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TĀLA In the classical music traditions of India, tāla (Sanskrit, "palm of the hand," or "clap") is the combined concept of rhythm and meter. Analytically, a tāla is a cyclic and additive measure of musical time. That is, unlike the approach to musical time that has prevailed in Euro-American culture (which has parsed pulses into linear duple and triple patterns and then has subdivided the pulses), South Asian musicians have constructed time by cyclically patterning added subsections of pulses and subdividing the beats. The conceptual categories for tāla stem from South Asia's language and poetics, in which verses consist of patterned long and short syllable combinations. Cyclical musical time parallels other Indian conceptualizations of time, such as the agricultural rhythm of the seasons, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and notions of cosmic time.

As with rāga, musicians in North and South India understand tāla similarly, while differing on the specifics. The common concepts are those of cycle (āvarta/āvartanam in the South and āvarta/āvard in the North), structural subsection (anga in the South and vibhāg in the North), and beat (mātra in both cultures), as well as the notion that these beats can have subdivisions. Similarly, the North and the South generally pattern performances from open, pulseless, and meterless beginnings (ālāpana/ālāp) to the microsubdivision of the mensural musical moment. Finally, both systems think of tempo in three

Common tālas
Laghu/Jāti Tāla Caturashra 4 Tishra 3 Mishra 7 Khanda5 Sankīrna 9
SOURCE: Courtesy of author.
Dhruva |n O |n |n |4 O |4 |4        
Mathya |n O |n |4 O |4        
Rūpaka O |n O |4        
Jhampa |n U O     |7 U O    
Triputa |n O O   |4 O O |3 O O      
Āta |n |n O O       |5|5 O O  
Eka |n |4 |3 |7 |5  

broad (but modifiable) tempi: vilambita-laya (slow tempo), madhyama or madhya-laya (medium tempo), and druta-laya (fast tempo). The differences derive in large part from the historical and cultural contexts of music performance, but also from the cultural disposition of the cultures.

As with scale types, southern traditions have systematic structures for generating and categorizing musical time that inform and have been informed by performance practice. Northern traditions, on the other hand, derive heavily from performance practice, so that tāla structure emerges from an ecological evolution of practical forms.

South India

Musical time plays a prominent role in Karnātak music practice and is an integral part of South Indian musical instruction, while functioning as an underlying, albeit often unstated, principle. That is, in South Indian musical practice, performance reflects the underlying structures of tāla (the patterning of sections and relative points of importance), but no specific musical part has the charge of keeping and showing the tāla. Musicians will often reveal the tāla in which they are performing through standardized gestures (and the audience may also "keep time" in this fashion), but no musical part has the specific charge of keeping or showing the time for the other musicians.

South Indian musicians and music scholars have developed systematic formulas for generating time patterns. The overarching idea is that of cycle. An āvarta/āvarttanam (Sanskrit/Telegu, "cycle" or "a return to the beginning") is the span of one cycle of a tāla. Once established, the pattern of an āvarta—the tāla—remains consistent until the end of the composition.

This pattern derives principally from the arrangement of the subsections. Each subsection, or anga (Sanskrit, "member" or "part"), can consist of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, or 9 beats or mātras (Sanskrit, "syllable"). Karnātak musicians and scholars have developed ways to symbolically represent angas both by a physical gesture and/or a written symbol. The two most common physical gestures employed today are the tattu (Telegu, "beat" or "clap") and vīccu (Telegu, "wave") with smaller articulations of the fingers to help in the counting of longer angas.

Karnātak practice recognizes three different kinds of anga and represents them with written symbols. The drutam is a two-mātra anga marked by a clap (tattu) and a wave (vīccu) and symbolically indicated as a circle (O). The anudrutam is a one-mātra anga marked by a clap (tattu) and indicated as an upwardly opening circle (U). The laghu is a multiple-mātra anga marked by a clap (tattu) and a number of additional silent beats to complete an anga. Musicians represent the laghu with a vertical bar and a number indicating its duration (|n). A laghu can be tishra (triple) with 3 mātras (|3); caturashra (quadratic) with 4 mātras (|4); khanda (broken) with 5 mātras (|5); mishra (mixed) with 7 mātras (|7); or sankīrna (composite) with 9 mātras (|9).

Practice also allows the subdivision or laya (Sanskrit, layate, "to go"; laya, "the act of sticking or clinging to") of each mātra in several ways. The single count pulse division is gati or natai (Sanskrit and Tamil, "pace"), tishra natai is a triple submetric division of the beat, caturashra gati/natai is quadruple (also known as sarva-laghu), khanda natai is quintuple, and mishra natai is septuple. That is, each mātra at tishra natai can have triplets at tishra natai, quadruplets at caturashra natia, and so on.


The devotional singer Purandara Dasa (1480–1564) established a musical time system based on seven sūlādītālas for use in formal compositions by combining the laghu (|), drutam (O), and anudrutam(U) in ways that reflect the performance practice of his time. The most commonly used of these tālas appear in Table 1.

When naming the different versions of these tālas, one first names the quality of the laghu followed by the name of the tāla; however, particular versions of these tālas have special recognition. For example, caturashra Triputa tāla (that is, the eight-mātra version of Triputa tāla with a laghu of four mātras followed by two drutams) more commonly carries the name Ādi tāla (first), as this is one of the most common tālas in South Indian music. However, some tālas are common in particular contexts and yet have no special name. For example, khanda Āta tāla (the 14-mātra version of Āta tāla with two five-mātra laghus and two drutams) is particularly important in tana varnam compositions, but has no separate appellation.

Capu Tālas

While the sūlādītālas have been the choice of composers for the most complex compositions of the repertoire, the cāpu tālas are common in lighter works and occur most often in fast laya. A characteristic of the cāpu tālas is that each tāla has two parts, with the second part one beat longer than the first. The most important of these are (a) mishra cāpu (3 + 4; sometimes known only as cāpu) which often acts as an up-tempo version of tishra triputa (3 + 2 + 2); (b) khanda cāpu (2 + 3; often called ara Jhampa [half Jhampa]) which similarly functions as an up-tempo version of mishra jhampa (7 + 1 + 2); (c) tisra capu (1 + 2 and a slightly different emphasis than tishra Eka tāla); and (d) sankīrna cāpu (4 + 5).

North India

Again, North and South India share conceptions of tal. Each cycle or āvarta (or sometimes āvard) consists of one or several vibhāgs (Sanskrit/Hindi, "partition" or "breakdown"), which in turn usually consist of two, three, or four mātras. A clap (tāli [Sanskrit-Hindustani diminutive of tal, "beat" or "clap"]) or wave (khālī [Hindustani "empty"]) marks the beginning of each vibhāg. The most important vibhāg marker is the sam (Hindustani, "together"), the first beat of an āvarta and the point at which the end of the time cycle comes back and joins the beginning.

North Indian musicians and scholars use a schematic system to describe the structure of tāla. An "X" marks the sam. Tālis are numbered (with the exception of when the sam is a tāli—which is true of most tals). An "O" marks the khālī or beginning of an "empty" vibhāg. Figure 1 illustrates these parts in the context of one āvarta (cycle) of the most common tal in the Hindustani sangīt paddhati (North Indian classical music tradition): Tīntāl.

In Figure 1 the āvarta consists of 16 mātras divided into four vibhāgs of four mātras each, with the first, second, and fourth vibhāgs marked by tālis and the third vibhāg marked by a khālī. (Note that an X marks the first tāli, the sam. The number "1" appears only when the sam is khālī.)

The Hindustani sangīt paddhati sense of lay (subdivision, tempo) parallels that of the Karnātak sangīt paddhati in that the metric subdivision of mātras can be caturasra (quadratic, 4 subbeats), tisra (triple, 3 subbeats), misra (mixed, 7 subbeats), khanda (broken, 5 subbeats), and sankīrna (composite, 9 subbeats). Thus, the above schematic of Tīntāl could have mātras further divided into triplets, quadruplets, quintuplets, or groups of nine. And, as in South India, the terms vilambit (slow), madhya (medium), and drut (fast) describe tempo, with the prefix ati (very) modifying the slow and fast extremes.

North Indian time, like that of South India, is conceptually additive. However, rather than a standard set of formulas modified through a grid of metrical options (like the sūlādītālas) or meters, which follow a standard mathematical function (like the cāpu tālas), North Indian tāls derive almost entirely from performance practice. Hindustani musicians generally describe tāls not as a series of laghus, drutams, and anudrutams, but rather as a stylized series of drum strokes. These drum strokes most often come from the performance practice of tabla and sometimes, the pakhāwaj.

Figures 2 through 6 illustrate the most common tālas, beginning with the aforementioned Tīntāl. In general, syllables beginning with a "dh" sound indicate "open" strokes played by both drums in a pair of tabla (or drumheads, in the case of the pakhāwaj), with the lower-pitched drum resonating or ringing. A syllable beginning with a "t" represents a stroke played only on the higherpitched head. A syllable beginning with a "k" or "g" represents a stroke played only on the lower-pitched drum. (Note: the use of Western notation to represent these drum strokes is for the convenience of those familiar with this mode of musical representation.)

In Figure 2, note how "open" strokes (dhā, dhin) predominate in the first, second, and fourth vibhāgs—marked by tālīs (claps)—and how "closed" strokes (, tin) predominate in the third vibhāg—which begins with a khālī (wave). This example is in medium tempo (madhya lay). Figure 3 is an example of the same tāl in slow tempo (vilambit lay). The structure remains on the principle of mātras, but each mātra has an underlying quadratic (caturashra) subdivision (represented by the sixteenth notes).

In Figure 4, the same pattern of tālīs and khālī is manifested in the ten-mātra tāla, Jhaptāl; however, this time the vibhāgs consist of alternating patterns of two and three mātras.

Not all tālas follow this pattern, however. Some treatises list tens if not hundreds of possible tālas; but in performance practice, one commonly hears only around a dozen tālas, some of which occur only in special circumstances. Figure 5 represents a realization of Ektāl, a tāla that is commonly associated with both vocal and instrumental music. The twelve beats divide into six vibhāgs of two mātras each. In contrast to the other examples (but imitating them), not all "open" vibhāgs have claps, nor are "closed" vibhāgs dominated by "closed" strokes. The resulting pattern has the curious complementary and overlapping arrangements of mātras into three groups of four (clap-wave + clap-wave + clap-clap) and two groups of six (as defined by the rhythm: clap-wave-clap + wave-clap-clap).

Finally, not all tāls begin with a clapped sam. The popular Rūpak tāl (Figure 6)—a seven-beat tāl—begins with a khālī and a vibhāg of three mātras, followed by two tāli-marked vibhāgs of two mātras.

Gordon Thompson

See alsoMusic ; Rāga ; Tabla


Kippen, James. The Tabla of Lucknow: A Cultural Analysis of aMusical Tradition. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

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