Instruments of India

The musical heritage of the Indian subcontinent is traditionally categorized into two major classical traditions: Hindustani music from North India and Carnatic music from South India. However, various regions within India boast unique musical traditions independent of these classical forms.

Both Hindustani and Carnatic music rely on the framework of ragas—collections of pitches and small motifs for melody construction—and tala for rhythmic structure. Ragas provide a set of rules and patterns, serving as a foundation for musicians to craft their distinctive performances. Similarly, tala represents a system of rhythmic structures, comprising stressed and unstressed beats, within which musicians can weave their own rhythmic patterns, drawing inspiration from the compositional styles of others.

A notable distinction between North and South Indian music lies in the heightened influence of Persian music and instruments in the northern regions. Between the late twelfth century and the era of British occupation, North India, under the control of a Muslim minority, incorporated elements of Persian language, music, and instruments. This influence introduced instruments like the setar, which later inspired the sitar; the kamanche and santur, popular in Kashmir; and the rabab (alternatively known as rebab and rubab), preceding the sarod. The tabla and sitar emerged as globally renowned Indian musical instruments. Legend suggests that the tabla originated from splitting a pakhavaj drum, with the larger side becoming the bayan and the smaller side the dahini. The barrel-shaped pakhavaj drum, an ancestor to both the tabla and the mridangam, is depicted in numerous paintings and prints. This era also witnessed the creation of new music genres, such as khyal and qawwali, blending elements from both Hindu and Muslim musical practices.

Hindustani classical music predominantly features instrumentalists, whereas Carnatic classical music is celebrated for its virtuosic vocal practices. Instruments commonly associated with Hindustani classical music include the sitar, sarod, tambura, sahnai, sarangi, and tabla. In Carnatic classical music, prevalent instruments include the veena, mridangam, kanjira, and violin. Bamboo flutes like the murali are shared between both traditions and various other Indian music genres. Interestingly, instruments with slight differences in construction may share identical names in both North and South India, even if their applications differ.

Throughout history, the diverse peoples of India have developed multiple systems for classifying musical instruments, often based on morphological characteristics. The ancient Hindu system categorized instruments into four groups: stretched, covered, hollow, and solid. This classification system notably influenced the Western instrument classification introduced by Mahillon in 1880, renaming these groups—chordophones, membranophones, aerophones, and idiophones—based on the method of sound production rather than exclusive construction.

Instruments of India

Kanjira (Khanjari)

The kanjira, a frame drum originating from South India, features a circular wooden frame with a stretched skin, typically made from iguana hide. The frame often includes three or four slots on the side, holding bell-metal jingle-disks suspended from metal crossbars. Tuned to various pitches by wetting the skin, the kanjira is held at the bottom of the frame by the left hand, adjusting skin tension, and played with the fingers of the right hand.


The kamanche, one of the world’s earliest bowed instruments, has evolved as it traveled to different regions. Some argue that the kamanche serves as the predecessor to various stringed instruments such as the rabab, sarangi, and the Chinese erhu.


The mridangam, an elongated barrel-shaped drum predominantly found in South India, is derived from the pakhavaj. It serves as the primary rhythmic accompaniment in Carnatic music and religious Kirtan music. In the east (Bengal, Odisha), this barrel-shaped drum is known as the khol.


The murali, a transverse flute crafted from bamboo, is used across various musical genres and is often associated with the Hindu deity Krishna.


The pakhavaj, a barrel-shaped drum with two heads containing tuning paste (siyahi), has an unknown history. As the predecessor to both the Hindustani tabla drums and the Carnatic mridangam, it served as the primary accompaniment for much of Indian classical music. It appears in the musical iconography of Hindu religious paintings and the artworks of the royal Muslim courts of the Mughal empire.


The rabab, a stringed instrument with a skin-covered resonator, can be bowed or plucked, depending on performance tradition. Found in various forms throughout North Africa, the Near East, South Asia, and Central Asia, the rabab was adapted to become the sarod. While the rabab is still played by many musicians in India, it remains popular in several music genres.

Sahnai (Shenai)

The sahnai, a double reed instrument of North India and Nepal, shares similarities with the South Indian nagasvaram. Featuring seven equidistant fingerholes and no thumbhole, these instruments often have a metal flared open end and a body made of wood or bamboo.


A sarangi, a bowed stringed instrument with a skin-covered resonator, is handmade from a single block of tun wood. The typical sarangi is about 66 to 69 centimeters long, with three playing strings made of goat gut and numerous sympathetic strings made of brass and/or steel. Sarangi designs vary by region, with Nepalese sarangis generally smaller than their Indian counterparts, and not all sarangis have sympathetic strings.


The sarod, a relatively new instrument to South Asia, has been around for less than 200 years. A plucked stringed instrument with a skin-covered resonator and sympathetic strings, it is primarily used in Hindustani music and is accompanied by the tabla.


The word setar means “three strings.” As Indian musicians adopted the setar, more strings were added. Early sitars, evolving from the setar, had six strings, while contemporary ones include six playing strings and thirteen sympathetic strings.


The sitar, India’s most famous musical instrument overseas, gained popularity in the West through George Harrison of the Beatles, who studied with Ravi Shankar. Rooted in the Persian setar and the veena, the modern sitar features sympathetic strings that resonate when the primary strings are struck, creating a polyphonic timbre. The use of sympathetic strings in Indian music is a relatively recent development starting in the late nineteenth century.


The tabla, comprising two drums played by one performer, features compound skins with tuning paste (siyahi) for generating a variety of tones. The larger drum, bayan, is typically made of metal or pottery, and the smaller drum, dahini (also referred to as tabla), is usually made of heavy lathe-turned rosewood, providing higher-pitched sounds.


The tambura, a long, stringed instrument made of light hollow wood, has a wooden or gourd resonator. It is commonly used in accompaniment with other instruments, providing a drone pitch.


Alongside the pakhavaj, the veena is frequently depicted in Indian iconography. In North India, it was called the bin or the rudraveena, serving as the predecessor to the sitar. In the South, the veena—or saraswati veena—remains a popular stringed instrument in classical music. The gottuvadyam, or chitraveena, is another important instrument in Carnatic music, played with a slide similar to the Hawaiian slide guitar.