure cannot be pleasureable in itself. But first, it seems to me there has to be a yielding to and an immersion in the music before knowledge of its structure can bring more than the pleasure of recognizing its architectonics. What has all this to do with these (ragas)?  Listening to them I remembered and found again a review of a concert of Indian music by a very sophisticated and knowledgeable American music critic. He had listened with his head and so he wrote: ‘I found each piece much too long and occasionally quite irritating before it was over… The Irritation arose in part from the complete absence of modulation and in part from the fact that the variations in the fast finales went by so speedily that the unaccustomed ear could not follow them and so they all sounded the same; the variations in the slow movements were easy to catch, and the ear had not been fatigues by the endless repetition of the tonic drone.  Some of this… could be obviated with a better edited program and a few words of explanation here and there.’

“Behold the blocked Western listener!  Without ‘explanation’ he was irritated. Confronted by pure melody and all it connotes of going into new dimensions of time, he was irritated. Pressing to follow all those fast variations the very fist time he heard them he felt nothing of the mood of the raga. He was, in sum, tense because he was taking a test as to how well he could relate this music to all the other tests he had been given concerning how to listen to music. Certainly the Indian musicians weren’t tense. They were involved in mood and emotion, and so should he have been.  ‘The depth, height and compass of a Raga’ writes O. Goswami in The Story of Indian Music (Asia Publishing House), ‘depends upon the discernment and depth of feeling of the artist and his capacity to select and arrange the notes in a mode that can evoke and hold a mood at its highest pitch…The main characteristic of a Raga is its power to evoke emotion.  The mode must seize the listeners mind and hold it enchanted’.

“But the listener must be willing to be enchanted. He must be willing to enter into a quality of time that has nothing to do with keeping appointments or writing down the exact length of each variation, slow or fast.  He must be willing to let his emotions go.  For those who can do this, or at least make the first tentative beginnings, Indian music can be so instructive an experience – instructive emotionally – that it can affect the way one listens to all kinds of music.  Anyway, that’s been my experience.”

* Ustad Ali Akbar Khan “Predawn and Sunrise Ragas” Connoisseur Soclety recording CS-1967 (1967)

These notes played an important role for my initial ‘feeling’ of this great music and is one that I wanted to share with others.

About Hindustani Classical Music

It is easier for me to think of Hindustani music as having melody (raga) and rhythm (tala) with no harmony.  I like to think of a raga (or rag) as a scale with rules that dictate how we ‘improvise’ or as my teacher would like to say ‘compose on the spot’.


Using C as the tonic or base note, the scales below are shown in Western and corresponding Indian solfeggio (lower case letters indicate flattened notes except Madhyam (Ma) where capitalization indicates the augmented or sharpened 4th; also the ‘ symbol indicates upper octave):

Indian Solfeggio Sa re Re ga Ga ma Ma Pa dha Dha ni Ni Sa’
Western Notation (key of C) C D♭ D E♭ E F F# G A♭ A B♭ B C’


Since there are over 75000 of these ragas or ‘melodies with rules’, organizing these can be certainly daunting but an Indian scholar (V.N. Bhatkande) around the end of the 19th century developed a system of categorizing these ragas (with some exception) into ten basic scales or thaats. Thereby we have the following scales.

The 10 Thaats

Click “Play” next to the name of the scale to listen to it on the sarode.

Bilawal Thaat Sa Re Ga ma Pa Dha Ni Sa’
C D E F G A B C’
Bhairav Thaat Sa re Ga ma Pa dha Ni Sa’
C D♭ E F G A♭ B C’
Bhairavi Thaat Sa re ga ma Pa dha ni Sa’
C D♭ E♭ F G A♭ B♭ C’
Todi Thaat Sa re ga Ma Pa dha Ni Sa’
C D♭ E♭ F# G A♭ B C’
Asawari Thaat Sa Re ga ma Pa dha ni Sa’
C D E♭ F G A♭ B♭ C’
Kafi Thaat Sa Re ga ma Pa Dha ni Sa’
C D E♭ F G A B♭ C’
Khammaj Thaat Sa Re Ga ma Pa Dha ni Sa’
C D E F G A B♭ C’
Kalyan Thaat Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa’
C D E F# G A B C’
Purvi Thaat Sa re Ga Ma Pa dha Ni Sa’
C D♭ E F# G A♭ B C’
Marwa Thaat Sa re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa’
C D♭ E F# G A B C’


Below I show some of the rhythms (rhythmic cycles) that are used in classical music including how they are subdivided:

  • tintal (16 beats divided 4+4+4+4)
  • ektal (12 beats divided 2+2+2+2+2+2)
  • dhammar (14 beats divided 3+4+5+2)
  • jhaptal (10 beats divided 2+3+2+3)
  • rupak (7 beats divided 3+2+2)
  • dadra (6 beats divided 3+3)
  • keherva (8 beats divided 4+4)

Each tala or rhythmic cycle is composed of a number of strokes or bols (beats) that are played by the accompanying instrument (most notably tabla).  The most important aspect of tala in this music is for the performers to reach the ‘sum’ or 1st beat together.  This is most often characterized by mutual head or hand movement to emphasize the ‘coming together’ by musicians and audience alike.

Of course there are many more important aspects or ‘elaborations’ that should be studied when learning this music and recognizing the ‘learner’ stage of many of the readers to this page.  Following are a few of my favorite references and links (coming soon).

Video: An Introduction to Classical Indian Music with Steve Oda & Ty Burhoe