Indian Instruments

In April-May 2011 I traveled to Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Mumbai in order to make contacts and prepare for CompMusic. While talking with experts of both Carnatic and Hindustani music traditions and attending some concerts, I learned a bit more about some of the musical instruments, like tambura, veena, mridangam, violin, harmonium, flute, tabla, sitar, and sarod. Here I write about them and I link to some of the sounds I recorded.


The singing voice is normally excluded when talking about musical instruments, but when a voice is trained and controlled beyond what a regular person can do, we should definitely refer to it as a musical instrument. This is the case of the voice of the Carnatic and Hindustani singers. It is amazing the expressive control they have of their voice, obtaining sonic qualities far beyond what a normal person can produce. The voice is very much at the core of the indian classical music and most musical instruments have been developed to imitate the expressive characteristics obtained by the classically trained music singers. I went to several concerts. For example, in Chennai, the capital of Carnatic music, I attended a concert by one of the well recognized Carnatic music singers, S. Sownya, and I recorded a fragment of a song. In Kolkata, the capital of the Hindustani music tradition, I attended a concert at ITC Sangeet Research Academy by one of the voice students, Alick Sengupta, and I recorded a fragment of the opening section, alap, of the performance. These fragments show the differences in the melodic ornamentations that Carnatic and Hindustani have developed and the different ways that singers modulate their voices. However the voice is a very personal instrument, each singer developing specific qualities, for example each singer has a particular frequency range, and thus a specific tonic note (Sa), which means that the accompanying instruments in a performance have to tune to that tonic.

The tambura is a long necked string instrument that resembles a sitar, but it has no frets and only the open strings are played. It is the instrument used to play the drone sound throughout a performance. It normally has four wire strings tuned to the tonic of the soloist and its fifth, as PA-sa-sa-SA (sol do' do' do), and it is played by plucking one string after another in a regular pattern to create a harmonic resonance. It has a special overtone-rich sound, a sustained "buzzing" sound that is mainly the result of the wide and arched bridge on which the strings rests and of the cotton thread placed between the strings and the bridge. This type of string termination results in a quite complex acoustic system (first discussed by Novel Prize winning physicists C V Raman in an article of 1921). It is particularly relevant for our work the fact that current F0-detection methods perform very poorly with this type of string vibration. In any classroom or concert hall you find quite a number of tamburas of different sizes (like in the picture shown above) to cover all possible tonics of male and female vocalists. Nowadays, the electronic tamburas or electronic shruti boxes are present in every concert or practicing session, either to substitute the acoustic tamburas or to reinforce them. Every performance or practicing session starts by starting the shruti box. An open technological challenge is to make these electronic instruments sound as good as the acoustic tamburas.

The saraswathi veena, commonly called veena, is a very old plucked string instrument mainly used in Carnatic music. It has a resonator body made of wood and the finger board has 24 frets made of brass bars set into wax. There is another resonator at the top of the neck, not functioning, but mainly used as a stand to facilitate the positioning of the instrument when it is played. Unlike the sitar, the veena has no sympathetic strings, it has only four playing strings and three drone strings (thalam). The string terminations are similar to the ones of the tambura (also discussed by Raman in his 1921 article), thus with a wide and arched bridge but without a cotton thread. I was fortunate to meet M Subramanian in Chennai, a veena player and Carnatic music expert, from which I learned many things about the veena. For example he told me about the fretting that has to be redone yearly given that the frets, set into wax, are displaced easily. Given the characteristics of the fingerboard, the decision of were the frets go has to done very much by ear, without a mathematical calculated distribution based on a particular tuning system. I also recorded a sound sample played by M V N Murthy, mathematician and veena player from Chennai that surprisingly plays Hindustani music with his Veena.

The mridangam is the primary rhythmic instrument used in Carnatic music. It is a very ancient double-sided drum whose body is usually a hollowed piece of wood and the two apertures are covered with a goat skin leather, the larger aperture produces a bass sound and the smaller one a treble sound. The goat skin covering the smaller aperture is anointed in the center with a black paste in order tune the membrane to the tonic of the soloist. C V Raman writes about the acoustics of this instrument in his 1934 article. I recorded two mridangam improvisations in two concerts, one in Chennai and another in Mumbai. It is amazing the rhythmic complexities produced by the mridangam players around the tala cycles.

The western violin was introduced in India as early at the 17th century and it has become the major melodic accompaniment instrument of the voice in the Carnatic music tradition. To adapt to the indian music, the violin is tuned and played very differently. It is played in a seated posture, held with the scroll placed on the performer's ankle and the back of the violin resting on the left shoulder and collar bone or chest. This frees the performer's left hand to play the very elaborate ornamentations used in Carnatic music, the gamakas. The strings are tuned to the tonic and the fifth, as Pa-SA-pa-sa, thus matching the soloist tonic. The tonal quality and the volume that it produces enable it to blend with the human voice. Its pitch range adapts very well to any good singer and it can reproduce all the subtle nuances which characterize Carnatic music. I spent some time with the music teacher of IIIT-Hyderabad, Violin Vasu, and I was able to record a short improvisation by him playing the violin. 

The hand-pumped harmonium was brought to India from France in the 19th century and it has become very popular in Hindustani music. Being a fixed keyboard instrument originally tuned to equal-temperament and to a reference frequency, it had to be adapted to raga music. Current harmoniums used in India have drone stops, scale changing mechanism and many of them are not exactly tuned to equal temperament. The harmonium is played with one hand and it is used as a monophonic instrument, so the tuning can be adjusted to be closer to just intonation, which is the tuning most commonly used in Indian music. In fact most harmonium accompanists own several harmoniums, so they can be prepared for different tonic frequencies. In our recent article on tuning (Serrà et al 2011) we have shown that exists tuning differences between Carnatic and Hindustani and our hypothesis is that the harmonium is responsible for these differences. The harmonium has promoted a tuning closer to equal-temperament in all musical instruments. In all the recordings that I made of hindustani music concerts the harmonium is always present, it is used to accompany the soloists by basically imitating it, sounding like its echo, with a function similar to what the violin does in Carnatic music.

The indian flute is a transverse flute made of bamboo. The one used in the north is the bansuri, with 6 or 7 finger holes, and the one used in the south is called venu, with 8 finger holes. They both come with different sizes depending on the desired tuning. Sliding the fingers on and off the holes allows for a great degree of ornamentation, important in the performance of raga-based music. I attended a concert by the Carnatic flutists T. Sashidar at the Music Academy of Madras, Chennai, the main academic reference for Carnatic music, where I recorded a short fragment.

The tabla is the most popular percussion instrument in India and the principal rhythmic accompaniment in all Hindustani classical music. It consists of two drums, a small right hand drum made of wood called dayan and a larger left hand metal one called bayan. The top of each drum is covered with a stretched, layered leather membrane made of goat or cow skin, with a black spot in the middle, and held in place by leather braces. Raman also talks about the tabla in his pioneering article on Indian drums. The dayan is tuned to a specific note, usually the tonic of the soloist. The playing technique involves extensive use of the fingers and palms in various configurations to create a wide variety of sounds, called bols. I attended a concert in Mumbai by the tabla master Suresh Talwalkar and I recorded three fragments (fragment 1, fragment 2, fragment 3). It is amazing the variety sound qualities that can be obtained in the tabla!

The sitar is a plucked stringed instrument predominantly used in Hindustani classical music, known to most europeans thanks to Ravi Shankar. The sitar has many strings, up to 23, but only 6 or 7 run over the movable frets and can actually be played, the rest are sympathetic strings. Like the tambura it has a wide and arched bridge, resulting into an overtone-rich sound. The main melody is played on one string, which is tuned to the tonic. It is a very resonating instrument, mainly due to the sympathetic strings, to the long hollow neck and the gourd resonating chamber. In my particular case, attending a concert by sitar player Nayan Ghosh at IIT Mumbay on January 2010, was what triggered me to start the CompMusic project. At that concert I was fascinated by how different the concert and its context was from a western classical music concert. More recently I attended a sitar concert at ITC-SRC by Souray Ganguly, were I recorded a short fragment. I also recorded some sitar samples (sample 1, sample 2, sample 3) at a master class in Barcelona by the sitar maestro Subroto Roy Chowdhury. I was amazed at the control the sitar players have of the puling of the main playing string. By puling, the pitch can go up as much as a fifth, and they really use all that range in a very expressive way. 

The sarod is a stringed instrument that, together with the sitar, are the most popular instruments in Hindustani classical music. It is a fretless instrument, that looks like a lute, with a very characteristic polished steel fingerboard, with typically 5 playing strings resting on a plastic, or bone, bridge that in turn rests on the goat skin covering the wood resonator. Like the sitar It has many sympathetic strings, however the sound of the sarod is quite a bit deeper than the sound of the sitar. I invited Parag Chordia, researcher and sarod player, to give a lecture and a concert in Barcelona, so I recorded two short fragments of his concert (fragment 1, fragment 2). I was struck by the fact that sarod performers have long nails in their left hand, using these nails to press on the playing strings against the steel fingerboard and to produce the pitch modulations. They use a plectrum to pluck the strings with the right hand.

Among the instruments that I heard in concerts, but of which I was not able to learn much about, I have to mention the ghatam, a percussion instrument used in the south that looks like a pot made of clay, and the esraj, a bowed string instrument used in the north. But there are quite a few more instruments used in classical indian music and some information can be found in Wikipedia. 

The variety and complexity of the traditional indian instruments is enormous, as varied and complex as the music that results from them. It should be fascinating to study the relationship instruments-music in both the turkish context and the indian one, comparing them. How is that turkish instruments evolved the way they did and differently than the indian ones? and how about comparing it with other musical cultures.