Introduction to Hindustani Classical Music

North Indian Classical music or Hindustani Classical Music is an ancient music system which dates back hundreds of years, possibly to the Vedic Age. It is believed that it branched off from Carnatic Music (South Indian classical Music) around 12th century, but both music systems still share the same fundamental concepts.

There are three main elements:

  • Swara

A swara is a musical note. There are 7 basic swaras and the octave formed is called the saptak. There are also 5 half-notes, just like western music. The base reference note (which does not have a standardized frequency, unlike western music) is called sa. The saptak is:

Sa (Shadja)

Re (Rishabh)

Ga (Gandhaar)

Ma (Madhyam)

Pa (Pancham)

Dha (Dhaivat)

Ni (Nishad)

Another important concept is that of ShrutiShruti is defined as the smallest variation in pitch that the human ear can distinguish. Shrutis can be considered to be a superset. Out of all the (infinite) shrutis, some are chosen to be Swaras on an instrument. 

  • Raga

A raga is essentially a group of notes or swaras. Each raga is a melody and is much more than the sum of its constituent swaras. Having its own syntax and very fine details, a raga, serves to convey a special emotion of sorts, to create a very specific mood.

Each raga has two parts: Aaraoh and Avaroh (Ascent and Descent repectively).

An important concept in Raags is that of a Bandish. A bandish is a type of fixed compositions. The defining characteristics of a bandish are 

  1. It has only two stanzas. One in the lower register (mandra) and the second in the upper register (taar).
  2. It has to follow a specific beat cycle, or taal.

Additionally, each raga uses at least 5 notes and are classified based on the number of notes they use (the Aaroh and Avaroh of the same raag can taal into different categories):

  • Oudav: 5 notes
  • Shadav: 6 notes
  • Sampoor: 7 notes


  • Taal/Tala

While a swara is a musical note, a raga is a melody, the taal is analogous to the rhythm. The taal seeks to give structure to the music by binding into particular avartans (cycles). Taal is given by a percussion instrument, usually a Tabla or a Pakhawaj. Total number of taals have been told to be 108 in ancient texts, however, modern music employs only 10-20 taals.

A taal is characterised by sam (the first bol), taali (indicated by clapping the hands and signifying the more impactful part of the taal) and khaali (indicated by waving a hand to the side and signifying a weaker, less impactful part of the taal) and its vibhag (parts) structure. Each taal has a specific number of matras (beats).

Here are these concepts explained in context of the most popular taal: Teentaal (16 matras)

x Dha Dhin Dhin Dha |2 Dha Dhin Dhin Dha |

0 Dha Tin Tin Ta |3 Ta Dhin Dhin Dha|

  • The sum is shown at the first bol: denoted by x.
  • The taal has 4 vibhaags.
  • The taalis are the 1st, 5th and 13th matra.
  • The khaali is at the 9th matra

Thus, we realise that Hindustani Classical Music can be understood broadly as two elements: Melody and Rhythm. While one may argue that these qualities are universal to music, it is important to note that an, often overlooked, feature is actually what gives life to it: The emotion. Even if you don’t understand the lyrics, listening to a variety of songs would expose you to a range of emotions. Some pieces might make you feel sad for no reason, and some might make you calm. 

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