Jan 1, 2024
North Indian Musical Instruments: Tabla, Sarangi, Bansuri, Shehnai, Tambura

North Indian Musical Instruments

The tabla (pronounced TAM-bur-ah) is a pair of drums that are fundamental to Hindustani classical music. The smaller drum, called the daya, is played with the left hand and the larger drum, the bayan, with the right.

Both drums have goatskin heads that are tightened using thongs and wooden dowels. Their distinct timbres are produced by varying the amount of tension applied to the skin.


The sarangi is the most advanced type of Indian bowed instrument. It has three playing strings of gut and around thirty metal sympathetic strings, anchored to tuning pegs in the neck. Unlike other musical instruments, the sarangi has no frets. The sarangi’s sound is rich in vocal quality, and its performance adheres to the principles of vocal music.

Traditionally, sarangi players have been primarily accompanists for vocal performances. However, modern recordings have given sarangi players greater opportunities for solo performances. Sarangi virtuosos are renowned for their ability to reproduce the nuances of vocal music on the instrument. They are also known for their expressiveness and emotional intensity.


The tabla is a pair of hand drums, and its most famous masters are known for their jaw-dropping precision and hugely imaginative approach to improvisation. They can play a vast repertoire of rhythms, ranging from bass notes to high-pitched sounds that create both melody and rhythm.

The drums are made of a hollow wooden structure and tightly set with a thin membrane that produces beats when struck by bare hands. The small drum called the Dayan is used to create sharp tonal beats, while the larger Bayan provides deep bass. Both drum heads have an area of black paste called the syahi that affects the pitch.

The skins on both drums are secured with goatskin straps at a very high tension and have tuning blocks (ghatta) that can be adjusted to change the tension and therefore the pitch of the drums. The skin is treated with an iron and rice paste, resulting in a unique sound quality.


The Bansuri is a flute made from bamboo with six to seven fingering holes. It can produce a wide range of sounds based on how it is played, with the higher and lower octaves produced by closing or opening a hole. The flat portion of the fingers, rather than the tips, are used to cover the holes for better control and ease of playing.

Pandit Pannalal Ghosh elevated the Bansuri from a folk instrument to a classical musical instrument. He introduced the nuances of vocal music into instrumental performance and paved the way for future generations of Bansuri masters.

Traditionally, the Bansuri is played horizontally with a slight tilt. However, modern fusion groups incorporate the instrument into contemporary styles, such as jazz and rock. The sound of the Bansuri, especially when tuned to 432 Hz, is said to resonate with the vibrations of nature and the cosmos, encouraging mindfulness and inner peace.


Whether you’re dancing at a wedding or basking in sounds at a concert, Indian music has a distinct flavour and vibrancy. A reed instrument, the shehnai features a powerful nasal quality with a range of two octaves. It is played using breath control and has seven to nine holes. It also has a drone, which can be stopped partially or completely for varying pitch.

The shehnai closely resembles the Nadasvaram, an important South Indian double-reed wind instrument. Its bore is conical, with a total of seven playing holes and one or two more for adjusting the pitch.

Shehnai is often associated with religious music and Hindustani classical music. It has a strong association with weddings, and musicians are often paid handsomely to play for such occasions. Bharat Ratna winner Ustad Bismillah Khan gave the shehnai a place among other Hindustani instruments and established it as a concert instrument.


In the nineteenth century Miraj tanpuras were all the rage with music students, who loved their tonal quality and beautiful natural gourd resonators. However, the trend seems to be shifting towards electronic tanpuras that promise quick setup and no tuning hassles.

The strings run from the resonator through a wide bridge, made of ebony wood or ivory (seesam), and across a notched ledge called jneru. From here they pass through the holes of another ledge for rougher tuning, where they can be fine-tuned with pegs on both sides.

The player sits cross legged with the resonator on the ground and the neck either pointing up or resting on the right thigh. The fingers of the right hand gently pluck each string, creating a harmonic resonance on the basic note.

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