Historical milestones in Indian Classical Music

In order to understand how Indian tuning systems and musical scales developed and evolved into the Indian Classical music of today, it is necessary to trace the history of Indian Classical music through various eras and milestones.

Note that the following material is not intended to be an authoritative and accurate historical commentary. Rather please read it as a broad account of the different eras through which Indian Classical music progressed and transformed into its modern form.

Also note that folk music or generally, forms of music which were not subjected to the rigours of scriptures and grammar, were always around and continued to evolve in parallel while both inflencing and drawing from classical music.

From 1200 BCE to 200 CE: Sama Gana and Gandharva Veda

The Samaveda can be regarded as the origin of classical or scripture based music in India. The chanting of the literature of Sama Veda was termed as Sama Gana (i.e., the singing of Sama Veda). Sama Gana was performed in accordance with a musical scale which was derived using the concept of Pancham bhav (fifth) and Madhyam bhav (fourth). For more details, refer to this article. Over time, the musical scriptures branched off and evolved into their own Upaveda (a subsidiary vedic text) called Gandharva Veda. The Sama Gana scale enjoyed a prime position as an Indian musical scale for nearly a thousand years eventually giving way to Shadaj Gram.

Under the influence of the Sama Gana scale, it is likely that early musical works retained the scale and its intervals and worked with them. We present a composition in Demo 2 in Indian Musical Scales which is an artistic recollection of such a proto-typical work of music.

From 200 CE to 1200 CE: 22 Shruti tuning system

Sometime in the period from 200 BCE to 200 CE, Bharat documented the performing arts traditions and knowledge of his contemporary India in his famous Natya Shastra. Bharat describes a tuning system called Shadaj Gram which can be considered as a slight modification of the Sama Gana scale. For more details, refer to this article. In this period, music was likely played in accompaniment with 8 string harps tuned to Shadaj Gram, Madhyam Gram and their related scales.

Over a period of time, more sophisticated instruments came into being adding the capabilities of bends, slides and shakes of notes to Indian Classical music. But the 22 shruti tuning system based on Shadaj and Madhyam Gram remained the standard. Through their murchhanas, jatis and lakshanas, this era created a legacy and precedent for Raga bhavs and identities. For more details on the development of Lakshanas and Ragas, please see these two posts (1 and 2).

With the invention of new instruments with the capability to slide or modulate notes with frets, the musical thinking must have definitely evolved. We present a couple of compositions labelled Demo 2 and Demo 3 in in Indian Musical Scales which are an artistic recollection of how music evolved and became more sophisticated in this period.

1200 CE to 1600 CE: Acceptance of Adhara Shadaj

The music in the era of Shadaj Gram was based on murchhanas and jatis. Essentially, these were musical structures based on cyclical permutations of the Shadaj and Madhyam Gram scales (see this post on the adoption of Adhara Shadaj for more). As the capabilities of musical instruments improved with slide and fretted instruments coming in, Indian Classical music underwent a profound transition, adopting the concept of Adhara Shadaj or singing to a fixed tonic note called Shadaj or Sa.

Musicians grappled with mapping older concepts to the new framework. In this process, the musicians of this era laid down the precedents for modern Ragas and their associated Raga bhavs. It is likely that this period saw the emergence of some early versions of the 12 note tuning system which was later formalised by Ramamatya.

1550 CE: 12 note tuning system

Ramamatya prescribed a method for setting the frets on a Sudha Mela veena (for more details, refer to this article). This resulted in a 12 note tuning system documented by Venkatamakhin which is also equivalent to the Pythagorean Tuning system. This was a significant departure from the earlier 22 note tuning system, and would have required some adjustment.

Notice that when notes are played on the fret positions, then they would naturally be in accordance with the 12 note tuning system. So any vocalists or instrumentalists playing in accompaniment with a veena would naturally have to adhere to this tuning system to be in tune.

If the artists desired to evoke shades of notes not available in this tuning system (because of the legacy of the 22 Shruti tuning system), that would have required the deliberate use of bends and shakes. It is likely that these conscious deviatons were well understood by the veena players and their accompanying musicians, so that they could all play in tune.

In this way, this tuning system together with Adhara Shadaj partly honoured the legacy of the 22 Shruti tuning system and Jatis derived from it. But it also moulded the same legacy into a form which is more familiar to us today.

1600 CE to 1700 CE: Tanpura as the Tuning System

The Tanpura as a musical instrument is likely to have reached its modern form sometime around 1600 CE. The use of a rounded bridge to create a richer sound was already employed in Veenas. This was incorporated in the Tanpura, along with the ingenious idea of a cotton thread inserted between the strings and the bridge.

As we describe in a related article, in a Tanpura, the clever design of the bridge and the thread, allows us to split the harmonics of each string and hear them separately. Much like a prism splitting white light into its constituent rainbow colours, the bridge and thread of the Tanpura split apart the harmonics of each string.

For example, from the Sa string of a Tanpura, harmonics corresponding to Pa, Ga, etc can be heard, while from the Pa string Re, Ni, etc can be heard. Thus, a Tanpura creates a tuning system where certain positions in the octave are better supported and certain positions are perceived as dissonant.

By subtly adjusting the tuning of each Tanpura string, it can be tuned to support the Sama Gana scale or the Shadaj Gram scale or any other musical scale of choice. Each distinct tuning encourages or discourages certain Ragas. This aspect along with Adhara Shadaj further moulded the legacy of Raga identities.

1200 CE to 1800 CE: Slow and progressive divergence of Hindustani and Carnatic classical music

During the same period when Adhara Shadaj, the 12 note tuning system and then Tanpura was adopted by Indian Classical music, there was a slow and progressive divergence between Hindustani and Carnatic classical music. It is believed that by 1800 CE or so, the two were considered sufficiently distinct at an aesthetic and stylistic level, while still retaining commonality in terms of principles of consonance and technical aspects.

These differences arose primarily out of localized clusters of musicians formed around the courts and estates of their royal, noble and spiritual patrons. Carnatic and Hindustani musicians both acknowledge the work of Sarang Dev, Ramamatya and others, but their aesthetic preferences and usage of musical ornamentations (e.g., gamakas and geetis) lend a distinct character to their sound.

However, it is important to underscore the point that they shared this critical period of change in the history of Indian Classical music, when the music changed from a harp based tuning system to a fret based one and then ultimately to a Tanpura based tuning system. So despite their apparent differences, Hindustani and Carnatic music share very deep roots.

1800 CE to 1900 CE: Introduction and acceptance of Harmonium

The harmonium was introduced around 1800 CE and became quite accepted among several communities of musicians by around 1900 CE. The tuning system used in harmoniums varied. While a majority of them tend to use the Western 12 tone equal temperament, many harmoniums are also tuned to the Just Intonation scale based on five-limit tuning.

The tuning system of the harmonium is similar and also different from that of a fret based veena. On a fretted veena, by the use of bends and shakes, it is possible to avoid or evoke certain shades of notes as required. A harmonium being restricted to fixed notes constrains the player and accompanying artists in terms of the musical phrases they can execute while still playing in tune. This has also resulted in further moulding of Raga identities.

Also, by using 12 tone equal temperament, the harmonium made Indian melodies directly comparable and relatable to the Western musical concepts of scales and modes. This also enhanced its popularity in popular and film music.


In this article, we looked at the significant phases and milestones in the evolution of Indian Classical music. What we hear and enjoy and refer to as Indian Classical music carries the cumulative imprint of all these phases of evolution. In subsequent articles, we will look into the tuning systems which were in use in Indian Classical music.

Category and Tags

History of Indian MusicHistory of Indian MusicSama GanaSama GanaShadaj GramShadaj Gram22 Shrutis22 Shrutis12 Note Scale12 Note ScaleAdhara ShadajAdhara ShadajTanpuraTanpuraHarp VeenaHarp VeenaFretted VeenaFretted Veena