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

  • Introduction
  • Introductions to the Classical Traditions
  • Reference Works
  • Surveys and Studies of Primary Sources
  • Music Theory
  • Folk Instruments
  • Courtesanry
  • Regional, Folk, and Tribal Music
  • Popular and Film Music
  • Diasporas Within and Without
  • Collision, Appropriation, and Hybridity Abroad

Music Music in India
Max Katz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0200


Home to more than 17 percent of the earth’s population today, India offers a dizzying diversity of musical traditions, practices, theories, and histories. They include innumerable regional, religious, folk, and tribal music, as well as popular and diasporic genres with global reach. However, India’s indigenous tradition of Sanskrit treatises on music theory (established as early as the 2nd century BCE) laid the groundwork for British colonialists, Indian nationalists, and Western ethnomusicologists to focus their music studies nearly exclusively on India’s elite, canonical traditions. These traditions are known today as Hindustani (North Indian) and Karnatak (South Indian) classical music. Famously, these traditions feature densely theorized and intensively practiced systems of melody and rhythm, known as rāga and tāla, respectively. From the late first millennium to the mid-19th century these systems (most especially rāga) so fascinated scholars that India’s manifest multiplicity of musical thought and practice went virtually undocumented in the literature. In the mid-19th century British colonial administrators began a strategic survey of Indian folk and tribal music, but these efforts focused on the collection of song lyrics and, ultimately, they served the purposes of colonial rule. Only with the rise of ethnomusicology in the mid-20th century (following the end of World War II and the birth of independent India and Pakistan) did new generations of scholars craft a new conceptual lens that embraced and valued the full range of musical expression across the vast expanse of the Indian subcontinent. Nevertheless, the classical traditions (and most especially Hindustani music) continued to absorb the majority of scholarly attention such that only since the 1980s have researchers begun to illuminate India’s musical diversity in earnest. Simultaneously, scholars undertook a critical reassessment of the classical traditions, investigating, in particular, the entanglements of Hindustani and Karnatak music with colonialism and nationalism. This article seeks to help chart a voyage through the ocean of scholarship on Indian music, focusing on the seminal and cutting edge works produced since the 1960s. The selection of works reflects the centrality of the classical traditions within the scholarly legacy while the multiplicity of nonclassical histories, cultures, and practices embraced by scholars of Indian music today is also represented.

Introductions to the Classical Traditions

The sources in this section introduce North Indian classical (Hindustani) music, South Indian classical (Karnatak) music, or both. They are geared to interested novices, curious listeners, and undergraduate students. Some works, such as Wade 2001 and Sorrell and Narayan 1980, require literacy in Western staff notation; other entries, such as Bagchee 1998 and Shankar 2007, presume little prior musical knowledge. Capwell 2012 and Reck 2009 are chapters within college-level textbooks and thus may serve as concise introductions for undergraduate students; Ruckert 2004 and Viswanathan and Allen 2004 are complete undergraduate texts. All of the sources in this section elucidate the theory and practice of the major formal components of the classical traditions (especially rāga and tāla, or melodic and rhythmic systems) while also addressing to varying degrees the historical and cultural contexts of the birth, development, and ongoing vitality of Indian classical music.

  • Bagchee, Sandeep. Nād: Understanding Rāga Music. Mumbai: Eeshwar, 1998.

    A highly accessible introduction to the theory and practice of Hindustani music written by an informed connoisseur and geared for the “serious listener.” Draws largely on the theoretical works of V. N. Bhatkhande (b. 1860–d. 1936) to present conventional 20th-century models of rāga classification and analysis. Also introduces the prevailing styles or schools of khayal (sometimes spelled khyal) vocal music, histories and structures of musical instruments, and various instrumental traditions. 376 pages.

  • Capwell, Charles. “The Music of India.” In Excursions in World Music. 6th ed. Edited by Bruno Nettl, 26–53. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2012.

    A chapter within an undergraduate textbook on world music. Presents a succinct overview of the histories, forms, and performance conventions of both North and South Indian classical music traditions. Includes guided listening sections that lead students through brief performances of a North Indian sitar recital, a South Indian vocal performance, and a North Indian “light classical” vocal piece. Musical examples available on an accompanying website.

  • Reck, David R. “India/South India.” In Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. 5th ed. Edited by Jeff Todd Titon, 265–298. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009.

    A chapter within an undergraduate textbook on world music. Presents a broad overview of Indian cultural history (beginning 2500 BCE) and then introduces the music of South India, first through an exploration of a film song and, then, through two performances of Karnatak music, one vocal and one instrumental. Musical examples are included within the textbook’s accompanying CDs.

  • Ruckert, George. Music in North India: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    A compact undergraduate textbook offering an introduction to the theory and practice of rāga (melody) and tāla (rhythm) in Hindustani music, with special attention to instruments and instrumental traditions. Includes moment-by-moment listening sections and practical rhythmic exercises that invite students to personally experience the complexity and sophistication of basic structures of Hindustani music. Includes CD. 112 pages.

  • Shankar, Ravi. My Music, My Life. San Rafael, CA: Mandala, 2007.

    Written by a world-renowned performing artist, the book introduces terms and concepts at the heart of the Hindustani tradition from a musician’s perspective. Includes an introduction to the conventions of pedagogy and transmission, a sketch of North Indian music history, and an autobiographical narrative. Concludes with a fifty-five-page “manual for the sitar” offering exercises and compositions for beginning sitar students. Originally published in 1968. 179 pages.

  • Sorrell, Neil, and Ram Narayan. Indian Music in Performance: A Practical Introduction. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1980.

    An introduction to the instruments, techniques, and musical forms of Hindustani music. The centerpiece of the book is an extended transcription and analysis of a complete rāga performance by the co-author, famed sarangi (bowed fiddle) player Ram Narayan. Listening examples included on accompanying cassette. Out of print. 212 pages.

  • Viswanathan, T., and Matthew Harp Allen. Music in South India: The Karṇāṭak Concert Tradition and Beyond; Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    The best undergraduate-level introduction to South Indian music to date. Through a sustained focus on the vocal genre kriti, the book introduces both the musicological fundamentals and the cultural contexts (caste, gender, and social change) of the Karnatak tradition. Filled with listening examples and participatory exercises. Includes CD. 176 pages.

  • Wade, Bonnie C. Music in India: The Classical Traditions. New Delhi: Manohar, 2001.

    An introduction to both North and South Indian classical music traditions concentrating on formal musical materials and geared toward students with a background in Western music. Includes extensive transcriptions in staff notation and a useful glossary. Originally published in 1979. 262 pages.

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