Hindustani Music Primer

Hindustani Music Primer

Ustad Vilayat Khan with sitar

Maybe you first heard the droning sounds back in the 60’s with the sounds of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, or Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”. The sitar introduced the world to Indian culture and music. But there is more to Indian music than just the sitar.

Indian music is classified into two geographically based styles: Hindustani music refers to Northern Indian music and is the tradition most westerners are familiar with; Carnactic music being the Southern Indian style. Within these areas, multiple styles flourish in a manner similar to the various styles of Blues (Chicago, Mississippi Delta, etc..). Both Hindustani and Carnactic music share a common trait that separates these musics from non-Indian music, reliance on one instrument for melody and no harmony. In other words, there are no chords in Indian music, just melody which is improvised upon.


Hindustani music utilizes a “Raga” (pronounced râg, as the final A is silent) system for notes. One could think of this as an ordered scale, with a prescribed set of rules. These rules dictate which notes can be played when ascending, descending, ornamented, or emphasized. Some ragas can contain as few as 5 notes, or as many 8. These rules and structures give each raga a character which differentiate it from many similar ragas. An Indian virtuoso (sometimes referred to as Pandit or Ustad) will spend decades mastering all of the possibilities of just 1 raga. Many ragas are associated with specific times of day, emotions, mythological stories, and natural elements.

In a typical concert, 3 performers are present: an instrumentalist such as a sitarist, a percussionist who usually plays two hand drums referred to as Tabla, and a third musician playing a long necked instrument called the Tambura. The Tambura provides a drone for the music and does not vary from this purpose for the whole piece. The instrumentalist and percussionist engage in a series of improvisations based on the raga for a majority of the piece, sometimes lasting hours in length. In the case of Jugalabandi, two instrumentalists may be present to improvise with each other and the percussionist as well.

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan with Sarod

Instrumentally, the sitar is the most prominent of Indian instruments. Many other instruments are equally important and beautiful sounding. The Surbarhar is the bass version of the sitar with a low and strong voice. The Sarod resembles a small guitar-like instrument with a metal fretboard. The bamboo flute represents the wind instruments in Hindustani music. The Sarangi is one of the most rare but powerful Indian instruments as its bowed sounds are said to most closely imitate the human voice. Each instrument is capable of executing long sustained passages or quick melodic phrases.

For further research into Hindustani music, we highly recommend the music of many masters. For sitar, Pandit Ravi Shankar is the most visible, while other sitarist such as the late Ustad Vilayat Khan demonstrate a different style that is equally beautiful. St. Louis is home the greatest living Surbahar player Ustad Imrat Khan. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan is the leading Sarod player, also having a school for Hindustani music in San Francisco. Ram Narayan is one of the few practitioners of the Sarangi. For tabla, one can easily find the works of Zakir Hussain who has appeared on many Western and Indian recordings. Regardless, we hope you discover the wealth of Indian music for your own listening pleasure.

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