Indian Musical Instruments

indian musical instrumentsThe sound of India is immediately recognizable, even if you have never been there. With one strum or pluck of an Indian musical instrument, you are transported into a world where sacred sound, nada, is recognized to be the pulse of creation.  By now, nost of us are familiar with the sound of Om and its symbolic imagery.  The Om, for those who really understand it, is something far more powerful than the little trinkets you see people wearing on chains and t-shirts. For India, the sound of Om is a primordial force which holds the material world together.  If you have never had the chance to go to India, you can get an idea for the supreme richness of Indian culture by watching a quick video on its heritage.

Nada Brahma is the personification of this sacred sound and the name for India’s mesmerizing, classical music.  Its two most important elements are Raag and Taal.  Raag is the acoustic element which gives Indian music its sense of color and passion. It is a specific combination of notes, played to intentionally evoke a particular emotion in the listener.  Taal is the rhythmic cycle of the music, ranging from 3-108 beats, usually played by the drums.  For more information on classical Indian music, you can read this article on Hindustani Music.

The Drone of Indian Music

The characteristic droning sound of India is one that is straightaway identifiable. In Indian music, the drone lends the harmonic base for the piece, something which clarifies the scale structure, but actually makes it possible to develop amazingly complex modes.  These modal explorations are possible because of subtle, yet profound harmonic phenomena.  These harmonic phenomena are very adequately explained in Helmholtzian terms.

To achieve the effect, a note or a chord is continuously sounded throughout the piece.  The chord can be supplied by special instruments, instrumentalists, or by special parts of instruments.  To really appreciate the effect, you can easily learn how to hear the chord behind the music.

Tanpura, Tambura, or Tamburi

The tanpura is a long necked, stringed instrument which is used to support and sustain the melody of another instrument or singer, and played in a continuous loop rather than played with rhythm.  Its general shape resembles that if a sitar, only the tanpura has no frets, with its strings being plucked at full length.  With its rich and resonant sound effect, it provides the pitch, timbre and texture of the music, sonically creating the shape or landscape around which the musician plays his or her instrument or voice. If you don’t know anything about pitch, timbre, or texture, take a quick study course in music theory, and you’ll develop a musical ear you never knew you had.

The sound produced is based on the Jivari concept, an acoustic phenomenon executed by the tool of the same name. The Jivari is a curved tool is made of wooden or ivory bridges which support the strings on a sounding board. The name comes from the word Jiva, which refers to the animating, life-giving soul energy of living beings.  When listening to the rich, buzzlike overtone of the tanpura, it does sound as if it is animated with this life force.


The ottu is a double reed, large conical wind instrument that is similar to an oboe. The ottu has no finger holes, something which allows it to produce one constant note.  The sound is sustained by inhaling through the nose.


The surmandal is also called the Indian Harp and it is similar to an autoharp or zither.  To the untrained ear, it sounds something like a cross between a dulcimer and a harpsichord.  It is the traditional accompaniment of vocal Hindustani music heard in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.


The ektar is considered to be one of the oldest stringed instruments in the Indian subcontinent. This simple folk instrument is constructed from a gourd and a bamboo stick, with another piece of bamboo for a tuning peg. The bridge is a coin, a piece of coconut, or some other similar object. With its one simple string, the ektar can provide either the rhythm or the drone.

Indian Music – The Plucked Instruments


indian musical instrumentsThe sitar is easily the most recognizable of Indian musical instruments. It is descended from the similar Persian instrument called the Setar.  The sitar’s distinctive tonal quality, or timbre, is derived from its bridge design, long hollow neck, and sympathetic strings, along with its resonant gourd chamber.  It can have anywhere from 18-20 strings. Its frets are curved, raised, and movable, the latter of which allows for more refined tuning. The sitar became known through Ravi Shankar in the 1950s and was popularized by the Beatles in the 60s.

Rudra Veena and Saraswati Veena

The veena, a 7-stringed instrument which originated in ancient India, is made out of the dried wood of the jackfruit tree. The instrument is played through breath retention, or kumbhakam, meaning that you neither inhale nor exhale while playing.  Through this process of breath retention, the life force of the player is intermingled with the sound of the veena, the entire resonance of which is contained in the gourd. The effect of this intermingling of the body of the instrument and the breath of the musician results in the veena resounding the personality of the player.

Rudra Veena

With its sympathetic strings, bridge design, and hollow neck, or tube, the rudra veena is similar in construction to the sitar.  It has a long tubular body with resonant gourds at either end.

Saraswati Veena

The saraswati veena is about four feet long and it has a tapered, hollowed neck. At one end of the neck is a large resonator gourd, and at the other end, is a decorative head called a “dragon’s head” or yali.


Yet another classic stringed instrument of India, the gottuvadyam is a staple in the music of the Karnatak tradition.  It is similar in sound and appearance to the veena, but unlike the veena, its fingerboard is not fretted. The gottuvadyam is played by moving either a polished stone or cylinder of horn or wood over the strings. It is a solo instrument and is considered highly difficult to master. Because its body is lighter than the veena, its tone is slightly less resonant.

Bowed Instruments


The sarangi is a short-necked, 3-stringed instrument, giving it a similar appearance to a fiddle. Its sound is particular to Indian folk and classical Hindustani music.


This sympathetic stringed instrument is found in Northern India and is used both in religious music and urbanized, classical songs. It has a long, wooden sitar-like neck, with 20 heavy metal frets.

Blown Instruments


Considered to be very auspicious in the Hindu culture of Southern India, the nadaswaram is one of the most popular classical Indian wind instruments. Its body is made of hardwood, and its flaring bell, either of wood or metal. It is usually played in pairs with an accompaniment of the drums or the ottu.


Similar to the nadaswaram, the shehnai is a double-reed obo whose sound is thought to constellate a sense of auspiciousness and sanctity. It is often played during marriages, ceremonial processions, and in temples.  It has a characteristic range of two octaves from the A below middle C to the A above the treble clef. 

Percussive Instruments


One of the most classic accompaniments of Indian music, the pakhavaj is a barrel-shaped drum with one head on either side, each filled with tuning paste called siyahi.  It produces a harmonious rich, low, and mellow tone.  The pakhavaj rhythms are taught through bol, a series of mnemonic syllables, which define the uniquely Indian rhythm pattern – the tala. When played, the drummer uses his whole palm, with fingers placed in different places to produce different bols.  The pakhavaj appears in Hindu religious paintings and in the art of the Muslim courts of the Mughal Empire.


indian musical instrumentsThe tabla drum is a membranophone, a musical instrument which produces its sound via the vibration of a stretched membrane.  The instrument actually consists of two drums with contrasting sizes and timbres. In various configurations, the player’s fingers and palms strike the drum, producing different sounds (bols).


indian musical instrumentsThis drum is another version of the classical double sided drum of India. Like other drums, it is used as an accompaniment for vocal, instrumental, and dance performances.


Heard in dance music, as well as hindu devotional songs, the manjeera goes back to the earliest of ancient times. Finger or hand cymbals also known as jhanj, tala, mondira, (small size) kafi (large size) typically made of brass.  It has a wooden frame with two straight handles connecting to each other, and along with, two shorter handles. In the open space between the long handles is a divider which separates two rows of three brass jingles. The manjeera strokes have two main sounds, depending on whether they are open or closed. The pitch of the manjeera sound is dependent upon its diameter and the quality of brass.


The Kanjira is a South Indian frame drum which is part of the tambourine family. Its construction is similar to that of the tambourine, with one side being open and the other having a drum head. Its circular frame is made of jackfruit tree wood, and the drum head, out of the skin of the monitor lizard. The frame has a single slit which holds 3-4 metal discs or coins which jingle when the instrument is played.

One of the most amazing sounds that has emerged from the cultural interpenetration of India and the West is the sounds of Indian music mixed with Euro-American electronica.  With a short introduction to making electronic music, you start making your own inter-cultural mixes to break down cultural barriers and blow the roof off the dance floors.