A Beginner's Guide to North Indian Classical Music

Classical Indian Instruments

Classical Indian Instruments

Although Indian music is ultimately centered around the voice, many people are initially drawn into the music by the fascinating instruments that are used. Here are some descriptive comments on the most common instruments that one might hear in a Hindustani concert:

Melody Instruments


The bansuri is a deceptively simple bamboo flute. The Indian-style flute uses no keys, tone control being a matter of breath control and careful fingering on the six or seven holes in the flute. The bansuri is one of the recent additions to classical music in India, having been traditionally regarded as more of a folk instrument.

Bin (Rudra Vina)

The bin is one of the oldest instruments in Indian music. Technically a stick zither, it consists of a fingerboard with two large gourd resonators at either end. The bin usually has four main playing strings, and two or three "chikari" strings used as rhythmic drones. It is used primarily in performance of Dhrupad, and as such is rather rare.


An instrument introduced by the British, the harmonium is like a small pump organ. It is almost never used as a solo instrument, being much more common as an accompaniment for a vocalist. Some musical purists object to it because it cannot reproduce the subtle changes of intonation that are necessary in Indian music.


Another instrument which until recently was used mainly for folk music, the santoor is the Indian version of the hammered dulcimer. The classical version has 84 strings. It is traditionally associated with the province of Rajasthan.


The sarangi is the principal bowed instrument in modern Hindustani music. A typical sarangi has three main playing strings, and from 35-40 sympathetic strings. Although traditionally used mainly to accompany singers, it is gaining a reputation as a solo instrument.


One of the two main plucked string instruments in Hindustani music, the sarod is a fretless instrument with (usually) 25 strings. Of these 25, fifteen are sympathetic strings, and six more are tuned to various drones, leaving four main playing strings. It is played with a plectrum made out of a piece of coconut shell.


The shehnai is a double-reed wind instrument (like an oboe). Traditionally it was used mostly for outdoor celebrations, and for temple music. More recently it has been used as a concert instrument as well.


The sitar is probably the best-known of the instruments of India. It is a long-necked plucked lute, typically with about 18 strings (11 sympathetic, 3 - 5 drone strings, and 2 - 4 playing strings). As it is fretted, the complex ornamentation of Indian music is produced by pulling the string sideways along the fret.


The surbahar is similar to the sitar, but larger, and with a deeper tone. It is used in some of the same contexts as the bin, and is also a rather rare instrument.

Rhythm Instruments


The Dholak is a small barrel-shaped drum, used mostly for folk music. It is sometimes heard in percussion ensembles, or accompanying Qawwali concerts.


The pakhawaj is a barrel-shaped, double headed drum, with a low, sonorous tone. It is rarely used these days in performance of anything other than Dhrupad music.


Tabla is the most common percussion instrument in Hindustani music, and almost any concert will include a tabla player. The instrument consists of two drums, one played with the right hand, one played with the left. The right hand drum (appearing on the left in this picture) is tuned to the drone, and thus provides an extra reinforcement of the fundamental pitch.

Drone Instruments


The tanpura is the most common source of a drone in Hindustani concerts. It is a long-necked lute (similar in shape to a sitar), without frets. It usually has four to six strings, which are strummed continuously throughout the performance.


The swarpeti (literally, "note-box") is like a harmonium without the keyboard. It is just a bellows and a few reeds which are tuned to the drone. These days it is not uncommon to see electronic swarpetis at concerts as well.

A typical instrumental performance

A Typical Instrumental Performance

When the musician takes the stage, he (or she) will almost always be joined by a tabla player. (The only exception is Dhrupad-inspired instruments such as the bin and surbahar, which may play either unaccompanied, or accompanied by pakhawaj). Most instrumentalists will use a tanpura as well, but some sitar and sarod players rely on the open strings of their instruments to provide a drone.

After tuning (which for some instruments may take a while) the artist will begin the first raga. Again, development starts with the alaap, in which the raga is built up note by note. Instrumental alaap tends to be more drawn out than vocal alaap, reaching further into the nuances of the raga, and often exploring the lower octaves as well.

When the first part of the alaap is finished, the musician will begin the jor, introducing a pulse into his improvisations. As the pace increases, some instrumentalists (especially sarod and sitar players) will insert rhythms on the drone strings of the instrument, in what is known as jhala. Once the alaap is complete, the tabla will start playing a tala and the first composition will begin.

As with vocal music, the first composition will be slow, although rarely as slow as a slow khayal composition. As usual, the composition serves mostly as a jumping-off point for improvisations within the raga. Again, as with vocal music, a faster composition will follow, and may build into a second jhala, completing the performance of the raga. Many instrumentalists will also incorporate lighter classical pieces into their concerts, most commonly dhuns (folk tunes) from various parts of India. Occasionally, the instrumentalist will sing parts of these songs as well.

A typical vocal performance

Although concerts in the Hindustani tradition all share certain commonalties, there are definite differences between vocal and instrumental concerts, so the two are described separately.


The Fundamental Components of Hindustani Music

There are three main components to the classical music of India - Drone, Raga, and Tala.

The Drone

Unlike western music's, Indian music is not based on harmony. The harmonic principle of contrast between simultaneous sounds is foreign to the Indian conception of music. The concept of modulating (or changing) keys is also absent. Instead, the music is based on a drone, a continual pitch that sounds throughout the concert. This acts as a point of reference for everything that follows, a home base that the musician returns to after a flight of improvisation.

Raga - Organization of Melody

"Raga" is one of those troublesome words which has no equivalent in English, and is thus difficult to define. Terms like "generalized melody" or "melodic framework" are perhaps the best English descriptions, although they are only somewhat helpful.

I like to describe a raga as being about halfway between a scale and a tune. A scale is just a set of notes, which can be used in any way you want. A tune leaves no room for spontaneous creation of melody. A raga lacks the total freedom of a scale, but has much more freedom than a tune.

A raga may be characterized in a number of ways. It is built out of a specific selection of tones from the octave (at least five), like a scale. But in a scale all notes are equal. A Raga will have notes of greater and lesser significance. A raga will also have characteristic phrases that are used in its performance, and specific ways in which the notes cannot be used. Each raga is also associated to a particular mood, and to a particular time of day or season of the year.

The result is a melodic structure that is easily recognizable, yet infinitely variable. No two performances of the same raga, even two performances by the same musician, will be identical. Indeed the same raga may be played by the same musician one night for half an hour, the next night for an hour and a half. Yet the character of the raga, the mood it creates, will still be the same.

Tala - Organization of Rhythm

In the same way that ragas are melodic structures, talas are rhythmic structures. A tala can be thought of as a cycle, divided into equal beats which are collected into subgroups. So, for example, Rupak tala consists of seven beats, a group of three beats followed by two groups of two beats (sometimes represented 3+2+2).

The tala is usually represented by a series of strokes (called "bols") on the tabla, reflecting the sub-groupings within the tala. The tabla player will vary the strokes that he plays, but will do so in a manner consistent with the basic rhythm of the tala. In particular, he will be careful to differentiate between the tali (on-beats) and khali (off-beats), which are defined for each tala.

The most important beat of the tala is the first one, called "sam". In performance, the soloist may go off on a long improvised phrase that may last for many cycles of the tala, but will always return to the composition on the sam.

Where to start?

The classical music of India is such a large topic that it is hard to know where to begin.

I've tried to put into this guide all the things that I wish someone would have explained to me when I started learning about and listening to Indian music. I've also tried to give them some sort of organization. If you're thinking about attending a concert, you might want to look at the comments about vocal and instrumental performances. If you're more interested in the theory of the music (or have always wondered what a raga is) you could look at the article on fundamentals. Many newcomers to Indian music are interested in the many different instruments that are used, and so I've put together a few notes on them as well. I've also tried to link between the documents where relevant, so if you start reading about performance, and (for example) all of a sudden wonder what a raga is, you'll be able to find out.

What do you mean 'North Indian'?

There are two different systems of classical music in the Indian subcontinent; the Hindustani system, prominent in the north, and the Carnatic system, more common in the south. This guide discusses Hindustani music, although the fundamentals are similar in the two styles.