In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hinduism and Music

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journal
  • Veda Recitation
  • Ritual Music
  • Music and Dance
  • Nationalism and Modernity
  • Music and Media
  • Outside South Asia

Hinduism Hinduism and Music
Eben Graves
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0158


The breadth of issues and performance practices related to the sphere of music in Hindu traditions is wide ranging. While proscriptions against music are common in other religions (e.g., early Buddhism, Sunni Islam), Hindu traditions, on the other hand, have commonly exhibited a robust enthusiasm for integrating musical discourse and performance within the fabric of religious practice. One reason for this is undoubtedly the foundational place of music in Hindu mythology, where deities such as Sarasvatī, Śiva, and Kṛṣṇa, among others, are depicted as musicians, while their musical performances are associated with miraculous events. Beyond the sphere of mythology, musicians in South Asia often worship Hindu deities and saints through song performance, even if the immediate context is not considered religious. Furthermore, instrumental music that is devoid of religious song texts is commonly associated with concepts of “sacred sound” (nāda-brahman), providing further evidence of relationships between Hinduism and music. The Sanskrit word roughly equivalent to “music” and used in common parlance is saṅgīta. However, since at least as early as Bharata’s early 1st-millennium treatise on drama, the Nāṭya-śāstra, the word saṅgīta has referred to dance and drama in addition to vocal and instrumental music. Research on music and Hinduism, therefore, studies a large body of texts and performance-related practices and has been spread over a number of academic disciplines, including religious studies, ethnomusicology (in Western academia), musicology (in India), and anthropology, among others. Because much of this research has been of a geographic perspective, a number of items in this bibliography focus on a region (e.g., South Asia) or nation (e.g., Indian music) but are still relevant for research on music and Hinduism. Accordingly, those specifically interested in music and Hinduism may only find fleeting references to religious practice in some texts, yet should keep in mind the overarching religious context that defines much musical performance and discourse in South Asia. The majority of research to date has focused on North Indian (Hindustani) and South Indian (Karnatak) Classical Music and the textually based “doctrine of music” (Saṅgīta-śāstra) that preceded these forms of music. More recent work includes research on regional Devotional Music and an upsurge in theory-driven studies that consider the influence of Nationalism and Modernity on Hindu musicians and musical genres. Several studies in this bibliography could be placed in two or three categories, as musicians in South Asia will often not differentiate between divisions such as classical Music and devotional music, for example.

General Overviews

Sources that directly study relationships between Hinduism and music are Beck 2012 and Beck 2014. For a study of the relationship between the more broadly construed concept of sound and its importance in underpinning the theory and practice of music, see Beck 1993. In addition to these, the majority of sources discuss Hinduism in the larger context of geographically organized studies of music in India or South Asia. For example, Nijenhuis 1974 and Singh 1995 cover a large timespan beginning with the Sanskrit treatises of a “doctrine of music” or Saṅgīta-śāstra. Wade 1979 is a good introduction to the classical music traditions of North (Hindustani) and South India (Karnatak), while Thielemann 1999 offers a number of essays that introduce devotional music in North India.

  • Beck, Guy L. Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

    Though not focusing exclusively on music, a detailed discussion of the role of sound in Hindu theology. Beck discusses how the concept of “sacred sound” (nāda-brahman and śabda-brahman) undergirds philosophies of music in India.

  • Beck, Guy L. Sonic Liturgy: Ritual and Music in Hindu Tradition. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2012.

    An excellent and wide-ranging study of music in Hindu liturgical settings. Organized chronologically, this study begins with the Vedic period and continues into present-day performance practices in devotional music. In each chapter Beck focuses on a different chronological period where the author connects liturgical practice to music theory and performance. Suitable as a core text for upper-level or graduate courses that study music and Hinduism.

  • Beck, Guy L. “Hinduism and Music.” Oxford Handbooks Online: The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the Arts. Edited by Frank Burch Brown. 2014.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195176674.001.0001

    A concise review essay that charts the major topics in research on music and Hinduism, including: sacred sound, aesthetics, music and worship, Sanskrit musical treatises, devotional music, and classical music. Includes bibliography.

  • Nijenhuis, Emmie te. Indian Music: History and Structure. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1974.

    A detailed and readable introduction to Indian music from historical and contemporary perspectives, grouped into four chapters that discuss “documentation,” “melody,” “rhythm,” and “composition.” This is unique for an introductory text in the amount of detail it uses to draw connections between early Sanskrit theoretical texts and present-day musical practice. Especially useful are the tables in chapter 2 that illustrate Indian tonal systems.

  • Singh, Jaideva. Indian Music. Edited by Premalatā Śarmā. Calcutta: Sangeet Research Academy, 1995.

    A chronological study of musical texts, concepts, and musicians from the Nāṭya-śāstra until the present. Because of the breadth of the study, some discussions are a bit cursory, but Singh offers a valuable list of musicians and composers from 800 to 1900 CE.

  • Thielemann, Selina. The Music of South Asia. New Delhi: A.P.H., 1999.

    A useful collection of lectures that looks at music in South Asia from topical and geographic perspectives. Of special interest is Part 2, which introduces various devotional musical traditions of North India. Includes appendix with numerous musical transcriptions.

  • Wade, Bonnie C. Music in India: The Classical Traditions. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979.

    An overview of Hindustani and Karnatak Classical Music that uses a comparative approach to discuss the relationships between Indian and Western music. Uses both Western and Indian notational systems throughout.

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