Indian vocal music: Styles and histories

Key information

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Module code
FHEQ Level
Department of Music

Module overview

It is probably a universal feature of music that it reflects the historical contexts in which it was created, but becomes transformed over time.  This is especially true of Indian classical music, where different styles of music originated in different historical periods and reflect different socio-cultural contexts of the past (e.g. court/salon and temple, bhakti and Sufism, Mughal and post-Mughal aristocratic patronage, Muslim and Hindu musicians, male and female musicians), contexts that may now be celebrated or elided in the creation of new histories and meanings.  Musically too the myth of timeless continuity is belied by stylistic transformations, associated especially with the last phase of court-music culture in the 19th century and the re-invention of Hindustani music as a public art-form in the 20th. The lectures will focus on the three main vocal styles of North Indian classical music, dhrupad, khyāl and ṭhumrī; students may optionally explore other genres, such as Karnatic music of South India, in their second essay. With reference to both literature and recordings of the three selected styles, their main musical and poetic features will be identified, their historical origins explored, and evidence traced for both continuity and change in performance, aesthetics, context and cultural meaning, in order to understand how these styles reference past worlds while also creating new meanings today. Teaching will include guided listening and practical sessions.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of the course a student will be able to:

  • recognize and comment critically on examples of the three styles examined in the course
  • critically discuss the historical origins of each style and its subsequent development
  • critically discuss the cultural, social and political meanings associated with each style


  • One hour Lecture, one hour Seminar

Method of assessment

  • One 1,000-word essay (30%)
  • One 2,000-word essay (70%)

Suggested reading

  • Bakhle, Janaki (2005), Two men and music: nationalism in the making of an Indian classical tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  • Bor, Joep; Delvoye, Nalini; Harvey, Jane,  eds. 2010. Hindustani Music: Thirteenth to Twentieth Centuries, Delhi: Manohar
  • Brown, K. B. (2003). Hindustani music in the time of Aurangzeb. PhD thesis, SOAS, London..
  • Magriel, Nicolas with Lalita du Perron 2013, The songs of khayāl, Delhi: Manohar (2 vols)
  • Manuel, P., 1989, Ṭhumrī in historical and stylistic perspective, Delhi
  • Powers, H.S. and Widdess, R., 2001, “India, sub-continent of, III: Theory and practice of classical music”, in S. Sadie and J. Tyrell, ed.: The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 7th edn. (or online edition)
  • Sanyal, R. and Widdess, R., 2004,  Dhrupad: tradition and performance in Indian music, Ashgate: SOAS Musicology Series
  • Wade, B.C., 1984, Khyāl. Creativity within North India’s classical music tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Zadeh, Chloe (2013): Analysing ṭhumrī, PhD thesis (SOAS, London).


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