Music: An Introduction

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Music: An Introduction

The Sanskrit word for music, sangīt(a), meaning "with song," refers to both vocal and instrumental music as well as music for the accompaniment of dance. Some reserve use of this term for the classical traditions of urban, elite India and for religious music, describing other forms of music as "folk music" (lok gīt, possibly following the European model) or, in the case of music for the cinema, filmigīt (film song).

Early India

Regional musical styles, both secular and sacred, have existed for millennia in India, though we have little documentation of their existence prior to Matanga's eighth/ninth-century a.d. text, Brhaddesī (which also includes the new, probably regional term, rāga).

One of the earliest descriptions of Indian musical ideas comes in the context of Vedic chant, particularly in reference to the musical intervals of the Sāma Veda's presentation. Portions of the Nāradiyashikshā (Narada's manual) date from about the fifth century, with other portions added later. The students for whom Narada intended this work learned about religious chant (Vedic chant), how to deal with the all-important issue of pronunciation, and, notably, issues of musical pitch. In this last context, the author links the musical scales used in sacred chant and in secular singing.

The approach of Narada's culture to deriving intonation may well have paralleled that of the Greeks. Given the contact between India of this era and Hellenistic culture (particularly in the aftermath of Alexander the Great's conquest of the Punjab), the similarities between those systems may have been more than mere chance. Narada spoke of two important pitch distinctions: svara and shruti. The former refers to the musical pitches of a musical scale, while the latter refers to the quality of a tone that the listener may hear but have difficulty distinguishing.

An even earlier text, Bharata's Nātya Shāstra, dates from the beginning of the first millennium of the common era and details many aspects of music in the context of dramatic presentation. Bharata describes the instruments and some of the musical forms of his era, along with details about musical scales, including an enigmatic description of the term shruti (heard). Notably, the Nātya Shāstra describes a musical system that is already highly developed, one that reflects a well-established musical heritage.

Later Development

Although the Indian subcontinent has been subject to many waves of migration and cultural change, the successive waves of Turks, Persians, and Mughals who invaded South Asia between the eighth and eleventh centuries a.d. brought with them dramatic infusions of Western and Central Asian musical ideas.

In North India, successive waves of migrants and rulers patronized Indian music as well as their own in their homes, communities, and courts. The music of the West and Central Asian Muslims, particularly that of Persian, enriched Indian music in the court setting. Eventually a blend of the two traditions emerged, with singers from Gwalior (India) joined by instrumentalists from Mashhad, Tabriz, and Herat (Persia and Afghanistan).

The court of Alaʾ-ud-Din Muhammad Khalji, sultan of Delhi (r. 1296–1326), was a particularly fertile ground for this exchange. By far the most notable musical figure in this context was Amir Khusrau, an expert in the music of both India and Persia. Many scholars credit him with inventing the sitar and tabla, many rāgs and tāls, and several vocal forms.

Indian courts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries sponsored resident scholars who wrote numerous treatises describing the aesthetics of music, including the association of sentiments (rasa), colors, Hindu deities, and so forth, with particular rāgas. A particularly important era in the patronage of Indian music came during the reign of the Mughal emperors. Emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) had two outstanding musicians at his court, Miyañ Tansen and Baz Bahadur; Emperor Jahangir (1605–1627) had musician Bilas Khan; and Emperor Shah Jahan (1628–1658) patronized Lal Khan. Many modern hereditary musicians trace their lineage to these eminent musicians.

The treatises of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries show an evolution from the tradition of the Nātya Shāstra and an increase in the importance of Arabic and Persian musical ideas. Toward the end of Mughal period (18th and early 19th centuries), court scholars translated early Sanskrit treatises into Persian, allowing them to learn about the music of ancient India and in some cases to attempt to reconcile differences between millennia-old treatises and contemporary practice.

The Mughal era also marked the ascendancy of the British Raj and a flourishing of Indian musical life in provincial capitals and courts. There, musicians worked in smaller and less affluent settings than Delhi for less powerful patrons, some of whom knew a great deal about the music, some who simply wanted to hear it and enjoyed the prestige.

British Orientalists took an active interest in India's music and culture. Sir William Jones, a linguist and translator, compiled his On the Musical Modes of the Hindus (1799) largely from Indian sources, but without much comment on current practice. However, Captain Augustus Willard, in his Treatise on the Music of Hindustan (1834), drew attention to the gap between theory and practice and observed that much contemporary musical practice in Indian courts was a mix of Indian, Persian, and Afghan musical ideas. Indian treatises of the period reveal continued shifts in musical thinking, with the "major" scale (Bilāval thāt) as the "natural" scale replacing the "minor" (Dorian) scale that had long been associated with Bharata's intonational root scale, shadjagrāma.

Perhaps the most important figure in twentieth-century Indian musical theory is V. N. Bhatkhande. In his Hindusthāni Sangīt Paddhati (1932) and Kramik Pustak Mālikā (1937), he attempted to derive theory from observations of practice, interviewing court musicians, collecting their music, and analyzing and cataloging contemporary rāgas. Many twentieth-century writers on Indian music continued this trend, attempting to reconcile ancient practice with contemporary musical practice and terminology. In general, however, scholarship has separated the study of ancient musical practice from examination of modern performance practice.

Until the twentieth century, musicianship in South Asia was a combination of hereditary legacy and cultural adaptation. For many Hindus, the guru-shishya, or teacher-pupil relationship, was the context for the transmission of traditional musical knowledge. The relationship was sometimes familial, but the artistic "lineage," or parampara, resulted from generations of teaching and learning. For Muslims, the gharānā (household) delineated the transmission of musical knowledge and the line of musical authority. The teacher-student relationship between an ustād (master) and his shagird (student) provided instruction in everything from musical performance to conduct in public. The ultimate official arbiter of disputes in these extended familial relationships was the senior male, the qalīfā. In the early twenty-first century, although hereditary musicians are still important, music schools fostered by Bhatkhande and others (e.g., Palushkar), along with an increased sense of social mobility, have created musicians who have chosen their careers by avocation.

Gordon Thompson

See alsoNātya Shāstra ; Rāga ; Sitar ; Tabla ; Tāla


Bhatkhande, Visnunarayan. Hindustāni Sangīt-Paddhati. Hathras: Sangeet Press, 1932.

——. Kramik Pustak Mālikā. 6 vols. Hathras: Sangeet Press, 1937.

——. A Short Historical Survey of the Music of Upper India: With Special Reference to the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. 1943. Reprint, Baroda: Indian Musicological Society, 1974.

Jones, William, and N. Augustus Willard. Music of India. Kolkata: Anil Gupta, 1962.

Neuman, Daniel M. The Life of Music in North India: The Organization of an Artistic Tradition. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1980.

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Music: An Introduction

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