Raag Hindustani
© 2011, Sādhana

Understanding a Raga Performance

What is actually happening during a raga performance? What are the different parts of the performance? How can you tell a good performance from a bad one? Where can you find great raga performances? This page addresses questions of this nature and offers classical music appreciation tips as well as resources for new and seasoned audiences.

The Structure of a Raga Performance

In more leisurely times (barely a few decades ago), raga performances were intimate events that would go on for hours on end. In many small towns, where performances are organized in informal settings and private homes, this is still true. Formal concert-hall performances, however, are much shorter these days, even full-length performances lasting only an hour or two.

Raga performances typically start out slow and gradually increase in tempo to reach a breathtakingly rapid climax. The structure of a performance varies from school to school and even from artist to artist. The audience, the occasion, time constraints and other factors also influence how a performance is structured and how much time is devoted to which part of the performance. However, there are some basic elements that are similar across most full-length raga performances.

The first part of a raga performance is usually free improvisation without a composition or tabla accompaniment. This section is called alap (meaning prelude) and can be further divided into vistar, jod and taan (see table below). The alap is followed by the second part, where structured improvisation takes place around compositions (bandish) with tabla accompaniment. Usually, this includes at least two compositions, a medium-tempo composition and a rapid one.

In some schools of Hindustani music, the alap is replaced by elaborate structured improvisation around a slow composition, which takes on the role that would otherwise be played by the vistar, jod, and taan.

Structure of a raga performance
Structure of a raga performance

Below is a complete raga performance by Rashid Khan (vocal) and Shahid Parvez (sitar) in the late-evening raga Bageshree. The performance begins with a vistar (slow elaboration of the raga) and slowly transitions to jod (lilting/rhythmic improvisation) and taan (dramatic conclusion of the alap). Then the tabla comes in and improvisation takes place around the medium-tempo composition "balma mori tore sangva" in teentaal (16-beat rhythm cycle). This is followed by improvisation around the fast composition "apne garaj se pakar leeni baiya mori" in ektaal (12-beat rhythm cycle). The performance ends with a tarana, which is a composition that uses meaningless syllables rather than real words for lyrics.

Rashid Khan (vocal) and Shahid Parvez (sitar), Raag Bageshree
Part 1: Alap (up to 16:45), Jod (16:45-20:20), and Taan (20:20-22:23)

Rashid Khan (vocal) and Shahid Parvez (sitar), Raag Bageshree
Part 2 (Compositions): balma mori tore sangva (up to 11:45)
& apne garaj se pakar leeni baiya mori (from 11:45)

Rashid Khan (vocal) and Shahid Parvez (sitar), Raag Bageshree
Part 3: Tarana

Indian Classical Music Resources

The Raga Guide

This is an excellent resource for beginners who are trying to get a feel for a variety of ragas. This 4-volume CD collection offers short samples (3 to 6 minute pieces) of 74 different ragas. The pieces are not complete raga performances, they simply give the listener a taste of each raga. Each piece begins with slow introduction for the first minute or two, and moves on to something more lively during the second half.

Raag Hindustani

One of my main purposes in creating this website was to showcase Hindustani (North Indian) classical music at its best. You will find many beautiful performances embedded on almost every page to illustrate various concepts related to Hindustani music, but there are additionally four pages dedicated especially to showcasing a variety of important ragas.

Darbar Festival

This is the YouTube channel of the Darbar Festival, an annual Indian classical music festival organized by the Darbar Arts Culture Heritage Trust. The performances are filmed very artistically and significant portions of the filmed performances are featured on the YouTube channel.

First Edition Arts Channel

This is the YouTube channel of First Edition Arts, a Mumbai-based company that organizes and films live Indian classical music performances and shares them freely through YouTube. The quality of the performances is consistently high and they are organized and filmed very professionally.

List of Indian classical music festivals

For those interested in attending live Indian classical music festivals, the above Wikipedia page offers some information about both Hindustani and Carnatic classical music festivals held in India and abroad.

Music India Online

An excellent portal of Indian music in all genres. Its collection of Hindustani vocal and instrumental music is also phenomenal for both the wide selection on offer and the quality of the audios. Once again, all the music here is free. (Sorry, I am unable to provide a link to this site for technical reasons, but it is easily searchable on Google.)


Still lost because you cannot visualize exactly what is going on in a Hindustani music performance? Visit the site above for videos of performances in close to a hundred ragas showing real-time graphical representations of the pitches being sung, including microtones, inflections, and pitch modulations during ornamentation. The technology, at this point, only works well for slow to medium-paced sections of the music, but it is groundbreaking, nevertheless, and very useful in helping those new to Hindustani music gain an immediate understanding of its melodic contours.

Learning to Appreciate Classical Music

Not all music in any genre is good music. So how do you tell good music from bad? You could ask someone who is familiar with that genre, but with something like music, people have different tastes.

Often, people value music for the associations it conjures up for them – for instance, they may like a certain kind of music because it reminds them of their childhood. A lot of people allow their judgement of the music to be clouded by the reputation of the artist. Also, in many cases, people who are too familiar with a certain genre of music cannot tell really good music from music that may be technically impressive but aesthetically inferior. Good music is music that can touch you, whether familiar or strange, whether by a reputed artist or a virtually unknown one. So, trust your instincts.

But before that, you have to first acclimatize yourself to that genre. Your brain forms certain standards for judging the quality of music based on the kind of music you are familiar with. In other words, when you listen to music, you are listening for certain things that feature in the music that you know best. This initially prevents you from being able to fully appreciate other genres.

For instance, if you grew up listening to Western music, you probably tend to listen for harmony and are immediately disappointed when you don't find it in Indian music. On the other hand, if you are used to Indian music, you may find Western music disappointing because its melodies are not as complex or versatile, and there never seems to be much improvisation going on. Meanwhile, the harmony just passes you by because you are not listening for it.

It always takes some effort to be able to suppress what you know about one genre of music enough to open yourself up to the appreciation of another. The key is initially to listen patiently several times even if you don't get it. Slowly, you begin to make sense of the patterns and structure, and that's when the beauty of a new genre of music is revealed to you.

Where to Begin?

If you're new to Indian classical music, you may want to start off listening to instrumental performances. Instrumental performances are much easier to like because instruments are less idiosyncratic than people. For a new listener, the personal mannerisms that vocal artists sometimes have may be distracting. But once you've gained a basic understanding of the music, enough to tell good music from bad, you may find that vocal performances have great emotional and expressive appeal.

In the case of vocal music, younger artists may be easier to listen to at first because...well, because they have more pleasing voices. When the music is still unfamiliar, it is natural for more superficial things like voice quality to have a greater effect on the listening experience. But as you become more familiar with the nature of the music itself, you will find that younger artists may have nice voices, but they lack the character, the confidence and the sheer creative versatility of more mature artists. Some of our best singers are in their fifties and sixties.