Carnatic, Hindustani

The Pecking Order: Why is vocal music considered the highest form of music?

  • Author: Jameela Siddiqi

Indian classical music has a built-in pecking order, not only based on the seniority or ability of musicians but also by drawing a clear distinction between vocal and instrumental music. Vocal performance is considered the highest form of music in India, because the voice is God-given whereas instruments are made by humans - albeit with the explicitly stated aim of trying to replicate the human voice.

Indian music has its roots in devotional rituals and melody is thought to have grown out of specific religious chanting, where individual syllables and words of sacred verses had to be recited in a strictly prescribed pitch or tone. The human voice was therefore always revered as something that contained immense mystical properties given the ability to evoke a sense of awe in listeners and performers alike.

More crucially, although music by itself is said to carry the power to transform human hearts, vocal music has the added advantage of being able to use words to convey a given emotion as direct praise of the divine or as an expression of a specific human sentiment or emotion. Many good vocal compositions carefully match the given poetic sentiment to the actual emotional aspect of the raag (melodic structure) in which that poetry is composed. Some compositions have such strong lyrical connotations that even when they are played as purely instrumental versions, the original lyrics, although un-sung, appear to be at the forefront of the performance.

It’s worth noting that while vocals are considered superior to all other instruments (for the reasons given above), there is no particular hierarchy within the array of instruments and all whether string (e.g. the veena, sarod, or sitar), wind (bansuri, shehnai) or struck-string (santoor), are considered equal. There is a further distinction that instruments which can produce melody are, on the whole, considered superior to percussion instruments. Percussion solos are a comparably recent phenomenon in Indian music and tabla's traditional role has always been to play 'second fiddle' to a vocalist or instrumental soloist.

But where newcomers to Indian music are concerned, the exact reverse order seems to apply in terms of relating to a new and strange musical tradition. They are often first attracted by rhythm (which is always easier to intuitively understand), secondly by melody in its instrumental variety and only very gradually do they admit to being drawn into vocal music – language sometimes proving something of a barrier.

Even so, one of the most globally successful vocalists of our time, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (a performer of qawwali) sang with such a dynamic and charismatic confidence that a very large number of those who packed the concert halls for his performances around the world were unperturbed by not knowing the languages of his songs – a clear case of music being able to transcend language.

Listen to the music | Esteemed vocalist Dr. Prabha Atre captivates the audience at Darbar Festival 2014 with Raag Bhairavi, showcasing a refined yet often exuberant style.


Darbar believes in the power of Indian classical music to stir, thrill, and inspire. Explore our YouTube channel, or subscribe to the Darbar Concert Hall to watch extended festival performances, talk and documentaries in pristine HD and UHD quality.

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