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Carnatic music or Karnatak music (Sanskrit कर्णाटकसङ्गीतं) is the classical music of South India, as opposed to the classical music of North India, called Hindustani music. The main differences are that Carnatic music emphasizes the structured song, is much more theoretical, and has more stringent rules.

Carnatic music is almost exclusively devotional; most of the songs are addressed to the Hindu deities. Secular works are usually either humourous compositions, film songs, or children’s songs.

As with all Indian 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 Moguls invaded North India in the late 12th and early 13th century. From the 13th centuryonwards, 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.)

There are various theories as to the origin of the name karnāṭaka sangītam. While it did originate in the Indian state of Karnataka, there are other theories about the etymology of the name Carnatic, such as that it means “to please the ear”, or “traditional” in Sanskrit.



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 shadjamrishabhamgandharammadhyamampanchamamdhaivatam 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 tonicand 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.

  • Devanagari: सरिगमपधनि
  • Tamil: ஸரிகமபதநி
  • Telugu: సరిగమపదని
  • Kannada: ಸರಿಗಮಪದನಿ
  • Malayalam: സരിഗമപദനി
  • Roman alphabet: s r g m p d n

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 which have the perfect fourth(suddha madhyamam) as the fourth note of the scale, thirty-six of which have the augmented fourth (prati madhyamam) as the fourth note. The ragas are grouped into sets of six, called chakras (“wheels”, though actually sectors in the conventional representation) based on the second and third notes of the scale.


The highest level of the hierarchy of ragas is the melakarta, because the melakartas have seven notes and use each only once in thearohanam and only once in the avarohanamRagas that have gaps in their scales (properly called varja ragas) or whose scales zigzag (properly called vakra ragas) are called janya ragas, literally, “child ragas”.

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 laghudhrtam, and anudhrtam:

  • Eka talam 1
  • Rupaka talam 0 1
  • Triputa talam 1 0 0
  • Jhampa talam 1 ☾ 0
  • Ata talam 1 1 0 0
  • Matya talam 1 0 1
  • Dhruva talam 1 0 1 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 and/or Sanskrit (although languages like Tamil and Kannada would occasionally be used.) 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). This is the equivalent of a refrain in Western music. Two lines.
  2. Anupallavi (अनुपल्लवि). The second verse. Also two lines.
  3. Caraṇam (चरणं). 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.


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) of Tyagaraja, the Navagraha Kritis ofMuttusvami Dikshitar, and the Ashtapadis(अष्टपदी) of Jayadeva.

The Pancaratna Kīrtanas (lit. five gems), composed by Tyagaraja, 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 caraṇasSādincanē 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 ( रागाआलापना ) 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 ) 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 ) 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 ) 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 wordanantham 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 ( [रागातानं] पल्लवि )

பல்லவிஎந்றால்பதமாம், லயமாம், விஞாஸமாம்

Pallavi means: words (padam), rhythm (layam) and improvisation (viñāsam)

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. Percussion instruments, such as the mridangam and ghatam are used to help the singer in keeping the beat, but they may also improvise.

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.


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.

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.

Finally, either a light song such as a tillana, or a mangaḷam is sung.

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. I know that guys can write your essays very good

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, Sā 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.

Carnatic people

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

Trinity of Carnatic music

Trinity of Carnatic music

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

M.S. Subbulakshmi, 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.

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 & Gayathri, R.Vedavalli and Bombay Jayashree. Large festivals of Carnatic music always include performaces by leading vocalists.

To date, there is only one Westerner who became a Carnatic musician of some popularity. His name is Jon B Higgins, and he is jocularly referred to as Higgins bhagavatar.

Modern instrumentalists

U. Srinivas plays the electric mandolin. Kadri Gopalnath plays the alto saxophone. N Ravikiranplays the chitravina, also known as gotuvadyam, an ancient instrument with 21 strings – six main strings, and three drone strings, about twelve sympathetic stringsrunning parallel and below the main strings. It is played with a cylindrical wooden slide in the left hand, and three wire plectrums on the right hand fingers.