Indian music is more than just the Bollywood sounds that have become so popular in the last ten or twenty years, and it is more than the awkward stabs that many British rock musicians made at it in the 1960s (no offense to George Harrison or Donovan intended). Indian classical music is a tradition that interlocks with Indian culture and has a history thousands of years old. It is a rich and vibrant medium, and remains even in 2014 largely outside the ken of the typical modern Westerner.
And it is a medium that values virtuosity, a type of music in which only the finest players become well-known, and never because of their haircut or fashion sense. In Indian classical music, it’s all about the performance, all the time.
But why should a rich tradition that produces some of the greatest virtuosi of this or any age be marginalized in the minds (and ears) of Western listeners? Well, Indian classical music is challenging, and requires serious listening, to name just two reasons.
Today, we’ll explore the world of Indian classical music, and give you an idea of what you’ve been missing so you can dive in and really listen to some of the most lyrical, complex, and wide-ranging music your ears will ever savor.
If you don’t know much about Indian music, you probably don’t know much about the culture that spawned it, either. Luckily, that is simply remedied, with an online course. This one, called “The India Heritage Experience,” is a good start. The culture of the Asian subcontinent is ancient and rich, and recent anthropological studies show that India was a staging area in the process of human migration out of Africa. All humans on this planet who do not live in Africa moved to where they are now from India. As we are Africans, so are many of us Indians, even if by our reckoning our ancestors come from Europe, or Asia, or Australia, or wherever else.
Basic Indian Classical Music Instrumentation
Let’s begin with the instruments you will see in the simplest and best-known small classical Indian ensemble, the sitar trio. Indian classical music tends to fall into small groups, with single instruments soloing over rhythmic and pedal accompaniment. In Western classical music terms, these are chamber ensembles, but devoted to improvisation rather than a canon of compositions.
In a sitar trio, we have rhythm provided by a table player. The tabla is a pair of small tuned hand drums that is capable of great expressiveness. The player can change the pitch of the drum as or after striking the skin by sliding the heel of the hand across the head of the drum, resulting in the tabla’s signature sound. The greatest tabla players are percussion whirlwinds, able to play at speeds that make Western drummers’ heads spin.
The droning, pedal point backing that underlays most Indian music can be provided by a number of different instruments, but in a sitar trio it is almost always a tambura (or tanpura), a 5-stringed instrument with a gourd body and resonator and a long neck. The tambura has no frets, as it is intended to play only one note (or a group of harmonious notes) for the entirety of a given piece of music. The strings are played with a plectrum in such a way as to produce a continuously droning backing.
The lead instrument in a sitar trio is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the sitar. The sitar is similar in appearance to the tambura, with a body made from gourds and a long wooden neck. But the sitar has frets for playing melodies. The sitar can have anywhere from 11 to 23 strings, although the player only uses one or two of them for playing melodies. The rest are sympathetic strings, that are tuned to the piece being played and which vibrate sympathetically, along with the drone strings of the tambura, to create a richly resonant and zingy droning backdrop for the melody lines.
Indian Musical Structure
Indian classical music is very like Western music in many ways, and very unlike it in many others. If you don’t have a background in music, or need a refresher on music theory, there are several good online classes to ground you in music theory and music appreciation. A good start for a listener is “Adventures in Classical Music,” while for those who need some music theory, “Basic Concepts of Music” and “Beginning Music Theory” are good choices.
The rhythmic structures in Indian classical music are very different from their counterparts in Western music. You may be familiar with counting 1,2,3,4, or 1,2,3, when you took clarinet lessons back in 4th grade, but Indian musicians are counting all sorts of numbers per measure: 7, 9, 11, 13, and even 16 beats. A classical Indian piece is built on the rhythmic pulse first, known as a tala. Talas have different names which require different numbers of beats divided up into different groupings. Dhamar, for example, is a 14-beat cycle divided into groupings of 5,2,3, and 4. Ravi Shankar’s favored Tintal is most accessible to Western listeners, being a 16-beat cycle divided into four groups of four beats.
If you need some grounding in rhythms and meters, there is a great blog entry by April Klazema called “Examples of Rhythm” that will help you get started.
Melody, and Where’s the Harmony?
This is, of course, a trick question. Indian classical music does not depend on harmony as such. There is a single note or perhaps a pair of notes that provide what in Western music is called a “pedal point,” or a single harmonic point of reference against which the notes of the melody are contrasted. It is a very different thing when compared to the traditional Western notions of accompaniment with chords, and requires deep listening before you can understand it fully.
The sitar, in a classical Indian trio, plays the melodies, over the drone of the tambura. The melodies come from the Indian version of scales, called ragas. Ragas are far more complex than any Western scale, having more notes per octave (Indian music, of course, incorporates semitones, notes “in between” the black and white keys on the piano) and different patterns depending on whether the melody is moving upwards in pitch or downwards.
The complexity of the ragas and talas makes for music that is generally not “comfortable” to Western ears. There are none of the usual points of reference. After a slow beginning (the alap) that states all the notes of the raga so that the listener knows what to expect, the trio runs through a series of varying tempos and feels, entirely improvised within the given rhythmic and melodic framework. There are no composers in classical Indian music, only virtuoso improvisers. All Indian classical music is by definition created in the moment, although each player has a signature style.
Ultimately, perhaps the lack of a composed canon of pieces is what makes Indian classical music so difficult for Westerners to wrap their heads around. Whatever the reason, once you get past your hang-ups, there is a world of music to enjoy coming from the subcontinent. Start with Ravi Shankar, likely the greatest sitar player of all time, and let your imagination take you from there!