20 basic elements of Hindustani Classical Music

There are many ragas and taals in Hindustani Classical music that a student of classical music learns and practices. It takes years to become an expert and it is not possible for everyone to manage time for learning it completely. Most of the people who enjoy classical music performances do not know the fundamentals of classical music. I feel it is good for everyone to know the basics of this form of music. Knowledge certainly helps us in developing better understanding of the music and more respect for the artists. With an intention to help Indian classical music lovers and beginner students I am listing here 20 basic elements of the north Indian classical music:


Naad: The sound that can be used for music is called ‘Naad’ in classical music and the sound which is not used in music is called noise.

Saptak: A saptak is seven pure swara (notes) that are written or sung in a systematic order.

Shruti: Shruti is the smallest pitch that human ear can detect. There are 22 places in a saptak that are considered as shruti. These sounds are significant in classical music. Name of these shrutis are Tivra, Kumudni, Mandra, Chadowati, Dayawati, Ranjani, Ratika, Rodhri, Karodha, Vajtrika, Prasarini, Preeti, Marchani, Shiti, Rakta, Sandepini, Alapini, Madanti, Rohini, Ramya, Ugra, and Shobhini.

Swara: Swaras are tones that are used for singing and chanting. There are 12 swaras in classical music out of which 7 swaras are shudha(pure), 4 swaras are komal(flat) and 1 swara is tivra(sharp). The names of 7 basic pure swaras are -Sa(Shadaj), Re(Rishabh), Ga(Gandhar), Ma(Madhyam), Pa(Pancham), Dha(Dhaivat) and Ni(Nishad).

Aakar: In Hindustani Classical music notes are often sung like ‘Aaa’ in the form of alaap or taan. When the notes are sung this way, it is called ‘Aakar’.

Alankar: Alankars are decided phrases of swara which covers whole saptak. Alankars are use for ornamentation of a melody. In the initial stage of music training, students are given training of alankars for improving their voice quality. Later they are taught to use alankars for decorating musical compositions. Alankars are known as palta too.

Sargam: Sargam is a type of composition in which instead of words, swaras(notes) are used in lyrics. Sargams can be composed in various ragas and taals. Music students practice sargam a lot in the initial stage of music learning. Practicing sargam helps in improving knowledge of swar and raga.
Alaap: Alaap is a combination of swaras (notes) which is sung or played either in medium speed or slowly. Alaap describes a raga. Alaap is usually sung or played before starting to sing or play a raga composition.

Varna: The method of singing is called ‘Varna’ in Hindustani classical music. It is further divided into four types – sthayee , aarohi, avrohi and sanchari varna.

Thaat: Thaats are the basis of organization and classification of ragas in Hindustani classical music. There are always 7 different notes or pitches in a thaat. There are 10 thaats used in north Indian classical music and there are ragas with the same names too.

Raga: A raga is a set of 5 or more notes upon which a melody is constructed. All the notes of a raga can be pure or a combination of pure, sharp and flat notes. Such combinations form a large number of ragas, there are more than 500 ragas known though around 100 are frequently sung or played.

Jati: Ragas are differentiated on the basis of jati(caste of raga). There are three pure jatis of raga – sampurna, shadava and odava. There are some mixed jatis too.

Aaroha: The ascending sequence of notes is known as aaroha. It describes the movement of a raga in ascending order.

Avroha: The descending sequence of notes is known as avroha. It describes the movement of a raga in descending order.

Pakad: Pakad is a set of notes that is unique for a raga. It is a musical phrase which is formed to encapsulate the essence of a particular raga. An expert can easily identify a raga from its pakad.

Lay: In Hindustani classical music it is very important to maintain lay (tempo) while singing or playing an instrument. Any action which occurs repeatedly in music must be performed at regular intervals.

Tal: Tal is the rhythmic pattern that is followed while singing or playing a composition in classical music.

Samay: In Hindustani classical music the ragas are sung or played in particular pahar(times) of the day, seasons, or festivals. This is known as samay or kaal of raga. According to notes and time ragas are classified into three divisions. These are – ragas with flat “Re,Dha” notes, ragas with pure “Re, dha” notes and ragas with flat “Ga,Ni” notes

Matra: Matra is a unit of time measurement and it has the same meaning in music too. Depending on the rhythm and tempo time duration of a matra is decided. Tempos can be of three types in classical music, these are – vilambit(slow), madhyama(medium) and drut(fast). Number of matras or seconds for a matra differs on the basis of these tempos.

Taan: Taan is rapid singing of notes of a raga. It is sung or played with the standard combinations of swaras(notes) often with a melody of a particular raga in a very fast tempo. Maintaining speed, rhythm and purity of raga is very important while singing or playing taan. An artist performing taan looks like feeling the raga with extreme level of emotion. It takes a lot of time for performing taans in a correct way.

Author: Swati


  1. Shrishti says:

    Interesting info on fundamentals of Indian classical music.

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