SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

Lessons for Schools: 6 India

Morgan Davies


The Indian subcontinent has a rich, ancient history and is home to a bewildering variety of living musical traditions. Music making pervades all levels of human interaction, and is often inextricably linked with religious behaviour, which is at the core of much social activity in India. Since there are so many diverse musical phenomena to be found throughout South Asia, this session aims to give a brief introduction to just two contrasting, yet thriving, musical traditions – North Indian (or Hindustani) classical music and Bollywood film songs.

Map of North India
Map of India

The geographical area of North India is taken here to be the region bordered by the Himalayas to the north and east, the Thar Desert and the Aravalli range to the west, and the Vindhya mountains to the south.

North Indian Classical Music

International stars such as sitar player Ravi Shankar and tabla playing experimentalist Talvin Singh have popularised North Indian classical music - a highly sophisticated system that has its roots in the Vedas. These ancient Hindu religious texts detailed certain ritual chants that became prototypes for the melodic structure of North Indian classical music, known as raga. Musically speaking, a raga (or “raag”) represents a melodic framework that has a certain scale, with specific melodic movements that the performer must strictly adhere to. Ragas can also be associated with deities, moods, seasons and time of day. Performances of North Indian classical music begin with a free-tempo introduction (alap) in which the soloist, accompanied by a drone played on the plucked lute tambura, gradually expounds the structure of the rāg being performed.

Classical music traditions in North India are often passed down through families of musical specialists, called gharanas; and it is not uncommon for children to begin learning the basics of the classical style at a very early age. Voice training is central to the learning experience: initially, the individual pitches of the basic notes are learnt by heart, with each note being assigned a syllable, as in French solfège. This Indian system is called sargam.

The 12 chromatic tones of the Western scale relate to the basic 12 tones of North Indian classical music, and are designated thus (note that the tonic is immovable, but can be fixed at any pitch):

Scale degreeNotationSargamPronunciation
Tonic (1st)SSa"Sah"
Minor 2nd-RKomal Re"Rey"
Major 2ndRŚhuddh Re"Rey"
Minor 3rd-GKomal Ga"Gah"
Major 3rdGShuddh Ga"Gah"
Natural 4thMShuddh Ma"Mah"
Sharp 4th+MTivra Ma"Mah"
Dominant (5th)PPa"Pah"
Minor 6th-DKomal Dha"Dhah"
Major 6thDShuddh Dha"Dhah"
Minor 7th-NKomal Ni"Nee"
Major 7thNShuddh Ni"Nee"

Ask your students to sing the notes of the chromatic scale using sargam syllables, whilst you accompany them either vocally, on a piano or on another melodic instrument. Now get your students to transcribe (using either staff notation or sargam) the introduction to one of the recordings of raag Yaman listed in the sources below. Discuss which notes are emphasised and what characterises the ascent and descent of the melody: these particular melodic movements are, collectively, specific to raag Yaman, which is traditionally one of the first raags to be taught to pupils.

Rhythm and metre

Rhythmic accompaniment in North Indian music has developed into a highly sophisticated science known collectively as tāla (meaning “beat”): in performance, a given tāl will be introduced after the ālāp by the tablā or pakhāvaj player, who accompanies the main soloist and performs complex improvisations based upon this metrical structure. Tāls are also taught to students using mnemonics and repetition.

The table below details the basic structure of a rhythmic cycle, tīntāl, which comprises a repeated, syncopated sixteen-beat cycle. Get your students to chant the syllables slowly whilst emphasising the sam (first beat, or “one”) with a handclap (designated by X) - and note that there is an “empty” beat (called khali) on the ninth mātra, marked by an open-handed gesture (O).

X   2   O   4   

Bollywood film songs

Bollywood film soundtracks, initially released by movie producers to attract audiences to the cinema, are nowadays often more popular than the films themselves.

“Bollywood” is the slang term for the Mumbai-based film industry – the largest in India and one of the largest in the world – with “filmi music” forming a significant and lucrative sector of this multi-million dollar business. Movie songs are central to the plotlines of Bollywood movies, and are constructed using traditional classical elements fused with modern pop song structures.

Most film songs are sung in Hindi or English, using lyrics that will convey the melodrama of a particular scene. These musical episodes allow the movie’s protagonists to publicise their agendas in a heightened emotional state, as in Western opera or musical theatre. It is common for songs to be recorded by a professional singer and then mimed to by the actors: this is called playback singing.

Actor and singer Kishore Kumar is notable as having enjoyed a successful acting career from the 1950s to the 1980s, whilst also becoming one of the most renowned playback singers.

Plagiarism has recently become an issue for film songs, since melodies and even entire songs are frequently “borrowed” from other sources with no credit being given to the original composer. The problem becomes exacerbated when music is appropriated from folk contexts, since folk musicians often have no clear concept of individual authorship, viewing their songs as communal property.

Elaborate and visually striking dance routines are a stock ingredient in modern Bollywood movies, and have also created something of an international craze, with any number of Bollywood dance classes being taught globally. Since one does not have to be able to sing or play an instrument in order to enjoy dancing, these classes have begun to act as something of a social unifier, bringing together young and old of either sex to participate in this light-hearted manifestation of popular culture.

The popularity of Bollywood dancing (and its potential to generate lucrative business) is beginning to transform Indian middle class attitudes towards dance, which is stereotypically perceived to be a disreputable and spiritually polluting activity. One Parsee dance teacher from Mumbai now has over 20,000 students; and dance classes can have a real air of religious zeal about them – so this activity represents a significant sociological transformation in modern-day India. However, music and dancing are still generally considered to be lower caste occupations, with folk musicians in particular often being viewed as “the lowest of the low”!


Use one of the available resources listed below and give your students the opportunity to learn some basic Bollywood dance moves. Discuss with your students their reactions to these song-and-dance routines, and ask them why they think this phenomena has become so popular.

Additional sources

North Indian classical music
  • Arnold, A. (ed. 2000) The Garland encyclopaedia of world music volume 5 – South Asia: the Indian subcontinent (New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc.) [also available online]
  • [video recordings of numerous Indian music performances]
  • [general]
Instruments and artists
Rāg Yaman recordings
  • Bor, J. (ed. 1999) The raga guide: a survey of 74 Hindusthani ragas (London and Rotterdam: Nimbus) – CD 4, track 18 and pp 164-165
  • [information about the rāg and video performances]
  • Zia Mohiuddin Dagar (1991) Raga Yaman (Nimbus: NI5276) [highly recommended – an excellent rendition with an introduction that is relatively easy to transcribe]
Bollywood film songs
Bollywood dance moves
Indian music and the West