Improvisation in Indian classical music

In Hindustani (North Indian) classical music, students begin their study of ragas by learning to sing fixed raga compositions called bandish. But in performance, compositions are used only to provide structure. For instance, you might hear a small part of a composition repeated at intervals as a refrain. Most of the music is improvised on the spot.

Artists capable of exquisite hour-long improvised performances are not just gifted, they have also been studying and training for decades. And there are no shortcuts. However, there is a systematic process for learning to improvise, and this page gives you a very elementary introduction to it.

(If you are not familiar with the basic concepts of Hindustani music, I strongly recommend that you read my pages on the notes, ragas, and rhythms first.)

Vistar, Jod, and Taan

One of the characteristics of a raga performance is that it starts out extremely slow, gradually gathers pace, and reaches rapid tempos toward the end. But faster segments of a raga performance are not just sped-up versions of the slow segments. The structure of the melody is different at different tempos.

The video below demonstrates using Raag Bageshree, a longingly romantic late-night raga featuring flat ga and ni (♭3 and ♭7). Listen to it first, before we move on to analyzing the melody in greater detail.

Simplified vistar, jod, and taan

You begin a raga performance with what is called vistar (meaning “elaboration”). This is the segment where you gently introduce the raga you have chosen to the audience, beginning with just a few of the lower notes and gradually expanding your reach to include the entire octave. As you do so, you slowly increase the tempo and complexity of the musical phrases. In this segment, some notes are held for extended periods of time, but there are notes of many different lengths, and there is a lot of rich ornamentation giving texture to the melody. As an artist, your understanding of the raga and its melodic contours is put to the test in this segment, because every little ornament and inflection applied to a note becomes highlighted at that slow tempo. There is no room for obfuscation.

Once you have done justice to all the notes in the octave and painted an overall picture of the raga for your audience, you move on to the middle segment. This segment connects the slow vistar segment to the rapid taan segment and is, therefore, called jod (joint/connection). The transition from vistar to jod is signified by the introduction of a steady pulse. Notes become more even-spaced and the tempo is maintained within a pleasant range, going from a gentle trot to a lively canter. When you want to lengthen a note, you can pulsate it to enhance the rhythmic quality of the music. Lilting, playful note patterns are used in this segment.

The final segment comprises rapid sequences of notes performed at double speed, which are called taan. In the previous jod segment, although the notes were quite evenly spaced, there was some variety. You could play with the rhythm, lengthening or syncopating some of the notes. In a taan, almost all the notes are of the same length. Taans are inspired by mathematical sequences but are not fully predictable in the way that mathematical sequences tend to be, because that would just make them boring. A beautiful taan has an element of surprise to it.

Free vs. Structured Improvisation

Most performances begin with free improvisation and then move on to structured improvisation around a composition with tabla accompaniment. The free improvisation part of a performance is called alap, meaning “prelude,” while the structured improvisation part is called bandish (or gat in the case of instrumental music), meaning “composition.”

What we saw in the above section was alap (free improvisation). It involved freely exploring the melody of a raga without a composition or tabla accompaniment. During this type of improvisation, the challenge is to keep the music focused so that it will hold the audience’s attention, because without a composition or a rhythm cycle to return to at regular intervals, it is very easy for the music to drift aimlessly and become confusing.

Improvising around a composition (structured improvisation) takes care of that problem to some extent, but it presents a different set of challenges. A composition has a set melody and is designed to fit into a specific rhythm cycle (taal). When you improvise around it, you have to make sure to come back to the composition once in a while, at the correct beat in the rhythm cycle. The main challenge here is to train your brain to do two different things simultaneously — improvise melody while paying close attention to the rhythm cycle.

As with free improvisation, structured improvisation also takes place in different tempos. In the case of vocal performances, both free and structured improvisation can also be performed using a variety of vocalization styles — sol-fa syllables (sargam), the vowel sound ā (akar), words of the composition (bol), and wordless syllables (nom-tom).

The video below uses a composition in Raag Yaman to demonstrate the rhythm-related rules that must be followed when improvising on a composition.

Rhythm-related rules for improvising on a composition

The Process of Learning to Improvise

As a student, you are initially given precomposed variations to learn by rote. In the process of learning these variations, you internalize timing. Your body (not just your mind) becomes aware of various lengths of time. How long is 8 beats? How long is 11 beats? How long is 5.5 beats? How long is one-third of a beat? And so on.

You are also encouraged to come up with your own variations. For instance, all students are asked to practice paltas, which are sequences of notes arranged symmetrically in different patterns. Any number of different patterns are possible, and practicing a wide range of paltas gives you an innate understanding of how the notes in a raga relate to each other, which greatly assists the creative process. Over time, you develop a substantial vocabulary of melodic phrases in different ragas, including both your own creations and those borrowed from other artists you’ve been exposed to. This becomes your repertoire.

As your sense of timing improves, and your repertoire of melodic phrases possible in a raga expands, you can use these as the basis for improvisation. You start with something simple but eventually gain the confidence to improvise more and more complex melody in step with increasingly complex rhythms.

Here is a delightful short performance by two young artists that gives you some more insight into the process that goes into the art. The artists in this performance are taking turns to improvise variations on a composition, which makes it easy to tell which parts are precomposed (the parts that they sing together) and which are improvised.

Nirali Kartik and Saili Oak (vocal)
Bandish in Raag Bageshree

As artists grow, they internalize knowledge of the music and its rules to the extent that this knowledge can operate on a subconscious rather than conscious level. This gives them the confidence to be in the moment, allowing the music itself to lead and inspire them. Because, like a good conversation, music has a certain natural flow to it. One phrase leads logically to another. If you make too many specific preparations in advance, you risk missing out on the chance to deliver a truly scintillating performance.

Here is a beautiful performance in Raag Bageshree by Rashid Khan (vocal) and Shahid Parvez (sitar). The performance is fully improvised, with the artists responding to, drawing upon, and being inspired by each other.

Rashid Khan (vocal) and Shahid Parvez (sitar), Raag Bageshree
Part 1 (Alap): Vistar (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 (Bandish): balma mori tore sangva (up to 11:45)
& apne garaj se pakar leeni baiya mori (from 11:45)

This essay is a part of a series of essays on Indian classical music. Below are the other essays in this series.

Chapter 1. An overview of Indian classical music

Chapter 2. Notes in an octave in Indian classical music

Chapter 3. What is a raga?

Chapter 4. Rhythm (taal) in Indian classical music

Chapter 5. Ornamentation in Indian classical music

Chapter 6. Notating Indian classical music

Chapter 7. Indian classical music compositions

Chapter 8. Improvisation in Indian classical music

Chapter 9. Understanding a raga performance

Chapter 10. Tips & resources for students of Indian classical music

You can also visit the following links to enjoy real performances by renowned artists in some of the most beautiful ragas while learning about raga structure, raga scales, raga families, as well as the time and moods associated with different ragas.

Ragas classified by structure (jaati)

Ragas classified by scale (thaat)

Raga families (raagang)

A few difficult ragas

Originally published at

Kishori Amankar by সায়ন্তন ভট্টাচার্য্য [CC BY-SA 4.0]