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GCSE Music - Area of Study 2: Shared Music

Indian Classical Music

Indian classical music has a long history of around 3000 years. The music is learned by ear and performed from memory – typically a student will undergo a type of apprenticeship with a highly regarded performer, which as known as a master-student tradition.

Key Features

  • Sitar – a type of plucked string instrument with frets. It has sympathetic strings which vibrate to create a distinctive shimmery sound. The sitar plays the raga and the melody, and improvises.
  • Tanpura/tambura – a plucked sting instrument with four strings used to play the drone.
  • Tabla – a pair of drums.
  • The melody is based on a set of notes called a raga. There are many different ragas and most of them are associated with a particular time of day, season and mood. Some notes in the raga will be more important than others and will be emphasised.
  • Common techniques used in the melody – pitch bends, glissandos, rapid scales, ornamentation.
  • As pieces progress they become more complex. Before a performance everyone will agree which raga to use and the sitar player will then improvise a melody around the notes of the raga.
  • Tala – the rhythmic cycle which pieces are based on. There is a range of different talas, each with a set number of beats, some of which will be accented. The tabla player improvises rhythms around the tala, which gradually become more complex as the piece progresses.
  • There is no real harmony in Indian classical music – instead a drone is played throughout a piece. It is based on the most important note or notes of the raga.
  • There is often dialogue between the different parts, with the sitar player imitating rhythms played by the tabla.
  • Alap – slow, improvised introduction in free time. The sitar introduces and explores the notes of the raga. There is a drone but no tabla drums.
  • Jor – faster and more melodic.
  • Gat – the tabla enters, creating a clear sense of pulse. This section is often based on a pre-composed idea, which the melody instrument uses as a basis for improvisation. The music builds in excitement.
  • Jhalla – more improvisation, faster and more virtuosic. Cascades of scales and intricate rhythms.
  • Other instruments – sarangi – bowed, string instrument; bansuri – bamboo flute.
  • Famous sitar player – Ravi Shankar.

Example to Listen to

Raga Devgiri Bilawal by Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha

Listen out for:

  • The drone, which can be heard on its own at the very start
  • The free, improvisatory feel to the alap
  • The entry of the tabla – this is the beginning of the gat. Notice how the sitar part becomes much more rhythmic at this point
  • Pitch bends and rapid scales in the sitar part
  • The gradual build up to a fast, exciting climax


A gamelan is a set of tuned percussion instruments and comes from Indonesia. Gamelan music has existed for hundreds of years, and there are a number of different styles from different islands.

Gamelan music can be heard in many different venues, from courts to temples to village squares. Often the music is used to accompany an event that involves dance or ritual – for example, puppet shows, plays or religious ceremonies.

The music is learned by ear, instead of from notation.

Key Features

  • Gongs – which hang from a frame at the back of the gamelan
  • Metallophones – which are like xylophones with metal bars. The saron usually plays the main melody
  • Drums – the leader of the ensemble usually plays the drum to give signals to the players
  • Two common scales – slendro (5 note) and pelog (7 note)
  • Cyclic – a short melody is repeated continuously
  • Heterophony – all the other instruments will basically play this same melody but at different speeds. Lower pitched instrument move at a slower pace and higher pitched instruments move quicker
  • Gongs punctuate key points in the music
  • Gamelan players don’t follow a conductor, they listen very carefully to each other to make sure they stay together

Example to Listen to

Bendrong from the album Java the Jasmine Isle: Gamelan Music

Listen out for:

  • The line-up of gongs, metallophones and drums
  • The simple core melody which lasts for ten bars and is repeated by the sarons
  • The large, low-pitched gong that plays every two bars, in contrast to the high-pitched metallophones that play offbeat quavers above the main melody (this is an example of heterophony)
  • The drummer slowing down near the start of the piece by playing loud quavers to get everyone’s attention