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What is Music ?

With special reference to Carnatic Music and Percussion Instruments

Music is present almost everywhere. But what is Music?


Aristotle aptly sums it up saying

"It is not easy to determine the nature of music or why anyone should have a knowledge of it."


Alapa | Carnatic Music | Raga | Tala


The power of music to move men has been recognized in all cultures.  In  India, music was part of religion, right from  Vedic hymns at the beginning of recorded history. As music developed in  melodic and rhythmic intricacy,  religious texts or the guideline of a story determined its structure.

The narrator is central in most  Indian music, and his or her  skill  rivals that of the instrumentalists. The effects created by sounding tones simultaneously as in western music  has not developed in South Asian music. The divisions of an octave (intervals) are more  in Indian system than in Western music, and the melodic complexity in Oriental music is far beyond that of  Western practice. Moreover, an element of improvisation is retained which is vital to the success of a performance. The spontaneous imitation carried on between an instrumentalist and narrator, against the insistent rhythmic subtleties of the drums is a source of  excitement, which in large measure is because of the faithful adherence to the rigid rules that govern the rendition of ragas – the  melodic patterns of Indian music.

The  Music is the art of combining vocal or instrumental sounds, for beauty of form or emotional expression,  in accordance to certain standards of rhythm, melody, and harmony. Other major components of musical sound are tone, timbre (tone colour), and texture (instrumentation).

Although there are no sounds that can be described as inherently unmusical, musicians in each culture have restricted the range of sounds that they will admit.  Be it a simple folk song or complex electronic composition, all belong to  music. They are human composed, conceptual and auditory, and these factors are  present in music of all styles and of all periods, be it Eastern or Western.

The mind apparently seeks some organizing principle in the perception of music, and if a grouping of sounds is not objectively present it imposes one of its own. Experiments show that the mind instinctively groups regular and identical sounds into twos and threes, stressing every second or third beat, and thus creates, from an otherwise monotonous series a succession of strong and weak beats. In music, such grouping is achieved by actual stress, by periodically making one note (Swara) stronger than the others, as in Tala employed in Carnatic music. When the stress occurs at regular intervals, the beats fall into natural time measures.


Music is an art that  permeates every human society. Modern music is heard in many  styles, many of them contemporary, others of the past eras. Music is a protean art. It lends itself easily to alliances with words as in song, and with physical movement as in dance. Popular cultures consistently employ its possibilities,  by means of radio, film, television, and the musical theatre. 


Carnatic Music

Carnatic Music has its roots in the distance past. The earliest extend theoretical work is the Natya Sastra by Bharatha, a treatise on theater, dance and music dating between the second century B.C to the fifth century A.D. Through centuries many more important scholarly books on music have been written, perhaps the most noteworthy of which was the medieval Sangeetha Ratnakara by Sarangadeva.


Indian music comprises a wide variety of instrumental and vocal traditions, among which are classical, religious, popular, theatrical, and modern ones. The best known of these internationally is classical music. Classical music of North India and Pakistan is called Hindustani music and that of South India is called Carnatic (Karnatic) music.


The Modern period of Carnatic music begins with Purandaradasa (1484-1564), sometimes called the Father of Carnatic Music. He was the pioneer who blended the rich musical streams of Dravidian and Aryan music into one stream called Carnatic music. He not only composed many songs but also the standard lessons and exercises that are still memorized by every music student, even  today. The synthesis of the Dravidian  and Aryan cultures resulted in the hybrid variety that has become the Carnatic music of South India, a rich traditional classical music system.


The next stage of development occurred during the  period of Rama mathya in 16th century, who wrote a great book called Swara mela kalanidhi. He introduced the system of Janaka and Janya and Raga Padhathi, which has ultimately shaped into the Raga system in the music style. He also created a special type of Veena and named it Atchyuta-Rajendra-Mela-Veena in commemoration of king Atchyuta Deva-Raya the brother of the great king Krishna-Deva-Raya.


The existing Janaka-Janya raga system of 72 Melakarthas and their derivatives was introduced around 1620 AD, by Venkata Makhi who wrote an invaluable book Chaturdandi-Prakasika. In this there are 10 Chapters on Swara, Mela, Raga, Aalapa, Thana, Geetha, Prabhandha and Thalam. The definitions and explanations of Raganga, Upanga, Bhashanga Ragas were given with supporting Slokas in Sanskrit.


The 17th and 18th centuries were very significant in the musical history of this globe. The present day Karnataka Music had its roots during this period and it blossomed with all its decorations during the century that is the period of the Musical Trinity - Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar, and Shyama Sastri.


The ensemble of the present-day South Indian classical music consists of a singer or a main melody instrument, a secondary melody instrument, one or more rhythmic percussion instruments, and one or more drone instruments.


The most commonly heard main melody instruments are the veena, a long-necked, fretted, plucked lute with seven strings; the venu, a side-blown bamboo flute; the violin imported from the West through the efforts of Muthuswamy  and Baluswamy - the Dikshitar brothers, played seated on the floor with the scroll resting on the player's left foot; and the gottuvadyam, a long-necked lute without frets, with a sliding stop in the left hand.


The most prominent drone instrument is the four-stringed tamboura, a long-necked lute without frets. It accompanies the voice and all melody instruments except the nagaswaram, a long oboe-like  double-reed instrument with finger holes which is usually accompanied by the ottu, a longer version of the nagaswaram but without finger holes. A hand-pumped harmonium drone, called sruti petti or an electonic sruti box many times replaces the ottu or the tamboura.


Mridanga, a double-conical, two-headed drum, is the most common rhythmic instrument used for keeping Tala, while ghatam - an earthenware pot without skin covering, and morsing - a metallic Jew’s harp are also very popular.


The tavil, a very loud, slightly barrel-shaped, double-ended drum played by striking with sticks generally accompanies Nagaswaram.


Nagaswaram played an important role in popularising Carnatic Music. It being a very loud instrument, it has carried the music from within the four walls of a temple to the world outside, to those common men who had no approach to the innards of a temples where the music was generally performed in the past. Further these musicians of Nagaswaram had ample time in their hands for improvisations when they regularly accompanied the circumambulation of deities inside the temple walls. 



Alapa is the art music of India and Pakistan and it occurs in the introductory section of a performance. Raga alapana is the presentation of phrases admissible in the raga in such a manner as to bring out its distinctive characteristics. The arohana and avarohana constitute the briefest description of a raga. It gives the concise form of the outline or framework of the raga and is an  improvised melody structured to reveal a raga.  The alapa is performed with only a drone  accompaniment and the performer gradually introduces the essential notes and melodic turns of the raga to be performed. Only when the soloist is satisfied that  the full range of melodic possibilities of the raga is established,  he will proceed further. If a drummer is present, his first beats serve as a signal to the listener that the alapa has concluded.



The basic components of a raga can be written down in the form of a scale. By using these Swaras (notes), emphasizing certain degrees of the scale and by going from note to note in ways characteristic to the raga, the performer creates a mood or atmosphere (rasa) that is unique to the raga.  The  emotional states produced by different ragas is similar to the difference the Western listener feels between pieces in major and minor modes. Moods associated with ragas are much wider. There are several hundred ragas in present use, and thousands are possible in theory. To the Indian musician, each raga is  fit only for a particular time of the day or night.  An early morning raga such as tori induces a frame of mind inappropriate for other times.  A performance of tori in the afternoon is akin to playing a funeral march at a wedding ceremony.


Unlike the Hindustani music, the Carnatic music  is relatively free from the Arabic and Iranian influences. Carnatic music is more oriented to  voice and  even when instruments are played alone, they imitate the vocal range. Fewer instruments are used in Carnatic than in north Indian music. Though the basic principles of raga and tala are the same in the south and north, each has its own  ragas and talas, and there are many stylistic variations on them as well. Carnatic music has evolved a  more orderly and uniform system for the classification of ragas and talas. There are no exclusively instrumental forms in Carnatic music, whereas in Hindustani style  instrumental music is more and there are some purely instrumental forms, such as the gat. Hindustani music is more emotional and romantic while Carnatic music more on devotional aspects.




Tala is a  cycle with a specific number of beats – from 3 to 128 – that recur in the same pattern throughout a musical performance. Tala procedure has no precise equivalent in Western music, and may be equated with rhythm or metre of the West.  Within a  pattern, the beats are not necessarily grouped in identical subunits, as is common in Western practice, and may  occur in asymmetrical groups. Even when subunits are numerically identical, each such group may be functionally different. 

Just as the  raga gives the performer a melody, the tala provides a   rhythmic framework . Generally, the tala is expressed by the accompanying drummer. However the rhythmic cycles are maintained in the mind of the soloist, whether or not audibly performed. 


Mridanga is a percussion musical instrument, the sound of which is produced by the vibration of a stretched membrane (thus classified as a membranophone,  within the larger category of percussion instruments). Basically, a drum is either a tube or a bowl of wood, metal, or pottery (the "shell") covered at one or both ends by a membrane (the "head"), which is usually struck by hand or stick. on the other hand Friction drums are sounded by rubbing.

Tubular drums assume many shapes (goblet, hourglass, barrel, etc.) and are considered shallow if the height is less than the diameter. If the drum is so shallow that the shell cannot act as a resonator for the sound (as in a tambourine), it is considered a frame drum.

Traditional Mridanga is made of hollowed wooden body, generally of Jackfruit tree. The two ends are covered with stretched skins. 




The prevalence of music is nothing new, and its human importance has often been acknowledged. What seems curious is that, despite the universality of the art, no one until recent times has argued for its necessity.



Encyclopaedia Britannica 2002 (Deluxe Edition)

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