Sanskrit & Music

There are numerous connections between Sanskrit and Indian music.

One of the oldest forms of sounding together was the recitation of the Vedas, the sacred books of the ancient religion of India. Sometimes referred to as the ‘hymns of the Vedas’ they are formulae expressing eternal laws of creation. They are also songs of praise. The sound of these songs is derived from the language of mantra and its intonations from which classical Sanskrit is derived. This language is a science of sound as much as it is a language The literature which accompanies each tradition of Vedic recitation contains information about an ancient and sophisticated form of music. Thus the way Sanskrit mantras have been chanted represents some of the origins of Indian music as we currently hear it.

Traditionally the knowledge and practice of Indian music is transmitted orally. This was the way before writing came into being and still continues today. With the advent of writing, important treatises on many aspects of music and related subjects were written. They were compilations of the available knowledge of the time describing in minute detail the science, philosophy and grammar of music and how music should be performed.

Each Vedic tradition includes an Upanishad, a text rich in philosophical thought and comprising a sacred teaching. The Mandukya Upanishad explains four states of being from physical to spiritual but a more ancient source, the Rg Veda, describes in reverse order, four levels of sound or hearing: “Four are the levels of speech. The wise who possess insight know them all. Three levels, hidden in secret, cause no movement. The fourth is the level that is spoken by mankind.” (Rg Veda 1.164.45) Thus there is an intimate connection between Sanskrit language, philosophy and music in the Indian tradition with roots extending far back in time.

Solveig McIntosh

For more detail please see ‘Hidden Faces of Ancient Indian Song’ by Solveig McIntosh, Ashgate Publishing