Khaas Baat : A Publication for Indian Americans in Florida
Music & Dance



Here are some of the fundamental concepts and terms that form the lexicon of Indian classical music.

Raaga – It is a totally unique melodic entity that acts as a tonal framework for compositions and improvisations. A raaga is a particularly specific combination of notes, which form a tuneful scale. This continuum of notes or swaraas and their usage provide distinct characteristics so as to distinguish the identity of each raaga. Typically, a raaga includes many compositions composed in many different genres that are traditional and unconventional. Just one raaga can generate an infinite variety of melodic phrasing and sequencing. For example, we can hear a khyaal, a thumri, a bhajan, a taraana and a film song, all in the same raaga. There are thousands of beautiful raagas that are commonly heard in recordings and live performances today.

Taala – All music is set to rhythm, using time measurement. Taala is thus a rhythmic cycle. Each taala has its own fixed number of beats or ‘maatras.’ The rhythmic percussion accompaniment for a classical musician (vocalist or instrumentalist) is provided on instruments such as the tabla and pakhawaj (Indian drums). Few of the most commonly used taalas are Teentaal – 16 beats, Ektaal – 12 beats, Jhaptaal – 10 beats, Daadra – 6 beats, Roopak – 7 beats, Chautaal – 12 beats, Dhamaar – 14 beats, Deepchandi – 14 beats, Addha Teentaal – 16 beats, Punjabi – 16 beats, Kherwa – 8 beats and Bhajan Taal – 8 beats.

Bol – This word literally means ‘word’ or ‘to speak.’ Bol in classical music refers to the lyrics of a song or composition. It also refers to the words used to teach taalas or tabla strokes. For example, the bol of teentaal (rhythmic cycle of 16 beats) is “Dha Dhin Dhin Dha, Dha Dhin Dhin Dha, Taa Tin Tin Taa, Trika Dhin Dhin Dha.”

Laya – It is the tempo or the speed of a taala or a composition. Vilambit Laya refers to slow pace. Madhya Laya means medium speed and Dhruta Laya refers to fast pace.

Aaroha and Avaroha – This refers to the scale of a raaga. Aaroha is the ascending scale and avaroha is the descending scale. For example, the aaroha of the raaga Bilaawal is ‘Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa.’ The avaroha is ‘Sa Ni Dha Pa Ma Ga Re Sa.’

Sapta Swara – These are the seven notes in music. Just like alphabets of any language music is read, comprehended and performed using swaras or notations. The seven notes are universal to all music although nomenclature varies. The seven notes are Sa (Shadj), Re (Rishab), Ga (Gandhar), Ma (Madhyam), Pa (Pancham), Dha (Dhaivat) and Ni (Nishaad). These notes and their variations (sharp and flat) are used in different permutations to form distinct melodies or raagas.

Dhun – It is a type of composition typically played by instrumentalists set to light or folk raagas or popular tunes. Dhuns are usually played in raagas Pahaadi, Pilu, Maand, Gaara, etc.

Bandish and Cheez – This is a composition that is pre-notated and fixed. It has two parts, namely the chorus and the stanza. The chorus is referred to as the Sthayi or Ashtayi. The verse is the Antara.

Alaap – In a performance, the alaap is the introductory part, sung or played without rhythmic accompaniment by way of familiarizing the audience with the raaga about to be explored by the artist. Alaap also sets the mood. The alaap can be swara alaap using notes or swaraas or akar – vocal improvisations using the ‘Aa’ sound or bol alaap using words of the composition.

Alankaar – It is a combination of notes belonging to a melody strung together and used as voice exercises or an experiment in vocal agility.

Vaadi and Samvaadi – It is the most important note (swara) and the second most vital note of any raaga. Emphasis on these two notes and their interaction give a definite personality to the raaga. For example, in raaga Bhageshri ‘Ma’ is the vaadi swara and ‘Sa’ is the samvaadi swara.

Sur – It is the tunefulness or fidelity to the pitch.

Saptak – It is the octave or register of scales. Compositions performed in a particular scale typically use parts of three octaves, namely the Mandra saptak (lower octave), the Madhya saptak (middle octave) and the Taara saptak (higher octave).

Lavanya Dinesh is an accomplished performer and teacher of Hindustani classical vocal music. She has worked as a music critic and feature writer for The Times of India and Deccan Herald. She can be reached at

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