Traditional Music of India : Understanding Its Origins, Types and Basic Elements

India’s traditional music is of two types, Hindustani and Carnatic music. Their roots date as far back as 5,000 years ago, but the history that transpired in India’s northern and southern regions, provided turning points that developed variations in traditional Indian music. Still, the very root of all traditional music in India are the hymns heard in Hindi temples.

However, before moving toward the discussion of the distinction between Hindustani and Carnatic types of traditional music, it is important to first understand the two most basic elements true to all traditional music in India.

An Understanding of the Two Basic Elements of Traditional Music in India


Raga, spelled as rag in Northern India or known as ragam in Southern India, is Sanskrit for the word color or passion. It is regarded as the core of classical Indian music being the scales and melodies that serve as foundations for the improvisations and compositions of a musical performance.

Performances of an Indian raga tend to vary because when a piece of Indian music is played, the melody is based on scales comprising a specific set of notes that can receive improvisation similar to western jazz music. Raga is not always instrumental, as it can also be vocal that may or may not require, accompaniment of a musical instrument.


Tala literally denotes clapping or tapping of one’s hand to count musical measure. In Indian classical music, it refers to the musical counter that occurs as a rhythmic beat or strike to mark the musical time measures.

Tala beats are carried out in different ways: by hand clapping, hand waving, finger tapping, verbally, or even by pounding on a percussion instrument or by striking small cymbals. In traditional Indian music, it combines with raga in forming a melodic structure with a rhythmic pattern.

Tala used in South Indian Carnatic classical music is called adi tala, while tala that is widely used in North Indian Hindustani music system is the teental tala.

Difference Between Hindustani and Carnatic Music

Hindustani and Carnatic traditional music are both founded on raga and taḷa, albeit with certain differences in styles.

The two types of traditional music in North and South India used to share a common past, but deviated by the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries. During the period, Islamic conquest took place in Northern India, which brought increased Persian influence. Southern India on the other hand had developed a separate genre that was largely influenced by the bhakti movement that focused on love and religious devotion to gods and goddesses.

Hindustani Music

Hindustani is the traditional music of Northern India, in which instrumental music is more important that vocal musical performance.

Generally, a Hindustani performance lasts for more than an hour, starting with an improvisation that is non-metric and long. This will be followed with improvisation without a musical metric but with a perceivable pulse. Finally, the performance ends with a stronger and faster rendition of the second phase.

Carnatic Music

In contrast to Hindustani classical music, Carnatic is devotional and predominantly vocal with an accompaniment of different instruments. This particular type of classical Indian music, usually consists of three segments similar to Hindustani music.

A Southern India traditional music typically starts with the pallavi, which is the Western equivalent of a refrain. The second verse or the anupallavi follows with one or two lines. The length of the Carnatic music extends by the third segment, which may run on with multiple charanas and extra passages called chittaswaram.

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