The main emphasis in Carnatic music is on vocal music; most compositions are written to be sung, and even when played on instruments, they are meant to be performed in a singing style (known as gāyaki). Like Hindustani music, Carnatic music rests on two main elements: , the modes or melodic formulæ, and , the rhythmic cycles.
Like all art forms in Indian culture, Carnatic music is believed to have a divine origin - it is believed to have input from the Devas and Devis. However, it is also generally accepted that the natural origins of music were an important factor in the development of Carnatic music. Ancient treatises describe the connection of the origin of the swaras, or notes, to the sounds of animals and birds, and man's keen sense of observation and perception that tried simulating these sounds - after hearing and distinguishing between the different sounds that emanated from bamboo reed when air passes through its hollows, man designed the first flute. In this way, music is venerated as an aspect of the supreme (). Folk music is also said to have been a natural origin of Carnatic music, with many folk tunes corresponding to certain Carnatic ragas (discussed later).
The Vedas are generally accepted as the main probable source of Indian music. The Sama Veda is said to have laid the foundation for Indian music, and consists mainly of hymns of Rigveda, set to musical tunes which would be sung using three to seven musical notes during Vedic sacrifices. The Yajur-Veda, which mainly consists of sacrificial formulae, mentions the veena as an accompaniment to vocal recitations during the sacrifices.
References to Indian classical music are made in many ancient religious texts, including epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Yajnavalkya Smriti mentions "vīṇāvādanatattvajñaḥ śrutijātiviśāradaḥ tālajñaścāprayāsena mokṣamārgaṃ niyacchati" ("The one who is well versed in veena, one who has the knowledge of srutis and one who is adept in tala, attains salvation without doubt.") Carnatic music is based as it is today on musical concepts (including swara, raga, and tala) that were described in detail in several ancient works, particularly the Silappadhikaram, and Bharata's Natya Shastra.
Since the late 12th and early 13th centuries, as a result of the increasing Persian influence (and as a result of the Islamic conquest) in North India, Hindustani Music started evolving as a separate genre, while Carnatic music of South India was relatively unaffected by these Arabic and Iranian influences. By the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a clear demarcation between Carnatic music and Hindustani music. It was at this time that Carnatic music flourished in Thanjavur, while the Vijayanagar Empire reached its greatest extent. Purandara Dasa, who is known as the father (Pitamaha) of Carnatic music, laid the foundation for the systematic learning of Carnatic music.. Venkatamakhin, who is known for perfecting the melakarta system of classifying ragas, authored a formula for doing so in his Sanskrit work, the Chaturdandi Prakasika (1660 AD). Govindacharya is known for expanding the melakarta system into the sampoorna raga scheme - the system that is in common use today.
A unique development in the art of instrumental Carnatic music took shape under the patronage of the kings of the Kingdom of Mysore in the 18th through 20th centuries. The composers used to play their compositions on instruments such as the veena, rudra veena, violin, ghatam, flute, mridangam, nagaswara, swarabhat. Some instruments such as harmonium, sitar and jaltarang, though uncommon to the southern region came into use and the English influence popularised the saxophone and piano. Even royalty of this dynasty were noted composers and proficient in playing musical instruments, solo or in concert with others. Some famous instrumentalists were Veena Sheshanna(1852-1926), Veena Subbanna (1861-1939), T. Chowdiahand others.
Carnatic music had gone through a radical shift in patronage during the 19th century, where Madras emerged as the center for Carnatic music.
Carnatic music is practised and presented today by musicians in concerts or recordings, either vocally or through instruments. Carnatic music itself developed around musical works or compositions of phenomenal composers (see below).
Śruti commonly refers to musical pitch. It is the approximate equivalent of a tonic (or less precisely a key) in Western music; it is the note from which all the others are derived. It is also used in the sense of graded pitches in an octave. While there are an infinite number of sounds falling within a scale (or raga) in Carnatic music, the number that can be distinguished by auditory perception is twenty-two (although over the years, several of them have converged). In this sense, while shruti is determined by auditory perception, it is also an expression in the listener's mind.
Swara refers to a type of musical sound that is a single note, which defines a relative (higher or lower) position of a note, rather than a defined frequency. Swaras also refer to the solfege of Carnatic music, which consist of seven notes, "sa-ri-ga-ma-pa-da-ni" (compare with the Hindustani sargam: sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni or Western do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti). These names are abbreviations of the longer names shadja, rishabha, gandhara. madhyama, panchama, dhaivata and nishada. Unlike other music systems, every member of the solfege (called a swara) has three variants. The exceptions are the drone notes, shadja and panchama (also known as the tonic and the dominant), which have only one form; and madhyama (the subdominant), which has two forms. A 7th century stone inscription in Kudumiyan Malai in Tamil Nadu shows vowel changes to solfege symbols with ra, ri, ru etc. to denote the higher quarter-tones. In one scale, or ragam, there is usually only one variant of each note present. The exceptions exist in "light" ragas, in which, for artistic effect, there may be two, one ascending (in the arohanam) and another descending (in the avarohanam).
A raga in Carnatic music prescribes a set of rules for building a melody - very similar to the Western concept of mode. It specifies rules for movements up (aarohanam) and down (avarohanam), the scale of which notes should figure more and which notes should be used more sparingly, which notes may be sung with gamaka, which phrases should be used, phrases should be avoided, and so on. In effect, it is a series of obligatory musical events which must be observed, either absolutely or with a particular frequency.
In Carnatic music, the sampoorna ragas (those with all seven notes in their scales) are classified into a system called the melakarta, which groups them according to the kinds of notes that they have. There are seventy-two melakarta ragas, thirty six of whose madhyama (subdominant) is sadharana (perfect fourth from the tonic), the remaining thirty-six of whose madhyama (subdominant) is prati (an augmented fourth from the tonic). The ragas are grouped into sets of six, called chakras ("wheels", though actually segments in the conventional representation) grouped according to the supertonic and mediant scale degrees. There is a system known as the katapayadi sankhya to determine the names of melakarta ragas.
Ragas may be divided into two classes: janaka ragas (i.e melakarta or parent ragas) and janya ragas (descendant ragas of a particular janaka raga). Janya ragas are subclassified into various categories themselves.
Carnatic music singers usually keep the beat by moving their hands up and down in specified patterns, and using their fingers simultaneously to keep time. Tala is formed with three basic parts (called angas) which are laghu, dhrtam, and anudhrtam, though complex talas may have other parts like plutam, guru, and kaakapaadam. There are seven basic tala groups which can be formed from the laghu, dhrtam, and anudhrtam:
A laghu has five variants (called jaathis) based on the counting pattern. Five jaathis times seven tala groups gives thirty-five basic talas, although use of other angas results in a total of 108 talas.
The performer will explore the ragam and touch on its various nuances, singing in the lower octaves first, then gradually moving up to higher octaves, while giving a hint of the song to be performed.
Theoretically, this ought to be the easiest type of improvisation, since the rules are so few, but in fact, it takes much skill to sing a pleasing, comprehensive (in the sense of giving a "feel for the ragam") and, most importantly, original raga alapana.
A Carnatic composition really has two elements, one being the musical element, the other being what is conveyed in the composition. It is probably because of this fact that most Carnatic music compositions are composed for singing. In addition to the rich musical experience, each composition brings out the knowledge and personality of the composer, and hence the words are as important as the musical element itself. This poses a special challenge for the musicians because rendering this music does not involve just playing or singing the correct musical notes; the musicians are expected to understand what was conveyed by the composer in various languages, and sing musical phrases that act to create the effect that was intended by the composer in his/her composition.
There are many types/forms of compositions.
Compositions more commonly associated with Indian classical dance and Indian devotional music have also been increasingly used in the Carnatic music repertoire. The performance of the Sanskrit sloka, Tamil viruttam and Telegu padyamu or sisapadya forms are particularly unique. Though these forms consist of lyric-based verses, musicians improvize raga phrases in free rhythm, like an alapana, so both the sound value, and the meaning of the text, guide the musician through elaborate melodic improvisations. Forms such as the divya prabandham, thevaram and ugabhoga are often performed similarly, however, these forms can also have a set melody and rhythm like the devaranama, javali, padam, thillana and thiruppugazh forms.
This is a special item which highlights everything important about a raga, known as the sanchaaraas of a raga - this includes which notes to stress, how to approach a certain note, classical and characteristic phrases of a raga, the scale of the raga, and so on. Though there are a few different types of varnams, in essence, they all have a pallavi, an anupallavi, muktayi swaras, a charanam, and chittaswaras. They are sung in multiple speeds, and are very good for practice. In concerts, varnams are often sung at the beginning as they are fast and grab the audience's attention.
This kind of song is called a keerthanam or a kriti. There are other possible structures for a kriti, which may in addition include swara passages named chittaswara. Chittaswara consists only of notes, and has no words. Still others, have a verse at the end of the charana, called the madhyamakāla. It is sung immediately after the charana, but at double speed.
Purandara Dasa (1480 - 1564) is known as the father (Pitamaha) of Carnatic music due to his pioneering contributions to Carnatic music. Purandara Dasa is renowned for formulating the basic lessons of Carnatic music. He structured graded exercises known as Swaravalis and Alankaras, and at the same time, introduced the Raga Mayamalavagowla as the first scale to be learnt by beginners. He also composed Gitas (simple songs) for novice students. Although only a fraction of his other compositions still exist, he is said to have composed around 475,000 compositions in total.
The contemporaries Tyagaraja (1759? - 1847), Muthuswami Dikshitar, (1776 - 1827) and Syama Sastri, (1762 - 1827) are regarded as the Trinity of Carnatic music due to the quality of Syama Sastri's compositions, the varieties of compositions of Muthuswami Dikshitar and Tyagaraja's prolific output in composing kritis.
Prominent composers prior to the Trinity of Carnatic music include Arunachala Kavi, Annamacharya, Narayana Theertha, Vijaya Dasa, Bhadrachala Ramadas, Sadasiva Brahmendra and Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi. Other prominent composers are Swathi Thirunal, Gopalakrishna Bharathi, Neelakanta Sivan, Patnam Subramania Iyer, Mysore Vasudevachar, Koteeswara Iyer, Muthiah Bhagavathar, Subramania Bharathiyar and Papanasam Sivan. The compositions of these composers are rendered frequently by prominent artists of today.
Composers of Carnatic music were often inspired by religious devotion and were usually scholars proficient in one or more of the following languages Kannada, Malayalam, Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu. They usually included a signature, called a mudra, in their compositions. For example, all songs by Tyagaraja (who composed in Telugu) have the word Thyagaraja in them, all songs by Muthuswami Dikshitar (who composed in Sanskrit) have the words Guruguha in them, songs by Syama Sastri (who composed in Telugu) have the words Syama Krishna in them while Purandaradasa, who composed in Kannada, used the signature Purandara Vittala. Gopalakrishna Bharathi used the signature Gopalakrishnan and composed in Tamil. Papanasam Sivan, who has been hailed as the Tamil Thyagaraja of Carnatic music, also composed in this language, as well as Sanskrit, and used the signature Ramadasan.
The learning texts and exercises are more or less uniform across all the South Indian states. The learning structure is arranged in the increasing order of the complexity. The lessons start with the learning of the sarali varisai (solfege set to a particular raga).
Carnatic music was traditionally taught in the gurukula system, where the student lived with and learnt the art from his guru (perceptor). From the late 20th century onwards, with changes in lifestyles and need for young music aspirants to simultaneously manoeuvre a parallel academic career, this system has found few takers.
Musicians often take great pride in letting people know about their Guru Parampara, or the hierarchy of disciples from some prominent ancient musician or composer, to which they belong. People whose disciple-hierarchies are often referred to are Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar, Syama Sastri, Swathi Thirunal, Papanasam Sivan among others.
In modern times, it is often common for students to visit their gurus daily or weekly to learn music. Though new technology has made learning easier with the availability of quick-learn media such as learning exercises recorded on audio cassettes and CDs, these are discouraged by most gurus who emphasize that face-to-face learning is best for students.
Written notation of Carnatic music was revived in the late 17th century and early 18th century, which coincided with rule of Shahaji II in Tanjore. Copies of Shahaji's musical manuscripts are still available at the Saraswathi Mahal Library in Tanjore and they give us an idea of the music and its form. They contain snippets of solfege to be used when performing the mentioned ragas.
To show the length of a note, several devices are used. If the duration of note is to be doubled, the letter is either capitalized (if using Roman script) or lengthened by a diacritic (in Indian languages). For a duration of three, the letter is capitalized (or diacriticized) and followed by a comma. For a length of four, the letter is capitalized (or diacriticized) and then followed by a semicolon. In this way any duration can be indicated using a series of semicolons and commas.
However, a simpler notation has evolved which does not use semicolons and capitalization, but rather indicates all extensions of notes using a corresponding number of commas. Thus, Sā quadrupled in length would be denoted as "S,,,".
Carnatic music is usually performed by a small ensemble of musicians, who sit on an elevated stage. This usually consists of at least; a principal performer, a melodic accompaniment, a rhythm accompaniment, and a drone.
The tambura is the traditional drone instrument used in concerts, however, tamburas are increasingly being replaced by śruti boxes, and now more commonly, the "electronic tambura". The drone itself is an integral part of performances and furnishes stability - the equivalent of harmony in Western music.
Performances can be musical or musical-dramatic. Musical recitals are either vocal, or purely instrumental in nature, while musical-dramatic recitals refer to Harikatha. But irrespective of what type of recital it is, what is featured are compositions which form the core of this genre of music.
In a vocal recital, a concert team may have one or more vocalists, accompanied by instrumentalists as melodic and rhythmic accompaniments. Instruments, such as the veena and/or flute, can be occasionally found as a rhythmic accompaniment, but usually, a vocalist is supported by a violin player (who sits on his/her left). The rhythm accompanist is usually a mridangam player (who sits on the other side, facing the violin player). However, other percussion instruments such as the ghatam, kanjira and morsing frequently also accompany the main percussion instrument and play in an almost contrapuntal fashion along with the beats. The objective of the accompanying instruments is far more than following the melody and keeping the beats. The accompaniments form an integral part of every composition presented, and they closely follow and augment the melodic phrases outlines by the lead singer. The vocalist and the violinist take turns while elaborating or while exhibiting creativity in sections like raga, niraval and kalpanaswaram. Unlike Hindustani music concerts, where an accompanying tabla player can keep beats without following the musical phrases at times, in Carnatic music, the accompaniments have to know follow intricacies of the composition since there are percussion elements such as eduppu, in several compositions. Some of the best concerts feature a good bit of interaction with the lead musicians and the accompaniments exchanging notes, and accompanying musicians predicting the lead singer musical phrases.
Concerts usually begin with a varnam or an invocatory item which will act as the opening piece. The varnam is composed with an emphasis on swaras of the raga, but will also have lyrics, the saahityam. It is lively and fast to get the audience's attention. An invocatory item, may alternatively, follow the varnam.
After the varnam and/or invocatory item, the artist sings longer compositions called kirtanas (commonly referred to as kritis). Each kriti sticks to one specific raga, although some are composed with more than one raga; these are known as ragamalika (a garland of ragas).
After singing the opening kriti, usually, the performer sings the kalpanaswaram of the raga to the beat. The performer must improvise a string of swaras in any octave according to the rules of the raga and return to beginning of the cycle of beats smoothly, joining the swaras with a phrase selected from the kriti. The violin performs these alternately with the main performer. In very long strings of swara, the performers must calculate their notes accurately to ensure that they stick to the raga, have no awkward pauses and lapses in the beat of the song, and create a complex pattern of notes that an experienced audience can follow.
Performers then begin the main compositions with a section called raga alapana exploring the raga. In this, they use the sounds aa, ri, na, ta, etc. instead of swaras to slowly elaborate the notes and flow of the raga. This begins slowly and builds to a crescendo, and finally establishes a complicated exposition of the raga that shows the performer's skill. All of this is done without any rhythmic accompaniment, or beat. Then the melodic accompaniment (violin or veena), expounds the raga. Experienced listeners can identify many ragas after they hear just a few notes. With the raga thus established, the song begins, usually with lyrics. In this, the accompaniment (usually violin, sometimes veena) performs along with the main performer and the percussion (such as a mridangam). In the next stage of the song, they may sing niraval or kalpanaswaram again.
In most concerts, the main item will at least have a section at the end of the item, for the percussion to perform solo (called the tani avartanam). The percussion performers perform complex patterns of rhythm and display their skill. If multiple percussion instruments are employed, they engage in a rhythmic dialogue until the main performer picks up the melody once again. Some experienced artists may follow the main piece with a ragam thanam pallavi mid-concert, if they do not use it as the main item.
Following the main composition, the concert continues with shorter and lighter songs. Some of the types of songs performed towards the end of the concerts are tillanas and thukkadas - bits of popular kritis or compositions requested by the audience. Every concert that is the last of the day ends with a mangalam, a thankful prayer and conclusion to the musical event.
The most popular and prominent Carnatic musicians are considered the most versatile and effective performers. They have often been a disciple to at least one legendary artist, or have learnt under such a disciple.