An explanation of a few musical concepts of Indian Classical Music or Raaga Music (North Indian Style)The greatest part of all chronic disease is created by the suppression of acute disease by drug poisoning. - Henry Lindlahr, M.D.
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Indian Music (For Western Musicians)

By Manjiree Vikas Gokhale

I have tried to give an explanation of a few musical concepts of Indian Classical Music or Raaga Music (North Indian Style).

An explanation of a few musical concepts of Indian Classical Music or Raaga Music (North Indian Style)


It is a well-known fact that Indian Music is based on Melody and Western Music on Harmony. This does not mean that Western Music does not include melody. But that, the harmonizing effect of different instruments and voices given to a certain melody plays the important role. In a similar manner in Indian Music the melody has an upper hand. Usually, it is said and believed that harmony doesn’t play a role in Indian Music. But, to my way of understanding, harmony is equally important in Indian Classical Music Performance though, not the way it is used in western music. The harmony effect is a steady continuous drone effect created usually by a ‘Taanpura’. Taanpura is a stringed instrument. It has 4 strings tuned to the fifth, first, first and 2 octaves lower first notes respectively, starting from the outer string. If the raaga excludes the fifth, then the 1st string is tuned to the fourth note. These strings are plucked successively, one after the other, throughout the performance. This non-stop playing of the instrument creates a large spectrum of harmonizing notes in the background by the permutation and combination of the 4 notes and its overtones. This gives a very rich texture to the music. From a well tuned normal Taanpura, a spectrum of about 7-8 notes of the scale can be produced and heard by a trained musical ear. If a taanpura is of a very good quality, a well trained musical ear can hear all of the 12 notes of the scale. (This can happen because even a well trained human ear cannot perceive a difference of 2-3 hertz or its fraction.) The whole auditorium or room is filled with this effect and helps the musician and the listeners to experience the tranquility of the music performance. Listeners can be grouped in 2 basic types – those whose understand the concepts of Raagas and the Musical forms and those who do not understand this but, enjoy the concept as they are lovers of the swara i.e. the notes and overall music. The second type of listeners enjoys the tranquility of the music environment. Along with this enjoyment, the first type can also experience the raaga and concepts of the musical form.


This concepts of music is called as ‘Laya’. It is quite similar to the western concept. The 3 basic tempo’s are called as Vilambit, Madhya and Drut. Vilambit is very slow, derived from the sanskrit word ‘Vilamba’, meaning that which takes time. Madhya means not very fast, not very slow, medium. In Sanskrit this word means ‘middle’. Drut is the fast tempo. The word also means ‘fast or quick’ in Sanskrit.

The tempo in western music has a standardized given time period, measured in beats. But, in Indian Music there is no such scientific standardization. This concept is a very subjective one and the performer has the liberation of choosing his/her medium tempo, i.e. Madhya laya. Because of this subjective liberation the madhya laya of every performer can vary a lot.


The Indian equivalent is called as “Maatra”. It is the unit used to measure the complex rhythm style called as ‘ Taal’ of Indian Music. Again, similar to the ‘Tempo’ concept ‘Maatraa’ is very subjective. It is not standardized like a constant. Yet, it has arithmetical standards. i.e. the complex rhythm style of ‘taal’ is divided in equal parts measured by this unit. It can be compared with the subjective measure like ‘1 arm length’ and not like the objective measure ‘1 meter length’. It is subjective, yet, has an arithmetically consistent value for the particular person.


In Indian music this concept is called as ‘ Taal’. Rhythm as in Western music is a very simple way of progressive, cyclic measurement of tempo. Indian Music has a very complex way of this measurement. There are more than 20-25 popular and regularly used rhythm patterns and approximately 50-60 rare rhythm patterns in North Indian Style and 108 patterns in South Indian Styles.

It is important to remember that Indian Music does not have ‘Standardization’ of notes, rhythm and other concepts of music like those of the Western, scientific and objective standardization. Moreover, Indian Musicians prefer liberty to such standardization. This non standardization makes a it difficult for a western musician, it understand Indian Music.


About the Author

Manjiree Vikas Gokhale is a Indian musician, Music Therapist of a sort, poet and Yoga practitioner. She sings professionally with her beautiful melodic voice and has had a number of recordings published, and has performed on All India Radio.

Email: manjireegokhale at


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