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Ruckert, George, 21M.291 Music of India, Spring 2007. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare), (Accessed 09 Jul, 2010). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

21M.291 Music of India

Spring 2007

Closeup photo of performance on the tabla, a pair of small single-headed hand drums.
The tabla, a pair of single-headed drums, is used in many styles of Indian music. (Photo courtesy of Jean-Pierre Dalbéra.)

Course Description

This course focuses on Hindustani classical music of North India, and also involves learning about the ancient foundations of the rich classical traditions of music and dance of all Indian art and culture. Students explore the practice the ragas and talas through learning songs, dance, and drumming compositions, and develop insights through listening, readings, and concert attendance.


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Amazon logo Ruckert, George. The Classical Music of North India. New Delhi, India: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 2004. ISBN: 9788121508728.

Additional readings are also assigned from various sources.

Listening to the Music

Listening to music is key part of this course. Students will listen to recordings during class and on their own, and also attend concerts outside of class.

Listening to this style of classical music presents unique problems and opportunities for development of aural skills, what musicians usually refer to as "ear." Obviously, abilities that are developed in listening to any music are present here in great abundance-skills like recognizing and differentiating melodies, rhythms, timbres, moods, etc. Be aware of the great differences of emphasis presented in polyphonic music (the music of simultaneous combined voices), which comprises 95% of our current sonic environment, from pop to classical. The tempered scale, or equal spacing of the distance between pitches, is an essential aspect to the tuning of western-style ensembles, wherein each note must blend with the others. Also, the chiseling of the melodic line to its most consistently unornamented form is essential to the clarity of polyphonic music. Often, strings (and other voices) will use vibratos, in which the gently wavering of a pitch will insure euphony in the whole of the ensemble. If you have listened to mostly western music, which has developed these arts to the very highest levels, you must now turn away from some of your aural programming to account for other approaches. Don't worry, your understanding of differences in style will only enhance your listening skills, not skew them. All music will gain life for you from the time you spend on developing your ear this semester.

Hence, there are new horizons that must be addressed in order to get the most out of Indian classical music. One area involves concentrating on a new world of timing, in which each raga is brought to life anew in each performance. The artist's work is to draw a picture from scratch on a blank page, informing you of the notes and moods as if for the very first time. He or she will paint the portrait of the rag with slow sketches, giving weight to each note, and endeavoring to give it the correct color with the appropriate use of the surrounding notes. This will build gradually in the registration of the compass of the rag (from low to high) until the artist feels the sonic image to be complete. Timing is critical to the presentation. If you become impatient with this unfolding, or start longing for another life (say, of the songs and harmonies your ear might be more used to), you will fall off, asleep, and thus miss the point.

You must turn your attention to small details, like tunings (are all notes intoned the same?), ornaments, and the developmental use of registration, which may be incidental to music in which varying timbres and harmonies receive a greater degree of attention. A phrase is never repeated exactly, although, if you aren't listening very carefully, it may soon sound repetitive. Like waves at the seashore, the music comes on and on, but no two waves are the same, and the surfer must take full advantage of each new opportunity to ride and not fall off. And, like the surfer, the artist and the listener ride on the now of each instant, letting go the past and the future, to participate in the unfolding to the raga in the moment. This is the magic, and no one can admit you to this theater until you ask for it and begin to experience it for yourself.

When compositions are introduced, they will have great importance to the artist, for they are his presentation of the literature he/she was taught, or perhaps are his own compositions-a new interpretation of what is for him "classical." Pay particular attention to these, for they are likely to encapsulate the essence of the raga's movements. The tala is the important new element, so discover it, how the composition lays against it, and how the artist regards it, as soon as it starts. Appended are the variations in rhythm, vistars, tans, and jhalas, and the different kinds of these are also innumerable, so keep you discerning ear alive by riding each wave anew. Usually, the rag's presentation proceeds from slow to fast, and the events-per-second increase accordingly, so you will experience some exhilaration in the ride as time passes.


The course will have three quizzes, the last one of which is comprehensive and functions like a final exam. Unannounced listening quizzes should be anticipated.


Concert Reports

Students are to write three concert reports on live musical events they have attended; turn in tickets, programs, and ads/reviews where applicable.

Research Paper

Students must complete one research paper of 4-5 pages.

Course Calendar

1-2 Unit 1 - Introduction: The Vedic heritage Format paper 1 due beginning of Week #2
3-4 Unit 2 - The legacy of Dhrupad  
5-7 Unit 3 - The glories of Khyal Quiz 1 during Week #7
8-10 Unit 4 - Instrumental music  
11-12 Unit 5 - Music of South India Quiz 2 during Week #11
13-14 Unit 6 - Light classical music Concert reports due end of Week #14
15 Final exam Research paper due   Tell A Friend