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How Indian music and its instruments has evolved through the decades

Updated on April 24, 2013
midget38 profile image

Michelle is a professional freelance writer who loves music, poetry, pets, and the arts. She is a techno-geek as well.

Bangra dancers
Bangra dancers | Source
Indian Folk Musician
Indian Folk Musician | Source

When I think of Indian music comes to mind, I only think of one word-diversity.

The diversity of India’s culture and it being one of the oldest civilizations in the world has led to the development of different forms of music, ranging from classical to folk forms.

Its eclectic, charming sounds have also been infused with the pop sounds we know so well today.

This hub will show how it has developed from its classical form through the ages and show how it become a part of pop music today. It will - also take readers through the different forms of Indian folk music.

Indian village musicians
Indian village musicians | Source

A short history of India’s music

The origins of Indian Classical music can be found in the Vedas, the oldest scriptures in the Hindu tradition. What is fascinating for me is that the different forms of music have influenced each other, so the Carnatic and Hindustani forms of music have folk elements as well. Persian music has also helped to shape the Hindustani classical forms that can sometimes be heard.

The Samaveda, one of the four scriptures, describes music at length. The Rigvedic hymns of the Samagana were often sung by Ugatar priests as they offered the Soma ritual drink, mixed with milk, to various deities. These hymns evolved into ragas, one of the 5 melodic modes of Indian classical music.

These classical forms, together with folk forms, evolved as they merge and are still evolving with pop music joining the mix.

Expressive, elaborate and monophonic (built on a single melody line), Hindustani music is divided into 12 semitones, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa, similar to the Do Re Mi of Western music. Another classical music form, the Canartic, uses Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa.Each tone is about a quarter of that used in Western music.

The structure of Indian Music

Indian classical music

Indian classical music falls into two main forms, Hindustani Classical and Carnatic music.

An octave of Indian music is divided into 22 segments call shutris, each roughly a quarter of a tone in Western music. Melody is based on mainly the raga melodic mode.

Hindustani Classical Song

Indian classical music

Indian classical music falls into two main forms, Hindustani Classical and Carnatic music.

An octave of Indian music is divided into 22 segments call shutris, each roughly a quarter of a tone in Western music. Melody is based on mainly the raga melodic mode.

Hindustani Classical Music

Hindustani classical music came to being in the 13th and 14th century AD, with Persian and folk music influences. The practice of singing the vedas or scriptures based on notes was popular since the vedic times. Hindustani Classical music has diverse influences in contrast her counterpart, the Canartic form. It has been enriched by Persian and Mughal performances.

Carnatic music MS Subbulakshmi

Carnatic Music

This form of music can be traced back to the 15th and 16th centuries. It originated from the South Indian state of Karnataka. It is melodic in nature and focuses on the vocals. Even when played on instruments, they are meant to be performed in a singing style. Puranda Dasa is esteemed as the father of Carnatic music, with Tyagaraja, Shyama Shastry and Muthuswami Dikshitar is considered its trinity.

Artists who perform it today include MS Subbulakshmi, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.


Indian Folk Music

The cosmopolitanism and diversity of India and the country’s many towns and states has led to the development of many subcultures within the subcontinent. Here are some of them.


Bhavageete, literally emotion poetry, discusses mainly subjects like love,nature and philosophy. It is popular in many parts of India, particularly, Karnakata. Its foundations like mainly in modern Indian poetry by poets and writers of the Kannada language like Kuvempu and D.R. Bendre. The Kannada language, spoken mainly in Karnataka, is widely used in Bhavageete.

Banghra dance


This is a fun and popular form of folk music that is enjoyed widely even today by many young people. It is a dance form originating from the Punjab. Folk music and dance of the area, it was performed originally to celebrate a harvest. In the 1950s. a new style that encompassed Men’s punjabi form of dance was developed, and metamorphosed into the modern Banghra we know today.

A traditional bihugeet


The traditional music of Assam, it is performed with a Bihu dance, in the traditional festival of Rongali Bihu, the national festival of Assam.

The word Bihu is derived from the language of the Dimasa people who make their living as farmers. The first crops of the harvest are usually offered to Brai Shribrai to wish for peace and prosperity. Hence Bihu has the connotation of peace and prosperity.

Lavani-marathi folk song


This is a form of music popular in the Maharastra and Madhya Pradesh. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. It is traditional song and dance, performed to the Dholki. It is noted for its erotic sentiment,powerful rhythm and has led to the development of the Marathi Theatre, a performed by women wearing 9 yard long saris. It discusses matters like society, religion, politics and romance.

Uttarakhandi songs

Uttarakhandi music

This music is largely a tribute to nature. It relates largely to the religious and folk traditions of the people of the Uttarakhand and reflects their lives in the mountains of the Himalayas. The main languages are Kumaoni and Garwhali.

Dhandiya Ras


This is North Indian dance music largely adapted in pop culture today. It is popular in Western India, especially during the festival of Navartri, held in worship of the Hindu God Durga. It is a folk dance originating from the town of Vrindavan in Utta Pradesh.

There are many forms of Dandihya, but Dandihya Raas is the most popular, where men and women dance with sticks in a circle. The dance, performed in Durgha’s honor, is a staging of a fight between her and Mahihasura, the demon king. The dhoi and complementary percussion instruments are used in the performance.

Baul songs


This is a group of Indian mystic minstrels. They played a form of music using instruments like the khamak, ekatara and dotara. It consisted mainly of minstrels who worshipped the God Vishu and embraced, therefore, a religion known as Vaishnavism. Sufi Muslims, who explored the mystical dimensions of Islam, also formed this group.

Dollu Kuniitha live

Dollu Kunita

This is a group dance named after the Dollu, which is an instrument used in the dance. It is performed by the men of the Kuruba community in North Karnataka. The beat is controlled by a leader who stands in the centre of the circle of dancers with cymbals. The group alternates between dancing to slow and fast rhythms and weaves varied patterns as it dances.

A Kolata dance


Kolkata, like its North Indian counterpart the Dhandiya, is performed with colored sticks, with men and women dancing in a circle. It is the folk dance of the state of Karnataka. It has two forms, one performed by men and women and the other, more vigorous form danced by men playing rigorously on sticks.

A veeragase performance


Another dance originating from the Karnataka region, it is energy tapping and performed in accordance with hindu mythology. It gets its name from the legendary warrior, Veerabhadra, created in the anger of Shiva who protested against the insult of his wife-to-be, Dakshayini by her father, Daksha. She immolated herself upon the insults, which incurred Shiva’s wrath. When one of Shiva’s sweat drops fell on Earth, Veerbhadra was born.

Hence, Veeragheese was born. It is a dance performed by Shiva devotees who wear white headgear and a bright red colored dress as they dance. They carry the plaque of Veerabhadra.

A sitar
A sitar | Source

Instruments used in Indian music

Again, there is a wide range of Indian musical instruments that are used by her people to perform lovely music. Here are some of the more commonly used ones.


The sitar is the most popular stringed instrument used in India. It is made fro gourd and teakwood, and has 20 metal frets. It has 7 playing strings and 19 sympathetic ones that are not so actively used. Amir Khusu, a musician in the 13th century, moved the strings about to make them more flexible. The most influential Sitar player today is Ravi Shankar, who brought changes and a new perspective.

Lady playing a sarod
Lady playing a sarod | Source


Another popular stringed instrument, it is formed from teakwood with its belly covered with goatskin. It has four main strings, six rhythm and drone strings and 15 sympathetic ones. It is played with a plectrum made of a coconut shell. It was found in carvings of the 1st century in Ajanta Caves and in the Champa temple. Musician Amir Khusru modified in the 13th century, with Ustad Ali Akhbar Khan making significant changes in its tonal quality.

A dholak
A dholak | Source


The dolak is a 2 handed hand drum. It may have cotton rope lacing and be tuned by steel rings or pegs integrated in the laces. It is tuned to a perfect fourth or fifth between the two heads. It is used mainly in classical dance.

Dholi player
Dholi player | Source


The Punjabi Dhol is another double headed drum slightly larger than the dholak. It is played mainly in northern areas of India and Pakistan such as the Assam Valley, Gujarat, Kashmir, Maharashtra, Konkan and Goa, Punjab,Karnataka, Rajasthan, Sindh and Uttar Pradesh. It is played mainly as an accompanying instrument. A barrel drum, it has animal hide with animal hide or synthetic skin stretched over its ends.Tightening or loosening the skin adjusts its pitch. A person who plays it is known as the dholi.

Woman playing the tanpura
Woman playing the tanpura | Source


This is a long lute that resembles a sitar without frets. It comes in several sizes and pitches, large and slightly smaller ones for vocalists and a smaller one still for accompanying main instruments like the sitar. It is unique, and does not partake but accompany the melody.

A ranisingha
A ranisingha | Source


This is a type of trumpet curved in an S shape used in different parts of India such as Uttarakhand.

Man playing the Vichitra Veena
Man playing the Vichitra Veena | Source

Vichitra Veena

The vichitra veena is a plucked string instrument used in Hindustani music. It has no frets and played with a slide. It is made of a horizontal arm or crossbar and two large, resonating gourds. Two plectrums worn on the index and middle fingers are used to pluck the strings. It does not allow for much variation around the notes and was used to accompany a style of singing known as the dhrupad.

A set of Tabla drums
A set of Tabla drums | Source


This is a membranophone percussion instrument (played by striking a stretched membrane) used mainly in Hindustani classical music. It is played using fingers and drums in various configurations.

Slumdog Millionaire Jai Ho

Popular Indian music today

Indian music today has evolved to incorporate the genres of popular music such as jazz and hip hop. Terminology has developed to include terms such as ‘raga rock’ and Indian Hip Hop.

Indian music in film

Popular songs from films make up about 72% of India’s music scene. A fusion of classical forms of Indian music and utilizing western orchestration to support Indian melodies, composers like R.D. Burman and A.R. Rahman employ the techniques of harmony while maintaining its folk flavor.

Enjoy this song, Jai Ho from the Hit Movie Slumdog Millionaire, that infuses western and traditional Indian elements.

Interaction with non-Indian forms of music

Indian music has been integrated into western forms of pop and jazz. Jazz great John Coltrane recorded a track entitled India for his album Live at the Village Vanguard. George Harrison also played the sitar for his song Norwegian Wood. Jazz innovators like Miles Davis also recorded and performed with musicians such as Khalli Balakrishna and Bhari Sharma. Of late, hip hop has also infused elements of Banghra and Dandhiya.

Dahler Mendi -Dardi Rab Rab

Indi Pop

Indian pop music, a fusion between Indian Classical and Indian folk music, includes modern beats from all parts of the world. it became widely popular in the 1990s because of singers like Usha Utthup, Sharon Phrabakar and Peenaz Masni. Songs like Dahler Mehndi’s Dardi Rub Rub and Ho Jayegi Balle Balle became immensely popular. Popular singers these days in India include the Bhangra Knights and Mehnaz.

Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows - Lost Music Video

Raga rock

Raga rock would be aptly described as rock music with a heavy Indian influence. It was made popular in the 1960s with groups like the Beatles incorporating it into songs like Tomorrow Never Knows. The Byrds increased its popularity with their single Eight Miles High. These artists influenced both Indian, British and American groups to develop a later form known as Indian Rock.

Indian Ocean - Kandisa

Indian Rock

This is a later form of Raga Rock that is influenced by grunge and heavy metal sounds. Many Indian and even Western rock bands can be heard playing it today. Famous band s that support Indian rock are Indian Ocean, Kryptos and Pentagram.

A Baba Sehgal live performance

Indian Hip Hop

Baba Sehgal is credited as being India’s first rapper when Indian Hip hop started in the 1990s. His famous entry into the music scene of India was with the song Pettai Rap from the movie Kadalan. It catapulted music director Suresh Peters to fame. Since then, rap music has been used as fillers in between songs in Indian movies.


Indian music has indeed grown over many centuries and has fused comfortably with elements of Western music and culture. It continues to grow, with current hip hop elements continuing to shape the scene.

Copyright Michelle Liew Tsui-Lin All Rights Reserved


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    • SSS1942 profile image


      3 years ago from Bangladesh

      Thank you very much for this nice article.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you, Rasma!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Pinto!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Vinaya!

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 

      6 years ago from Daytona Beach, Florida

      Voted up and interesting. Thanks you for sharing this fascinating and musical hub about Indian music. Passing this on.

    • pinto2011 profile image


      6 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Hi midget38! This really a very nice and deep insight into the Indian diaspora regarding its dance and music. A very well written and elaborated hub.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      6 years ago from Nepal


      I came back for a second read. I'm sharing this hub on social media.

      Have a nice day.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Vinaya. Being close neighbors, the two musical forms would have influences on one another. Thanks for sharing!

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      7 years ago from Nepal


      As a close neighbor, I have taken interest in Indian music since I was a kid. Indian music has tremendous influence in Nepali society. Modern and classical Nepali music takes inspiration from Indian music.

      This hub is short but a wonderful guide to Indian music.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Jo! Thanks for the sharing!! Now I feel like watching a Bollywood flick!!

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 

      7 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      A great tribute to Indian music, especially with the celebration of Bolywood's 100 anniversary.

      Interesting and very informative.

      Have a wonderful weekend

      love Jo.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Alexadry!

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      7 years ago

      A great read that introduces Indian music and its journey. Voted up!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks Mary! Yes, this involved a lot of research and think through! Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Fascinating share, Denise! Wow, sounds like you have a great collection! Indian music has that peaceful element that grabs you. Thanks for sharing....and glad to connect with a collector!!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Hello, Rachna, thank you. I enjoyed sharing and appreciate you coming by!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Nithya!!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Ruchira! Appreciate the share!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Travmaj, it is exotic, indeed!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you, Lurana....I love exploring different cultures! Thanks for sharing!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      7 years ago from New York

      You certainly outdid yourself Michele. This was a thoroughly researched hub packed with so much history and information. It is so interesting to see how music has evolved in another country.

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 

      7 years ago from North Carolina

      What an intriguing and thorough hub! The first song/video did not work for me, but I enjoyed all of the little samples you've given.

      I've always been fascinated with musical instruments and my interest has evolved from the ones most familiar to me in my country to those that are available and 'different' in all parts of the world.

      I started a unique musical instrument collection and my grandkids love to see and play them when they come over. I have instruments from six different cultures so far. I also have a book I picked up from a book sale for about $1.00 which was an encyclopedia of musical instruments from across the world.

      I have several CD's of Indian music, mostly chanting, which clearly have the sounds of the different instruments being played. I've also attended a couple of spiritual concerts with chanting and instrument playing from India which was quite fun.

      I loved your hub-thanks for sharing! and I will do the same. UP/U/I

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Martie.....they are on a different melodic and tonal scale than ours, sort of difficult to measure and unique to themselves. It's what makes their music so ethereal! Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Docmo! Thank you. There's so much to share......and yes, Carnatic music can be a hub entirely on its own, as with almost everything here! I appreciate the cultural diversity that is India. Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Janet! Glad to share a little more about the subject!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks.....oh, yes, music hubs take an entire day to do, from the time I finish commenting in the morning till it is later in the evening, like today. Thanks for sharing, I hope you've enjoyed some of the Indian music showcased here, Mary.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Kidscrafts. Life is always a learning journey! Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks so much, Carol!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Glad to share, Bill.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Janine!

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 

      7 years ago from Dubai

      I love Indian music. A great insight into the world of Indian music. Informative and useful, enjoyed reading. Voted up.

    • Ruchira profile image


      7 years ago from United States

      Such an extensive article on it.

      Loved refreshing it.

      Voted up Michelle. Sharing it across.

    • travmaj profile image


      7 years ago from australia

      What a fascinating, informative hub. I am absolutely thrilled to read and connect with Indian music and to witness how it evolved. So complex and so exotic - Thank you for this - loved it all. Voting of course.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      So much fascinating information and beauty here! I knew almost nothing of Indian music, though I am an admirer of it. Thank you for this wonderful article.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      Absolutely AWESOME!!!!

      Oh, those quarter of Western tones - I just can't get it!

      I am totally in awe of Indian music.

      Midget, I LOVE this hub of yours about exotic Indian music :)

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 

      7 years ago from UK

      Very interesting. Having grown up in south india, i would've liked to see you cover Carnatic music too. The tamil classical music scene is highly established and is centuries old in terms of raga and thala. Well done!

    • janetwrites profile image

      Janet Giessl 

      7 years ago from Georgia country

      Again a very interesting hub you put in a lot of efforts. I have learned about Indian music as haven't known much about it so far.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      7 years ago from Florida

      I cannot imagine the time and effort it too to produce this Hub. I have bookmarked it so I can come back and watch your videos.

      Very informative and interesting and I voted it so.

      Will also share.

    • kidscrafts profile image


      7 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

      Very interesting hub Michelle. I love all the videos that you added; great way to illustrate your comments!

      I have some friends from Indian origin and our family was invited for a special event where we used those wooden sticks; that was quite an interesting experience!

      Thank you for sharing all those informations! It's always nice to discover new things and learn more!

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 

      7 years ago from Arizona

      Besides being a most interesting hub about I subject I knew little about..what a great job you did with photos and videos..Voting this up+++and pinning.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      7 years ago from Olympia, WA

      What a very informative and educational article. Loved the two videos I had time to listen to. Well done, Michelle, and thank you.

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 

      7 years ago from New York, New York

      Truly so informative and much of this I truly didn't know about Indian music. Thanks so much for sharing this here with all of us Michelle. I have, of course, voted up and shared, too!!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      An article on the development of Indian music and dance throughout the ages.


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