Issue 4, July 2004

Notation of South Indian Music
Emmie te Nijenhuis

1. Historical development of music notation in India
2. Influence of instrumental playing on ornamentation
3. Notation as used in the Varnam book (te Nijenhuis 2001)

Cite as: Nijenhuis, Emmie te, 'Notation of South Indian Music'. Oideion; Performing arts online, issue 4 (July 2004), <>


In Indian music improvisation and variation have always played a predominant role in performance practice. This may explain why in India music notation never became very popular and was hardly used in music education. Modern Indian musicians and musicologists are aware of the limitations of Indian letter notation: rhythmic and melodic details are often not clear. After 1870 some Indian scholars favoured Western staff notation, but traditional Indian letter notation prevailed.

In the course of time special signs for the major melodic ornaments and techniques of performance were developed. In this article I review the various attempts of Indian musicologists to classify and define the ornaments and techniques used in singing and instrumental playing.

In my book of transcriptions of educational songs (Varnam) played on the South Indian lute (te Nijenhuis 2001), I decided to use two parallel lines. The first line contains a literal transcription of Indian syllabic notation into staff notation, while the second line shows a descriptive staff notation using gamaka signs of a real performance of the composition recorded on the accompanying audio CD. Here I shall discuss the major issues concerning this notation.