Simple Introduction to South Indian Classical Music – Part 1

L. Subramanian
L. Subramanian

Author: Suresh Sri

South Indian classical music is known as Carnaatic music (we’ll be using this term henceforth in this article). This article describes the basics of the music, tells us what to listen for, and provides links to a few starter albums.

Part 2 of this article expands on the concepts and briefly describes the structure and mechanics of the music system and includes a list of links to resources for more information.

There are several books and articles already available about South Indian classical music. Most of them get technical very quickly, drowning the reader in Sanskrit terms. This article makes an attempt to stay with the gestalt, getting into details only when necessary.

Needless to say, all external content referenced in this article are owned by the appropriate entity and their access and usage governed by appropriate copyright laws.


Phonetic: when referring to Sanskrit/Tamil words, the letters ‘a’ and ‘aa’ are used to indicate the short and long ‘a’ sounds respectively (as in ‘sun’ and ‘sawn’), and the letters ‘i’ and ‘ee’ represent the short and long ‘i’ sounds (as in ‘sin’ and ‘seen’). Similarly for other vowel sounds. Also, the consonant ‘th’ indicates a soft sound as in ‘thin’, and ‘dh’ represents a slightly thicker sound, as in ‘this’.

When a new technical term is introduced for the first time, it’s shown in bold (with its Sanskrit/Tamil equivalent in italics in parentheses, just for reference).

What is Carnaatic Music?

Carnaatic music is one of the two dominant genres of Indian classical music (the other one being ‘Hindustani music’ (pronounced Hindhusthaani), popularized by Ravi Shankar, Zakir Hussain, et al).

Carnaatic music is melody-based and not symphony-based. That is, songs are composed as multiple tracks for multiple instruments to play together, but for a single artist (vocal or instrumental) to showcase the melody, rhythm, and mood of the song as envisioned by its composer, and to provide a venue for the artist to improvise and demonstrate his or her mastery. To be sure, the main artists are typically accompanied by other (string and/or percussion) instruments, but there are no special tracks composed for the accompaniments.

History and Evolution

Indian classic music has been around now for a couple of millenniums or even longer. Until about the 12th century CE, all of India used a single system of classical music. Subsequently, most of North India came under the rule of Muslim rulers of Turkish and Afghan descent (until about 1700 CE, when the British dudes took over). These rulers brought in their own Persian-influenced music, poetry, and other arts to India. This resulted in the classical music in North India being heavily influenced by these. South India, for the most part, was on the outskirts and thus was able to maintain the original style, but did assimilate a fair amount of South Indian folk music. At around the 14th century, the northern and southern genres were different enough to be labeled Hindustani and Carnaatic music, respectively.

Today, Carnaatic music is still mainly dominant in the four southern states of India – Andhra Pradesh (pron: Aandhra Pradesh), Karnataka (pron: Karnaatakaa), Kerala (pron: Kayralaa), and Tamil Nadu (pron: Tamil Naadu) – and anywhere else in the world where lots of South Indians hang out. The city of Chennai in Tamil Nadu (location) hosts a Carnaatic music festival every year from mid-December to mid-January. Other regions around the world with a high density of South Indians also usually have similar festivals.

As with any system that’s been evolving for a couple of millennium, the rules in Carnaatic music can be pretty complex, with every rule having several exceptions, and exceptions having their own exceptions. In this article, we’ll blissfully ignore the complexity and stick to basic stuff, just enough to understand and appreciate the music.

Basic Concepts

There are two main concepts in Carnaatic music: melody (raagam) and rhythm cycle (thaalam). Melodies and rhythm cycles have names that uniquely identify them. In addition to having a name, certain melodies can also be referred to by their numbers (as in “melody number 25”). More about this in part 2.

Both of those concepts are present in other genres of classical music as well. The main difference might be that they are more formalized in Carnaatic music (classified, catalogued, given a name, etc.).


A melody is made up of two parts: the specific musical notes (svaram) that are allowed in the melody (in every octave). This means that any song set in this melody can use only these notes. Secondly, the movement rules (sanchaaram) of a melody specify which notes should always be sung together and how one is allowed to move from note to note when singing/playing this melody. The movements could be linear, with/without undulations or micro-tones (gamakam), and could be different while ascending (going from a lower note to a higher note) and descending. It is the movement rules that give the melody its unique emotion or personality (bhaavam). It is not rare for two melodies to share the same set of notes but sound completely different because of different movement rules.

Melodies are grouped into major (or parent) melodies (janaka raagam) and minor (or children) melodies (janya raagam). A major melody is constructed by selecting a certain number of notes in an octave based on certain rules. A minor melody is constructed by selecting a subset of notes of a major melody; the major melody is then known as the parent of this child melody. Thankfully, there is only one level of hierarchy – a child melody cannot have its own children melodies.

There are exactly seventy two major melodies but several thousand minor melodies. In part 2, we’ll see what makes a melody major or minor.

(Listening note: the mood and melodiousness of a melody is not determined by whether it is major or minor. In other words, a melody doesn’t sound better or worse simply because it is a major or a minor melody.)

Melodies, like baby names and wine varieties, go in and out of fashion. And like wines, some melodies may instantly appeal to one and some need getting used to.

Rhythm Cycle

A rhythm cycle (thaalam) is a set of beats (aksharam) arranged in groups. (Example: 4+2+2 is an eight beat rhythm cycle with three groups.)

There are thirty five primary rhythm cycles: seven rhythm cycle types with five flavors (jaathi) in each type. Part 2 describes this in more detail. Amongst the thirty five, only some are commenly used in practice. Here they are, with their names in parentheses in italics:

  • 4 – as in 1234 (eka)
  • 2+3 – as in 12123 (khanda chaapu), sometimes played as 4+6 (1122112233).
  • 2+4 – as in 121234 (roopaka).
  • 3+2+2 – as in 1231212 (thriputa).
  • 3+2+2 – as in 1231212 (misra chaapu), sometimes played as 6+4+4 (11223311221122).
  • 4+2+2 – as in 12341212 (aadhi); this is the most common rhythm cycle.
  • 7+2+1 – as in 1234567121 (jhampa).
  • 5+5+2+2 – as in 12345123451212 (ata).

(Listening note: the non 8-count rhythm cycles may feel a bit abstract at first, but pretty soon one gets the hang of any rhythm cycle.)

Songs or Compositions

A song or composition (geetham or keerthana or krithi) is essentially one or more stanzas of lyrics (such as a poem) set to a melody and a rhythm cycle. A song is identified by four pieces of information: it’s title, the name of the melody it is composed in, the name of the rhythm cycle it is set to, and the composer’s name.

When a song is composed (or when an existing poem is set to music), the melody and the rhythm cycle are selected first. The melody is typically chosen to highlight the mood of the song (romance, courage, gratitude, playfulness, pathos, sorrow, etc.) If the lyrics already exist, the meter of the poem might naturally suggest a rhythm cycle.

A composer could choose more than one melody for a song (for example, each stanza could be in a different melody). Such a composition is called a multi-melody song (raaga-maalikaa – garland of raagams).

Instruments In addition to vocalists, the most common instrument types and instruments used in Carnaatic music are:

  • String instruments – violin, veena (a longish bulky lute-like instrument played by placing it across the lap), gottuvaadhyam or chithraveena (fret-less veena, played using a slider).
  • Wind instruments – flute, naagasvaram, shehnai (trumpet-like instruments), clarinet, saxophone.
  • Others – jalatharangam (a set of cups filled with water and tapped with a stick to produce different notes).
  • Percussion instruments – mridangam (double-sided drum), ghatam (a pot – played by striking on its surface with fingers and knuckles, varying the pitch by moving its mouth against one’s stomach), ganjira (a piece of hide stretched over a wooden or metal rim; held in one hand and stuck with the fingers of the other hand), morsing (jew’s harp; produces a twangy strumming sound), thavil (a double-sided drum, larger than mridangam), used usually to accompany naagasvaram, clarinet, shehnai.

Any non-percussion instrument could be the main instrument in a concert. For accompanying a vocalist, the violin is the most common choice.

Structure of a Concert Carnaatic music concerts are performed with the artists seated. The main artists sit in the center of the stage facing the audience. Accompanying artists sit on two sides of the main artists, each side facing the other. Sometimes, a junior artist whose only job is to maintain the pitch of the concert (by droning on a string instrument called the thanpoora) sits behind the main artists. Here is a picture

Components of a Concert There are two styles of performing: song-centric and melody-centric. In a song-centric concert, many songs are sung/played. Most of them tend to be short: 5-15 minutes, with one ‘main’ song that lasts for about an hour. A melody-centric concert focuses on improvisation of a few melodies, each improvisation lasting for up to an hour. The same artist could perform in either style in different concerts or indeed in the same concert (several songs with one melody-centric number).

The song-centric style places emphasis on a) singing or playing the song as its composer envisioned it, b) limited improvisations that demonstrate the artist’s spontaneity and mastery of the melody and rhythm, and c) singing a variety of songs in different melodies demonstrating different emotions.

The melody-centric concerts focus completely on improvisation, with just a line of lyrics to serve as the basis on which to improvise.

In either styles, improvisation is one of the unique and important features of Carnaatic music. Good improvisation (almost never repeating the same sequence of notes and yet staying within the bounds of the melody and never missing a beat) is what separates the experienced and the gifted from the rest.

(Listening note: If you tend to get bored with a single melody going on for a while and prefer a ‘sampler’ approach, try listening to a song-centric style album. If you like to immerse yourself in a melody, you’ll enjoy the melody-centric style.)

A live concert usually lasts for about two to three hours, even though longer ones aren’t uncommon.

Song-centric Style Concert

The concert will typically start with a few short songs to ‘warm up’. This will be followed by one (or at the most, two) main songs(s). Each main song will contain multiple parts (described below), each part designed to explore the melody and the lyrics in a different way. The concert ends with a few more short, simpler songs.

Here are the parts of a ‘main’ number of a song-centric concert:


  • Melody exploration (aalaapanai) – exploring the various movements in the melody (without any lyrics).
  • Rhythmic melody exploration (thaanam) – once again, just singing the melody without any lyrics but in a bit more rhythmical manner, though not necessarily set to any specific rhythm cycle. Sometimes a percussion instrument is used.

Body – the song per se (i.e., the lyrical part)

  • Header (pallavi). The first stanza of the song.
  • Sub-header (anupallavi). The middle stanzas of the song.
  • Footer (charanam). The last stanza of the song.
  • Filler (niraval) – the artist takes a line of the sub-header or footer and elaborates on it at different speeds, accentuating different movements of the melody. The filler could occur before or after the footer.


  • Notes (svaram) – the notes of the melody (sa ri ga ma etc., described in detail in part 2) are sung at different speeds, with the main and accompanying artists taking turns.
  • Percussion solo (thani aavardhanam) – this is the opportunity for the percussionist to demonstrate the complex patterns of the rhythm. If there are multiple percussionists, they take turns.

The preamble, postamble, and the filler portion of the body are opportunities for the artist to improvise.

The rhythm cycle starts when the body begins and continues without a break until the end of the postamble, including any percussion solo part.

The non-main numbers of the concert typically omit the preamble and postamble and shorten the body part as well. See here for a sample song-centric album.

Melody-centric Style Concert

The parts of a melody-centric number are:

  • Melody exploration (aalaapanai) – singing just the melody (without any lyrics); exploring the various movements in the melody.
  • Rhythmic melody exploration (thaanam) – once again, just singing the melody without any lyrics. Sounds a bit more rhythmic, though not set to any specific rhythm cycle. Sometimes a percussion instrument is used.
  • A line of lyrics (pallavi) repeated with improvisations to explore the melody’s personality.
  • Filler (niraval) – Elaboration of the above line, at different speeds accentuating different movements of the melody.
  • Notes (svaram) – the notes of the melody, sung at different speeds.
  • Percussion solo (thani aavardhanam).

In other words, every part of a melody-centric number is focused on improvisation.

In this style, the rhythm starts when the line of lyrics (the ‘pallavi’ part) begins.

This style is popularly known as raagam-thaanam-pallavi or ‘RTP’. Here’s an example of a melody-centric CD album
Hints For Listening Start with a few melody-centered albums and a few song-centered ones to see which style appeals to you. Also, try both brisk melodies (Mohanam, Hindolam, Kadanakuthoohalam, Sankaraabharanam) and soft melodies with many undulations (Bhairavi, Aanandhabhairavi, Ataana) and see which ones you like more.

Listen to the various components – (rhythmic) exploration, free form notes, the give and take between the main player and the accompaniments, etc.

See whether a particular artist’s style appeals to you: energetic, sedate, experimental, traditional.

Here are a few starter albums:

Album Artist Comments
Raga Aberi L. Shankar (violin) Melody-centric – starts slowly but gets pretty brisk. Track 1: melody exploration (non-rhythmic); tracks 2, 3: rhythmic exploration; tracks 4,5: the line of lyric and filler; track 6 – notes and percussion solo.
Hindolam: Raagam Thaanam Pallavi S. Sowmya (pron: Sowmyaa) (vocal, female) Melody-centric (vocal, accompanied by violin). Track 1: melody exploration (non-rhythmic and rhythmic); track 2: the line of lyric, filler, notes and percussion solo.
Electric Modes L. Subramaniam (violin) This one is neither song-centric nor a single melody-centric. Instead it explores a handful of melodies.
Disc 1: Four different melodies – tracks 1 through 4 are non-rhythmic explorations, and track 5 is a rhythmic exploration.
Disc 2: Tracks 1 through 3 and 5 are non-rhythmic explorations in different melodies; track 4 contains both a non-rhythmic and a rhythmic exploration sections; track 6 is a song (with its own non-rhythmic exploration, the body, percussion solo and notes sections).
Violin – In Concert Lalgudi G. Jayaraman (pron: Laalgudi G. Jayaraaman), Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan, Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi (violins) Song-centric. The first song is the main song (melody exploration, the body, notes, percussion solo).
Flute Fantasia Shashank (pron: Shashaank) (flute) Song-centric.


Here are a few well known artists and albums by them. You should be able to find these albums either in stores or online. There are several other artists that are just as good, so don’t hesitate to check them out too:

Name Instrument Notes
Sanjay Subrahmanyam Vocal (male)
S. Sowmya
(pron: Sowmyaa)
Vocal (female) Bio.
U. Srinivas
(pron: Sreenivaas)
Mandolin Bio
N. Ravikiran Gottuvadhyam / Chitraveena (sliding veena) Bio, website.
L. Subramaniam Violin Bio,
L. Shankar Violin Patented his own ten string ‘double’ violin that can play simultaneously in two octaves.
K.J. Yesudas
(pron: Yesudaas)
Vocal (male) Bio, website.
(pron: Shashaank)
Flute Bio , website.
Lalgudi G. Jayaraman Violin Bio.
Palghat T.S. Mani Iyer
(pron: Paalghaat)
Mridangam Bio.
Vellore Ramabhadran
(pron: Raamabhadran)
Palghat R. Raghu (pron: Paalghaat) Mridangam
T.H. Vinayakaram
(pron: Vinaayakaraam)
Ghatam Bio.

If you happen to visit Chennai, India during the music season, be sure to check out a few live concerts: here’s a sample program schedule for one of the recent years:


Though Carnaatic music has been around for a long time, the ‘modern era’ of Carnaatic music started circa 1400 CE. Composers since then have left a stronger mark on modern day Carnaatic music than any earlier ones.

Annamaachaarya (1408-1503 CE) and Purandara Daasa (1480-1565 CE) were among the earliest composers of the modern era. The former’s compositions were in the Telugu language and the latter composed in the Kannada and Sanskrit languages (language map of India)

Venaktamakhi (full name: Venkateswara Deekshitha; period: around 1630) introduced the classification of existing melodies into major and minor ones. This 72 major melody system was finalized by others sometime in the 18th century.

Among the various composers of Carnaatic music, three stand out and are referred to as the ‘trinity’ of Carnaatic music: Shyaamaa Saastri (1762-1827 CE), Thyaagaraaja (1767-1847 CE), Muthuswaamy Deekshitar (1776-1835 CE). Like a lot of people in India, these composers were multi-lingual and their compositions were in the Sanskrit, Telugu, Kannada, and Tamil languages (sometimes a single song containing multiple languages).

More recent composers include Gopaala Krishna Bhaarathi, Oothukkaadu Venkatasubramanya Aiyer, Paapanaasam Sivan, King Swaathi Thirunal (a real king of a part of the Kerala state).

During the British rule of India, a few Carnaatic musicians learnt to play the violin as part of their stints in Western style orchestras, and the instrument slowly worked its way into the Carnaatic system to become both the most common accompaniment to a vocalist and also a main instrument in its own right. Clarinet and saxophone were more recent additions to Carnaatic music instruments, probably sometime in the middle of the 20th century.

Author: World Music Central News Department

World music news from the editors at World Music Central