Sounds of India
by Sara Cujak

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Grades: 6-8

Social Studies Students

Goals: For students to understand and appreciate the complex sounds of Indian music.

SWBAT identify five Indian instruments by sight and sound
SWBAT understand how each instrument is played to produced their sound

Background Information for Teachers


The flute has been played as a musical instrument in India for thousands of years. There is mention of the instrument in ancient texts. Traditionally bamboo flutes have been used in India, although now some musicians play on brass instruments. Because of its stabilized pitch, the flute was the prominent instrument of dance and music. In recent times, it has come to be realized that it is admirably suited for solo recitals as well.

Most Indian flutes are made of bamboo. They may also be made of sandal wood, ebony, and brass. The bamboo flute used in Carnatic music has a solitary hole near the closed end and eight holes towards the other end, all in a straight line. The solitary hole is the mouth hole and is bigger than the other eight holes, which are finger holes. These finger holes are made with tempered steel wires heated to a certain degree and the holes are made in the bamboo at appropriate intervals to suit the pitch. The length of the flute may vary according to the basic needs. For South Indian Carnatic music the instrument is restricted to a length of 10-12 inches, with a diameter of ½” to 1”.

The solitary hole near the closed end is used to blow into, and the notes are set to standards by operating the fingers on the eight finger holes on the instruments. Out of the eight finger holes, only the first seven are used. The eighth hole on the extreme end is used to develop notes in the lower octaves with detail and clarity. In Hindu iconography Krishna (Krisna) is shown playing the flute.

The violin has become an integral part of Carnatic music. It is one of the few non-native instruments adapted to Indian music. The violin replaced a traditional Indian instrument called the saragi in Carntaic music, because it was a better match for vocal accompaniment. Some people give credit for this change to Varahappa Iyer, a minister in the Thanjavur Court and a musician, who was close to the British governor in Madras. He learned the violin, which he felt could be best adapted to Carnatic music traditions.

Carnatic music requires the violinist to sit cross legged on a platform. The violin is balanced between the chest and the scroll, held by the ankle bone of the right foot. This posture allows the free flow of the left hand along the finger board. The left hand moves freely up and down the strings. The fingers of the player have a range of two and a half octaves. The Indian violinist is able to produce gamaka, due to the way the instrument is held. Gamaka is the smooth transition between the two fingers accomplished by the rolling motion of the wrist. This is one part of the unique sound from the violin in Indian music.

The mridangam is a percussion instrument and is said to be the king of all Carnatic instruments. Etymologically, mridh angam is mridangam. Mridh means earth and angam means part, so mridangam means part of the earth. Traditionally the instrument was made of clay, but today it is made of wood. Mridangam is made of the following woods: jack, neem, rosewood, coconut and palm. The skin of goat, cow and buffalo is attached to both sides of the mridangam. Goat and cow skin are on the right side and buffalo is on the left side of the drum. The two sides are tied with many long thin strips of buffalo skin. These strips must be tightened after every performance. Rope is replacing leather strips because it is much easier to use. All the skins are from female animal.

Three kinds of mridangam exist: base drum, medium drum, and high pitch drum. Pitch variation can be noted by the width and diameter of the right side skin of the mridangam. The base drum is used for accompanying male singers, and the high pitch drum for accompanying female singers. The medium drum is used with instrumentalists. Mridangam is also used in dance programs.

To play the mridangam one sits cross legged on the floor, left leg is placed under the right. The right leg is covered with a cloth and the leg is slightly straightened. The mridangam is placed on its side on the player’s lap. One uses his fingers to tap the sound from both ends of the mridangam. A rock is placed close to the player so he may tap in the nails that hold the thin stripes of skin. This helps to tighten the strips during play. Traditionally only men play this instrument.

The veena is a stringed instrument that is exclusive to Carnatic music from South India. It is similar to a sitar that is played in North India. Veenas are carved out of a single piece of jack wood, and often decorated with carvings and inlays. The instrument is divided into three sections: the resonator, neck, and head. The veena consists of a hollow, carved resonator that continues as a long fretted neck to another smaller resonator. The neck curves backwards and at the end is a carved head of a mythological animal. Veenas come in two forms, rudra veena and vichitra veena.

To play the veena one sits on the floor with the slightly smaller resonator is placed on the player’s left thigh in order to support the instrument during play. The neck rests against the upper arm and the large resonator is on the floor. The fingers of the left hand pluck the strings. The baby finger of the right hand strikes the drone strings while the other fingers work the main strings. The strings are pressed between the frets and then pulled toward the lower edge of the neck. The way the strings are pulled alters their tone. Traditionally only women play the veena, while many men are known to play the sitar. In Hindu iconography, the veena is identified with goddess Saraswati, the goddess of learning and arts.

The nagaswaram is a popular woodwind instrument particular to Carnatic music. It is played in temples, processions, festivals and auspicious occasions. The nagaswaram has seven holes, with five additional holes at the bottom that are used as controllers. It ranges in size from one to two and a half feet long. The nagaswaram has a range of two and a half octaves. The system of fingering is similar to a flute. Semi and quarter notes are produced by adjusting the pressure and strength of the air flow into the pipe. It is a very exacting instrument. Because of its intense volume and strength, it is an instrument used outdoors only.

The nagaswaram is a double reed instrument made of ebony with a conical bore which slowly enlarges toward the lower end, similar to a clarinet. The top end has a metal staple with a small metallic cylinder inserted into it. The cylinder carries the mouthpiece made of reed. A small ivory or horn needle is also attached to the nagaswaram. The needle is used to clear the mouthpiece of saliva and allows the passage of air. A metallic bell is attached at the bottom for decoration. Two types of nagaswarams are the timiri, which is short and higher in pitch and the bari, which is long and lower in pitch.

Lesson Outline


To open the activity, have students respond in their notebooks to the following: Draw a simple illustration of your favorite musical instrument and briefly describe what it looks like, what it is made of, and what it sounds like. When finished with their responses, have students share them and pretend to play their instrument. Then explain to the students that they will be learning about instruments from India. They will listen to, identify and pretend to play the instruments.

Project slide 1.1A, group of musicians, for the students to see. Use the following information to introduce students to Indian music.

Indian classical music is categorized under two genres, Hindustani and Carnatic. Hindustani music developed in Northern India while Carnatic music is indigenous to South India. This lesson is focused on Carnatic music. Carnatic music is considered one of the oldest systems of music in the world. It has emotion and the spirit of improvisation, as well as a scientific approach. The bases of Carnatic music is the system of ragas, or scales, and talas, or rhythmic cycles. Seven talas exist with 72 fundamental ragas.

Carnatic music composition is in the different ragas. While improvisation of raga varies from musician to musician, the structure is set. The compositions are very popular with a strong accent on rhythm and lively melodic patterns. The basic form is a monophonic song with variations that are improvised. This advanced system of music is based on a rational division of the octave, which resembles older Western music based on the natural scale. The difference is in Western music each note has an absolute pitch. In Carnatic music the pitch is just a reference done by either the drone instrument or the sruti box. This allows relative positioning of notes.

Carnatic music is performed by a small group of musicians. The group consists of a vocalist, a primary instrument performer, a drone instrument performer and a rhythm instrument performer. The primary instrument is a string instrument, like a violin or veena. The drone instrument is one that sets the underlying melody, it can be a tambura, or a sruti box. A sruti box is an electrical metronome. The rhythm instrument is a percussion instrument, like the mridangam. Usually a concert piece has a lyric set in a specific raga and tala, which is just a starting point for the musicians. The musicians then improvise from this. Although the musicians may improvise any way they like they are confined by the raga and the tala. This form of playing takes years of practice and one must learn from a teacher.

Now that you have an understanding of Indian Carnatic music let’s begin the lesson.


Now that students have been introduced to Indian music, tell them they will now learn and identify five India instruments. Pass out sets of cards from student handout 1.1A to groups of students. I recommend having the students work in groups of three. Cut the cards before hand. Allow the students to carefully examine the cards. Make sure they look at the picture and read the descriptions.

Once they have examined all the cards tell them you will be playing 30 second clips of music and they will have to identify which instrument is in each recording from the information on their cards. Play the first part of recording 1 from the unit CD, which is a recording of the flute. Have groups decide which instrument they think it is. Tell them to look over their cards carefully. Once they have identified the instrument, tell them to set aside the card with the instrument on it to the side. Then use the Teacher’s Guide to reveal the instrument featured in the recording. Repeat this process with the other four instruments. Remember to stop the CD after each part of the recording.

Once the students have been introduced to the five instruments tell them they will now listen to three ensemble pieces of Indian music. They will have to try to identify which instruments they hear. Play the first part of recording 2 from the unit CD, a one minute piece called “ .” Then have the groups discuss which instruments they hear. Again have them take the corresponding cards and set them aside. It should take students two to three minutes to make their choices.

Once groups have decided which instrument they heard in recording 2, tell them they will now pretend to be the musicians in the recording and they are to pretend to play the instruments. Have groups go through the instrument cards they set aside and allow them to study the written and visual information.

Encourage students to discuss how to hold the instrument, body position, use of fingers/hands and the tempo they will play. When groups are ready to “play,” play the second part of recording 2. It is a 30 second excerpt from “ .”

After the groups have performed, have them pick a Presenter. The Presenter is to explain which instrument their group chose and why they played the instruments the way they did. Remind them to use information from the cards to help them. Once a couple of groups have gone, use the Teacher’s Guide to tell the students which Indian instruments were played in the recording. Repeat this process for recording 3 and 4.

Have a class discussion, after students have listened to the musical recordings, using the following questions:

What was challenging about identifying the instruments?
How did it feel to “play” the instruments?
Are Indian instruments similar to other one you have seen or played? Explain.
Are the instruments similar or different from one another?

Teacher Guide

Recording 1
Flute by Ms. Meenakshi; Violin by Mr. x; Mirdangam by Mr.x; Veena “Murali Dhara Gopala”, Veena Classical by Gayathri; Nagaswaram, “Gnana Vinayaka-Gambeeranatai-Adi-Saravanabaananda-Sheikh Chinna Moulana”, Classical music of South India, Volume II.

Recording 2

Violin and mridangam

Recording 3

Recording 4

Amount of Time
One 50 minute class period

Material List
CD player
Slide Projector

All three websites give brief information on the instruments and sound bits.

Other grade levels: grades 4-5

Extension Activities
Invite Indian musicians to hold concert.
Have someone who plays the violin try to play it holding it Indian-style.
Other discipline areas: Art—have students make a bamboo flute. The bamboo
can be purchased at craft stores.


Connection to Wisconsin Standards
Behavioral Science (E)

8.10 Explain how language, art, music, beliefs, and other components of culture can further global understanding or cause misunderstanding

8.14 Select examples of artistic expressions from several different cultures for the purpose of comparing and contrasting the beliefs expressed.


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