17 Traditional Indian Musical Instruments You Should Know

Last updated

Many traditional Indian musical instruments are hundreds or even thousands of years old, as ancient statues and paintings throughout India attest.

Most people in the west are probably familiar with two traditional Indian instruments – the sitar and the tabla – but there are a lot of other wonderful instruments that you might not be so familiar with. Some are dying out, while others have increased in popularity in modern times. Most take a good deal of skill to play.

Some of these instruments have crossed over into Western music at times, but they are still predominantly a feature of Indian music and traditions. In this post, we are going to explore seventeen traditional Indian musical instruments in a bit more detail.

1. Sitar

The Sitar is probably the most famous traditional Indian stringed instrument in the West.

This is thanks to famous sitar players like Ravi Shankar and Anoushka Shankar as well as bands like The Doors, the Rolling Stones, and The Beatles, who all used it in some of their music in the 1950s and 1960s.

The body of the instrument is calabash shaped, and indeed calabash gourds are used in its construction. 

It can have between eighteen and twenty-one strings, six or seven of which run over the curved frets on the neck.

The remainder of the strings run beneath the frets and resonate sympathetically with the fretted strings.

There are tuning pegs on the head for the fretted strings and along the sides of the neck for the sympathetic strings.

The strings are plucked with a metal plectrum called a mizraab.

2. Tabla

The Tabla is the most popular musical instrument in North India and consists of a pair of wooden hand drums with goatskin heads stretched taut.

It can be played alone or together with other instruments, and the one drum, the Bayan, is slightly bigger than the other producing a deeper bass sound.

The smaller one, called the Dahina, is used to create treble notes

The heads are tightened using thongs, hoops, and wooden dowels along the sides of the drums.

Both are characterized by a black spot in the center of the drum head made of starch combined with iron or manganese dust called tuning paste or Shyahi, which results in the harmonic overtones responsible for the tabla’s unique sound.

3. Tanpura (Tambura)

The Tanpura, or Tambura, is a four-stringed instrument with a long neck that is plucked to create a classic droning sound in Hindustani and Carnatic music systems.

It is not used to play distinct melodies but instead to create a sustained sonic background against which the melody is sung by a vocalist or played by another instrument.

The body, called the tumba, is hollow and gourd-shaped like the sitar, and the neck is made from tun wood (Spanish Cedar) or teak.

The tanpura can be male or female depending on the pitch of the male or female vocalist’s voice.

The male tanpura is bigger than the female in body size, width, and neck length.

The name “tanpura” is more recent and is used by Hindustani musicians, however, it is still called the tambura in Carnatic music, a system of music associated with South India.

4. Mridangam

The Mridangam is a double-sided drum that provides the rhythm in Carnatic music and is also played in drum ensembles.

The drumheads are made of goatskin and are tightened with leather thongs on the sides of the instrument.

The one end of the mridangam is narrower than the other, allowing the musician to play both bass and treble sounds.

It is usually played while resting above the right ankle and supported with the bent left leg, but posture is critical.

If the hips are not level with each other and the posture is asymmetrical, playing the mridangam can lead to alterations in balance and gait over long periods.

There are different schools of mridangam players who use different playing styles.

Virtuosos of the instrument are C. S Murugabhupathy, Palani Subramaniam Pillai, and Palghat Mani Iyer.

5. Sarangi

The Sarangi is an unusual stringed instrument resembling a violin with a very short neck and is played with a bow.

It is popular in Punjabi, Boro, and Rajasthani folk music, and its sound is said to resemble the human voice.

It is around two feet long and has three resonance chambers made of a single piece of red cedar wood with three or four main gut strings and between eleven and thirty-seven sympathetic metal strings.

The player uses the fingernails of the left hand to create specific pitches.

The musician holds it vertically in front of him while seated on the floor.

There are no frets, and it is challenging to play, which has led to a decline in its popularity.

6. Bansuri

The Bansuri is a type of flute made of bamboo and is a transverse alto flute used in Hindustani classical music.

There are six or seven finger holes, and it is between twelve and thirty inches long with the longer the instrument, the deeper the notes.

It is mentioned as an important musical instrument in the Natya Shastra, a Sanskrit text on Indian classical music dating between 200 BCE and 200 CE.

The Bansuri is held slanting slightly downwards and horizontally while the fingers of the right-hand cover the outer holes and the left-hand fingers cover the others.

7. Shehnai

The Shehnai is a type of double-reed instrument similar to the oboe that is commonly played in Iran, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

It is usually made of wood with a metal flare or bell at the end and is used in processions, marriages, temples, and concerts.

The shehnai was traditionally played in an ensemble of nine instruments in the royal court and resembles the instrument used by snake charmers, called the pungi.

Its name means flute of kings or king of flutes, and it has eight or nine finger holes.

Notable players of the instrument include Bismillah Khan, Lokesh Anand, Anant Lal and Mahukar Dhumal.

Playing it requires enormous breath control, which makes it difficult to play well.

It is usually played together with various percussion instruments and is strongly associated with weddings.

8. Sarod

The Sarod is used in Hindustani music and is a popular, fretless, stringed instrument with a weighty, deep, thoughtful sound that is a prominent feature in Indian music.

The strings are pressed hard against the fingerboard by the left hand using either the fingernails or a combination of fingertip and nail.

There are several different fingering techniques depending on the preferences of the player.

A plectrum made of ebony, cocobolo wood, cow bone, horn, or polished coconut shell is used to pluck the strings.

The instrument resembles a lute and can have between seventeen and twenty-five strings.

9. Dholak

The Dholak is a folk percussion instrument in the form of a hand drum playable on both ends.

It is similar to the mridangam in that the two heads are of different sizes, the smaller one covered with goatskin for treble notes and the larger one covered with buffalo skin for bass notes.

The body is usually made of mango wood, and it is played using a combination of hands and sticks or with only hands or sticks.

It can be played while held on the musician’s lap, pressed down with one knee while sitting on the floor, or standing.

It is used in folk music in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and northern India.

The Dholak is also used for dances, marriages, processions, boat races and plays a crucial role in Punjabi culture.

10. Ghatam

The Ghatam is an ancient percussion instrument consisting of a narrow-mouthed clay pot with no skin over it.

Its pitch depends on its size, and it produces a distinctive metallic sound.

The clay it is made of contains brass or iron filings, and it comes in several different sizes.

Other metals that can be mixed in with the clay are silver, gold, copper, or aluminum, giving it a sweet tone.

It has been played in international concerts, percussion ensembles, and fusion concerts, and famous player Vikku Vinayakram has made it a prominent instrument.

11. Nadaswaram

The Nadaswaram is a south Indian double-reed instrument that makes a powerful sound.

It is the larger brother of the shehnai and is usually played outdoors because it is so loud!

Traditionally played during temple feasts, it has been popularized in the West by the jazz saxophonist Charlie Mariano.

It has seven fingerholes at the top and five holes at the bottom, and a range of two and a half octaves.

It is usually played in pairs accompanied by two drums known as thavil and is a key instrument in Hindu wedding music.

The nadaswaram is eighty-seven centimeters long with a hardwood body and a metal or wooden flaring bell.

Vinny Golia and William Parker have used it in their recordings, while notable Indian artists include Namagiripettai Krishnan and Sheik Chinna Moulana.

12. Shankha

The Shankha is a sea snail (conch) shell with a hole made for the player’s embouchure and is played in Hindu religious rituals.

It is often carved on the outside with religious symbols and Hindu deities.

Legend has it that it was the trumpet of Lord Krsna, Arjuna, and Bhima, famous for his Herculean tasks.

It is regarded as an emblem of the Hindu god Vishnu and makes a sharp, loud shrill sound when blown.

The shankha was used as a trumpet of war to summon allies, but these days it is mainly blown in homes and temples when presenting offerings of light to Hindu deities.

It is also important in Buddhist rituals and religious practices and is regarded as one of the five classical musical instruments called the pancha-vadyas.

13. Pakhawaj

The Pakhawaj is a significant instrument in north Indian classical music and was used as the only accompaniment in dhrupad style singing.

It is a drum played with the open hand rather than the fingers and is used in delicate, emotive music such as thumri, khayal, and sitar.

The drum is described as barley shaped and is hollowed out of a single block of wood which may be red sandalwood, sheesham, or khair.

It has two different-sized drum heads held by braids and tightened with sixteen leather straps called ghat.

The pakhawaj is two to two and a half feet long, with goatskin stretched over the smaller end and buffalo skin over the larger one.

It is played while sitting cross-legged with the instrument horizontal on the ground or in the lap.

14. Ravanahatha

It is widely believed that the Ravanahatha, an ancient stringed instrument played with a bow, was a precursor of the violin.

The instrument is linked to the Hela civilization dating back to 2500 BCE and is made of a hollowed-out length of bamboo with half a coconut shell on one end.

Goatskin is stretched over the coconut shell, and its strings can be made of hair, gut, or steel.

The ravanahatha has seen something of a revival in modern times thanks to the Sri-Lankan violinist and composer Dinesh Subasinghe.

It has also been used by the European folk band Heiling.

It is named after the Hindu king Ravana who is said to have used it during his devotions to the god Shiva.

15. Alghoza

The Alghoza is a woodwind instrument traditionally used by Punjabi, Saraiki, Baloch, and Sindhi folk musicians and consists of a pair of flutes.

One flute is used for melody, while the other is used for droning.

They can be held together by the hands or tied together, and the longer one is considered to be the male while the shorter is the female.

It is ancient, with its roots going back to 7500 BC Mesopotamia, and is generally regarded as a dying instrument because only members of the older generation still play it.

This is because playing it is not easy as one has to breathe through the nose while expelling air through the mouth to make the sounds.

Only the best players can play it for half an hour continuously.

16. Udukkai

The Udukkai is a small hourglass-shaped, two-headed drum commonly played in the south of India.

It is also known as the Udukku and was traditionally made of fired clay, but these days it is usually made from a single hollowed-out block of Jackfruit wood.

The ends are covered with cured and dried goatskin, but only one side is played.

The other side has two metal wire snares to improve the resonance.

It is commonly played in folk music and temple rituals.

The player holds it horizontally using the fingers and the inner palm of the right hand to strike it while the left-hand grips the cloth strap that is wound around the drum’s body.

Strings are woven on the side of the drum from one end to the other and are used to tighten the drum head by pulling on the cloth strap.

17. Jal tarang

And finally, the Jal Tarang is considered one of the oldest musical instruments in the world and consists of a series of china bowls descending in size arranged in a semicircle around the player.

They are struck on the edges using sticks to make a wave of sound, and the preferred number of cups is sixteen but can be as many as twenty-two.

In the past, the bowls were made of porcelain or bronze.

They are tuned by filling them with various amounts of water.

It takes considerable skill and technique to get the notes just right, and the player can subtly adjust the vibrations by rotating the water with a soft, quick touch of the stick.

Not many people play the jal tarang in modern times, and it is considered a dying art.

Conclusions

There is a great variety of Indian musical instruments used in religious rituals, dances, celebrations, festivals, folk music, and Indian classical music.

Some have not changed much since ancient times, while others have undergone modifications over the years.

There are often no standard tunings or playing styles, making them very much an expression of the player’s individuality.

Photo of author
Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.