What is Carnatic Music ?

Carnatic music is the classical form of music that has been predominantly existent in the southern part of India. This region, consisting of states Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Kerala, has been responsible for the growth and evolution of this art form that is considered to have originated from the Sama Veda. Owing to its origin, Carnatic music is believed to be one of the oldest systems of music in the world.

Carnatic music is characterised by well-defined principles that have stood the test of time. These principles are passed on by the Guru (Teacher) to the Shishya (Student). It is built upon melody, rhythm, lyrics and aesthetics.

M Balamuralikrishna, one of the chief exponents of Carnatic music in recent times, had opined that Carnatic music is the base for world music. The complex scientific structures with ample scope for interpretation, improvisation and innovation make this genre a shining star in the world of music. It is a widely endorsed fact that Carnatic music is a fine combination of art and science. Evidently, this form of music has found increased acceptance across the world through standalone performances and collaborations. Carnatic music has found recognition and appreciation in popular global platforms such as the Olympic Arts Festival, Berlin Jazz Festival, Morocco Music Festival, Royal Albert Hall of London, The Grammy, BBC Proms, Carnegie Hall of New York, Theatre de la Ville in Paris and the Sydney Opera House.

The greatness of Carnatic music should not be a cause of intimidation to experience it or learn it. An understanding of the subject will open up several windows for appreciation and learning. To begin with, one can set off by acquainting oneself with its basic concepts.

Components of Carnatic Music

‘Shruti maata, Laya pita’ is often quoted in Carnatic music. It translates to – Shruti (Melody) is the mother, Laya (Rhythm) is the father. Therefore, shruti and laya are the principal components of Carnatic music.


In the Sanskrit language, the word Shruti means a sound that is heard. In Carnatic music, shruti denotes the smallest interval of pitch that the human ear can identify. Being an essential factor for good melody, shruti is also the smallest interval of pitch that the human voice or a musical instrument can produce. Shruti is directly linked to every note or swara in the Carnatic music form. Each swara has a specific shruti.


‘Shobillu sapta swara sundarula bhajimpave manasa’ (O Mind! Praise the divine seven musical notes) – thus sang the great Saint Thyagaraja.

So, what are these divine seven notes or sapta swaras of Carnatic music? They are –

Shadjam or Sa, Rishabha or Ri, Gandharam or Ga, Madhyama or Ma, Panchama or Pa, Dhaivata or Da and Nishadha or Ni (Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Da, Ni)

These swaras are the building blocks of Carnatic music. Each swara is a vibration that can produce melody by itself.

The position of each swara gets defined by the adhaara shadja or the tonic. Adhaara shadja is the base swara or pitch, on the basis of which the place values of the other swaras are fixed.

Of the seven swaras, Shadjam and Panchama are called prakriti swaras. These are the constants and have fixed place values or positions.

Rishabha, Gandhara, Madhyama, Dhaivata and Nishadha are called vikriti swaras. These swaras have variations or prabhedas. There are three types each of Rishabha, Gandhara, Dhaivata and Nishadha and two types of Madhyama.

The prakriti and vikriti swaras are illustrated in the following table.

Swara Notation
Shadja S
Shuddha Rishabha R1
Chatushruti Rishabha/Shuddha Gandhara R2/G1
Shatshruti Rishabha/Sadharana Gandhara R3/G2
Anthara Gandhara G3
Shuddha Madhyama M1
Prathi Madhyama M2
Panchama P
Shuddha Daivata D1
Chatushruti Daivata/Shuddha Nishadha D2/N1
Shatshruti Daivata/Kaishiki Nishadha D3/N2
Kakali Nishadha N3

Among these swaras, the following are adjusted in one position as they share the same pitch.

• Chatushruti Rishabha and Shuddha Gandhara

• Shatshruti Rishabha and Sadharana Gandhara

• Chatushruti Dhaivata and Shuddha Nishadha

• Shatshruti Dhaivata and Kaisiki Nishadha

Therefore, the Carnatic music form comprises of 12 swara sthaanas or swara positions and 16 swara names in all.


A raga is a melody consisting of all or some of the 16 swaras. It is a series of swaras that have a definite relationship to the adhara shadja. The series of swaras in a given raga always follow a definite sequence. Nevertheless, a musician can creatively and tunefully rearrange these swaras within the defined format. As a matter of fact, raga is the basic foundation on which improvisation is carried out in Carnatic music.

Raga, in Sanskrit language means hue or colour. Apparently, each raga paints its own shade and invokes distinct emotions.

Ragas are too many in number. They are classified under a melakarta system. The system in wide usage is the one expounded by Venkatamakhi in the 17th century. The Venkatamakhi melakarta system classifies ragas into 72 melakarta ragas using various combinations of the 16 swaras. The melakarta ragas consist of all the seven notes in order in both ascending and descending scales. They are also called janaka ragas or parent ragas as all other ragas, known as janya ragas, are obtained by borrowing swaras from them.


T M Krishna, one of the leading exponents of Carnatic music today, has written in his book ‘A Southern Music’ – As much as melody gives Karnatic music a distinct identity, the rhythmic side of the form gives it a structure that is unique in the world of music. This is possibly the best-known fact about Karnatic music: its complex rhythmic system and the technique of playing various percussion instruments.

Carnatic music has a highly developed rhythmic system. Known as laya, this rhythmic aspect is the structure upon which compositions are built.

Tala is the measure for laya or a unit of time in Carnatic music. In the words of David Nelson, an Ethnomusicology scholar and a laya researcher, the tala in Indian music covers the whole subject of musical meter.

The tala comprises of three main parts or angas.

• Laghu – It is represented by a single beat with the palm facing down, followed by counting of every unit from the little finger. It is notated as I.

• Anudhrutam – It is represented by a single beat with palm facing down. It is notated as U.

• Dhrutam – It consists of two beats, represented by a single beat with palm facing down and another beat with the palm facing up. It is notated as O.

Depending on the number of counts in the laghu, talas have classifications known as jaathi.

Jaathi Number of counts in Laghu
Thishra 3
Chaturashra 4
Khanda 5
Mishra 7
Sankeerna 9

Compositions and Composers

Carnatic music has a vast repertoire of compositions in different ragas, talas and languages. These compositions are rich in melodic and lyrical content.

The compositions range from simple practise lessons such as sarale varase, thara sthayi varase, mandara sthayi varase, dhatu varase, janti swaras, alankaras, geetha and jati swaras to complex ones used in concert presentations like varnas, kritis, keerthanas, thillanas, devaranamas and vachanas.

Composers or Vaggeyakaras have tremendous influence on the development and evolution of Carnatic music. Through their compositions, vaggeyakaras shape up and enrich this music form. They also bear an impact by establishing grammar and introducing new ragas and poetry.

The Carnatic music world has broadened its horizons through several luminous composers. Purandara Dasa is known as the Sangeetha Pitamaha or the Father of Carnatic Music as he is credited with designing the fundamental lessons for teaching Carnatic music. He has also composed hundreds of keerthanas mostly in Kannada language under the pen name ‘Purandara Vittala’.

Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri are referred to as the Trinity of Carnatic music owing to their exemplary contributions. Other composers who have had immense influence in this genre include Jayadeva, Venkatamakhi, Muthaiah Bhagavathar, Annamacharya, Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi, Swati Tirunal, Papanasan Sivan, Bhadrachala Ramadas, Mysore Vasudevacharya and Patnam Subramanya Iyer. Among the contemporary composers, the foremost are G N Balasubramanian, Lalgudi Jayaraman and M Balamuralikrishna.

Prominent Musicians

The role of musicians, like that of composers is immense in Carnatic music. They are the torchbearers and propagators in this sphere. Each musician brings in his unique style of presentation and improvisation. The musician could be rendering music through voice or instruments like nadaswaram, violin, veena, flute, chitra veena, mandolin, saxophone, jaltarang, mridangam, ghatam, thavil, khanjira and morsing.

The Carnatic music world is adorned by outstanding musicians like D K Pattammal, M L Vasanthakumari, M S Subbulakshmi, Veena Dhanammal, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, G N Balasubramaniam, M D Ramanathan, Lalgudi G Jayaraman, Palghat Mani Iyer, T R Mahalingam, T Chowdiah, S Balanchander, Doraiswamy Iyengar, R K Srikantan and others from the past and T V Sankaranarayanan, Vikku Vinayakram, Sudha Raghunathan, Bombay Jayashree, Mysore Nagaraj-Manjunath, T M Krishna, H K Venkatram, Sanjay Subramanian, N Ravikiran, Shashank Subramaniam, Jayanti Kumaresh, Ranjani-Gayatri and many more from the present.

Concert Format

A Carnatic music stage will have the chief presenter seated in the centre, surrounded by accompanists on one or more instruments like the violin, flute, mridangam, thavil, ghatam and khanjira. The chief presenter could be performing solo, duet or trio. The concerts could be purely Carnatic or could be Jugalbandhis (a combination of Carnatic music and Hindustani music). They could be regular concerts or thematic concerts.

All types of Carnatic music concerts offer presentation of compositions and melodic improvisations through techniques like alapana, kalpanaswarams and raga, thana, pallavis.

Learning Carnatic Music

The knowledge and grammar of Carnatic music are passed on to the shishya by the Gurus in a traditional manner. As music training is mostly through compositions, the Guru commences his training through practise compositions that are followed by complex compositions known as varnams and kritis. As most compositions are written for vocal music, vocal training is emphasised in Carnatic music.

While a shishya underwent training from the Guru in a gurukula system in older days, students today visit the Guru physically or through online classes. Students today also receive notations and recordings for their lessons.


Music is important to humans. It enriches a person’s cognitive skills, emotional health and sensibilities. People across the world prefer various types of music. While some like melody, some prefer the beats and some enjoy the lyrics. For all types of listeners, Carnatic music has a slice to offer. It is a comprehensive form of music consisting of all the components of music.