Smoothing Out the Edges: Indian Classical Music

In my previous post I documented my first experience with Indian Classical Music, to summarise, I listened to the World Music Network’s Rough Guide to Indian Classical Music, this experience left me with the following questions:

  • What are the key instrumentation used?
  • What role does human voice play?
  • How is this music recorded?
  • Why was it noted that one track was recorded live?
  • What is the difference between Bollywood music and Indian classical?
  • Why does the music sound like a mix between psychedelic rock and folk music?
  • Why is there a lack of Indian Classical Music available online?

While experiencing my first active listening session of Indian Classical I found myself fascinated by the different instruments used. Through some exploration I know understand that these instruments are generally broken up into groups of whom plays the raga and the tala. While Northern and Southern Indian musicians may use different instruments these same principles apply. The raga being patterns of notes, a combination of what I’d personally recognise as melody and scale (BBC 2014). Instruments capable of playing the raga are varied as anything capable of playing multiple notes could be used; however, traditionally the use of sitar, sarod, sarangi or violin, flute, shehnai, and harmonium. For the record, the piano I thought I heard was most likely a harmonium, a large keyboard which works mechanically similar to a church organ. The tala refers to the rhythmic patterns, generally made by percussion instruments (BBC 2014) including tabla, jaltarangam, mridangam and ghatam (Cultural India n.d).

In my experience, I was blown away by the way the human voice was used as a rhythmic element in El Taal, performed by Allah Rakha & Zakir Hussain. Through looking into this further and trying to find further examples of this in other pieces of Indian Classical I discovered that this style is called Tappa, a rolling piece of high paced vocal, while I thought it was simply a rhythmic element it is indeed a narrative driver. While I personally enjoyed this use of voice, it is definitely not common place. Vocals are generally used as religious narrative drivers, whether that be Hindi or Islamic.

As there is limited information available describing the process of recording Indian Classical Music I have taken the time to analyse early recordings and compared to later recordings to find out if there is much difference in terms of techniques and equipment used. By listening to pieces recorded around the 50s and early 60s the music seems to be recorded using one ribbon microphone at the back of a performance space, as the sound of the room, the reverberation and performances are captured in the recordings. Listening to more recent recordings, post-1990, I have found that the music is recorded in a much more sterile environment often with each element recorded separately and brought together on multitrack tape or digitally. Which explains the World Music Network’s eagerness to highlight that El Taal performed by Allah Rakha & Zakir Hussain was recorded live, as to explain the lack of polish within the recording. I find this particularly interesting as European classical music is very much reluctant to adapt to multitrack recording, valuing the authenticity of the performance captured rather than the polish capable of being achieved (Faber 2017).

Bollywood music, also known as filmi, is music obviously synonymous with the Indian film industry. Currently, filmi represents 72% of music sales in India (BBC 2010). In the early days of Bollywood the music used was totally reliant on the musical traditions of India; however as recorded mediums of music from all over the world became more available musical influences from elsewhere began to flow into the music of Bollywood. While Indian classical music is still a cornerstone of filmi the adoption of songwriting, lyrics, stylistic elements and production techniques created in Europe and the United States have become increasingly common within filmi (World Music Network 2013).

One of the first things I noticed when listening to Indian Classical Music was how much I could hear elements of psychedelia streaming forth. The World Music Network (2013) explains that “evidently the Western psychedelic movement owed much to Indian inspiration.” While I’d known that The Beatles were influenced by Indian music and culture, it had never dawned on me that the flow of Indian music throughout Europe and North America was India to the UK and America through the Beatles’ British Invasion to the American and German underground rock, psych, and krautrock bands expanding on the tonality and rhythmic elements further and adapting it to suit their needs ().

Interestingly, since the sunset on the British Empire’s stranglehold on India, the traditional music recording and distribution industry has largely not been claimed by the Indian people. With works seemingly only recorded and distributed by the BBC and other British and North American companies with an interest in monetising Indian culture elsewhere, with only India’s Navitas Records entering the market 15 years ago. While companies like Real World Records and World Music Network aim to share music from around the world, my theory as to why there is a very small number of Indian recording labels focused on traditional music is that the Indian people are more concerned with these pieces being performed live than they are hearing recorded reproductions of these performances; however, Navitas Records’ entry into the market recognises the demand for this music from the diasporic Indian community.

BBC 2014, Indian Raga, viewed September 8, <>

BBC 2014, Indian Tala, viewed September 8, <>

Cultural India n.d, Indian Music Instruments, viewed September 7 2017, <>

Faber R, 2017, Classical Music Recording Methods: A Conversation with Yuri Lysoivanov,, viewed September 7 2017, <>

Puterbaugh P, 1998, The British Invasion: From the Beatles to the Stones, The Sixties Belonged to Britain, Rolling Stone, viewed September 8 2017, <>

World Music Network 2013, The Rough Guide To Psychedelic Bollywood, viewed September 7 2017, <>


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