There are a couple vocal concerts coming to town in the next month or so, and I’ve been trying to take that as an opportunity to learn more about the vocal style of Indian classical music. In the classical world, it’s understood that all instrumental music was initially made and performed with the intention of emulating human vocal music—so the vocal style is like the queen-supreme. So it’s probably important that I know SOMETHING about it.

When I first started listening to classical music, vocal songs always turned me off. It seemed to me that I needed a lot more patience to sit and listen to a 60 minute vocal rendition of a raag than an instrumental rendition. But that was probably just cause I was more familiar with how instrumental compositions approached the music, and because of that, it engaged me more. After learning to listen to instrumental music and being able to somewhat see how songs are being broken up as I’m listening to them (reading the inserts that come with the CDs help TREMENDOSLY), I’ve started revisiting some vocal CDs that my boy Ajit hooked me up with back in the day, and some other CDs I’ve recently purchased, to take another listen.

I’ve been doing some reading on the net, and although personal testimonials on the net can never be taken as golden information, it’s at least provided a start. Here’s a nice little doc on musicalnirvana.com, and another short article on a site who’s purpose I’m still not sure of. Here’s what I’ve gathered from them.

  • Dhrupad music is the oldest of vocal music, who’s history often gets traced back to the legendary Tansen in Akbar’s mughal court in the 16th century. It’s key characteristics include the sung lyrics, and the adherence to rhythm and melody, or taal and raag.
  • Khayal was developed sometime later. Either from different gharanas (schools of music) taking a different approach to the music, or folk music developing into a more intricate classical system. It’s more improvisational in nature, and includes more of an emphasis on decorations of notes in melodies and ornamentation.
  • Whereas Dhrupad puts a strong emphasis on text and lyrics, Khayal keeps the actual content of the lyrics as secondary to the way they are used to express the nuances of the raag. Lyrical syllables that have no dictionary meaning are often used, and when lyrics are used, they are not kept as the main emphasis of the performance.
  • Khayal is more improvisiational, and therefore allows more room for ornamentation development within a composition.