Carnatic Music Composition Primer

One of the many treasures that we cherish even today in the arena of Carnatic music is listening to the numerous music compositions being performed by professional artists and enthusiasts all around the world. Historically, Carnatic Music compositions have been lyrically and musically composed by the legendary musicians of yore. The trinity composers of Carnatic music, Saint Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri and many other composers of their ilk wrote devotional lyrics on various Gods, composed music, wrote down music notations for each of their song compositions and also premiered them live in the temples.

Our attempt at a grass-roots level is to try to identify and understand the ingredients of such magnificent compositions in general and formulate the foundation required to write similar compositions. Although it is a pretty far-fetched idea to be able to match the caliber of these divine composers, it is quite a privilege in itself to be inspired by these compositions and recognize the science behind the art of music composition.

First, let us observe the ingredients that play as essential features in the composition of the song. When you embark on writing a Carnatic Classical Music based devotional song, these essential features that are the building blocks of the song need to be understood clearly in its entirety :

1. Lyrical
2. Musical
3. Rhythmic
4. Contextual
5. Structural
6. Ownership
7. Exposure

1. Lyrical :

This essential feature includes the words and phrases that make up the lyrical content of the song. The lyrics convey the message in the text of the song. The lyrics in a devotional song is usually a description, in praise or a story snap shot of the form of God or Goddess being written about. The lyrics can be broadly classified based on the following categories:

Subject : Carnatic Music compositions are predominantly devotional in nature. It would help to identify which deities, Gods, Goddesses to write about in the song, so the lyrical content could describe them or praise their glory or ask for their blessings.

Content : The pallavi of the song should be able to address the main premise of the song based on whether it is a praise, complaint, allegation, banter, question or other contexts.

Language : What language could be used for the composition? - tamil, sanskrit, hindi, telegu, kannada or malayalam. This will be based on the composer’s expertise in that particular language.

Rhyme Scheme : What kind of rhyme scheme could be used in the lyrics? Whether the rhymes are used on the first word or the last word of the line and whether the rhymes or on consecutive lines or alternate lines etc.

2. Musical :

This essential feature of music composition includes the melody or tune of the song that influences and enhances the lyrical component interwoven into a pre-determined rhythmic pattern ( thaaLam and the naDai ) and all encapsulated into the song for listening pleasure. The melody or tune is directly defined by the following:

raagam: One of the most important requisite of composing the tune is the selection of the raagam for the song. The appropriate candidate for the raagam selection is influenced by the following:

Emotions : There are numerous raagams in Carnatic music and there are specific raagams that by their nature can bring out any particular emotion. Broadly classified, emotions could come under Happy, Sad, Fear, Anger or peaceful although there are navarasams - 9 different emotions that are used in classical Bharatanatyam dance.

Raagamaalika : is a garland of different raagams woven together in the song. The individual raagams could be selected to contrast as they transition from one to the other.

Context : The raagam selection process is based on using specific raagams for specific gods ( kalyani ( Devi ), mohanam ( krishna ), saaranga ( Shiva ), sri ( lakshmi ), saraswati ( saraswati ) etc In one of my compositions navarathri potrum deviyar moovaraam, on the presiding deities of navarathri – Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati, the raagams on each of them are set in Durga, sri and saraswati respectively to match their names.

thaaLam : This defines the recurring rhythm cycle that matches a line of the lyrics. thaaLams in Carnatic music is an integral part of the song composition and would determine how the lyrics are laid out. The main thaaLam type in almost all compositions fall under dhruva, maTya, rUpakam, jampai, tripuTai, aTa and ekam and their various configurations based on the jaathi. The most common compositions in Carnatic compositions are in Adi, roopakam, misra chaapu, kanDa chaapu and sankeernam thaalam which are derived from specific configurations of the above main thaalams. In one of my past compositions Ulagamellaam kaakkum perum Shakti, which describes Paraashakti being worshipped by all in her family, the anupallavi on akhilaanDeshwari described as sapta swara roopiNi is set in misra chapu thaaLam ( seven count beat ), the charanam on Shanmukha in roopaka thaaLam ( 6 count beat ), the charnam on ashta Ganapati in aadi thaaLam ( 8 count beat ) and the charanam on Shiva described as pancha bhoota thalaivan in kanDa chaapu ( 5 count beat ) to thus match the beat counts of the respective verses in the song.

naDai or gathi : These are the individual beats within the a single thaalam count whose pattern repeats for each count of the rhythm pattern. tisram ( three beats / count ), chatushram ( four beats / count ) kanDam ( five beats / count ), misram ( seven beats / count ) and sankeernam ( nine beats / count )). The naDai or gathi defines the individual beats that coincide with the syllables making up the lyrics of the song. For example, in the composition Swaagatam Krishna by OothukaaDu Venkatasubbaiyer, the thaaLam is in aadi and the naDai or gathi is in tisram.

Swa a ga tam . kru shNa a
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

a . cha ra Na a ga tam
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

. kru shNa . . . i ha
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

In one of my compositions for a dance drama, Origins of Dance, the song “Sooriyarum Chandirarum” in ranjani raagam, the thaaLam is in aadi and set to kanDa naDai to describe Lord Shiva embarking on a war to destroy the tripurasuraas.

bhaavam : This is the emotional content of the song either influenced by the lyrics, the context or premise of the song or the selected raagam. Carnatic Classical music has the bhaavam or the human expression built into the architecture of many of the raagams. There are specific raagams for the nine emotions, navarasams that when used in the composition will rightly kindle those emotions. The lyrical content adds on to the bhaavam and further gets embellished by the rendering artist. In one of my compositions for the dance drama, Sita Swayamvaram, the tear jerker kamala padam kaaNa kaathirunden set in raagam kaanaDa depicts the plight of ahalya waiting for Sri Rama’s appearance and the song pandaaDinaaL paingiLi set in kathanakudoohalam brings the joyful nature of Sita playing ball with her friends.

3. Rhythmic :

This essential feature of song composition defines how the lyrical component is inter-woven into melodic component to create the song. The rhythmic feature of the song is defined by the following parameters :

Meter : It is the basic building block of a phrase or a sentence of the lyrical content that closely follows the rhythm pattern. The words and phrases chosen for the particular thaaLam or naDai should fit in the meter of the rhythm. The lyrics are usually written for the meter and the syllables of the lyrics should coincide with the naDai within the thaaLam at all times. For example, in Muthuswami Dikshitar’s vaataapi gaNapatim bhaje, the first line of the pallavi, vaataapi gaNapatim bhaje ham, the meter is 123-123-123-123-1234 or in sollu kattu, it is takita-takita-takita-takita-takadimi thus covering 16 counts (naDai) in the meter while using the aDi taaLam with a duration of 8 beats and hence is said to be sung in maDhyama kaalam. Similarly, swarams ( the alphabet of musical notes ) or sollu kattus performed using the vocabulary of jathis also follow the same rules and regulations of the meter even though they are non-lyrical in nature.

eDuppu : This defines where the lyrics of the song start for each cycle of the thaaLam. When you sing a carnatic music composition, you usually count 1,2,3,4... with your thaaLam on your lap. The eDuppu is the offset from the beginning of the thaaLam cycle before you start singing/playing the song in reference to your count start. It is either ON samam ( where you count 1 ), 1/2 thalli (time between count 1 and 2 half way down), 1 thalli ( at count 2 ( 1 count away from 1 ) , 1.5 thalli, 2 thalli etc. indicating how much in thaaLam duration you wait with reference to the samam ( if you start counting 1 for samam ). There are some compositions where the eduppu is ¼ or ¾ thalli also.For example, vaataapi gaNapatim bhaje starts on samam,my composition ulagamellaam kaakkum perum Shakti is ¾ thalli as you count 1-2-3 or takita before singing “ulagamellaam…”. Similarly, the anupallavi of alai paayudhe kaNNa - nilai peyaraadu silai polave ninDra, “nilai” is started ½ thalli since it is sung after counting 1-2 or taka in reference to the samam.

Note: eDuppu in tamil means the take-off or trigger point where the singing starts. samam in tamil refers to the first beat in the beat cycle when you count “1” or when you tap your lap at the beginning of each cycle of the thaaLam, thalli in tamil refers to the distance in time from the start of the thaaLam cycle..

Tempo (kaalam) : This is the ideal speed at which the song is laid out by the composer in the form of the notations. Although the absolute speed chauka (slow), madhyama (medium) and durita (fast) speeds are relative to each other, the actual speed could be what the performing artist decides to render it in. The pallavi of the song could be composed at a slower tempo and have parts that are medium and fast speeds, in the charanams. Typically the medium speed ( madhyama kalam )would be double the speed of the slow (chauka kaalam ) parts. Example : In alai payudhe kanna song, the lower speed is used in the charanam : thelinda nilavu paTTa pagal pol eriyudhe is in madhyama kalam speed and kaditta manattil urutti padattai enakku aLittu magizhttavA in durita kaalam. The durita kaalam would be double the speed of the madhyama kaalam and four times the speed of the chauka kaalam parts of the song.

Note : varNams are traditionally sung in 3 speeds – chauka (slow), madhyama (medium) and durita (fast) using both the swarams and the saahityams.

4. Contextual :

Although most Carnatic devotional songs are performed at a vocal/instrumental concert, the song composition can be better formulated when the song is composed for a dance recital where the lyrical aspect of the song can be better embellished by the classical dance expressions which add an additional visual dimension to the song. The following inherent salient features of classical Bharatanatyam dance helps with better design of the song.

Dance recitals:

The maargam or repertoire of a Bharatanatyam dance recital requires unique music compositions for the each of the individual items like pushpanjali, kavuthuvam, allarippu, jathiswaram, varNam, padam, jaavaLi, thillaana etc. When writing music for these Bharatanatyam maargam items, one needs to understand the following :

nrutya : ability to express, demonstrate, tell stories, elaborate the words and the emotion of the song that anyone should be able to comprehend and enjoy.

nrutta : pure dance that is danced with the syllable, alphabet and phrases using the vocabulary of the specific dance style. The swarams and the sollu kattus in the song are performed using nrutta ( there is usually no expressive content here )

I have had numerous opportunities to work on music compositions especially for Bharatanatyam recitals and dance dramas where the compositions were created after close discussions with the Bharatanatyam teacher for each of those items on specific customization requirements. When writing songs for a dance recital, the words chosen as part of the lyrics of the song should both be visual and dynamic in nature so they can be portrayed by the dancer.

5. Structural

This essential feature defines how the song should be packaged in terms of the number of verses, message in the lyrics, the elaboration of the raagam’s nuances and thaalam variations.
Historically, Carnatic music compositions have been written with the beginning first line or two called the pallavi, followed by a few lines of anupallavi followed by one or more verses called charanam(s). Some compositions are interspersed with swaram patterns called chiTTaiswaram using the alphabet of musical notes ( viz., s, r, g, m, p, d, n S ) and jathi patterns or sollu kattus ( viz., taka, takita, dimita, jonuta, etc.) forming a unique rhythmic concoction within the song. These are usually composed in a faster tempo (madhyama or durita kaalam ) than the lyrical parts of the song to maintain a contrast and stand out.

6. Ownership

Traditionally, most Carnatic music compositions are embedded with the signature word or phrase called the mudra to identify the composer with the song. St. Thyagaraja used the signature “thyagaraja”, Muthuswamy Dikshitar used “Guru Guha” , Syama Sasthri used “Syama Krishna” and Purandara Dasa used “purandara vittala” and so on. This was a common practice among many composers just so that the song remains attached to the composer over the centuries and we have seen it has worked quite well. It is thus a good idea to come up with one’s own mudra and embed it into the lyrics of the song to ensure the affiliation of the composer to the song for generations to come.

7. Exposure

In addition to a good education in learning, experience in performing Carnatic music for several years and expertise in reading and writing in a language of one’s choice, perseverance and hard work is required in exposing oneself to existing compositions so as to align oneself towards the art of music composition. Studying the works of many of the divine Carnatic music composers, closely comprehending their lyrical ability, the emotional content of their compositions, recognizing their musical expertise, their notating abilities and closely listening to the interpretation and performance of these compositions by performing artists of various genres surely does inspire one to gradually attain the ability to gain enough confidence to try a hand at music composition. In the current world fueled by internet, there are ample opportunities to find archived recordings of Carnatic music compositions that could channel one’s quest for the knowledge required to become a music composer.

Once the song is composed, notated and premiered at a recital, It takes a while to take shape, flow, attain finesse and gain popularity among the listeners. The finesse is achieved gradually based on the interpretation of the song by the singer and how he or she performs it at a recital. The same song could actually sound much better and more refined when rendered by experienced artists as they have gained polish over repeated renditions.

Although music composition is considered a fine art that only a handful are capable of doing and these individuals are eulogized as “gifted” and “highly talented”, it is indeed an art form of music composition that has a science behind it on how it is formulated. However, the art of music composition is undoubtedly due to the divine grace of the God Almighty showered on an aspiring music composer and is said to have been perfected when one has attained the clarity of the thought process to comprehend all of the above influencing elements of music composition before venturing into writing music. Like all of the fine art forms, music composition is not a destination but a delightful journey towards eternal bliss.

- Gopal Venkataraman, Las Vegas, NV.
Gopal is a performing musician, composer, lyricist, poet, an occasional columnist and a great connoisseur of Indian Classical music, especially the Carnatic style. He works for the largest gaming company in the world, Caesars Entertainment in Las Vegas, NV and frequents the Chennai December Music season and the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana. He can be reached by email at: or contacted via his website :