Part 1

Basic guide to the theory of

Indian classical music

Indian music like in many cultures is based and founded on vocal traditions, so to accommodate the nuances and complexities that this involves, instrumentation has to be suitable, for example fixed pitch instruments are not entirely suitable because of their lack of variable intonation , which is why we do not see the piano for instance being used in Indian classical music. Notes have to bend, glide and slide into each other to convey the message and subtleties of the music, this is very difficult to notate, so a lot of the music is learnt aurally, making it important to listen to performances as much as possible.

There are distinctions between North Indian classical music (Hindustani) and South Indian classical music (Carnatic) but the fundamental principles are shared by both.

What is a Raga

As a brief description, a raga is a tonal framework derived from a parent scale called a ‘thaat’ or ‘that’ . During improvisation and composing certain rules and techniques of expression are used to bring out and identify the particular raga.


The 10 thaats or parent scales of Hindustani classical music are listed below. The notes in Indian music are known as ‘swaras’.

The thaats listed above are the raw material from which the ragas are constructed.

The letters written above the notes are abbreviations for the Indian names given to the notes or swaras , this is similar to the western sol-fa  system and is very important in the notation of Indian music. They are also abbreviated as syllables, 

   Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni .  This system is called ‘sargam’

If you see a small line or dash below a letter, this indicates the note or ‘swara’ is flat or ‘komal’ and a line above indicates it is sharp or ‘tivra’. You may notice only ‘Ma’ is sharp ,the remaining chromatic ‘black’  notes R G D N are flat ,this is because these flat notes are considered a ‘soft’ sound whereas ‘Ma’ or F sharp is considered sharp or harsher in actual sound.

There are variations in this notation system , for example the full chromatic scale could be notated like this,    

Sa, re, Re, ga, Ga, ma, Ma, Pa, dha, Dha, ni, Ni

which corresponds to the 12 notes of the chromatic scale.

lower case abbreviations are flats with the exception of lowercase ‘ma’ which is F natural, uppercase Ma is F sharp, upper octave notes are indicated with a little comma e.g.  S’  or alternatively a dot on top of the note. For lower octave notes the dot would be below the note.

The natural notes that are in the scale are  known as ‘shuddha’.

Many ragas can be made from a single thaat, all with different variations that identify a particular raga.

Notes of a raga can be written in a straight ascending and descending sequence or may feature a change of direction creating a zigzag in the sequence known as ‘vakra’ .

  A raga can be further classified based on the number of notes employed in its ascent (Aaroh) and descent (Avroh), this is called ‘jati’ this can mean five ,six or seven notes being used in ascent or descent combinations.

Some notes are removed from raga’s leaving bigger interval leaps between the notes , these notes are called ‘varjya’ .

Resting notes like those used in resolutions etc are called ‘vishranti sthan’.

Raga’s also feature important  ‘king’ and ‘queen’ notes known as the ‘vadi’ and ‘samvadi’ with the ‘vadi’ being the most important and the ‘samvadi’ being there to assist it, usually 4 or 5 notes away. If the raga were divided into two tetrachords the lower tetrachord (poorvang) or first four notes of the octave would have the ‘vadi’ and the upper tetrachord (utterang) or last four notes of the octave would have the ‘samvadi’ or vice versa. The vadi and samvadi serve as anchor points in the two halves or tetrachords of the octave for the raga ,they bring out the uniqueness of the raga and its mood. The thaats or the parent scales that the raga is derived from do not contain a vadi or samvadi note ,it is the raga that contains them, the thaat is just the raw material.

At this point it is also important to mention the drone, (usually root notes an octave and a perfect fifth) that is ever present behind the raga. The drone provides a fixed harmonic backing behind the notes played. Each note of the raga has a different harmonic relationship with the drone, so in the case of an important note like the vadi, this note will have a particular relationship that is characteristic to the identification of the raga when held or sustained against the drone.

Raga List

Below is a list of ragas written using the Indian system ,as an exercise, pick a raga and identify the notes. Here are the western note equivalents. In the list below, the little star indicates the ‘tivra’ Ma* or F#, yet another little variation that is often used in the notation system.

You will also notice that the list includes the time of day when a raga is appropriate. Each raga has a unique and descriptive sound that corresponds to certain times of the day.

Ornamentation and expression

One of the most important aspects in the performance of a raga is the use of ornamentation or alankaar.

Another general term to describe ornaments  like ,shakes ,slides ,bends ,trills and glides, is ‘gammaka’ or gamak.

These graces must however be appropriate to the raga being played. Music or notes without ‘gammaka’ is described as a river without water or a night without a moon .Gammaka transforms and decorates the sound and the musician must use taste to get the best performance.

Examples of this ornamentation are:

Meend, this is the gliding, sliding or bending from one note to the next.   

Andolan, this is an oscillation or slow vibrato ,serious on slow passages

Murki, this is like a mordant trill ,3 or 4 notes played quickly

Khatka, this is a ‘jerk’ into or out of a note.

ZamZama a cluster of jerks

Kampit gamuk, a Carnatic term to describe a smooth shaky weight to a note, like a fast wide vibrato. This needs to be used appropriately.


‘Srutis’ or ‘shrutis’ is the name given to microtones, they are generally not held as notes they occur in slides  bends and shakes in ornamentation . In slow bends they can act as tension until the resolution of the note, this tension and resolution in Indian music therefore it’s happening all the time adding to its characteristic sound.

There are 22 srutis in the octave.

The diagram below shows the organisation of the srutis.

Alankaar (ornamentation) can also refer to exercises

or’paltaar’. These are combinations of notes in ascent and descent that are taught to gain an understanding of the distance or intervals between notes and to sequence the notes in patterns.

An example of such patterns or paltaar would be

C D E C, E F G F, etc. or. C D E E, D E F F etc 

or. C D D C, D E E D, etc

Further examples of paltaar in Indian notation look like this


Sa Re. Re Ga. Ga Ma. Ma Pa. Pa Dha Dha Ni. Ni Sa.


Sa Ni. Ni Dha. Dha Pa. Pa Ma. Ma Ga. Ga Re. Re Sa.

Sa Ga. Re Ma. Ga Pa. Ma Dha. Pa Ni. Dha Sa

Try descending by reading the sequence backwards.

Manifestations of these patterns can be used in ornamentation and improvisation.

A melodic outline is also helpful in understanding the phrasing when learning the characteristics of a certain raga.

Phrases or  ‘pakad’ can be chained and constructed to provide a melodic outline that characterises a particular raga. Pakad , which literally means to catch or grip as in ‘ catchy ‘,also contains information on how the way the notes are to be ordered and played. This flow and movement of notes is known as ‘chalan ‘.

Part 2


The rhythm in Indian music is structured around a rhythm cycle called a ‘tala’. Tala’s are given names that correspond and identify the number of beats in their cycle. The beats or ‘matras’ in the cycle are further organised into various subgroups or ‘vibhag ‘.

An example of a very common tala is ‘teental’ This tala has 16 beats which are divided into four groups of four beats each,

4+4+4+4 .

The main drum providing the rhythm in North Indian classical music is the tabla, and this drum provides syllables called bols.

Bols are how beats are represented with a tabla, the tabla phonetically imitates the syllables dha dhin thin or tin and tha or ta

This is important as the syllables indicate the positions of the various beats e.g. thin or tin is beat 10 and 11. This acts as a clear guide as to where in the cycle the musicians are.

Positions in the cycle can be further represented by clapping  on beats one, five and thirteen within a sixteen beat cycle, with a wave of the hand on beat nine . Beat nine is the start point of the second half of the cycle ,and has no accent . The absence of an accent here signifies this start point.

The first beat of the cycle or tala at the start of the first subgroup is called the ‘sam’ which has the main accent.  The second accent is at the start of subgroup two. The start of subgroup three has no accent and the start of subgroup four is the third accent. In short the accents at the start of each subgroup or vibhag for tala teental are represented like this

In order. X. 2. 0. 3

Let’s take another example and show how the accents would be represented.

Tala ‘rupak’ has 7 beats in total, divided into three subgroups or vibhag ,the first vibhag represented by X has 3 beats in it. The second vibhag represented by 2 has two beats in it, and the third vibhag represented by 3 also has two beats in it.

So in short  would look like this :

Rupak 7 beats divided 3+2+2 with vibhag X,2,3. 

Teental is 16 beats divided 4+4+4+4 with vibhag X,2,0,3.

So in summary X the ‘sam’ or first beat has the main accent

2 is the second accent, 0 is no accent, 3 is the third accent.

Below is a list of popular tala.

Another system to aid rhythmic ability is a vocal based technique called konokol where syllables are used to create rhythmic structures

For example

Three beats = Ta Ki Ta. Four beats = Ta Ka Di Mi

Five beats = Ta Ka Ta Ki Ta

Seven beats = Ta Ki Ta Ta Ka Di Mi.

And nine beats = Ta Ka Di Mi Ta Ka Ta Ki Ta

Different combinations of these beats cycles can lead to highly complex rhythmic structures.

As this music is largely improvisatory within a given framework, it is very important that the musicians know where in the rhythm cycle they are ,as Indian classical music does not rely on cycling chord progressions to act as divisions and metric  markers within the rhythm structures. The continuous linear progression of the music together with potentially very complex rhythmic structures requires great expertise and knowledge to navigate successfully through the rhythm cycles.

The information presented here is merely a taster of a vast subject. The more curious can find a wealth of information out there, with many different viewpoints, that said it can be confusing at times, as there are so many different versions of spellings and explanations, some more accurate than others. Take the time though and it will be ultimately rewarding.

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Good luck