Carnatic music

From Academic Kids



Carnatic music or Karnatak music (Sanskrit कर्णाटक सङ्गीतं, Telugu కర్నాటక సంగీతం) is the classical music of South India, as opposed to the classical music of North India, called Hindustani music.

Carnatic music is largely devotional; most of the songs are addressed to the Hindu deities. There are a lot of songs emphasising love and other social issues.

As with all Indian classical music, the two main components of Carnatic music are raga, a melodic pattern and tala, a rhythmic pattern. (One might want to read these pages before proceeding.)



Main article: History of Carnatic music

Carnatic music, whose foundations lie as far back as 2000BCE, began as a spiritual ritual of early Hinduism. It grew, along with Hindustani music, out of the Sama Veda tradition, until the Islamic invasions of North India in the late 12th and early 13th century. From the 13th century onwards, there was a divergence in the forms of Indian music — the northern style being influenced by Arabic music (yet there are both Hindu and Muslim songs in Hindustani music.)

Carnatic music is named after the Southern region of the Indian subcontinent named by western colonists as Carnatic. This name was used to refer to the region between the Eastern Ghats and the Coromandel Coast encompassing much of what is called today as South India. Thus the term carnatic music was used to denote South Indian music.

See: Carnatic (region)



Śruti (శ్రుతి)

Main article: Sruti

Śruti in Indian music is the rough equivalent of a tonic (or less precisely key) in Western music; it is the note from which all the others are derived. Traditionally, there are twenty-two śrutis in Carnatic music, but over the years several of them have converged, so that now they are but the chromatic scale.

The solfege

Main article: Swara


The solfege of Carnatic music is "sa-ri-ga-ma-pa-da-ni" (compare with the Hindustani sargam: sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni). These names are abbreviations of the longer names shadjam, rishabham, gandharam. madhyamam, panchamam, dhaivatam and nishadam. Unlike other music systems, each member of the solfege (called a swara) may have up to three variants. The exceptions are shadjam and panchamam (the tonic and the dominant in Western music), which have only one form, and madhyamam, which has only two forms (the subdominant). In one scale, or ragam, there is usually only one variant of each note present, except in "light" ragas, such as Behag, in which, for artistic effect, there may be two, one on the way up (in the arohanam) and another on the way down (in the avarohanam). A raga may have five, six or seven notes on the way up, and five, six or seven notes on the way down.

The Carnatic solfege in different scripts

In Indian languages, most of whose alphabets are abugidas (q.v.), the solfege is written with the characters for Sa, Ri, Ga, Pa, Da and Ni. Beacause Carnatic music is very rarely performed by people from North India, the alphabets given here are primarily those of Dravidian, i.e., South Indian, languages.

Sound Full Name DevanagariTamilTelugu Kannada Malayalam Roman alphabet Value and Comments
saShadjamsOnly one possible value. Sometimes referred to as the 'mother' note - all Ragas have this note.
riRishabamरिரிరిರಿരിrThree possible values.
gaGāndhāramgThree possible values (one of which coindices with the third ri).
maMadhyamammTwo possible values.
paPanchamampOnly one possible value. Sometimes referred to as the 'father', though not all ragas have this note.
dhaDhaivathamdThree possible values.
niNishādamनिநி నిನಿ നിnThree possible values (one of which coincides with the third dha).

The raga system

Main article: raga


In Carnatic music, the sampurna ragas (the ones that have seven notes in their scales) are classified into the melakarta system, which groups them according to the kinds of notes that they have. There are seventy-two melakarta ragas, thirty-six of whose subdominant is a perfect fourth from the tonic, thirty-six of whose subdominant is an augmented fourth from the tonic. The ragas are grouped into sets of six, called chakras ("wheels", though actually sectors in the conventional representation) grouped according to the supertonic and mediant scale degrees.


Ragas may be divided into two classes: janaka ragas ("parent ragas") and janya ragas ("child ragas"). Janaka raga is synonymous with melakarta (because the melakarta ragas each have seven notes in their scale, and use each note only once). Janya ragas are subclassified into various categories themselves.

The tala system

Main article: tala

In carnatic music, singers keep the beat by moving their hands in specified patterns. These patterns are called talas. All of the which are formed with three basic movements: lowering the palm of the hand onto the thigh, lowering a specified number of fingers in sequence (starting from the little finger), and turning the hand over. These basic movements are grouped into three kinds of units: the laghu (lowering the palm and then the fingers, notated as 1), the dhrtam (lowering the palm and turning it over, notated as 0), and the anudhrtam (just lowering the palm, notated as ☾). Only these units are used.

There are seven kinds of talas which can be formed from the laghu, dhrtam, and anudhrtam:

  • Dhruva talam 1 0 1 1
  • Matya talam 1 0 1
  • Rupaka talam 0 1
  • Jhampa talam 1 ☾ 0
  • Triputa talam 1 0 0
  • Ata talam 1 1 0 0
  • Eka talam 1

You may ask how many fingers must be lowered in a laghu. That is determined by the jathi, a number showing how many fingers to lower. It can only be 3, 4, 5, 7, or 9. (For numbers greater than five, the "sixth finger" is the same as the little finger.) Five jathis times seven patterns gives thirty-five possible talas.

Set music and improvisation

Compositions: Styles and structures

Composers of Carnatic music were often inspired by devotion and were usually scholars proficient in Telugu,Sanskrit,Tamil and Kannada. They would usually include a signature, called a mudra, in their compositions. For example, all songs by Tyagaraja have the word Tyāgarāja in them, and all songs by Muthuswami Dikshitar have the words guru guha in them.


Carnatic songs are varied in structure and style, but generally consist of three verses:

  1. Pallavi (पल्लवि,పల్లవి). This is the equivalent of a refrain in Western music. Two lines.
  2. Anupallavi (अनुपल्लवि,అనుపల్లవి). The second verse. Also two lines.
  3. Caraṇam (चरणं,చరణం). The final (and longest) verse that wraps up the song. The Charanam usually borrows patterns from the Anupallavi. Usually three lines.

This kind of song is called a keerthanam (कीर्तनं). But this is only one possible structure for a keerthanam. Some keerthanas, such as Sārasamuki sakala bhāgyadē have a verse between the anupallavi and the caraṇam, called the ciṭṭaswaram (चिट्टस्वरं). This verse consists only of notes, and has no words. Still others, such as Rāmacandram bhāvayāmi have a verse at the end of the caraṇam, called the madhyamakālam. It is sung immediately after the caraṇam, but at double speed.


A Varnam is a special kind of song which tells you everything about a raga; not just the scale, but also which notes to stress, how to approach a certain note, classical and characteristic phrases, etc. A varnam has a pallavi, an anupallavi, a muktāyi swaram, whose function is identical to that of the ciṭṭaswaram in a kīrtanam, a caraṇam, and ciṭṭaswaras, after each of which the caraṇam is repeated:

  1. Pallavi
  2. Anupallavi
  3. Muktāyi swaram
  4. Charanam
  5. Ciṭṭaswaras
    1. First
    2. Second
    3. Third
    4. et cetera

There are many more kinds of songs such as geethams and swarajatis, but for lack of room, they will not be explained here.

Special compositions

Some special sets of compositions deserve to be noted here, the Pancaratna Kīrtanas (पञ्चरत्नकृति, పంచరత్న క్రుతులు) of Tyagaraja and the Navagraha Kritis(నవగ్రహ క్రుతులు) of Muttusvami Dikshitar.

The Pancaratna Kīrtanas (lit. five gems), composed by Tyagaraja in Telugu, are a set of five compositions regarded as the masterpieces of the great composer. They deviate from conventional structure in that they all have between eight and twelve caraṇas. Sādincanē Ō Manasā, the third of the compositions, deviates even more in that after the anupallavi, there is a short phrase after which the caraṇas are sung. Also, instead of repeating the pallavi after each caraṇam, the phrase between the anupallavi and the first caraṇam is sung.


There are four main types of improvisation in Carnatic music:

  • Raga Alapana ( रागा आलापना, రాగ ఆలాపన ) This is usually performed before a song. It is, as you may expect, always sung in the ragam of the song. It is a slow improvisation with no rhythm, and is supposed to tune the listener's mind to the appropriate ragam by reminding him/her of the specific nuances, before the singer plunges into the song. Theoretically, this ought to be the easiest type of improvisation, since the rules are so few, but in fact, it takes much skill to sing a pleasing, comprehensive (in the sense of giving a "feel for the ragam") and, most importantly, original ragam.
  • Niraval ( निरवल्, నిరవల ) This is usually performed by the more advanced concert artists and consists of singing one or two lines of a song repeatedly, but with improvised elaborations. (A similar thing used to be done in Baroque music).
  • (Kalpana)swaram ( [कल्पना]स्वरं,కల్పన సవరం ) The most elementary type of improvisation, usually taught before any other form of improvisation. It consists of singing a pattern of notes which finishes on the beat and the note just before the beat and the note on which the song starts.The swara pattern should adhere to the original raga's swara pattern, which is called as "arohana-avarohana"
  • Taanam ( तानं, తానం ) This form of improvisation was originally developed for the veena and consists of repeating the word anantham (अनंतं) ("endless") in an improvised tune. The name thaanam comes from a false splitting of anantham repeated. When the word anantham is repeated, i.e., "anantham-anantham", the laws of sandhi dictate that the consonant at the end of the first word be dropped, hence "ananthaanantham" When the rule is applied to a long string of ananthams, you get "ananthaananthaananthaananthaa..." which got falsely split as "thaananthaananthaanan...", or "thaanamthaanamthaanam...".
  • (Ragam Thanam) Pallavi ( [रागा तानं] पल्लवि )
రాగం తానం పల్ల్వీ
பல்லவி எந்றால் பதமாம், லயமாம், விஞாஸமாம்
Pallavi means: words (padam), rhythm (layam) and improvisation (viāsam)
This is a composite form of improvisation. It consists of Ragam, Thanam, then a line sung twice, and Niraval. After Niraval, the line is sung again, twice, then sung once at half the speed, then twice at regular speed, then four times at twice the speed.

Carnatic concerts


Main article: Indian musical instruments

Carnatic concerts are usually performed by a small ensemble of musicians who rehearse together (?). The group usually has a vocalist, a primary instrumentalist, and a percussionist, in that order of importance. Primary instruments are usually string instruments, such as the vīṇā and violin1, although wind instruments such the flute1 may also be used.

The importance given to the vocalist is a reflection of Carnatic music's focus on the singer and its rooting in the poetry of the Sama Veda. Any instrumental rendition is merely a transcription of the vocal line to a particular instrument. However, in recent years, purely instrumental concerts have become popular.


The Tambura is a very important source of the Drone and is a must for any Carnatic concert. However, some concert musicians use the compact Shruthi box for the sruthi. There are rumours that some artists are seen using an iPod as their Shruthi box! There would almost always be a violin or a veena for the support. Besides playing along with the main vocalist, the violinist also gets the chance to elaborate. All of the support instruments take turns while elaborating or while exhibiting creativity in sections like Niraval, Kalpana swaram and such.


Percussion instruments, such as the mridangam, ghatam, kanjeera are used to help the singer in keeping the beat, but they may also improvise. The Morsing is also seen in some concerts and it accompanies the main percussion instrument and plays almost in a contrapuntal fashion along with the beats.


Carnatic concerts, these days, last for typically no more than 3 hours. The artist may render about 10 to 15 songs. The richness and depth of artistry of the content may vary greatly based on the artist and to an extent based on what the audience request.

The stage


Concerts almost always start with a song in praise of Ganapathi, the remover of obstacles. For this, songs such as vināyakā ninnuvinā brōcuḍaku and gam gaṇapatē, among many, many others, are common. But it is not uncommon to find concerts that start with Varnams and then have a song on Ganapathi.


Most artists decide to keep the Varnam in a sampoorna raga. A Varnam typically lasts for about 6 to 12 minutes. Since Varnams are performed during the initial part of the concert, some people try to keep the Varnam in a bright raga (can be roughly translated to Major scales) like Kalyani or Dheerasankarabharanam).


In the middle are a variety of compositions, generally contrasting in emotion. Sometimes, a rāgam is sung before each of these compositions, and kalpanāswaram is sung after. Usually there are several keerthanams composed by the trinity and others sung during this phase.


Almost always all Carnatic concerts nowadays have only one Thani Avarthanam. This is kept almost towards the end of the concert. The Thani Avarthanam begins after the violinist and the vocalist (or the main performer in case of an instrumental concert) have completed their kalpana swaras or niraval and usually the vocalist nods at the percussionist to start his Thani. In case there are two or more percussion instruments, each of the percussionists start by playing a lengthy piece of beats called an Avarthanam. The length of the Avarthanam goes on reducing in a mathematical proportion as the percussionists take turn. Towards the end of the Thani Avarthanam they start playing together and the song ends with the main performer singing the line that was used for Kalpana / Niraval.

Ragam Tanam Pallavi

Some experienced artists may do a Ragam Tanam Pallavi instead of a Keerthanam as the main piece of the Concert. Nevertheless, a Ragam Tanam Pallavi exposition will also comprise of a Thani.


After a heavy dose of musically complex keerthanas the artists perform short, light and usually fast numbers. The recent trend has been that some of these are based on Hindustani Ragas. tillanas and Javalis are sung during this phase. There would roughly be around 3 to 5 tukkadas.


Almost always the very last song of a Concert is set to a raga like Sourashtram or Madhyamavathi (a happy sounding raga). The mangalam usually is 'continued' without a pause after the end of the penultimate song. Most artists thank the audience by means of a song specifically meant to thank the audience for their support.

The Audience

The typical audience in the average South Indian Carnatic concert is in the 50+ age group with the exception of some young students of music and some journalists who have come to write reviews about the concert. But the majority of the audience have a very decent understanding of Carnatic Music and will probably be able to help you with if you had doubts. It is not uncommon to find some of them noting down the name, tala and raga of the song being sung. It is important to note that only a very few artists tell out the name, tala and raga of the song they are performing. Those popular amongst the masses usually tell out the raga and the tala of the song. When not told, it is up to the listener to identify the raga and tala.

It is also easy to see the audience tapping out the tala in sync with the artist's performance. It would be frowned at by the people sitting next to you to be seen tapping the wrong tala and some artists might even interrupt the entire concert or even get angry![2]. For the same reason most sabhas want to play it safe by reserving the first two or three rows of seats in the auditorium to only VIPs.

As and when the artist exhibits creativity, the audience acknowledge it by clapping their hands. With experienced artists, towards the middle of the concert, requests start flowing in. The artist usually plays the request and it helps in exhibiting the artist's broad knowledge of the several thousand kritis that are in existence. However it is generally a norm for the rasika to meet the artist before hand if the rasika wishes a complex kriti (like one of the Pancharatna Kritis) or a Ragam Tanam Pallavi to be done.

It is amusing to find that some of the crowd also start leaving when the Thani has begun.

The teaching of Carnatic music

Traditionally, a student of Carnatic music goes to the house of the teacher for lessons. Both student and teacher sit cross-legged on the floor (usually on a mat). The teacher either starts playing the tambūrā or turns on the śruti box. The student sings an elongated "Sā...Pā...Sā (upper octave)...Pā...Sā..." and the class begins. Mayamalava Gowla is traditionally the first raga taught to the student.

With the advance of telecommunications, new ways of teaching Carnatic music have arisen. It is not uncommon now for a student to receive lessons by telephone or even webcam.

The use and disuse of notation

History of notation in Carnatic music

Contrary to what many people think, notation is not a new concept in Indian music. In fact, even the Vedas, although orally transmitted, were written with notation. However, the idea of notation in Carnatic music was not well-received, and it continued to be transmitted orally for centuries. The disadvantage with this system was that if one wanted to learn a kīrtanam composed, for example, by Purandara Dasa, it was necessary to find Purandara Dasa's student's student's student's...student's student, if such a person still existed!

Written notation of Carnatic music was revived in the late 17th century and early 18th century, which coincided with rule of Shahaji II in Tanjore. Copies of Shahaji's musical manuscripts are still available at the Saraswati Mahal Library in Tanjore and they give us an idea of the music and its form. They contain snippets of solfage to be used when performing the mentioned ragas.

Form of modern notation


Unlike Western music, Carnatic music is notated almost exclusively in solfage, although numerous attempts have been made to transcribe it into staff notation. In the more precise forms of Carnatic notation, there are symbols placed above the notes showing how the notes should be sung; however, informally this practice is not followed.

To show the length of a note, several devices are used. If the note is to be sung for twice the ordinary length, the letter is either capitalized (in English) or lengthened by a diacritic (in Indian languages). For a duration of three, the letter is capitalized (or diacriticized) and followed by a comma. For a length of four, the letter is capitalized (or diacriticized) and then followed by a semicolon. In this way any duration can be indicated using a series of semicolons and commas.

However, a new, lazier method has come about which does not bother with semicolons and capitalization, but rather indicates all extensions of notes using a corresponding number of commas. Thus, extended to a length of four wold be denoted as "S,,,".


The notation is divided into columns, depending on the structure of the tāḷaṃ. The division between a laghu and a dhṛtaṃ is indicated by a ।, called a ḍaṇḍā, and so is the division between two dhṛtaṃs or a dhṛtaṃ and an anudhṛtaṃ. The end of a cycle is marked by a ॥, called a double ḍaṇḍā, and looks like a caesura.

Some Artists

Missing image
Purandara Dasa—the Great Father (pitamaha) of Carnatic music
,  and —the trinity of Carnatic music
Muthuswami Dikshitar, Thyagaraja and Syama Sastri—the trinity of Carnatic music

One of the earliest and prominent composers in South India was the saint, and wandering devine singer of yore Purandara Dasa (1480-1564). Purandara Dasa is believed to have composed 475,000 songs in Kannada and Sanskrit and was a source of inspiration to the later composers like Tyagaraja. He also invented the tala system of Carnatic music.

The great composers

Thyagaraja (1759?-1847), Muthuswami Dikshitar (1776-1827) and Syama Sastri (1762-1827) are regarded as the trinity of carnatic music. Other prominent composers include Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi, whose exact lifespan is not known, Swathi Thirunal, Mysore Sadashiva Rao, Patnam Subramania Iyer, Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar and Papanasam Sivan, to name a few.

Modern singers

Mangalampalli Balamurali Krishna and DK Pattammal are some of the art's greatest living (albeit aging) performers. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, a doyen of Carnatic music, who had taught three generations of acclaimed musicians, and who was often acclaimed as the second Pitamaha (Great Father) of Carnatic music, passed away on October 31, 2003. M.S. Subbulakshmi, who enthralled audiences across language barriers, is usually credited with popularizing the Carnatic tradition outside South India. She passed away on December 11, 2004. Legendary singer belonging to the Dhanammal school of music T. Brinda was known for her gamaka laden interpretations of core carnatic ragams and also her vast repertoire. She was awarded the Sangeetha Kalanidhi in 1976.

The pre-Independence era had doyens like Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar and Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer. Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, G.N.Balasubramaniam were quite popular post-Independence alongside the named veterans in the field. Another great singer who made his own mark with soulful rendering was M D Ramanathan.

Contemporary vocalists include Madurai T.N.Seshagopalan, T.V.Sankaranarayanan, Sudha Ragunathan, Sanjay Subrahmanyan, T.M.Krishna (, S.Sowmya (, K.N.Shashikiran (, Priya sisters (Haripriya and Shanmukhapriya), Gayathri Girish, Aruna Sairam, Ranjani & Gayatri (, R. Vedavalli and Bombay Jayashree. (For a full list, see this page. Large festivals of Carnatic music always include performances by such people.

To date, there is only one Westerner who became a Carnatic musician of some popularity. His name is Jon B Higgins ("Higgins bhagavatar").

Modern instrumentalists

U. Srinivas plays the electric mandolin. Kadri Gopalnath plays the alto saxophone. N Ravikiran ( plays the chitravina, also known as the gottuvadhyam, an ancient instrument with twenty-one strings. Exponents of the Veena include Jayanthi Kumaresh and Gayathri. Well known flute exponents include Ramani, Shashank and K.S.Gopalakrishnan.

Lalgudi Jayaraman is one of the modern great Carnatic violinists. Other very well known violinists include T.N.Krishnan, M.S.Gopalakrishnan and Kunakudi Vaithyanathan.

Some leading mridangamists are Trichy Sankaran, Guru Kaaraikkudi Mani, T K Murthy, Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Vellore Ramabadhran, Palghat Raghu, and Guruvayur Dorai.

External links


  • "Carnatic music" ( Encyclopdia Britannica from Encyclopdia Britannica Premium Service. (Requires membership to view complete article.)
  • Panchapakesa Iyer, A. S., Gānāmrutha Varnamālikā. Gānāmrutha Prachuram. Chennai: 2003


  1. The violin of Carnatic music is the same instrument as the violin of Western music, though tuned and held differently. Balusvami Dikshitar (1786 - 1859), brother of Muttusvami Dikshitar, learnt the violin from a European violinist and introduced it to South India in the 19th century, although it became popular only in the 20th century. It is particularly well suited for Indian music because it can produce the microtones which are a distinguishing feature. In North India, however, indigenous bowed Indian instruments such as the sarangi continue to be used. The flute was invented independently in India and the West; Krishna is said to have been a master. The difference is that the Indian flute is a bamboo instrument with open holes, quite unlike the modern western version.
  2. The Veena stalwart, Chitti Babu, was known for his anger and short temperament! He would not only interrupt the concert temporarily, but would even walk away if he finds someone tapping the wrong tala!ca:Msica carntica

es:Msica carntica fr:Musique carnatique la:Musica Carnatica nn:Karnatisk musikk kn:ಕರ್ನಾಟಕ ಸ೦ಗೀತ sa:कर्णाटक सङ्गीतं ta:கர்நாடக இசை


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