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Classical Music - A Bit of Basic Stuff

People often ask, how do you identify the raga a song or a piece of music is based on? We will try to answer this question by going into a bit of music theory in this blog post and others that follow. In upcoming blog posts, we will take examples of classical compositions sung or played by classical musicians, and film songs based on the raga and try to spot their similarities and differences in the way the raga is used. What follows is a brief summary of the terminology and concepts that are fundamental to ICM. This is not intended to be an exhaustive or in-depth treatment of the subject. I would urge you to view the videos on RagaQuest, where the fundamental concepts are explained in greater detail using animated videos. Here is one, explaining the basic concept of raga.

If you are already well versed with the terminology and essential concepts of ICM and can easily recognize the raga or scale of a song, you may skip this section, but I would earnestly invite you to go through it anyway and share your feedback as a comment to this post. Those readers that are new to these concepts can use this blog post as reference material and come back to it to refresh their understaning when needed.

Raga (राग, also spelt raag) is a term that is so central to Indian Classical Music (ICM) that ICM is often referred to as Raga Music, especially in the West. Almost all genres of music in the world use 12 swara (notes). In Indian music they are: 7 shuddha or pure swara which we will write in upper case (Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, and Ni, i.e., सा, रे, ग, म, प, ध, नी), 4 komal or flats which we will write in lower case (re, ga, dha and ni, for which there are various notations used by different authors in the Hindi and Marathi script, e.g. रेl, गl , धl , नीl) and one teevra or sharp, which we willl write with an apostrophe (Ma’, generally written as म ) A raga is basically a melodic theme which has a definite set of rules about which of the 12 notes are used and which are omitted in the ascending and descending order (aroha and avaroha) in the raga. The other important defining feature of every raga is called its chalan (चलन) or pakad (पकड) which is a set of melodic phrases that define the “tune” of the raga. Ragas were not conceptualised or designed in a vacuum but originated in tunes of Vedic chants recited in temples, and in folk music from the mountains and rivers that celebrate nature and the seasons of the year and so on. There are ragas that are performed in the rainy season (the Malhar series of ragas) and others that are performed in spring (raga Basant and Bahar etc.) Many ragas got modified along the way because of Moghul cultural influences during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Karnatak music has also had a great deal of influence on North Indian Classical music, and in fact quite a few ragas have been taken from Karnatak music and modified a little to suit the ICM genre.There are hundreds of ragas in existence – I have seen a list containing over 600 raga names, many of which are jod ragas, i.e., combinations of 2 (or in a few cases, more) ragas. To my knowledge less than 100 are performed in the present day.

A bit about the difference in the way a raga is presented in a classical music concert as opposed to in a film song. The duration of a classical presentation of a raga can range from 3 minutes to over an hour. The 3 minute format goes back to the age of vinyl records before the coming of CDs and now digitally recorded music, where the “Standard Play” records were restricted to a 3 minute duration. In a classical presentation the artist ususally presents 2 or sometimes 3 compositions in the chosen raga, the second and third compositions rendered in a faster tempo than the first. The composition is used as a sort of a seed to improvise, expand and develop the raga and show its many facets. A film song, on the other hand is ususally from 3 minutes to 6 minutes long, and is fully pre-composed and rendered exactly as the composer composed it. For a more detailed description of a typical classical concert, do refer to the videos in RagaQuest in the chapters that deal with vocal and instrumental performance. Here is a concept video explaining the structure of a typical classical music concert:

The defining features of the raga (the notes used in ascending/descending order and the chalan of the raga) are religiously adhered to in a classical concert, and a performer breaking any of the rules would draw severe disapproval from kowledgeable listeners and critics, and would never be taken seriously. No artist who has been trained under a knowledgeable guru would ever be caught doing this.

On the other hand film music composers, even when they intend to compose a song in a particular raga, adhere to the rules of the raga in large part but use a “creative musical license” to break the chalan of the raga, and often add notes not permitted in the raga to embellish the melody. Some of the greatest film music composers who have in fact been classically trained have done that and gifted film music with some unforgettable masterpieces. We will take examples of such masterpieces in this blog.

I should mention in passing that another concept called thaat (थाट) is sometimes confused with the term raga. Thaat is a system of classification of ragas proposed by the musicologist V.N.Bhatkhande in the early twentieth century, in which ragas are slotted into one of the 10 thaats depending upon the combination of shuddha, komal, and teevra notes used in the raga. The system is used more by academicians than practitioners, and its use is often questioned by many. A thaat is never, indeed it cannot be performed as it is only a system of classification.Another system of classification based on the chalan of ragas is called the ragang (रागांग) system and is considered to be more useful as compared to the thaat system. We need not bother ourselves too much with these terms for our purpose.

The other two important “dimensions” of ICM are laya written as लय (tempo) and tala written as ताल (loosely translated, rhythm). As mentioned above, a classical concert typically starts with the artist performing a composition in the chosen raga in a slow tempo (vilambit laya, विलंबित लय in Hindi) ususally following it up with one or sometimes two compositions in faster tempos (drut or jalad, द्रुत or जलद) How slow is slow, depends upn factors like the raga being presented, the artist’s temperament and even the Gharana of the artist (more about gharanas below).

Rhythm is an inseparable part of any music in the world, and ICM is no exception. We will take examples of the pure magic created with rhythm by composers in the songs they composed for films, in upcoming posts, but first a bit about the concept of tala. The concept of tala is as central to ICM as raga. A classical music performance, whether it is vocal or instrumental is almost always accompanied by a rhythm instrument, generally a tabla (तबला) or pakhavaj (पखवाज or sometimes pronounced as पखावज). A tala is a rhythmic pattern consisting of a fixed number of beats (मात्रा) played on a rhythm instrument. The tabla and pakhavaj both have their own “language” consisting of syllables called bol (बोल) like Dha, Dhin, Ta, Tin (धा, धिन, ता, तिन) etc. Like ragas, talas have evolved over centuries and the tabla and pakhavaj are used not just as an accompanying instrument, but are performed solo as well. There are dozens of talas, each with its own pattern and number of beats (16, 12, 6, 10, 14 or 7 beats being the most common). Film music, and other forms of light and folk music use rhythm instruments like dholak, duf, khanjira, etc. (ढोलक, डफ, खंजिरा) and many others with variations of talas used in classical music. They tend to be more lively and faster than the ones used in classical music. The most common talas used in film music are keherwa and its variations (8 beats), dadra and its variations (6 beats), rupak (7 beats), teentaal (16 beats) and rarely jhaptaal (10 beats). We will take examples of film songs in all these different talas, and see how musicans embellish the rhythm with laggis, todas etc. (लग्गी, तोडा).

Finally, a very brief note on gharanas (घराना) since it is a term that is peculiar to Indian classical music and heard often, and a lot of people are curious about it. As mentioned earlier, our music has evoved over several centuries, and there were influential musicians who evolved their own style of performing, and had students who adopted the vocal or instrumental styles of their gurus. These styles came to represent the gharana, or school founded by that guru. Gharanas are typically named after the village or town that the founder of the gharana lived and taught in. Examples of the most popular gharana are Gwalior, Agra, Jaipur, Kirana, Mewati, etc. The style of the gharana is recognisable to the trained ear even today even though there has been a great deal of give and take between gharanas. And gharanas have spawned other gharanas when a stalwart from one gharana would evolve his own style, a little different from the orginal. I like to think of this as a “fork”, to borrow a term used in software for a branch or offshoot coming out of a root.

This should suffice as an introduction to Indian Classical Music for our purpose of looking at ICM in film songs. Hope you found this useful.


Wherever we look at the notation of a piece of music, we will use the following conventions:

1. A swara in upper case (e.g. Re) denotes a shuddha (शुद्ध) swara, and a swara in lower case (e.g. re) denotes a komal (कोमल) swara. “ma” means shuddha ma and Ma means teevra Ma.

2. A dot below a swara (e.g. Nị) means that it is in the lower octave (Mandra Saptak). A dot above a swara (e.g. Sa͘) means that it is in the higher octave (Taar saptak).

3. A double breve ( ͜ ) between 2 swaras denotes a glide (मींड) between the two swaras. A Ϩ indicates a sustain on the note. A swara in brackets () means that it is touched (कण स्वर) before or after the main note.

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