Excerpts from

Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya - Elements of Music II


By Dr. lalmani Misra




Musical equipment




After discussing elements of music we shall deliberate upon the equipment in the art forms of song, dance and instrumental music. Quite like the brush employed in painting, chisel and hammer in sculpting, equipment is needed in song, dance and instrumental music as well. Two kinds of equipment are used in music – external and internal. External equipment are found in instrumental music, the internal in vocal music. Maharishi Bharat and his contemporary thinkers equating human vocal cords with other four kinds of instruments have established the principle of five primordial sounds:

ekam ishwarnirmitam naisargikam anyachchaturvidham

manushyanirmitam cheti panchprakarah mahavadyanam1

One of the mahavadya-s is natural, god-given while the other four have been created by man. Man has obtained full information about the natural chordophone - the human throat or larynx and has created the discipline of voice-culture to study it.

A simple deliberation reveals that that there are three kinds of musical equipment -- 1. Main frame 2. Vibrating material 3. Impulse generator. When we examine the main frame or structure of a musical instrument we find that most of the things used in construction are natural. The successive development of musical instruments also reveals that as society grew in complexity, the use of artificial material increased. For example, millenniums back clay, bone and bamboo were used in making a flute; gradually wood and several metals like brass, iron, silver and gold were brought into use. Percussion instruments were made of clay alone, but later they were made up of wood and now other material is freely used in many instruments.


Present-day Materials used in frame construction

For most hammered instruments or struck idiophones, the frame is made of dried leaves, bones, wood and asht-dhatu (amalgam of various alloys and metals). Such instruments are generally solid structures save few like jhunjhuna, rambha etc. Membranophone or percussion frames are generally built with clay, wood and asht-dhatu. They are generally hollow, hence idioms2 commenting on this hollowness have come in vogue. Frames of wind instruments too are constructed with clay, bone, bamboo, wood, brass, bronze, iron and silver. These instruments too are usually hollow. String instruments or chordophones have wooden frames with use of gourd, leather or brass and bronze in some.


Vibrating material

Vibrating material mans that part of the instrument which is added to the frame to create sound, e.g. strings in sitar, membrane in dholak etc. The vibrating material in the hammered instruments is their main frame itself. The idiophones from the very inception are connected with rhythm; hence it is not mandatory for them to have all qualities which make sound musically pertinent. Metallic idiophones or matallophones may occasionally produce notes as in Gangsa, Gamelan, xylophone, Ghanta-tarang; yet it is better not to use them for notes as they are best suited to provide rhythmic accompaniment.

In aerophones or wind instruments provision is made for entry, movement and exit of wind in the construction of the frame itself. In its simplest form it can be evinced in the flute. The exit holes are closed with fingers and to produce the desired note, particular holes are opened. In western countries around thirteenth century provision of key was made which regulated the production of notes and aided continuity. In such aerophones as harmonium, things are a little different with the main note-producing part, the reed being altogether separate from the main structure. The frame of harmonium gathers the wind and directs it towards the exit where a small metallic reed allows it to escape through an opening. The reed opening is fixed on the inner side of pine-wood reed-board which has a hole on the top.

Thus, despite being an aerophone the harmonium it is different from flute, shehnai, kahala, turahi etc.

Supreme development of vibrating material can be found in membranophones and chordophones. The material that creates vibration in a chordophone are the strings and in a percussion instrument its membrane. For quite some time experiments have been made with hides of animals in trying to perfect the membrane from methods of skinning to tanning and polishing of leather to anointing with formula preparations in some special way on the external or inner surface. The same refinement can also be detected in development of string material. In the Vedic period doorva and moonj were used; later animal hair and gut came to be used. Finally metal strings of steel, brass and copper are now employed in most chordophones. Some contemporary western instruments use paired strings in which a silver wire is twisted around a steel one to obtain deeper notes.

Striking / Driving substance

After mulling over the vibrating material let us study the third element of musical equipment, the substance that stimulates or strikes to produce vibration. The stimulus is generally the striker or plucking bit like mizrab in sitar, gaj (bow) in sarangi and shanku for sounding a nagada.

The driving force that brings out the sound from one material through the second can be of two types – continuous and intermittent. Use of bow and blowing or puffing brings out continuous sound like in a mashak or harmonium, while the force is broken in chordophones that employ plectrum like sitar, sarod, rudra veena. The impulse tool should be in accordance with the nature of the instrument. Interchanging the bows of sarangi and violin would fail to produce a fulfilling sound from either instrument.

Good artistes know how to bring out variations in sound from their instrument through slight changes in the driving substance. For example using a wire java, plastic java or coconut java on a sarod brings out different tones. Similarly when java strikes one inch from the bridge and seven inches from the bridge the two sounds are quite different. A change in the tonal quality of any instrument can be brought about in this fashion. The same instrument thus sounds melodious or harsh depending on the artiste. The driving substance therefore is vital to the art of playing an instrument; the adept artistes use it to bring out harsh and melodious notes in keeping with the nature of the instrument.

The number of impulse substances is not less than instruments though it appears to be so. Actually several metallophones like jhanjh, manjira, kartal, karma have two equal parts that strike together and most aerophones have wind for their impulse agent, hence it is only such chordophones and membranophones as sitar, veena, sarod, sarangi, nagada, dhounsa, nishan and mridang etc. use an impulse substance other than the main frame.

It is apparent that while the main frame, vibrating substance and impulse agent in musical equipment were simple using natural material, the development of Indian musical instruments clearly demonstrates how with changing needs, dreams and aspirations of man and society the instruments also developed with decreasing reliance on natural material and greater use artificial embellishment.

References :

1 Ekam… Naradiya Skiksha, Sangeet Chudamani, Baroda edition, p. 69

2 "dhol mein pol" -- weakness underneath a facade of strength.


Links :

Excerpts from Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya - Sitar

Excerpts from Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya - Other Veena-s

Excerpts from Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya - Surmandal

Excerpts from Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya - Elements of Music - I

Dr. Lalmani Misra on Wikipedia

Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya 1973. Second edition, 2002. pp 34-37

published by

Bharatiya Jnanpith

18, Institutional Area, Lodhi Rd

New Delhi - 110003

Back to Articles