Indian music has lived through multiple timelines and was raised among diverse communities.
It has been the source of a devotee’s prayer, a freedom fighter’s path to revolution, a platform for artistic expression, and a cherished moment to be revisited forever.
With its rich cultural history, India proudly represents not one but two traditions of classical music.
It can be traced to the sacred scriptures of Samaveda or the ‘Book of Songs.’ This text contains some of the oldest notated melodies known to humankind.
As socio-cultural scenarios kept on changing, music kept on evolving.
The emergence of ‘filmi’ music sees orchestral inspiration from the West and an eclectic mix of elements from the rock, jazz, disco, and techno genres.
In this article, I will discuss the different types of Indian music and their features.
There are two practices of Indian classical music: ‘Hindustani’ or North Indian music and ‘Carnatic’ or South Indian music.
These practices emphasize the improvisation of melodies (Raga), the use of microtones (Shruti), and varying rhythmic patterns (Tala).
While Western music is based on harmonies, Indian music relies on building melodies.
Around the 13th century, Islamic rule broadly impacted Hindustani music.
Combining ancient practices of music, Vedic customs, and the newly brought Persian music techniques – a distinctive style was accomplished.
Tambura, a drone instrument, sets the foundation for the entire performance.
A singer’s task would then be to spontaneously weave musical notes together to express the mood of a raga.
They may also be accompanied by instruments like the tabla, harmonium, sitar, santoor, and shehnai, trained to follow the vocalist in their improvisation.
Some classical music genres include Dhrupad, Dhamar, Khayal, and Tarana, primarily written to praise deities.
Among the lighter forms are Thumri and Ghazal, composed to create an emotional experience for the audience.
Listen to Kaushiki Chakraborty’s rendition of the famous Thumri’ Yaad Piya Ki Aaye.’
While Hindustani music developed its distinct style in the north, South Indian music developed without Persian influences.
Carnatic compositions took inspiration from ancient Sanskrit and Tamil literature and emerged as a very vocal-based, devotional style of music.
It follows the 72-melakarta system, similar to the ‘thaat’ system in Hindustani music.
This system indicates the parent scales from which multiple ragas are formed.
The flavor of a raga is vocally elaborated from phrase to phrase and is also brought about by combining different speeds or ‘nadais.’
A popular style of Carnatic music is Kritis or ‘kiritanam,’ which were formed between the 14 – 20th century and composed by several notable figures like the saint Purandara Dasa, and The Trinity featuring Tyagaraja, Syama Sastri, and Muttuswami Dikshitar.
These highly skilled musicians worked to create new melodies and rhythmic patterns within an existing structure.
Check out M.S. Subbulakshmi’s version of Tyagaraja’s most famous composition ‘Nenarunchinaanu.’
In Carnatic music performances, instruments like mridangam, khanjira, ghatam, and veena are used.
The violin also contributed massively to this discipline, having the ability to impersonate vocal techniques on strings.
Regional Folk Music
Music has played a pivotal role in bringing Indian communities come to life.
The grounds of regional folk music are based on a community’s way of living, religious beliefs, and personal philosophies.
Even as the world changed, this music was preserved with equanimity. It is presented in several languages and dialects, varying from state to state.
Here are some of the popular regional folk music in the country that you might recognize:
Lavani is an artistic blend of songs and dances popular in Maharashtra.
It was created to entertain the audience and survived many controversies due to its suggestive lyrics.
Lavani music is quick in tempo and relies heavily on percussions like Dholki (hand drum) and Manjeera (cymbals).
Dancers wear musical anklets called ‘ghungroo,’ which enhance the sound.
They may also be accompanied by a single-string instrument called ‘Tuntuni’ and the harmonium, a commonly used ensemble instrument in Indian music.
There has never been a more appropriate way of demonstrating good over evil than the folk dance of ‘Dandiya.’
It is performed with sticks that act like a sword, honoring Goddess Durga’s victory over a shape-shifting demon.
Dancers strike these sticks to the rhythms of a two-headed drum called ‘Dhol.’
Other percussion instruments like tabla and dholak may also be used for accompaniment.
Falguni Pathak, a Mumbai-based singer, is known for contributing to Gujarati folk music. The community also considers her the ‘Queen of Dandiya.’
Similar to the Hindustani classical genres of Ghazal and Thumri, Maand is an elegant style of folk music that was first heard in the courts of Rajasthan.
It was performed mainly by nomads who delved into Rajasthani legends and folklore.
This singing style was also seen in a Bollywood movie ‘Lekin’ featuring the late Lata Mangeshkar on ‘Kesariya Balam.’
Maand folk music uses cymbals and a bowed instrument called ‘Kamaicha’ for accompaniment.
Bihugeet is a vibrant kind of Assamese folk music.
It is mainly written in the couplet style and covers themes like changing seasons, beauty in the mundane, and youthful romance.
The presentation of Bihugeet is also very impromptu.
While hand drums and cymbals are frequently used in Indian folk music, you may also see ‘Gogona,’ a unique reed instrument of Assam.
It is made from Bamboo, a plant that significantly contributes to the state’s economy.
Filmi music is regarded as the most popular form of Indian music created for cinema.
It is created in several languages to reach a broader demographic within the country.
More often than not, this music has received twice the attention of the movies.
In the very beginning, Bollywood soundtracks were either Indian classical or folk-inspired, which gradually started incorporating the techniques of Western film scores.
R.D. Burman, a famous Bollywood composer, took inspiration from all over the globe, blending classical and folk genres with rock and jazz.
He also experimented with different sounds, proving his musical genius when resources were limited. His efforts were revolutionary.
Composers like A.R Rahman, Pritam, and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy have also worked to create a blend between the harmony and melody-based systems of Western and Indian music.
The art of playback singing contributes to the success of Indian movie soundtracks.
Actors usually lip-sync to pre-recorded tracks by talented playback or ‘ghost’ singers.
This guarantees a professional sound that appeals to the market.
Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhosle, K. J Yesudas, Shreya Ghoshal, and Sonu Nigam are among the famous playback singers of Bollywood.
India is now indie-pendant. Set apart from the country’s film industry and without the support of a record label, Indian artists are now earning recognition for their creative talents.
Be it pop, rock, soul, alternative, or folk – Indie India does it all.
What makes this possible is a large number of music listeners in the country, music festival organizers, and, most importantly, the growth of digital audio streaming platforms.
Spotify has launched a program called RADAR to work closely with upcoming artists and take them to the next level of their careers.
Red FM Indies, Radio City Indie, and Fever FM are some radio stations seeking to promote independent music in India by providing more airplay to lesser-known artists.
Prateek Kuhad is one of the highest streaming indie singer-songwriters on Spotify India and has also been featured on former US President Obama’s Favourite List of Music in 2019.
Among the country’s most beloved independent music artists are Anuv Jain, Raghav Meattle, When Chai Met Toast, Easy Wanderlings, and Peter Cat Recording Co.
Because of their distinctive songwriting techniques and the openness to experiment with local and global music, these indie artists are gradually making their way into mainstream music.
Western Influence on Indian Music
The West has positively influenced the classical traditions of Indian music, leading to the emergence of ‘fusion music.’
This practice dates back to the 60s, around when Indian classical musicians were performing in Europe and America.
Musical acts like The Beatles, The Kinks, and Yardbirds were seen incorporating Indian instruments into their songs.
Indian classical music also worked well with jazz because improvisation was a common goal.
Later on, more fusion genres emerged, like Sufi rock and Desi hip-hop.
Inspired by the Indian classical music structure and instrumentation, rock and pop bands created a new fusion style called ‘Raga Rock.’
Pandit Ravi Shankar, who popularized Indian classical music in the West, taught the sitar to George Harrison (The Beatles).
This beautiful string instrument can be heard on tracks like ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘Love You To’ by The Beatles.
The Rolling Stones have also utilized the sitar on their most famous song ‘Paint it, Black.’
Other British Invasion bands like The Kinks and Yardbirds also experimented with elements of Raga Rock.
Their contribution continues to inspire Indian rock bands today.
The 70s witnessed an exciting fusion project called ‘The Mahavishnu Orchestra’ steered by guitarist John McLaughlin.
This project combined elements of the Indian classical genre with jazz and other rock forms inspired by the psychedelic culture.
Musicians observed that the improvisational methods of Indian music worked well with these genres.
Over the years, this group has had several members, including Jerry Goodman (Violin) and Billy Cobham (Percussion).
Soon after, Shakti became known worldwide for its contributions to the indo-jazz field.
Band members include Tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, Ghatam expert T. H. Vinayakram, John McLaughlin, and Shankar Mahadevan, among others.
Dr. L. Subramaniam, a Carnatic violinist, also released several albums before these projects that displayed the workings of indo-jazz.
He collaborated with international icons like Herbie Hancock, George Duke, and Tony Williams for this.
Raghu Dixit, Banwari Basanti, and Pakshee are the country’s favorite musical acts contributing to the fusion world.
The Berklee Indian Ensemble also makes waves, combining classical traditions with global music.
Be sure to check out their Five Peace Band featuring Shankar Mahadevan.
Indian music is genuinely kaleidoscopic. It is a path of artistic exploration that has no bounds.
While its vastness can be intimidating, it proves a community’s resourcefulness.
Nowadays, several academies offer training in these types of Indian music, both classical and contemporary.
Check out our list of the best music academies in India to pursue music.
Frequently Asked Questions
How many types of music are there in India?
India has a vast and vibrant musical culture with many distinct types of music. The types of music in India are constantly changing and evolving, so there is no exact number. But some of the most popular and recognizable types of music in India are classical music (like Hindustani and Carnatic music), Bollywood film music, folk music (including Bhangra and Rajasthani folk music), devotional music (like Bhajans and Qawwalis), and fusion music (mixing Indian and Western music styles).
What is the most popular form of Indian music?
Bollywood film music is the most popular form of Indian music in India and abroad. This type of music is a fusion of different Indian music styles, such as classical, folk, and devotional music, as well as Western influences. It is renowned for its catchy tunes and upbeat rhythms and often features famous singers and music composers. You can find Bollywood music being enjoyed not just in India but also among the Indian diaspora across the world. Although Bollywood music is a genre, it is closely related to Hindustani classical music.
What are the top music genres in India?
India has a deep and varied musical history, with different types of music. The two main classical genres are Hindustani and Carnatic music. You may be familiar with Bollywood music, a popular film style that combines Indian music like classical, folk, and devotional music with Western sounds. Other well-known genres include folk music, devotional music, qawwali, ghazal, and fusion music.