When one thinks about Indian instruments though, we are mainly referring to the classical and folk instruments of South Asia.
In this article, we’ll go through some of the most famous Indian instruments.
Photo by Michael Coghlan/CC BY-SA 2.0
List of Indian Musical Instruments
There are two main categories of musical instruments in India and Pakistan. We will categorize them into melody -creating instruments and percussion.
Melodic Instruments in Indian Music
A staple in all Indian music (classical and folk), is made of wood and gourd and also known as indian drone instrument. Learn more about tuning the tanpura and its playing technique.
An electronic replacement to the tanpura, with a sound very similar to the original instrument.
An Indian version of a zither. It also can be compared to a harp.
Similar to violin, but has a more prominently treble sound. It is played using a bow, yet it has frets similar to a sitar.
Harmonium is known as a pump organ or reed instrument. There are single reed, double reed, and triple reed harmoniums, used in Indian music.
The Sitar has been around since the 16th century and it’s an instrument that requires some skill to play well. It has 3-4 main strings and 12+ sympathetic strings.
Similar to a sitar, but with a much deeper and more bass- like sound.
Carnatic’s violin, called the veena, can be played by either plucking it with one hand or strumming it like a guitar. This is a very highly regarded instrument and is the official instrument of India.
Bansuri (wooden flute)
The bansuri, a type of flute made from bamboo, is a popular instrument for classical Indian music. Different from the metallic version in the West, this instrument sounds more earthy.
The sarangi is often used as a solo instrument in Hindustani music and was historically an accompaniment to the human voice.
One of the most beautiful instruments in the world, it sounds like melodic raindrops. Tha santoor in Indian classical music is a modified version of the Persian Santoor.
The shehnai is a musical instrument made out of wood, with a double reed at one end and a metal or wooden flared bell at the other end.
The Sarod is a stringed instrument known for a deep, weighty sound, in contrast with the sweet tone of the sitar. It is used mainly in Hindustani music on the Indian subcontinent.
Rhythm and Percussion
South Indian two-sided drum
The tabla is an Indian Musical Instrument that was developed in North India and it has been around since 1500 BC. They are played with one hand while using fingers on the other to create different sounds at once.
Dholak / Dholaki
The Dholki is a two-headed drum, which can be played with both hands. It’s primarily used in the Hindustani traditions of music and dance.
Types of Indian Music
The sounds, and therefore the instruments of South Asia are housed in its genres. The ancient folk traditions (qawwali, bhajan, kirtan) of South Asia are rich and gave rise to its classical music. It is in these traditions that tha tabla, sitar, flute were born. India is home to two distinct traditions of music: Hindustani (North Indian states and Pakistan) and Carnatic (South India).
Indian Classical Music
Music from the Hindustani tradition has a strong element of improvisation. Carnatic music is comprised of very systematic and complex melodic and rhythmic structures. These genres are the basis for a lot of Indian instruments.
Folk, Pop, Bollywood Music
Regional musical traditions and Bollywood add to the instruments found within the category of Indian instruments. The music of Indian Cinema (Bollywood) can not be ignored, though the musical instruments found in this category (drums, guitar, brass) can not be solely categorized as Indian, or even South Asian.
Conclusion – Musical Instruments of North India, South India, and Pakistan
This is a small list of Indian musical instruments. South Asians have been playing music for centuries and knowing a bit about the instruments that are used in Indian sound culture will make your experience with Indian art, its people, and the land more enriching.
Each genre has preferences to which instruments it prefers.
For example, Indian classical music only uses tabla and mridangam. Other percussion instruments like dhol, dholki, kanjira, kartyal are not used in Indian classical music. Artists of the classical circles have preferred to stay traditional and keep within the confines already established.
Indian musical instruments are being used by musicians worldwide. Following the popularity of Ravi Shankar, classical music and classical musical instruments (esp. sitar) have been on the rise in the West.