major instruments used in carnatic music.

By Spardha Learnings | 

Major instruments used in Carnatic Music -

  • Tambura
  • Mridangam
  • Violin
  • Ghatam
  • Morsing
  • Veena
  • Flute

Carnatic music generally involves an ensemble of musicians with the vocalist or melodic instrument playing the main role. The main performer is accompanied by a rhythm section and a drone instrument.

Percussion Instruments in Carnatic Music


The tanpura is a long-necked plucked string instrument, originating from India, found in various forms in Indian music. It does not play melody but rather supports and sustains the melody of another instrument or singer by providing a continuous harmonic bourdon or drone. A tanpura is not played in rhythm with the soloist or percussionist: as the precise timing of plucking a cycle of four strings in a continuous loop is a determinant factor in the resultant sound, it is played unchangingly during the complete performance. The repeated cycle of plucking all strings creates the sonic canvas on which the melody of the raga is drawn. The combined sound of all strings - each string a fundamental tone with its own spectrum of overtones - supports and blends with the external tones sung or played by the soloist.

Tanpuras form the root of the ensemble and indeed of the music itself, as the tanpura creates an acoustic dynamic reference chord from which the ragas (melodic modes) derive their distinctive character, color, and flavour. Stephen Slawek notes that by the end of the 16th century, the tanpura had "fully developed in its modern form", and was seen in the miniature paintings of the Mughals. Slawek further suggests that due to structural similarity the sitar and tanpura share a related history.

An electronic tanpura, a small box that imitates the sound of a tanpura, is sometimes used in contemporary Indian classical music performances instead of a tanpura, though this practice is controversial.

Older time’s musicians use to keep original tanpura percussion for their various concerts. But now a days as technology improved a lot & it has constrained as in a small box in various sizes & models named as sruthi box. It is a mandatory instrument used throughout.


The mridangam is a percussion instrument of ancient origin. It is the primary rhythmic accompaniment in a Carnatic music ensemble. In Dhrupad, a modified version, the pakhawaj, is the primary percussion instrument. A related instrument is the Kendang, played in Maritime Southeast Asia.

The mridangam (also known as tannumai) is one of the oldest percussion instruments in the Indian subcontinent. It has played a major role in the development of the Indian tala (rhythm) system. It’s low-end in a Carnatic ensemble, accompanied by other percussions. References to the instrument date back to 200 BC and state that the original construction was made from clay. Today, this double-edged hand drum is made from 1-inch thick jackfruit wood with goatskin drum heads on each side. It plays the same role as a pakhawaj and is similar to the Gendang – another ancient Southeast Asian instrument. Historians believe that the Mridangam was split into half to create the table percussions as we know them today. It is revered for its deep and resonant bass and loud projection.
Basic strokes on the mridangam:

Tha: Non-vibrating tone played on the left-hand side with the whole palm / Non-vibrating tone played on the right-hand side with 3 fingers. Dhi: Non-vibrating tone played on the center black portion of the right-hand side using middle, ring, and small fingers. Thom: Vibrating tone played on the outer side of the left-hand side. Nam: Vibrating tone played on the outer layer of the right-hand side using the index finger, minimizing the black portion vibration with middle or ring finger- place the third finger in the gap in-ring and the second finger hits the outer layer of the right-hand side of the Mridangam (called 'Saatham').

Classically, training is by dharmic apprenticeship and includes both the yoga of drum construction and an emphasis on the internal discipline of voicing mridangam tone and rhythm both syllabically and linguistically, in accordance with Rigveda, more than on mere performance.

Types of Talam, each with specific angas and aksharas:

  • Dhruva talam
  • Matya talam
  • Rupaka talam
  • Jhampa talam
  • Triputa talam
  • Ata talam
  • Eka talam


The violin sometimes known as a fiddle is a wooden chordophone (string instrument) in the violin family. Most violins have a hollow wooden body. It is the smallest and thus highest-pitched instrument (soprano) in the family in regular use. The violin typically has four strings (some can have five), usually tuned in perfect fifths with notes G3, D4, A4, E5, and is most commonly played by drawing a bow across its strings. It can also be played by plucking the strings with the fingers (pizzicato) and, in specialized cases, by striking the strings with the wooden side of the bow (col legno).

The violin has evolved to become the principal accompaniment for Carnatic music, and is believed to have been introduced into the Indian tradition by Baluswamy Dikshitar, brother of Muthuswamy Dikshitar (one of the Trinity of Carnatic music composers). The violin proved perfectly suited for the music, as the gamakas (glides and oscillations through the notes – the lifeline of Carnatic music) were not only possible, but natural and intuitive on the violin.

Violin has been introduced to Carnatic music during the end of 18th century and start of 19th century. Violin became popular with the Carnatic parlance not only as the accompaniment, but also as a solo instrument. Since 19th century, many great violin artistes have been developing the techniques involved.

The Carnatic violin is played sitting cross-legged, the instrument pointing to the ground with the scroll resting firmly on the ankle of the player's right foot. This allows the left hand to slide freely up and down the neck. The aim of tone production in violin is to imitate the Carnatic vocal style.

The violin with special reference to South Indian music had its early beginnings when it was used as a mere melodic support in Harikatha performances. Certain musical passages sung by the main exponent were reproduced on the violin for the sake of effects. Still later, violin figured in devotional music concerts where musical lyrics and songs along figured. Later came the 'accompanying role' of the violin to the main singer. It is at this juncture, when classical vocal concerts gained a formidable portion in the 'classical' stage of Carnatic music concert. Slowly, the violin emerged as the only best possible melodic support. In spite of the experimental usage of flute, veena and some other instruments, the violin as of today has emerged as the best possible accompaniment owing to its capacity for continuity and to reproduce any sound, adaptability and its pure support in maintaining the stability of a musical concert.


Ghatam is played with the hands and fingers and can produce a large variety of sounds right from the neck to the body of the ghatam. The mouth of the ghatam usually faces the player. The ghatam is used in conjunction with the mridangam in Carnatic music. The Ghatam is a South Indian percussion instrument which is a part of the Carnatic form of Indian music. The word Ghatam literally means ‘pot’ in Sanskrit. While it is indeed a pot, the Ghatam is actually a heavy, thick pot which has been made with different kinds of clay. The Pancha Bhutas or the five essential elements - Earth (prithvi), Fire (Agni), Water (jalam), Air (vayu) and Space (akash) - go into the making of the Ghatam. Earth is mixed with salt-free rain water and baked in fire with air being a part of drying, temperature control and other processes. And space or ether, the fifth element, contained within its pot like shape, is traditionally also associated with sound.

Another unique feature of the Ghatam is that it is single bodied. It has no additional appendages or fittings. The Ghatam has three portions – the mouth, a slanting portion from the mouth and the rounded lower half, all moulded seamlessly together. With a narrow mouth, the lower half differs according to different pitches or shruthi. The bigger ones are of lower pitch and vice versa. While playing the Ghatam we use all the 10 fingers. I can play one shollu (musical phrase) in many ways. I can make use of the entire surface of the Ghatam to produce different sounds in the same phrase. The Ghatam produces a distinctive metallic sound and is made in several sizes, each size having a different pitch. In a South Indian Carnatic Music concert, the Ghatam plays the role of an accompanying instrument and so the pitch I select would have to match that of the musician I am accompanying, be it a vocalist or an instrumentalist. The Ghatam can be re-tuned to some extent with plasticine or clay, which would reduce the pitch by a quarter/half note and alter the tonal quality. It can also be lowered by either wiping the instrument with a wet cloth or immersing a part of it in water for a while.


Morsing can be categorized under lamellophones, which is itself in the category of plucked idiophones. It consists of a metal ring in the shape of a horseshoe with two parallel forks which form the frame, and a metal tongue in the middle, between the forks, fixed to the ring at one end and frees to vibrate at the other. The metal tongue is bent at the free end in a plane perpendicular to the circular ring so that it can be struck and is made to vibrate. This bent part is called the trigger. The morsing is placed on the front teeth, with slightly pouted lips and held firmly in the hand. It is struck using the index finger of the other hand to produce sound. Movement of the player's tongue while making nasal sounds is used to change the pitch. This can be achieved when the syllable 'Nga' or a variant thereof, is sounded through the nose while air is pushed out or pulled in through the mouth. This aids the meditation process and thus some players use it as a form of practicing pranayama. Others speak into the instruments while playing, thus giving it the effect of a light haunting echo.

Morsing is used to help underpin melody and harmony with established rhythms from the Carnatic (South Indian) classical music tradition. Knowing the established rhythms of other percussion instruments, such as the mridangam drum, is the key to learn the morsing.

The basic pitch of the instrument can be varied very little. Significantly, the pitch of the instrument can only be reduced and not increased. To reduce the pitch a little, beeswax can be applied on the plucking end. To increase the pitch, it can be filed, although this may damage the instrument.

Glimpses of uniqueness and versatility of the morsing can be shown when accompanying singly for the song or during neraval or swara prastara (stages of song rendition in Carnatic music). The morsing is played as a shadow of the mridangam throughout the concert and the instrument's capabilities should be exhibited when playing or accompanying alone or during Thani (percussion round in a concert) or talavadyas (percussion ensembles). It is also said that this instrument is prevalent since Ramayana Period where this instrument is referred as "Dhantha Vadhyam."


Veena remains an important and popular string instrument in classical Carnatic music. As a fretted, plucked lute, the veena can produce pitches in a full three-octave range. The long, hollow neck design of these Indian instruments allows portamento effects and legato ornaments found in Indian ragas.

Veena is named after the Hindu goddess Saraswati, who is usually depicted holding or playing the instrument. Also known as raghunatha veena is used mostly in Carnatic Indian classical music. Veena is a fretted string instrument belonging to the lute family. It is made using Jackwood. It has a round-shaped body along with a long neck. A Resonator is attached under the neck. This is used to tune the Veena for the perfect tone and melody. It can produce sound in the range of three octaves.

A veena has three melody strings and four drone strings. Vibrations from these strings produce melody provided the resonator is tuned properly.

Pala maram (called locally)-Jackfruit wood is used to make veena. The entire instrument is carved on a single block of wood. A pot-like shape of the Veena is made out using round chisel called Kolavu uli. The resonator of Veena is made by scooping the wood and then a circular wood piece is made to cover the resonator.

Strings run over the frets which are twenty-four in total. It is played by using fingers. Left-hand fingers are used to press and glide over the frets. Right hand fingers are used to pluck the strings. It is difficult to learn Veena because you need the correct coordination between both the hands to produce music. The moment the positioning over frets is accurate, the right-hand fingers pluck the string to produce the desired sound.

Veena is such an auspicious musical instrument that the gods are said to reside in it. Shiva resides in the neck of the Veena and in the strings resides his consort Parvati. Lakshmi and Brahma reside in the bridge and the second gourd respectively. The dragon head of the Veena is said to be the residence of Vishnu and the resonating body is Saraswati. The Veena is really an adobe of divinity.
The one who plays Veena is called Vainiks.


The Venu or Flute is one of the ancient transverse flutes of Indian classical music. It is an aerophone typically made from bamboo that is a side blown wind instrument. It continues to be in use in the South Indian Carnatic music tradition. The venu is discussed as an important musical instrument in the Natya Shastra, the classic Hindu text on music and performance arts. The ancient Sanskrit texts of India describe other side blown flutes such as the murali and vamsika, but sometimes these terms are used interchangeably. A venu has six holes, is about the thickness of a thumb, and twelve fingers long. A longer murali has four holes and two hands longs. The vamsika has eight holes, between twelve and seventeen fingers long. A venu is a part of the iconography of Hindu god Krishna. One of the oldest musical instruments of India, the instrument is a key-less transverse flute made of bamboo. The fingers of both hands are used to close and open the holes. It has a blowing hole near one end, and eight closely placed finger holes. The instrument comes in various sizes. The venu is also a highly respected instrument and those who play it are expected to appreciate it, for it is considered a gift to be able to play it.

The venu is capable of producing two and half octaves with the help of over-blowing and cross fingering. The flute is like the human voice in that it is monophonic and also has a typical two and half octave sound reproduction. Sliding the fingers on and off the holes allows for production of variety of Gamakas, important in the performance of raga-based music.

Flutists breathe exactly how vocalists breathe, and require the same type of air support to create good sounds (I'll save defining “air support” for another day.). Many other details and facets of flute playing closely mirror the way vocalists train their voices. The flute (Venu) finds great mention in Indian mythology and folklore having been listed as among the 3 original instruments meant for music along with the human sound and Veena (vaani-veena-venu). However it is strange that there is no name mentioned for the typical flute that the Lord plays.

The venu is associated with the Hindu god Krishna, who is often depicted playing it. This kind of flute is mainly used in South India. Lord Vishnu is portrayed as Sri Venugopala - playing the Flute of Creation.

Venu had not been a part of the Carnatic classical music until the pioneering innovations of Shri Sharaba Shastri and later revisions and updates on his design by Shri T.R. Mahalingam (fondly called Flute Mali). Due to the underlying physics of sound production, flutes have a natural "cut" or a discontinuity when going from the lowest note to the highest note. This discontinuity appears between the notes "ga" and "ma" on a Carnatic flute and between "Ma" and "Pa" for a Hindustani flute (mainly because of the fingering technique differences). In order to adapt the flute to Carnatic Music, certain modifications were necessary such as the addition of the 7th hole, usage of thicker walled bamboos, the technique of lifting the head to change the angle of embouchure when shifting between "ga" and "ma" notes. These innovations enabled artists to perform the Carnatic ragas with all the necessary Gamakas and ornamentations without losing the "Bhaava" of the raga.

Performance format for Carnatic concerts: sections of a kutcheri

The present-day format of Carnatic music performance is thought to have grown out of the tremendous flowering, especially of music and dance, in the district of Thanjavar during the reign of King Ragunath Nayak, a major 17th-century patron of the arts. From this time until the 19th century, patronage for the music scene came only from royal courts or temples.

There were three clearly defined performance contexts: first, at the royal courts and palaces, where the ruling genre was vocal or veena and, from the 18th century onwards, the songs composed by what has now become known as the Holy Trinity of composers: Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshithar, and Shyama Shastri. The second performance context was at the temple where specific songs were performed as part of religious rituals, ceremonies or festivals.

The third and most popular context was the music that accompanied temple dances performed by an ensemble usually including a vocalist, an instrumental accompanist and any number of percussionists, with a repertoire consisting of items composed specifically for dance. Such pieces are still performed today, irrespective of whether or not a dancer is present.

Although improvisation plays an important role, pre-composed vocal music remains the dominant form of Carnatic music. Even where there is no vocalist and the recital is purely instrumental, the music is nearly always drawn from the vocal repertoire and is usually performed by a small ensemble consisting of a soloist (instrumental or vocal), a melodic accompaniment which is usually a violin although the harmonium is also fairly prevalent nowadays. Percussion accompaniment is usually provided by South India’s commonest drum, the mridangam, which can be joined by a ghatam or kanjira. There is also a tanpura which provides a constant drone.

A genre known as kriti, an extended song composition in 3 parts, forms the backbone of a Carnatic music concert and usually takes up the greater share of performance time but other genres can also feature prominently. A typical performance lasting two or three hours will often begin with a varnam (a melodic exploration sung with simple phrases) as a prelude to the first kriti song and usually in the same raga. This can be followed by a kalpanaswaram (improvising the notes of a chosen raga within the stylistic rules of this form) before moving on to the main compositional segment of the performance.

This section of the performance is often prefaced by an alapana (slow, pulse-free introduction) before going on to a niraval or a three-part song genre called the ragam-tanam-pallavi, often referred to as RTP. In most concerts, whatever the main item, it features at least one section known as tani avartanam in which one or more percussionists perform solo displaying their skills through various complex rhythmic patterns. The recital of a thillana is a popular way to conclude a performance.

Generally, audiences at concerts of Carnatic music tend to be very well informed about the music and its repertoire and quite often, after the main recital section has ended, will make requests for specific kritis or other shorter pieces.

Share this post on:

Book free trial