9 Musical Instruments Of India (You’ve Probably Never Heard Of)

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  • Discover the rich history of Indian instruments
  • Learn about Indian musical culture and its traditions
  • Which 9 typical Indian instruments helped shape Indian music
  • Also, check out our guide to the beautiful musical instruments of Israel, Cordillera, and  Japan

The music of the Indian subcontinent is typically classified into two major classical music traditions: Hindustani music of northern India and Karnatak music of South India.

At the same time, many regions of India have independent musical traditions.

The growing influence of Persian music and musical instruments in the north is one of the critical contrasts between North Indian and South Indian music.

Hindustani and Karnatak music employs the Raga (sets of pitches and tiny motives) and tala (rhythm) systems.

Ragas are a set of rules and patterns that a musician can use to build his or her unique performance.

9 Typical Musical Instruments Of India

Every traditional Indian instrument has a deep history and is interbedded with strong religious traditions.

They carry one of the most remarkable musical cultures of all time and have many different traditional instruments ranging from percussion to string instruments.

Musical instruments of India are not only used for recreational music but also for sacred rituals, weddings, funerals, ceremonies, and more. 

Below is our list of 9 traditional Indian instruments: 

  1. Mridangam
  2. Sitar
  3. Sarod
  4. Tabla
  5. Harmonium
  6. Tanpura
  7. Vina
  8. Shehnai
  9. Sarangi

1. Mridangam

The mridangam is frequently shown as the instrument of choice for several deities in ancient Hindu sculpture, painting, and mythology.

During Shiva’s primal tandava dance, Nandi is claimed to have played the mridangam, causing a holy rhythm to resound across the skies.

As a result, the mridangam is also called “deva vaadyam,” or “Divine Instrument.”

Considered one of the most famous Indian percussion instruments, the mridangam is the traditional South Indian drum.

This is a must-have accompaniment for both vocal and instrumental music concerts in South India. Maddal or maddalam are other names for it. 

The mridangam’s body is carved from a single block of wood. Mridangam producers prefer jackwood or redwood, but the Morogosa tree’s wood, the coconut tree’s core, and the palm tree are also utilized.

It has the shape of a barrel, with the right head slightly smaller than the left. It is one and a half to two feet long and 25 to 30 centimeters in diameter. 

The mridangam is played with the instrument parallel to the floor. A right-handed mridangam player uses their right hand to play the smaller membrane and their left hand to play the larger membrane. 

2. Sitar

Sitar is one of the most popular and frequently used Indian string instruments. It is most common in North India.

The instrument has a gourd-shaped bottom that serves as a resonator and is supported by a long neck. The neck comprises seven cords, twenty metal frets, and thirteen strings below the sitar’s frets

Frets are used to change musical notes, whereas strings are utilized to tune the notes. In Indian music, musical notes are part of ragas.

There are numerous Ragas, each with its rhythms and principles. Sitars must be tuned to Raga notes combined with rhythmic beats.

The sitar, widely used throughout the Indian subcontinent, became well-known globally in the late 1950s and early 1960s thanks to the works of Ravi Shankar.

In the 1960s, there was a brief period when the sitar was used in Western popular music, with the instrument featuring in tunes by bands such as The Beatles, Doors, Rolling Stones, and others.

3. Sarod

The sarod is another one of the Indian string instruments and is mainly utilized in Hindustani music on the Indian subcontinent. It is, together with the sitar, one of India’s most popular and well-known instruments.

It has a deep, substantial, contemplative sound, as opposed to the sitar’s pleasant, overtone-rich texture, and has a resonant, reverberant character. 

The sarod is a fretless instrument capable of producing continuous slides between notes known as meend (glissandi), which are significant in Indian music.

Because it doesn’t have any frets and the tension of the strings, the sarod is a complex instrument to play because the strings must be forced hard against the fingerboard.

There are two methods for stopping the sarod’s strings.

The first includes stopping the strings with the tip of one’s fingernails, while the second requires both the nail and the fingertip to stop the strings against the fingerboard.

4. Tabla

One of the most popular Indian percussion instruments is the tabla, which consists of two drums played by the same person.

Both drums have compound skins on which a tuning paste is applied to produce the vast range of tones these drums can produce. This paste is called siyahi, which gives the tabla its authentic sound. 

The bigger of the two is called the bayan and is typically constructed of metal or ceramic.

The bayan’s siyahi is off-center, allowing the performer to apply varying pressure to the skin while adjusting the instrument’s pitch using the palm of their hand while striking it with the fingertips.

The smaller drum is known as the dahini, and it is also known as the tabla. Dahini is typically made of hefty lathe-turned rosewood and produces significantly higher pitch notes than the bayan.

The playing method is difficult, requiring significant use of the fingers and palms in various configurations for various sounds and rhythms. 

Tabla has been the primary percussive instrument in Hindustani classical music since the 18th century. It can be played solo, together with other instruments and voices, or as part of larger ensembles. 

Tabla is most likely imported from “tabl”, the Arabic word for drum. Scholars disagree on the ultimate origin of the musical instrument.

However, some link its development to indigenous musical instruments of the Indian subcontinent. According to Indian theory, tabla originated with ancient indigenous civilizations.

5. Harmonium

The harmonium is the most well-known and extensively used free-reed aerophone in India and was imported from the West.

No foreign instrument has provoked as much controversy as the harmonium, and none is more widely employed, whether in classical, light, film, or folk music.

It is most likely the most widely utilized instrument in northern India.

Western commerce, religious missionaries, and musicians brought the harmonium to India in the late nineteenth century. It was most likely introduced to Indian music in Calcutta, and from there, it spread throughout the country.

Today, the harmonium is used in all types of music in India, including folk, light, semiclassical, and even highly regarded classical music.

The harmonium is a keyboard instrument that permanently fixes twelve semitones of the tempered scale in all three octaves: mandra, madhya, and tara.

Only straight notes can be played on keyboard instruments; grace notes and quarter-tones are impossible. The harmonium of today may provide a wide spectrum of tonal perfection uncommon in other instruments.

A good harmonium has two, three, or even four sets of reeds.

6. Tanpura 

The tanpura is an Indian drone instrument used in Hindustani and Carnatic music.

Tanpura is the name used by Hindustani musicians, while Carnatic musicians use tambura; tanpuri is a smaller variety that is sometimes used to accompany instrumental soloists. 

A tanpura is vital in a classical music event because it provides the base note (adharaswara) and creates an attractive environment on stage. The tanpura is not played in time with the soloist or percussionist.

Precise timing of plucking a cycle of four strings in a continuous loop is a deciding factor in the resultant sound. That’s why it is played unchangingly throughout the performance. 

Tanpuras are the foundation of the group and the music itself. They generate an acoustic dynamic reference chord from which the ragas (melodic modes) acquire their character, color, and flavor.

There are two types of tanpuras: Miraj style and Tanjore style. 

Miraj-type tanpura is the preferred style of Hindustani performers. It is typically three to five feet long, with a carved, rounded resonator plate and a long, hollow straight neck in the shape of a rounded capital D.

Tanjore style is a south Indian tambura style popular among Carnatic performers. It has a somewhat different shape and design style than the miraj, but is roughly the same size.

No gourd is usually utilized, but the spherical section is gouged out of a solid block of wood. The neck has a slightly smaller diameter.

7. Vina

The vina also spelled veena, is a group of Indian subcontinent chordophone instruments. Ancient musical instruments evolved into various varieties, including lutes, zithers, and arched harps. 

A stick zither is a North Indian design used in Hindustani classical music. It has a hollow body and two big resonating gourds under each end and is around 3.5 to 4 feet long to meet the musician’s specifications.

It features four main melodic strings and three auxiliary drone strings.

The player plucks the melody strings downward with the first and second fingers of the playing hand while the drone strings are strummed with the little finger.

When desired, the musician stops the resonating strings with the fingers of the free hand.

In recent years, the veena has been mostly displaced by the sitar in North Indian performances. 

8. Shehnai

The shehnai is a musical instrument that originated in the Indian subcontinent. It’s composed of wood and has a double reed on one end, and a metal or wooden flared bell on the other.

The reed is held in place at the thin blowing end. Shehnai’s reeds are composed of pala grass. Spare reeds and an ivory needle for adjusting the reeds are affixed to the mouthpiece.

Its music is considered to produce and preserve a sense of auspiciousness and sanctity, and it is thus commonly employed during weddings, processions, and temples.

However, it is also played in concerts. It was one of nine instruments in the royal court’s Naubat or traditional ensemble. The shehnai is related to the nadaswaram of South India.

It is said that the shehnai was created by improving on the pungi (a woodwind folk instrument used primarily for snake charming). 

The lower end of this tubular instrument gradually broadens. It typically has six to nine holes. It has one set of four reeds and is hence a quadruple reed woodwind.

To learn the instrument, the performer must use various embouchure and fingering techniques. The shehnai has a two-octave range in scientific pitch notation from A3 to A5. 

The Shehnai is a delicate instrument. The semitone and quarter tones are rendered very effectively and aesthetically by how the mouth interacts with the reed mouthpiece and how the holes are opened and closed using fingers.

9. Sarangi

The sarangi is a bowed, short-necked string instrument used in traditional Indian music, such as Punjabi folk music, Rajasthani folk music, and Boro folk music, as well as in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

It is claimed to sound the most like the human voice because of its ability to reproduce vocal ornaments such as gamaks (shakes) and meends (sliding movements).

The sarangi (Nepali) is a unique and traditional Nepalese instrument. 

The sarangi is carved from a single block of tun (red cedar) wood and has three hollow chambers: pet (‘stomach’), chaati (‘chest’), and magaj (‘brain’).

It is typically 2 feet (0.61 m) long and 6 inches (150 mm) wide, though this can vary as there are smaller and larger variations of sarangis. 

The lower resonance chamber or pet is covered with goat skin parchment, and a strip of thick leather is wrapped around the waist (and affixed to the rear of the chamber) to support the elephant-shaped bridge, which is commonly constructed of camel or buffalo bone. 

Sarangi players’ repertoire has traditionally been very closely tied to vocal music.

Nonetheless, a concert featuring a solo sarangi will occasionally feature a full-scale Raag presentation with a long alap (the unmeasured improvisatory evolution of the raga) in rising intensity (alap to jor to jhala) and multiple compositions in increasing tempo known as ‘bandish.’

It is comparable to other instrumental styles such as sitar, sarod, and bansuri. 

FAQs

What Are The 3 Most Significant Instruments In India?

The 3 most significant Indian instruments are the sitar, the tabla, and the harmonium.

Sitar is the most important instrument in the Indian string instruments, the tabla is the most famous Indian percussion instrument, and the harmonium is a unique free-reed keyboard instrument.

What Is The Indian Guitar Called?

Sitar is referred to as the ‘Indian guitar’, which is well-known for its unique sound. It has a long neck and a ground-shaped bottom working as a resonator.

The instrument features 7 cords, 20 metal frets, and 13 strings (although, sometimes it is more).

As one of the Indian string instruments, they are commonly called Indian guitar by people who do not know the instrument’s name.

What Do You Call The Temple Instrument Of India?

Although every instrument is holy in Indian culture, the prime temple instrument of India is the Shehnai.

It is often used in weddings, processions, and temples as it has a sound that evokes auspiciousness and sanctity in the audience.

All traditional Indian musical instruments have a place in religious ceremonies, but Shehnai is the most common one.

Wrapping Up

The musical instruments of India are a colorful, diverse, and rich world that reflects hundreds of years of tradition and culture.

Whether northern or southern traditions of India, every musical instrument has a unique part in the Indian traditions and events.

Their authentic and meaningful voices have been echoing for centuries and hopefully will be alive for more.