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Understanding Indian Classical Music

If you feel like you're in an alien country every time somebody discusses Indian Classical music around you, this could help.

Swars (or swaras)                                                                

Essentially, all of Indian classical music is made up of 12 notes. These are called swars (or swaras).
There are seven basic swars, one step away from each other.

1. Sa
2. Re
3. Ga
4. Ma
5. Pa
6. Dha
7. Ni

...but these are only seven! What about the other five?

The other five are what western musicians would call sharps or flats, they are half a step below or above the basic swars.
These are:

1. Komal Re
2. Komal Ga
3. Teevra Ma
4. Komal Dha
5. Komal Ni

Komal means soft (analogous to flat notes in western music), and teevra means sharp.

Notice that Sa and Pa don't have a komal or teevra swar.

One octave of these notes is called a saptak. These notes, on a keyboard, would be placed like this:

Swars are the building blocks of Indian classical music. Now that we know the basic blocks, let's start making the building...


When you play (or sing) the swars in a certain pattern, you create an alankar. The most common alankar taught to students is the normal ascend and descend of the swars:

Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa
Sa Ni Dha Pa Ma Ga Re Sa

Watch this video to listen to the above alankaar.

Alankars are of different types, with a lot of possible variations in each type. (not going into details here)


Raag (or raga)

The twelve swars are like colors in a box. To make a painting, you take only a handful of those in your palette, with a main base color. These selected colors make a theme for your painting.
That selection of colors on your palette is a raag in Indian classical music. There are endless possibilities of mixing and matching these swars, but all raags adhere to some basic rules.

A raag is the most fundamental part of any classical song. Every song is based on one raag.

If you've attended a classical music performance, you'd have noticed the artist speaking about the song's raag before starting the song.

This is a song based on Raag Chayanat by Anuradha Kuber. All the notes used in the song will be taken only from the set of swars used in raag chanayat.


The rhythms or taals

At 0:05 of the video above, beats start playing in the background. These are played on the tabla.

The sequence of beats played on the tabla (or any other percussion instrument) is called taal. Every  sound on the tabla is called a bol, and a taal is a combination of these bols. There are over a hundred different taals.
Without taals, Indian Classical music would be extremely bland.

The tempo of the song is called its laya. There are three types of layas, slow, medium and fast.



I think this covers up a lot of basics of Indian (Hindustani) Classical music that everybody should know to understand it better.
Here's a bonus song, called  Kanha Re. The beats are Teen Taal and it is based on Raag Kedar

Note: This post is an answer to a question I found on Quora.


  1. Nice! I had read it the other day, looked okay on the phone but I think you should use the mark to display just a snippet on the home page.

  2. Just thought, you should also change alien country to alien planet! Haha

    1. Haha. I assumed that alien planets have countries as well...

    2. Imposing human divisional structures on the unknown aliens, are we?

  3. Quite a lot of stuff in one blog post! Awesome :)

    1. Thank you so much! I should update this blog, haha.

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