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Carnatic Music; Classical music form of South India

Updated on August 4, 2017
radhikasree profile image

Radhika is a Carnatic music singer who is pursuing her studies in music. She enjoys other classical forms of art as well.

Musical notation of Western and Indian Classical music
Musical notation of Western and Indian Classical music | Source

Classical music has the dignity of expressing emotions and situations in its own boldly distinctive melodic lines. This scientific form of musical expression can mesmerize minds to become its slave. Western Classical Music performances are based on a written composition in musical notation with a pre-defined pitch, speed and individual rhythm. This restricts the scope for improvisation which is prevalent in Indian Classical music. Also, Indian Classical music is monophonic or single melody format, whereas Western Classical music is polyphonic or multiple notes pattern.



Musical notation of Western Classical music:

do re mi fa sol la ti

Musical notation of Indian Classical music:

sa ri ga ma pa da ni

Indian Classical music

Further, Indian Classical music is classified into Carnatic and Hindustani, based on the regions. Carnatic music originates in South India whereas Hindustani has its roots in the North. ‘Raaga’ or ‘raag’ meaning melody is the basic ground for both systems of music that elicit a particular emotion or mood. The difference is perceived from the style of rendition.

Carnatic music concert by Unnikrishnan
Carnatic music concert by Unnikrishnan | Source

Carnatic music

Carnatic music is mainly sung through compositions, especially the kriti or keerthanam - a standard form developed by composers such as Purandara Dasa and the Trinity of Carnatic music. It is also usually taught and learnt through compositions.


Carnatic music is usually performed by a small ensemble of musicians consisting of a principal performer vocalist followed by accompaniments such as violin, mridangam and a tambura. Violin is played in accordance with the melody, mridangam gives the rhythmic effect and tambura is the drone that maintains the pitch. The main hub of Carnatic music is situated in the city of Chennai, where ample scope for its studies and performances exists. The city hosts a number of talented Carnatic musicians whose starring performances chill the minds and rivet the ears. Madras Music Season and Margazhi Maha Utsavam are two major cultural events held here that is popular worldwide.

Trinity of Carnatic Music
Trinity of Carnatic Music | Source

History and growth of Carnatic music

Like all art forms in Indian culture, classical music is also treated as a divine art form of the Hindu Gods and Goddesses and is venerated as symbolic of the “God of embodiment of sound” called nāda brāhman. Ancient treatises also describe the connection of the swaras or notes with the sounds of animals and birds. Man’s observations had a great impact on the simulation of these sounds with present day notes. Indian Classical music is believed to have got its roots from Sama Veda that has some hymns accorded in musical tones.

By the 16 th and 17th centuries, Carnatic music flourished in Thanjavur under the reign of Vijayanagar Empire. Purandara Dasa, who is known as the father (Pitamaha) of Carnatic Music, formulated the system of grading the lessons of Carnatic music.Venkatamakhin authored the formula for the Melakarta system of raga classification in his Sanskrit work, the Chaturdandi Prakasika. Later the great proponents of Carnatic music, Sri Thyagaraja, Sri Muthuswami Dikshitar and Sri Syama Sastri composed several phenomenal kritis that made Carnatic music reach the Alps of Indian Music.

Viribhoni Varnam by Smt. M.S.Subbulakshmi

Basic elements of Carnatic music

Vocal as well as instrumental Carnatic music is expected to follow the melodic formulae and rhythmic cycles. Co-ordination with the basic elements Sruti, Swara, Raga and Tala is what makes it divine and enlightening.


1. Sruti

Śruti commonly refers to musical pitch.It is the approximate equivalent of a tonic (a key). Each key in a musical notation would sound different and the relative positions of vertical notes in a musical notation form a unique melody or raga. Audible sounds perceived by human ears have great significance in the determination of Sruti.

2. Swara

Swara is a single musical note that occupies a relative position in a pre-defined pitch. Swaras also refer to the solfege of Carnatic music which consist of seven notes, "sa-ri-ga-ma-pa-da-ni". In Hindustani, it is referred to as “sargam” that takes the form “sa re ga ma pa dha ni”. These swaras are abbreviations of shadja, rishabha, gandhara, madhyama, panchama, dhaivata and nishada. Each and every swara has three variants in Carnatic music, except “sa, pa and ma”.


3. Raga

A raga in Carnatic music is a unique combination of the swaras in the ascending and descending scale. The relative position, frequency, oscillation, ornamentation (gamaka) distinguish a raga. A raga must have a minimum of five notes in the Arohana and Avarohana called pentatonic scale. Ragas that have all seven notes in the Arohana and Avarohana (ascending and descending) scale are called as “Sampoorna” ragas and they are classified into a system called the “melakarta”. There are seventy-two melakarta ragas and the system katapayadi sankhya determines the names of melakarta ragas.

Sampoorna ragas may give birth to their young ones called “janya ragas”. They may inherit the qualities of their parent ragas and would resemble them audibly. There is infinite number of “janya ragas” in Carnatic music as any number of combinations of the swaras is possible in the Arohana and Avarohana.

4. Tala

Tala or rhythm is a group of beats in a time cycle set for each composition. Some specific components are combined together to form a variety of talas. Each cycle starts with a beat of the hand upwards following the pattern. Basic talas in Carnatic music are dhruva, matya, rupaka, jhampa, triputa, ata and eka that lay the foundation for composing a lyric.

There is good scope for improvisation in Carnatic music. The areas where traditional forms of “Manodharmam” or improvisation are performed in a keerthanam are alapana, niraval, kalpanaswaram, ragam thanam pallavi and thani avarthanam.

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Alapana: The elaboration of raga without tala usually done in the beginning of a song.

Niraval: Repeating one or two lines of a text of the keerthanam for a certain period by making melodic elaborations and by changing the speed.

Kalpanaswaram: Melodic and rhythmic sequence of swaras in the end of the song.

Thanam: Expanding the raga with syllables like tha, nam, thom, aa, nom, na, etc.

Ragam thanam pallavi: Elaborating the first stanza (pallavi) composed by the performer in one or two lines through niraval. This is done through complex ways of melodic and rhythmic patterns.

Thani avarthanam: This part is the solo performance of the percussionists after a main keerthanam.

Some of the soul-stirring ragas of Carnatic music have caught the attention of Western countries, too. Several concerts are being held abroad by eminent Carnatic musicians who can bring out the real emotion of each and every raga. The melody of the well-known English notes “ga ma ga ri ga pa ri ga sa” sung by Madurai Mani Iyer is equivalent to C Major in Western Classical Music.

English notes by Madurai Mani Iyer

© 2013 Radhika Sreekanth

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    • radhikasree profile image
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      Radhika Sreekanth 4 years ago from Mumbai,India

      Hi always exploring,

      There is no need to know the language if you like Classical music. The second video is a Western Classical style music even if it's rendered in Indian Classical form. It's a pleasure to see your comment always and thanks for spending time to read my hubs.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 4 years ago from Southern Illinois

      I'm listening to the video as i type, the music has a calming effect even though i do not know the language. Thank you for sharing the history, how else will we ever learn if we do not share our cultures. Cheers..

    • radhikasree profile image
      Author

      Radhika Sreekanth 4 years ago from Mumbai,India

      Thanks chasmac for making the comment. I'm glad that you found it interesting.

    • chasmac profile image

      chasmac 4 years ago from UK

      Very interesting and well-written hub.