What North Indian Music Practice Can Teach Jazz Musicians

What North Indian Music Practice Can Teach Jazz Musicians

The improvisational language of jazz and that of Hindustani (North Indian) music share many
similarities, which we will get to in a minute, but first the main difference: the absence of
harmony in Indian classical music. While modal improvisation is familiar to jazz, the variety and
depth of the modes (‘raag’), having developed over centuries in India (as opposed to decades in
jazz), is unparalleled.
I have been performing, touring, recording and teaching as a jazz guitarist for over 30 years. I
started studying Hindustani music in the early 2000s at the New England Conservatory, taking
classes with sitarist Peter Row and musicologist George Ruckert, but it was not until the
pandemic in 2021 that I seriously took up the study of the sitar with my wonderful teacher, Abhik


The two are similar in that they are built on common phrases that are learned by every musician
who studies the music in depth. We call them licks, arpeggios or II-V-Is, while in Hindustani
music the terms are ‘pakad’, ‘chalan’ and ‘taan’. The term ‘language’ seems appropriate here,
since we use these ‘words’ to construct ‘sentences’ and try to infuse them with musical
We also find common ground in the underlying rhythmic structures. The accompaniment (drum
set in jazz, tabla in Hindustani music) while improvisational in nature, is rooted in a basic
pattern. The most common cycle (‘tal’) is called ‘Tintal’ and consists of 16 beats (‘matra’),
grouped in four bars (‘vibhag’). Jazz is mostly in 4/4 and structured in 4-bar phrases. Of course
there are many exceptions to this, especially in more modern jazz.
Unlike the church modes which are used in jazz, ragas have additional attributes such as time
of day or year, ‘rules’ regarding the phrasing of the notes in ascending and descending order,
microtonal inflections, etc. Nonetheless, there are many that contain the same notes as the
church modes, as they are used in jazz. In Classical North Indian theory, ragas can be classified
as falling into one of the ten basic ‘thaats’ (modes).
Here is a list of the thaats with the corresponding church modes, as well as a few common

THAATMODERAGAS (Morning, Afternoon, Dawn, Evening, Night)
KalyanLydianShudh Sarang (A), Bhupali, Maru Bihag, Yaman (E), Kedar (N)
BilawalIonianAlhaiya Bilawal, Bilawal (M), Durga (E), Bihag, Hamsadhwani (N)
KhamajMixolydianDesh, Khamaj (E), Champakali, Gorak Kalyan, Jog, Rageshree, Saraswati, Tilak Kamod (N)
KafiDorianBhimpalasi (A), Kafi, Patdeep (E), Bageshree, Chandrakauns, Pilu, Shivranjani (N)
AsavariAeolianAsavari, Jaunpuri (M), Adana, Darbari (N)
BhairaviPhrygianBhairavi Komal Rishabh Asavari (M), Malkauns (N)
BhairavIonian b2 b6Ahir Bhairav, Bairagi, Bhairav, Jogiya, Nat Bhairav, Ramkali (M)
MarwaLydian b2Bhatiyar, Sohini (D), Puriya Kalyan (E)
PurviLydian b2 b6Purvi (A), Lalit (D), Puriya Dhanashree (E)
TodiPhrygian #11 ♮7Gujari Todi (M), Madhuvanti, Multani (A)

Looking at all these similarities, one can start to see the potential for cross-pollination! Rather than attempt an exhaustive comparison between jazz and Indian music, which could fill a whole book, I will highlight a few aspects and present concrete examples that I feel can be of use to the practicing jazz musician who is interested in developing strong practice routines or simply in expanding their horizon


You will come across quotes from great jazz musicians proudly proclaiming that they never practiced. While it’s possible to get away with pure genius and minimum technique in jazz, you will not find this attitude in Indian music. Hard practice is emphasized at an early age. Whether the traditionally authoritative style of teaching is the ‘best’ way, or whether it can do psychological harm is a subject for another day. I find the devotion to practice impressive and inspiring. To give you an example, as a way to learn the basic movements of raag Yaman, my teacher gave me a phrase to practice. He told me that I was to play it five hundred times in a row. My first thought was that he either misspoke and meant to say fifty or I misheard and he said ‘a hundred’. I started to play and he started to count. We passed fifty and I started to notice that I was tense, and tried to relax more. We passed one hundred and I realized that my breathing was irregular, so I focused on that. We didn’t stop until we reached five hundred about 45 minutes later. He then told me that, as a kid, he would just keep going until 750 or even 1000. When did I ever practice a bebop lick, a chord progression or an arpeggio 500 times in a row? Never. Why not? I don’t know. What I know though is: It works.

Another time he told me that for the first six years of his study, all he practiced was Yaman. This is somewhat analogous to restricting yourself to the major scale for six years. Why are we in such a rush? After all, we are in it for the long haul. Go deep, go slow, have patience.

I like to think of practicing as meditation, or prayer if you like. It is sacred. Like meditation, it is an end in itself. Like prayer, it is a means to get you closer to the source.

As I hinted at earlier, ragas are intertwined with many other aspects of life, such as mood, time or season. They are often related to specific spiritual or philosophical texts and paintings and their descriptions often contain images from nature, like an animal, a river or a tree.


Let us take raag Todi as an example. It is played during late morning. Its mood is pensive and mournful, but can become festive at faster tempos. In paintings, it is depicted as a woman holding a veena, surrounded by deer.

Rather than spend a lot of time getting into the details and ‘rules’ of Todi, I want to present it to you as a mode that can be used in jazz improvisation and composition. In addition to being a raga, Todi is also one of the ten thaats.

In jazz terminology, it could be described as a Phrygian #11 ♮7 scale. Due to the fact that it contains four half steps, it is a very unusual collection of pitches for western ears, even for the trained jazz musician. Another way of constructing it is to start with the root and the fifth and add the major pentatonic from the (major) 7th scale degree.

I use it much in the same way I use phrygian, which is whenever I want a dark shade of minor. It can also be an interesting alternative to locrian, or even the blues scale.

Good tunes to try this on would be the Nardis (A section), Inner Urge (first four bars) or a dark blues like Equinox. This is a lot of fun!

Here is an example of how I used Todi as an inspiration for a composition. It starts with an ostinato and continues with a melody to be played over the ostinato:

There is an abundance of ragas that you can use as a springboard for modal improvisation or composition. Listen to some classical Indian recordings and find one that inspires you! The ‘Raga Guide’ book is a good source as well. You will find more recommendations at the end of this article.


Without going into too much detail here, there are two simple things we can learn from how ‘odd
meters’ like 5 or 7 are organized in North Indian music.
The most common ten beat cycle is called ’Jhaptal’ and is spoken ‘Dhin na Dhin dhin na, Tin na
Dhin dhin na’. Now for our purposes, we will look at this as two bars of 5, with the groupings
being 2+3. This is different from a jazz 5/4 groove, where the grouping is almost always 3+2,
like in ‘Take Five’.
The predominant seven beat cycle is Rupaktal: ‘Tin tin na Dhin na Dhin na’, a grouping of
3+2+2, while in jazz a 7/8 (or 7/4) beat is usually grouped 2+2+3.

Looking at it this way can serve as an inspiration to explore different groupings than the ones
we are used to, whether composing or improvising. It is also a reminder that in many other
cultures, the basic rhythms are not always the ones that feel ‘natural’ to us. It is all a matter of
getting used to it. Over time, through practicing and listening to Indian music, I have learned to
be as comfortable with these groupings (2+3 and 3+4) as with the ‘jazz’ ones (3+2 and 4+3).
Here is a composition of mine in Jhaptal, based on raag Todi:


A tihai is a phrase that is repeated three times, with the last note landing on beat one, usually
the top of the rhythmic cycle (‘sum’). Once you are familiar with this concept you can resolve it
on other beats as well. This is really fun! Here is a simple one in 4/4:
Tetekate Dha-tete kateDha- tetekate | Dha.
These are ‘bols’, which are syllables that mimic the sounds of the tabla. In India, musicians will
learn to speak these rhythms before they play them on their instrument.

If you listen closely, you will hear echoes of tihais in jazz improvisations by masters such as
Max Roach, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock or Sam Rivers, sometimes incidentally, sometimes
by design. After all, a big part of the jazz language is the displacement of rhythmic phrases.
Practicing tihais is a great way to internalize the concept of rhythmic displacement!
Here is a blues I wrote, based on a tihai:

This is just a small glimpse into the vast world of North Indian music practice! I hope that you
find some of this useful and that maybe I have sparked your curiosity to investigate further. I
would like to leave you with a personal, by no means exhaustive list of recommendations of
books, recordings and films that I particularly like and that I have learned a lot from:

The Raga Guide (Nimbus Records, Joep Bor)
The Sixth String of Vilayat Khan (Namita Devidayal)
The Music Room (Namita Devidayal)
My Life in Music (Zakir Hussain)
Those 40 Days (Samir Chatterjee)
Music of India (Samir Chatterjee)
Raga Mala (Ravi Shankar)
Raga Sangeet (Samarth Nagarkar)
The Mysticism of Sound and Music (Hazrat Inayat Khan)

The Classical Music of North India (Ali Akbar Khan/George Ruckert)
Musings of a Master Musician (Ali Akbar Khan)
Too many, so I am restricting myself to raag Todi here.
These are some absolute masters. YouTube link included.

Amir Khan
Vilayat Khan with Zakir Hussain
Buddhaditya Mukherjee
Shahid Parvez with Yogesh Samsi
Kaushiki Chakraborty
Rais Khan
Nikhil Banerjee
Bhimsen Joshi

The Music Room (Sayajit Ray)
Raga Revelry (documentary)
Raga (Ravi Shankar documentary)