An Overview of Indian Classical Music

Jun/23/2022 / by Abhijit Masih
Classical Indian Music
Image credits: vinsky2022 via Pixabay

Classical Indian Music

The rich tradition of the Indian classical music originated in South Asia and can now be found in all corners of the world thanks to great musicians and artists that have promoted the art form in various countries and have appealed to not just the diaspora but also to foreigners alike.

The origins of the Indian Classical music dates back almost 6,000 years ago and is found in Vedic scriptures where these Vedic chants developed a system of musical notes and rhythmic cycles. The Indian Classical music is closely connected to nature and is known to be inspired by nature, seasons and even times of the day. Indian Classical music is inspired by folk melodies but it requires steadfast learning and an in-depth and rigorous regime of training to enhance and master the craft.

The Indian Classical music is further divided into the two larger segments which are – Hindustani and Carnatic music. The former being from North India and the latter from South India. Carnatic music is the older practice and the Hindustani music has been influenced by the Mughals, the Persian colonists who occupied Northern regions of India in the 16th and 17th century and blended their music traditions with those of the original Indians. Hindustani music which followed Carnatic has similarities but also many differences. The Hindustani music is somewhat similar to Western Classical Music and has a more concert-based with longer pieces of performance. Carnatic music is more closely connected to religious and cultural activities and features shorter pieces. Despite the differences, the basic elements of swara, raga and tala remain the foundation of both Carnatic and Hindustani music.

The beauty of Indian Classical music is that it is not confined and a majority of the pieces are based on improvisation. Even though the musical compositions are fixed, however the music is improvised within the structure of the notes. This gives the music a spontaneous freedom that results in each artist and every performance being completely unique.

Classical Indian Music
Image credits: commlm via Pixabay

The popularity of the Indian Classical Music can be attributed to the love of people for its meditative and uplifting quality which provides a sense of peace and calm. Even if it may seem difficult, it does provide immense satisfaction. Though Indian classical music may have sprung up and have spiritual roots, you do not have to be religious to play or appreciate it.

Many different instruments have been used and developed for Indian classical music such as Sitar, Tabla, Veena, Mridangam and the of course the vocal. An Indian Classical performance usually focuses on the solo performer, who is accompanied by a drone and rhythm. Here melody, and the relationship between notes, is more important than harmony. An extensive system of ornamentations such as gliding, vibrato and oscillation – are used to embellish the melodic lines. The performer usually will begin with a slow introductory section called ‘alaap’ and then gradually increase the improvisations and tempo with different compositions into a fast crescendo. Indian classical music is much more appreciated and respected today in the West. Many composers and musicians have been influenced by our music. The openness, willingness to learn, and sincere enthusiasm of western audiences are a continuing source of inspiration and delight.

The basic elements of Indian Classical Music:

Most music has at least three main elements – melody, rhythm and harmony. However, Indian Classical music, because of its spiritual nature, focuses mainly on melodic development. Indian classical music has two foundational elements, raga and tala. The raga forms the fabric of a melodic structure, while the tala measures the time cycle. Indian classical does not have the Western classical concepts such as harmony, counterpoint, chords, or modulation. In performance, rhythm also plays an important role, giving texture and a sense of purpose to melody. Harmony in the Western sense, however, is not a part of traditional Indian music. Indian classical music focuses more on melody created using a sequence of notes. Different melodies are constructed using the rules of different ragas. In Western Classical music apart from melody, there is stress on harmony too. The two basic and essential elements of Indian Classical music are Raga and Tala.


The Raga is the central focus and it gives a framework to the music.  It is a powerful element of any song whereby the singer sings according to a certain motif in the song to attract the attention of the audience. Each raga has its own mood and personality which works wonders on the audience when it is performed.

Musical Instrument Tambura Sitar
Image credits: PatrizioYoga via Pixabay


It is a rhythm or a musical meter given to Indian classical music. It refers to the cyclical system of beats and sahitya, the lyrics, which could be sung vocally or played on instruments through a non-verbal language.  It can be in the form of beats given by musical instruments like that of a tabla. The word is derived from Vedic literature and the Sanskrit word means ‘to establish’.

There have been many maestros that have helped in making Indian Classical music popular around the world. These Pandits and Ustaads have been instrumental in taking the centuries old art form from India and making it known to all corners of the world through their live performances. Indian Classical Musicians are known as being great soloists and performers. Many of these artists have collaborated together to have a powerful union of vocals and instruments. Amongst the greatest proponents of Indian Classical music are Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, Pandit Kumar Sharma, Ustaad Zakir Hussain, and Carnatic vocalist MS Subbulakshmi.

Indian music is as vast and varied as the country from which it comes and not all of it comes from Bollywood. Indian Classical music is not the fluff of pop culture but based upon ancient tradition, characterized by intricate and subtle melodies and complex rhythms. Further divided in Hindustani and Carnatic, the two sub sects of Indian Classical, it boasts a massive wealth of talent and artists. It is one of the finest ancient art forms of the world with the beauty and entertaining qualities as a pure performing art. Its spiritual origins and the ability to positively affect and enhance one’s mental intellectual capacities in multiple ways have also helped in its popularity as a serious art form. It may not be appealing to a new listener due to the complexity of Indian classical music; however a few basics can give you the wisdom to appreciate its richness.

Gaining knowledge about Hindustani Music or Carnatic music will open up the window not only to an ancient musical tradition, but also to an interesting culture. Within the melodies, rhythmic patterns, and improvisational nature of the Indian Classical music is hidden years of oral tradition and a deep spiritual sensibility.

Over time and centuries and due to the improvisational nature of the music, there are around 500 known ragas that exist in the world today. Out of these 500, about 150 are very common and played regularly and the rest are not so known. While learning Hindustani or Carnatic music, it is important understand that diversity is a key aspect to learning. It is highly recommended to keep an open mind to its dynamic and evolving nature and accepting all interpretations to grow as a student of this art.

Usually when people talk about Classical music, you first impression is that of Western classical but India has its own heritage and immense richness of classical music seeped in thousands of years of practice originating from ancient and sacred texts.

Indian Classical music is widely considered to be the best foundation of any form of singing or instrumental music in any regional Indian language. Whether it is film songs, bhajans, ghazals or folk if you have a basic training in classical music then you will be adept in mastering any one or all of these different styles of singing. If you want to sing well, there is simply no substitute to methodically learning the basics of Sargam, Alankar, Raag, Aalaap, Taan and Taal. Indian Classical music has seen rapid growth around the world and especially in the US where the immigrant communities have retained and passed on classical music traditions to their children.

Classical Indian Music
Image credits: Louise Patterton via Unsplash


What is Indian classical music?

Indian Classical music is a musical form which has its roots from the pre historic period. Mentioned in the Vedas this form of music has transformed a lot and transgressed itself into large forms called Hindustani and Carnatic music.

Who is the king of Indian classical music?

India has been blessed with a number of gifted Indian classical musicians, who have mesmerized listeners from around the globe with their art. There are many legends like Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and the list goes on.

What are the features of Indian classical music?

The core elements of Hindustani classical music are swara (notes), raga, taal (rhythm), alankaar (ornamentation), bandish (compositions), and improvisation.

Why Indian music is classical?

The origins of Indian classical music can be found in the oldest Hindu scriptures, the Vedas. The Samaveda is said to have laid the foundation for Indian music, set to melodies that would be sung using three to seven musical notes during Vedic sacrifices.

Is Indian classical music difficult?

Like any other art form, it takes time and effort to learn and it depends mainly upon the interest and the level of commitment that you invest. Learning Indian Classical music may not be difficult but mastering it may take some time and a lot of practice.