History of Music


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It is not easy to point to one period of history or one ancient form of music as the source of contemporary Carnatic music. Several changes in theory and practice have surely taken place from Vedic times to the present day. Historical records allow us to trace the interesting pattern of evolutionary changes in music.
  • Divine Origins: It is the general belief in Indian culture, that all art forms have a divine origin. Carnatic music is also believed to have originated from the Gods. This has been separately discussed in the mythological section.
  • Natural Origins: A number of musical sounds are naturally produced, e.g. the sound emanating from the bamboo reed when air passes through its hollows. Ancient man observed this phenomenon and designed the first flute! Some ancient treatises describe the connection of the origin of swaras to the sounds of animals and birds. Man, with his keen sense of observation and perception tried to simulate these sounds. His ability to distinguish between sounds of different frequencies, qualities and timbre would have been an important factor in the evolution of Carnatic music.  
  • Folk Origins: Folk music, also said to have a natural origin, is considered by many scholars as one source that has influenced the structure of Carnatic music. While folk music evokes more spontaneity, a classical system like Carnatic music is more organised. Certain folk tunes correspond to Carnatic melodies or ragas like Anandabhairavi, Punnagavarali, Yadukulakambhoji, etc.  
  • Vedic Origins: It is generally accepted that the Vedas are a probable source of Indian music, which has developed over the centuries into the sophisticated system that it is today. The word “Veda” means knowledge. The thousands of hymns in the Vedas, which are dedicated to the Gods and Hindu rituals, in the form of chants were passed down by oral tradition from generation to generation. There are four Vedas - Rig, Yajus, Sama and Atharvana. Of these, the Sama Veda is said to have laid the foundation for Indian music. Sama Veda consists mostly of Rig Vedic hymns, set to musical tunes. These used to be sung during Vedic sacrifices, using musical notes (3 notes - 7 notes), sometimes accompanied by a musical instrument.

Literary Sources

  • Sanskrit: Apart from the Sama Veda, there are references to music and musical instruments in the Upanishads, Brahmanas and Puranas.  Epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata also have some references to music. The music system in practice during Bharata’s period must have been similar in some respects to the present day Carnatic system. Bharata's Natya Sastra mentions many musical concepts that continue to be relevant to Carnatic music today.  
  • Tamil: Tamil works like Silappadikaram, Tolkappiam and other Sangam literature works give old Dravidian names for the seven notes in the octave, and describe how new scales can be developed by the modal shift of tonic (shifting the reference Shadja) from an existing scale. In the old Tamil music, the concept of Pann corresponds to that of the modern Raga. The rhythmic meters found in several sacred musical forms like Tevaram, Tiruppugazh, etc., resemble the talas that are in use today. Above all, Tamil music was practised by the native Dravidians of Southern India. Since Carnatic music is prevalent in South India, many scholars believe that the ancient Tamil music is an important source from which Carnatic music is derived.

After the Sangita Ratnakara of Sarngadeva (1210-1247), the word “Carnatic” came to represent the South Indian Classical Music as a separate system of music. A clear demarcation between Hindustani music and Carnatic music as two different forms of Indian classical music is seen around the latter half of the 14th century. Classical Indian music flourished in the southern capital cities, particularly in Vijayanagara and Tanjavur. A number of musical treatises describing the concepts of Carnatic music were written. The present form of Carnatic music is based on historical developments that can be traced to the 15th - 16th AD and thereafter.



In India, mythology has a very important place and its influence on the art and culture of the country is phenomenal, Carnatic music being no exception. Owing to its spiritual and devotional aspects, Carnatic music is associated with Hinduism, the dominant religion of India. The origin of this art has been attributed to the Gods and Goddesses. Moreover, individual deities are associated with different kinds of musical instruments. We cannot conceive of Krishna without the flute or Saraswati without the Vina. The literary sources such as the epics and mythological anthologies also mention the close association of music with divinity.  

Apart from these sources, many saints and scholars believe that music is the greatest form of tapasya (penance) and the easiest way to reach godhead or to attain salvation. Most of the musical compositions are either philosophical in content or describe the various deities or incidents from Hindu mythology. There are others who believe that music itself is divine and that the perfect synchronisation of the performer with the musical sound, Nada, is the real divine bliss. This practice is called Nadopasana. Many musicians and music lovers visualise divine forms in the Ragas or the melodic entities of Carnatic music.




The history of Carnatic music can be studied based on three major periods of development, namely, Ancient, Medieval and Modern. Let's now look into the finer details of each.

THE ANCIENT PERIOD (Vedic period - 4th Century AD)
This was the vital period in the history of Indian music. During this period there is no mention of the term, Carnatic music, in any of the sources, but there is sufficient reason to believe that this period was crucial to the original development of Carnatic music. Some important references are cited here:  


  • Of the four Vedas, Rig Veda (hymns) was first recited in a monotone known as archika, which later developed into the two toned chant (gatika). This was subsequently replaced by a three-toned chant, samika, which had a main tone and two accents, one higher and one lower. Sama Veda is considered as the main source for the development of Indian music and the first full scale with seven notes in the descending order are seen in the rendering, even to this day. The melody is close to the scale of the raga, Kharaharapriya (22nd Melakarta) or Natakapriya (10th Melakarta).
  • Several references to music of musical instruments are seen in the Vedas.
  • One of the earliest references to musical theory is found in the Rik Pratisakya (around 400BC), which mentions the origin of seven notes from the three notes.  
  • Upanishads (the concluding part of Vedas), containing the essence of Vedas (100 BC - 300 BC), mention the musical notes and gives other musical references. Musical instruments like the Vina and Dundubhi are mentioned in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.  
  • The two great epics, Ramayana (circa 40 BC) and Mahabharata, also have several musical references.  
  • There is also a mention of Gandharvas [(demi-gods) (600 - 500 BC)], who were exceptionally versatile in music. Bharata in his Natyasastra, also acknowledges saying that music belonged to the Gandharvas.  

Bharata's Natyasastra (The 2nd - 4th century AD)  

This is the earliest treatise to extensively elaborate on the science of music and dance. Music is dealt only partly in this treatise. Yet, various aspects like the ancient melodies (Jaatis) which are the archetypes of Ragas, their characteristic features, structure and the classification of the ancient instruments have been made in this work. The notes (swaras), their varieties, combination (varnas) and other such aspects are also elaborately described.  

Bharata has given the fundamentals of music as comprising Swara, Tala and Pada. The music till Bharata’s period was known as Marga (literally meaning way).  

In the ancient period, the native Dravidians of the south had their own style, which is generally called Tamil music, owing to the native regional language of the area. The Sangam literature till 3rd AD, in particular, has many references to this style. Works like Silappadikaram of Ilango Adigal, and its commentaries, describe the logical derivations of the important scales through the modal shift of tonic. The Tamil names of these notes have also been mentioned. Other works like Tolkappiam, Pattupattu, etc. also give musical references. Some of these descriptions and references correspond to contemporary Carnatic music concepts.  (Also see Tamil music).

MEDIEVAL PERIOD (5th - 16th Century AD)
During this period, many important musical concepts evolved in clear terms and in this period, more care was taken to put into record, some of the important musical developments by several music scholars, to enable us to have proper historical links. Several musical composers and luminaries have also lived during this period.  
  • The work of Matanga (6th - 7th Century A.D.), Brihaddesi, is the first to mention the word, Raga. This text also gives the names of the then popular Ragas, with their suitable structures, and a basic classification system. The other notable feature during that period was the gradual development of the art of music as an independent form, breaking away from being overly dependent on forms of dance and drama.  
  • The Kudimiyanmalai inscriptions in a cave, near Pudukottai (Tamilnadu), has an array of musical diction (notation) of South Indian music in the 7th century AD. The Tevarams (6th - 9th century AD), songs in praise of Lord Siva, used more than 20 scales with Tamil names, which were equivalent to the present system of Carnatic music. Many of these Tevarams are still rendered as musical pieces in concerts. This corpus, along with the Divya Prabandham (compositions of the Vaishnavite Azhwars, 6th - 8th century AD), have been a significant contribution of the Tamil speaking region to Carnatic music.  
  • The Tiruppugazh of Arunagirinathar, who lived around the 15th century, is another inspiring Tamil work which significantly affected Carnatic music. This has complex rhythmic meters, which remain unique and unsurpassed in their grandeur.  
  • The Gita Govinda of Jayadeva (12th century) is a monumental work of the medieval period in Sanskrit, consisting of 24 songs, each set to a particular Raga. The rhythmic meter is determined by the meter of the verse. These were, probably, the earliest examples close to the regular musical compositions and are called Ashtapadis (ashta meaning eight and padi meaning foot). These are popular throughout India even today, though the original tunes are lost. Contemporary musicians from both the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions have set these songs to music independently.
Sangeeta Ratnakara
An important musical treatise was written by Sarngadeva (1210-1247). This work contains five thousand couplets in Sanskrit written in nine chapters, comprehensively covering Swaras, Ragas, Prabandhas (musical form of this period), Tala-vadyas (percussion instruments), Gamakas (ornamentations) and other such aspects. This work establishes the complete growth of Indian music from the period of the Natya Sastra (2nd century) to the 13th century. This work stands out particularly as a link between the two new systems that gradually split and evolved separately after his period, namely, the Hindustani music and Carnatic music. The music between the period of Brihaddesi and the Sangeeta Ratnakara was known as the Desi system.  

Sarngadeva’s work inspired many later scholars who wrote musicological treatises. The Sangeeta Sara, attributed to Vidyaranya (1320-1380) was the first to classify ragas as Melas (Parent) and Janya ragas. After this work, there seems to have been a lull in the theoretical development for almost two centuries. Ramamatya wrote his treatise, Swaramela Kalanidhi, in the 16th century. The clear exposition of Mela, Raga and Vina technique must be accredited to him. His effort served as a firm and fitting foundation to the growth of the modern music system and may be considered as the milestone in the scientific development of our music.  


Musical Forms  

This period gradually traces the evolution from Gandharvagana forms like Dhruvagana of Bharata’s period, through the different kinds of Prabandhas, to the present day forms. Several important forms were composed during this period - Tevaram, Divyaprabandham, Tiruppavai (is a part of Divyaprabandham), Ashtapadis, Padams, Kritis, Gitams, apart from the Abhyasa gana, Alankara and Swaravalis for beginners.  

Tallapakkam Annamacharya (1425 - 1503 AD), composed in a new form called Kriti, having three sections, namely the Pallavi, Anupallavi and Charanam. This pattern became widely accepted and was popularised by later composers, in particular, the Trinity. This stands out as an outstanding contribution of Annamacharya to the practical side of our music. He is credited to have composed about thirty two thousand compositions of which around twelve thousand have been traced and some of these have been still preserved in copper plates. The Kritis were not as complicated as the earlier Prabandha forms.  

Purandaradasa (1484 - 1564 AD) is known as the Sangeeta Pitamaha (the grandfather of Carnatic music). A prolific composer, he laid the foundation for the systematic learning of the system and he is credited to have formulated the swara exercises for practice, apart from composing simple songs, Gitams, and a number of compositions (Kritis) with high philosophical import.  

In short, during the medieval period, one can say that Carnatic music gradually attained its individuality built over a historically strong foundation. In particular, after the 13th century, no major treatise is seen from the North. Tanjavur and Vijayanagara emerged as the major seats of Carnatic music, with a number of classic monumental works being produced in both the theoretical and practical aspects of music

MODERN PERIOD (17th century to present day)
The 17th century can be considered as a golden age of Carnatic music. It marks several important milestones of Carnatic music in diversified angles, thus, enriching this traditional art form, while preserving the past glories. Some of the most important developments in both Lakshana (theoretical) and Lakshya (practical) aspects took place during this period.

Theoretical aspects


The well structured 72 Melakarta scheme was formulated by Venkatamakhi in his treatise Chaturdandi Prakasika in 1660 AD. This scheme is the proud heritage of our music, and is not simply of academic interest, but also has immense practical value to all musicians, musicologists and students. Other important treatises on music written during this period are the Sangeeta Saramrita of Tulaja (1729 - 1735 AD), Sangeeta Sudha of Govinda Dikshita and the Sangraha Choodamani of Govinda (1750 A.D).  

By the end of the 19th century, notational schemes were developed, for written representation of musical compositions. These were published in works like Subbarama Dikshitar’s Sangeeta Sampradaya Pradarsini in Telugu and Manikka Mudaliar’s Tamil work, Sangeeta Chandrikai. A M Chinnasami Mudaliar published south Indian music compositions written in western staff notation. These early pioneers in recent times have paved the way for a research-oriented understanding of this practical art form.

While the theoretical works were trying to keep pace with the practical music, the practical music itself was evolving continuously and a number of luminaries have made a tremendous impact on refinement of this art form, to keep it fresh and alive.  

Practical aspects

In the 18th century, within a short period from 1763 - 1775 AD, were born the three great composers of Carnatic music, who were later to be celebrated as the Musical Trinity (Trimurti) - Syama Sastri (1762 - 1827) Tyagaraja (1767-1847) and Muthuswami Dikshitar (1776-1835). All of them combined their immense knowledge, deep spirituality and profound traditional musicianship with an amazing sense of creativity and innovative spirit. This has made their contribution to Carnatic music invaluable. The art of musical composition was elevated to great heights at their hands. It can confidently be asserted that all later composers have tried to live up to the standards set by these three bright stars. Other great composers who have contributed to the vast repertoire of Carnatic music compositions include Swati Tirunal (1813-1847), Vina Kuppayyar, Subbaraya Sastri, Gopalakrishna Bharati, Ghanam Krishna Iyer, Patnam Subramanya Iyer, Koteeswara Iyer, Muthaiah Bhagavatar, Mysore Vasudevachar and Papanasam Sivan.  (Also see Galaxy of Composers)

Musical concepts

The 72 Melakarta scheme was responsible for the transformation in the Raga system of Carnatic music. Several new Ragas came into existence and were popularised by means of compositions tuned by the Trinity of composers along with others who followed the 72 Melakarta scheme. Many different kinds of musical compositions developed, having different structural arrangements (musical forms). These include the Varnam, Kriti, Padam, Javali, Tillana, Swarajati and other varieties. These forms have continued to remain popular in the 20th century.  

Till the end of the 19th century, the patronage of Carnatic music and musicians was mostly limited to the major temples and royal courts, as also a few rich landowners, who arranged concerts for various events. In the 20th century, the patronage has taken a different shape, with the advent of a number of organisations (Sabhas) and corporate sponsors who have brought a more professional outlook to this traditional art-form. As a result, Carnatic music is now heard in all major Indian cities, as also in major centers in Asia, Europe and America.  

Music Education

The learning and teaching processes have also adopted themselves to the changes in the living style, over the years. The traditional Gurukula system has given way to an institutional system of training in the 20th century. Several good musicians have taken to teaching as their profession. Modern educational tools have been pressed into service, with the growth of recording technology. From analog tape recorders to state of the art computers and internet connections are being put to use in imparting musical education worldwide.  

The written musical notation system has undergone several changes over the years and has been used as a reference material for learning. Research oriented study and documentation of musical forms have also increased over the years. A number of books in different languages, by musicians and musicologists, have also been useful to understand the different concepts of this system of music. The involvement of mass media and communications has been a vital factor in the increase in interest of the unexposed, to this traditional art form. Through all this change, Carnatic music has not only gained new vigour, but has also retained its freshness within the traditional framework of this system.


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