Posted in For Project 1 Examples

Example 3 research, Part 2: Taal of Northern India

Northern Indian music, just like the Middle Eastern, also developed a system of mnemonic syllables for drumming. As in the case of tabla instrument, it’s an even more complex language, where each syllable – called bol, defines a stroke. (Gottlieb: 17) Tabla is a pair of drums (Fig.1), that consists of the right-hand drum – dayan (also what is known as tabla) and the left-hand drum – bayan.


Fig. 1 Tabla instrument, bigger drum – dayan and smaller drum – bayan

Because there are two drums, the bols can be for the left hand, the right hand and combination of both. To show how complex these are, look at the table of drum strokes below. (Fig. 2)


Fig 2. Tabla bols

The syllabic bols are used outside of tabla playing for other percussion instruments such as pakhawaj, as well as in the sung text or sarcmi (solfege), and in the kathak dance. Used also in teaching taal – the system of organizing musical time in Indian music, the bols show the idea that musical time is built up of distinct units, each of which comprises or may be represented by them. Philip Glass describes how it’s different from the Western meter:

“In Western music we divide time as if you were to take a length of time and slice it the way you slice a loaf of bread. In Indian music … you take small units, or ‘beats,’ and string them together to make up larger time values.”

When trying to understand this different concept of musical time, Westerners without extensive experience in Indian music tended to misunderstand it. William Hamilton Bird, a collector and arranger of Indian songs for the harpsichord, is an example of those that thought since it was unintelligible to them, Indian music must be devoid of metrical and other organization. He complained in 1789 that it “cost him great pains to bring them [the Indian songs] into any form as to TIME, which the music of Hindustan is extremely deficient in…” It wasn’t until later that the view of time in Indian music as actually organized took over.

North Indian taal is multi-dimensional and cyclical. It has three temporal levels: a smaller time unit – matra (similar to beat in Western music), a section – vibhag and a complete cycle – avart. The most important matra is called sam. It functions both as the first beat, from where the cycle’s journey begins, and the last, where the cycle’s arrival is anticipated, in order to start a new cycle. Although realizing that the metrical form of music is regulated, as Clayton points out, West still didn’t understand the Indian taal, thinking it’s structured “in such a complex manner that a mere Westerner could not hope to comprehend it.” (2000:5) Berendt is a relatively recent example, when he says that it’s “incomprehensible for Western listeners” and “can be as long as 108 beats; yet the Indian ear is constantly aware of where the sam falls … as easily as if it were simple 4/4 or 6/8 time” (1987: 202).

First of all, ‘108 beats’ is a bit of an exaggeration. In reality, number of beats in taals currently in use, is usually between six and sixteen beats in Northern Indian music. Today, even among the intricate South Indian – Carnatic taal systems, the taals being used are of the simpler Suladi Sapta taals, which consists of 7 basic taals, where a taal of longer than 29 beats could never be used (Reina:16). Although this modern system has many variations: in jatis, the way the beats are grouped, that results in 35 theoretic taals, and nadais, different subdivision of time, that makes 175 taals, many are scarcely ever utilized in practice. Not to mention that the most difficult of the ancient Ashtottara Shata taals, of which there are 108, the 37thSimhanandana taal with 128 beats does exist, but it is an extremely rare, obsolete measure. (The Illustrated Weekly of India, 1965: 187)

Also, even longer taals are not as ‘incomprehensible’, when we look at techniques used to guide the listeners and performers. In Northern Indian music, there are sections – vibhags, marked at their start by a hand gesture, either a clap – tali or a wave khali, which may be employed in order to count out taal. Each taal has a distinct theka, a basic recognizable pattern of previously mentioned bols. Carnatic music of South doesn’t use theka, but has added more hand and finger movements to create the sections or parts – “construction blocks of different size” (Reina:13) called angas to count time, so that even the 128-beat Simhanandana tala can be laboriously count by 18 labyrinthine angas.

Lay is the speed of the music or tempo, but can also refer to the rhythmic density. The lay can be in vilambit – slow, madhya – medium or drut – fast. In modern times the range of performance tempi has increased considerably at both extremes, so that we have ati-vilambit – very slow and ati-drut – very fast. Sometimes there are intermediate categories madhya-vilamhit – medium slow and madhya-drut – medium fast. (Fig. 3)


Fig. 3. Different lays

For my example I have chosen jhaptaal, a ten beat taal. The theka (Fig. 4) consists of 4 vibhags that are 2+3+2+3. They are marked by clap, clap, wave, and clap, in other words tali, tali, khali and tali. Jhaptaal is one of the symmetrical taals. For me, it’s like a 10/4 measure that is combined by two 5/4 measures, where the first beat of the first 5/4 is accented, and the first of the other isn’t. The bols illustrate this: The strong “dhin” becomes “tin”, which on tabla is a right-hand stroke without a left-hand bass support. Put differently, the weaker khali section, marked by 0 is an exact counterpart of the first tali section, marked by x. Also see the video below.


Fig. 4. Jhaptaal theka

Jhaptaal is also an example of taal where tabla’s theka bols: bhari bols, stressed and khali bols, unstressed, coincide with clap patterns of tali and khali vibhag. Rupak taal, a seven- beat taal, is another example of this. (Fig. 5)

However, as is the case with tintaal and dhamar taal, there are taals with looser forms of correlation. As Crayton describes, in tintaal, 14 beat taal, the khali bols are shifted back by one matra. (Fig. 6) In dhamar taal, the khali bols cover half the cycle and overlap by one matra, with the result that sam, marked by a clap, tali gesture, is actually played on an unaccented khali bol. Illustrated (Fig. 7), we see that B appears to be a khali counterpart to A, so in a way theka represented the sam/khali dichotomy of the clap pattern. Dhamar taal also has other clap patterns.

There are also examples of taals that have no apparent correlation between theka and clapping patterns. Here we see that these two may function simultaneously, without necessarily showing any structural correlation, as in Ektaal, the 12-beat taal. As Clayton points out, this might illustrate that some taals were historically primarily expressed through the clap pattern, while the other predominantly used accentual patterns of theka. After that, the hybridization process took place and “… taals of the first group have acquired thekas, and symmetrically, theka-based tals have been given clap patterns…”

Clayton also describes that each taal has its own aesthetic character: “In the slow ektaal and jhamra taal used in bara (‘great’, i.e. slow tempo) khyal, there is little more to the respective tals’ character than the effect of the tempo itself: repose, ease, apparent lack of rhythmic restraint. Folk-derived taals such as kaharva and dadra have a lively, driving quality due to the powerful accents and the baya pitch modulation of their thekas. Dhrupad taals such as cautal have qualities which may be dependent to some extent on their theka, such as cautal’s measured alternation of tali-khali-tali-khali groups, followed by the cadential ‘tirakita gadigana’ driving towards sam.” As for jhaptaal, which I have chosen, it is usually played at medium tempo. Because of its symmetrical division, it is sometimes said to have a unique quality, its distinctive chand. Clayton mentions Ashok Ranade talking of coming to sam “in a pouncing manner” (2000: 68) in jhaptaal.

Even the taals with same beats per cycle have their own qualities. For example, another taal with 10 beats, is Sultaal, which has two principal differences from jhaptal. It has a different structural division and a faster tempo where sultal’s cycle is a half of jhaptal’s cycle.

To conclude this post, here, I have written about the metrical structure of the Hindustani music. Although, taal largely defines music from the philosophical and technical aspect, the performance and virtuosity of performers dependent to a great extent also on the rhythmical structure and laykari, the technique intended to vary or develop rhythm. More about this, together with the description of a tabla and kathak dance performance, see my next blog post.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1 Tabla instrument, bigger drum – dayan and smaller drum – bayan

Fig 2. Tabla bols

Fig. 3. Different lays

Fig. 4. Jhaptaal theka

Fig. 5

Fig. 6


Gottlieb, Robert S. (1993) Solo Tabla Drumming of North India: Its Repertoire, Styles, and Performance Practices. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers

Glass, Philip (1988) Opera on the Beach: Philip Glass on His New World of Music Theatre. London: Faber & Faber

William, Hamilton Bird (1988) In: Bor, Joep ‘The Rise of Ethnomusicology: Sources on Indian Music c. 1780 – c. 1890’ Yearbook for Traditional Music Vol. 20 pp. 51-73

Clayton, Martin (2000) Time in Indian Music: Rhythm, Metre, and Form in North Indian Rag Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Joachim-Ernst Berendt (1987) The World is Sound: Music and the Landscape of Consciousness. Merrimac: Destiny Books

Reina, Rafael (2016) Applying Karnatic Rhythmical Techniques to Western Music. London and New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group


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