Music in India

Music in India has a rich and long tradition that includes Indian art music, folk music, popular music and film music associated with the big film production in Bollywood. The classical Indian music tradition extends over millennia.


Indian art music can be divided into four periods:

  • the Vedas from the 9th century BCE
  • the classical period from the 100s.
  • the Middle Ages from the first Islamic invasions of the 12th century
  • the modern period from the 17th century, when the divide between the traditions of the north and south was crystallized

Bollywood music

Bollywood music has spread throughout the world. Dancers on stage during an Indian music and dance event in Beijing in 2010.

Indian music theory was written down by several writers in the first centuries of our era (including Bharata with Natyashastra script ). The basic scales, grama, have 7 steps, based on a division of the octave into 22 shruti. These tones form the basis of the Indian ragas, which are determined by certain intervals and small motifs associated with particular emotions (rasa) and associated with a specific time of day or year. An Indian musician in the classical tradition begins a performance by introducing the raga, tone by tone, until the entire span is covered and the characteristic intervals and motifs are presented. Such onealap can last half an hour before the musician begins his real improvisation. This is followed by a rhythmic accompaniment on the table, determined by rhythmic formulas called talas.


Over the centuries, classical Indian music has developed particular forms. In northern India, dhrupad and khayal (or khyal, a Persian word) are the most important. Dhrupad is an older, more serious and dignified form, while khayal is the most common today. Both begin with an alap before the main body, which in dhrupad is a sung poem, in khayal an improvisation on a solo instrument – the sarangi string instrument, the strum instrument sitar or the chopping board santur. The masters of these forms were Svami Haridas (15th century) and Tansen (16th century), who worked among others at the great mogul Akbar’s court.

Indian music is often accompanied by a bordoon: the raga’s basic tone, possibly adding one or more contrasting tones. The bourbon is traditionally played by the great string instrument tanpura (tambura) with its characteristic buzzing sound, but today an electronic shruti box is usually used. The music is never written down in detail, but is delivered orally from the master ( guru, unsteady) to the student, and the musician is free to improvise within a certain frame. The performing musician is also a creative artist.

Another common North Indian form is the more lyrical thumri, which often has an erotic content. This is the one associated with the kathak dance.

South Indian (Carnatic) music was less influenced by Arabs, Persians and Tartars and by the rulers of Delhi. It is more strongly associated with religion than the North Indian. Although the music is instrumental, it is often based on a religious text. It is also dominated by the melodic system raga, which in South India has different names than in Northern India. The main form is critical, which is an embroidery of religious hymns made by three significant poet musicians around 1800: Shyama Shastri (1762-1827), Tyagaraja (Tygaradsja) (1767-1847) and Muttusvami Dikshitar (1775-1834). The language is Tamil, Telugu and in some cases the learned language Sanskrit. The hymns are performed so that the music is broken up and varied, and the singer can repeat certain syllables in different order with an almost hypnotic effect. The dominant instrument in South Indian music is the climbing instrument vina, accompanied by the elongated drum mridangam. Otherwise, flute, the European violin and tanpura are also used.

Folk music

Alongside the art music, India also has rich folk music ranging from the very simple to the very complex music of the countless ethnic groups that make up the Indian population. There is a rich diversity of instruments, and several of them have been introduced by invading people such as Arabs and Persians. These include the shahnai shahnai and stringed instruments such as ectar, sitar, rebab, kamaicha and santur.

Zakir Hussain plays the tabla


Traditional music education in India is highly personal. A student goes to the service of a guru for many years. In the 1900s, music schools were established according to European designs, the first in 1901 by VD Palushkar, which was followed by VN Bhatkhande and others (music colleges in Baroda, Lucknow, Gwalior and others).

Western influence

Western music has also influenced music in India. The missionaries introduced the portable harmonium, which in Indian music is used for accompaniment, but with its temperate mood cannot in any way reproduce the Indian ragas. Rabindranath Tagore wrote music for his own poems in Bengali in a style that combined classical Indian and folk music with features of Western European music. These poems are usually listed for accompaniment of tambura.

In the 1920s, the Indian film industry created music that has become very popular both in India and the surrounding countries, a kind of Indian pop music. Attempts have also been made to incorporate jazz and western pop music.

Impact on the West

Indian music has aroused great interest in the West, and Indian musicians have had success with classical Indian music. Among the foremost are the sitarist Ravi Shankar, his longtime accompanist, tabla player Alla Rakha, and flutist Hariprasad Chaurasia. Several younger musicians have made their mark internationally in various forms of modern, ethnically inspired music, such as violinists L. Subramaniam and Lakshminarayana Shankar and percussionists Zakir Hussain (son of Alla Rakha) and Trilok Gurtu.

The Beatles were inspired by Indian philosophy and music

Indian music has also had an impact on Western European composers ( Gustav Holst, Albert Roussel, Olivier Messiaen, Karlheinz Stockhausen and others) and for The Beatles and other pop groups. Yehudi Menuhin formed a company to spread the understanding of Indian music. Impulses from Indian music theory have also influenced European music science (for example, instrument classification).