All you wanted to know about the basics of Carnatic vocal music

Group Singing by sapa students

If you have been fortunate enough to attend a Carnatic music concert, you would have experienced some of the sweetest sounds on earth! Interest in Carnatic vocal music has (rightly) spread not just in India but around the world. Carnatic performers are no less than rockstars in their own right with a devoted and discerning fan base. If you have always wanted to know more about Carnatic music and vocals in particular, you’ve come to the right place! We’ll tell you what you want to know about Carnatic music and what lessons you will learn if you join Carnatic vocal music classes as a beginner.

Origins of Carnatic music

Many people get confused with Carnatic music thinking of it as ‘Karnatak’ music – music specific to the southern state of Karnataka. This is only partially true.

India used to have a common system of classical music till about the 13th century. Around this time, North India came under a lot of Arab and Persian influences and that is how Hindustani music developed. On the other hand, South India developed the existing music with many indigenous elements playing an influential role and this is how Carnatic music developed. So, it is in the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana that this form of music developed. You can learn more about Carnatic and Hindustani music and which form to learn.

Since the origins of Carnatic music go so far back, it is natural to expect that the depth, technicalities, and nuances of this art form are mind-boggling. These are things you will discover as you delve deeper into this beautiful art form. As a beginner, before you can start singing those melodious songs (keerthanams), you will start with the basics – the fact that seasoned performers use these basics as warm-up exercises before performances will help you gauge the significance of the fundamentals of Carnatic music.

You can choose to learn Carnatic music as vocals or/and instrumentals. The instruments that are played in Carnatic music include violin, mridangam, flute, ghatam, veena, tambura, and khanjira. Most Carnatic singers and musicians will tell you that both complement each other. Vocal classes definitely give you the basis for a solid understanding of this form of music.

Carnatic music uses a lot of technical terms. We have decoded a few of the basic ones for you here so you will feel fluent in them as you learn Carnatic vocal music.

Terms to know in Carnatic music 

  • Swara (or swaram) –  These are the basic notes on which music is built. 

There are seven or sapta swaras in Indian Carnatic music:

  • Sa – Shadja 
  • Ri – Rishabha
  • Ga – Gāndhāra
  • Ma – Madhyama
  • Pa – Panchama
  • Da – Dhaivata
  • Ni – Niṣāda
  • Raga (or Ragam)- This is a unique melodic framework in Carnatic music within which singers get a chance to experiment and improvise different tunes. Various permutations and combinations of swaras are the basis of different ragas (tunes), the essence of Carnatic music. Carnatic music has 72 sampoorna or melakarta ragas – the parent raga with all the seven swaras, from which many other ragas called janya ragas are formed. Examples of melakarta ragas – Shankarabharanam and Kalyani

Examples of janya ragas – Bilahari and Hamsadhwani are derived from Shankarabharanam

  • Arohana and Avarohana (or Arohanam and Avarohanam) – The ascending notes of ragas are called arohana/arohanam and the descending notes are called avarohana/avarohanam. For instance, for Shankarabharanam,

Arohana (Ascending Notes): S  RGM1 P D2 N3

Avarohana (Descending Notes): Ṡ  N3 DP M1 GR2 S

  • Tala (or talam or taal) – This is the meter that measures time in Carnatic classical music. It is usually done with the clapping of hands, touching of fingers, or fingers on the thigh. It is generally continued throughout the length of the song. The most commonly used tala is Adi Tala.
  • Gamaka (or gamakam) – These are ornamentations or embellishments of notes. They are peculiar to Indian classical music and help singers differentiate themselves as they add these oscillations to the notes based on their notions and ideas of the raga. They are a true test of a singer’s voice control, understanding of Carnatic music, and creativity.
  • Sthayi – This refers to the octave in which you are singing.
    • Madhya-sthayi:  The regular octave in which you are singing
    • Mandra-sthayi: The octave immediately lower than the regular octave
    • Tara-sthayi: The octave immediately higher than the regular octave

Now that you are more familiar with these Carnatic music terms, let’s see what you will learn here in Carnatic music.

Basic lessons of Carnatic vocal music classes

  1. Sarali Varisai

These are the first lessons of Carnatic music. You sing one note per beat in this exercise. They help singers identify the notes, swarasthana (position of the notes), and their relation to each other. They give singers an idea of melody and rhythm. They were devised by Kannada composer Purandaradasa.

Raga: Shankarabharanam

Arohana (Ascending Notes): S  RGM1 P D2 N3

Avarohana (Descending Notes): Ṡ  N3 D2 P M1 GR2 S


S  R  G  M  | P  D  | N  Ṡ | |

Ṡ  N  D  P   | M G  | R  S | |


S  R  S   R  | S  R  |  G  M | |

S  R  G  M | P  D |   N  Ṡ  | |

Ṡ  N  Ṡ   N  | Ṡ  N |  D  P  | |

Ṡ  N  D  P   | M G |  R  S  | |


S  R  G  S  | R  G  |  S   R  | |

S  R  G M  | P  D  |  N  Ṡ  | |

Ṡ  N  D Ṡ   | N  D |  Ṡ  N  | |

Ṡ  N  D P   | M  G | R  S   | |

Note: Ṡ is one octave higher than S

2.  Janti Varisai

These are the second lessons of Carnatic music. You sing the same note twice and there are two notes per beat.










3. Nottuswaram 

This is a ‘note + swaram’ – simple compositions by eminent composer Muthuswami Dikshitar with lyrics but without gamaka so it is simple for a Carnatic vocal beginner to sing. The melodies may be based on popular Western tunes though the songs are normally dedicated to different deities.

4. Aakaram

Here, you sing ‘aah’ in place of the notes. This improves the flexibility and strength of your voice and makes you more aware of the interval of breaths you take. Again, it is a warm-up exercise that Carnatic singers practise before they start singing.

Learn some more warm-up exercises to improve your Carnatic singing.

5. Gītams 

These are simple compositions set in a particular rāga. Purandaradasa created gītams – short songs and this is where the sahityam (lyrics) starts. So, beginner-level Carnatic vocalists learn to sing songs with lyrics or sahityam with tala to get an idea of singing a Carnatic composition. Here, you will be introduced to some simple ragas like Malahari and Mohanam as well as stirring melodies such as Kalyani and Kamboji. 

6. Sthayi Varisai

Here, you will sing songs in different octaves – Madhya, Mandra, and Tara-sthayi exercises to help improve the melodic range of students. Every student has a specific range they are comfortable with but with practice, some level of expansion of range is possible. Notes in Mandra-sthayi have a dot below them (Ṇ) while notes in Tara-sthayi have a dot above them (Ṡ) to differentiate them from Madhya-sthayi notes (S) where there is no dot. 

7. Swarajati

These are compositions that have a pallavi, anupallavi, and one or more charanams in that order. Pallavi is usually repeated at least once while singing. Anupallavi is the section after the pallavi. Shyama Shastry perfected the swarajatis.

8. Alankara/alankaram 

This literally means ornamentation. It is a variety of swaras sung with different talas. Alankarams are based on a system of seven talas popularised by Purandaradasa. There are 35 alankarams in Carnatic music – five for each of the seven talas.

Advanced lessons in Carnatic vocal music

In more advanced classes of Carnatic music, you will learn varnams, keerthanams, and kritis, more complex compositions where apart from skill level, range, and pitch, your devotion, understanding of the sahityam (lyrics), and other technical aspects will play a larger role in your singing performance. 

I already know how to sing. Can I start kritis directly? 

If you are already a singer, and know your basics in some form of vocal music, you might definitely find it easier to pick up Carnatic vocal music. However, it is always a good idea to go through the fundamentals when you start. You will, in any case, move ahead much faster. Your educator may suggest some exercises as home exercises so that you do practise the exercise though perhaps not in class. 

There is a basic structure and gradual progression in the classes but SaPa recognises your individuality and allows you to follow the pace that you are most comfortable with. You have an active and collaborative voice in your classes. That is the beauty of SaPa’s classes. You can learn as fast as you would like. So, if you’d like to explore our LIVE classes, and benefit from our experienced and well-versed educators, welcome to the SaPa family!

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  • Syphard

    Nice i really enjoyed reading your blogs. Keep on posting. Thanks

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