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Compound Meter in Indian Classical Music Rhythms


Indian classical music rhythms are incredibly complex and intricate, but when we slowly break down the rhythms we realise that the foundational concepts are simple, logical, and beautifully mathematical. Today we'll be analysing the concept of meter in South Indian classical music, or carnatic music, uncovering how the western concept of simple and compound meter can be understood and applied in it. Understanding these musical concepts that will improve your sense of rhythm and musicianship regardless of what style you play!

Welcome to Ethnomusicology for the World, my world music lesson series where I strive to help the world's musicians better understand and appreciate its diverse musical cultures. Let’s delve right into our musical concepts for today, the carnatic rhythmic concepts ‘Taka’ and ‘gati’.


Before You Begin:

Download my free resources to guide you along!


Musical Concept: Tala & Gati


Carnatic music is organised in time through what are called 'tala cycles'. These tala cycles are simply a fixed number of beats at a constant tempo, repeated throughout the entire piece. Similar to how an orchestral conductor might use various hand or baton gestures to indicate each point in a bar, carnatic musicians use hand gestures (angas) to keep track of where we are in the metric cycle.

The most common tala used is called adi tala, which is an 8-beat cycle. Follow along the video to learn the angas used to keep adi tala!


Where tala refers to a steady number of beats within a repeated cycle, gati refers to the number of subdivisions within each of those beats. There are many similarities here to western music, where the two most common types of meter are:

Simple meter: 2 subdivisions per beat

Compound meter: 3 subdivisions per beat

In carnatic music, there are many more commonly used gatis (or number of subdivisions per beat). These include:

Chatusra gati: 2, 4, or 8 subdivisions per beat

Tisra gati: 3 or 6 subdivisions per beat

Kanda gati: 5 subdivisions per beat

Misra gati: 7 subdivisions per beat

Sankeerna gati: 9 subdivisions per beat

While this may seem overwhelming initially, a close look at the concept reveals how logical this system is. We have gatis that enable use to subdivide each beat from 2 - 9 subdivisions.

Comparing it to western music, tisra gati and chatusra gati correspond to compound and simple meter respectively. Let's see this concept in action with a musical example!

Musical Example: 'Adi Tala Korvai (48+48)'

This is a composition by my guru Mr V. Raghuraman in the rhythmic form called a korvai. Here I will perform it in vocal rhythmic syllables called 'konnakol'. The beauty of this korvai lies in how through it's three renditions, it switches from tisra gati to chatusra gati then back to tisra gati.

Essentially, we have the same rhythmic sequence rendered in three different speeds. Listen to how in each rendition the syllables stay the same, but through the various gati changes they still fit perfectly in the adi tala cycle.

Lets do some quick math to illustrate how it works!

The entire korvai comprises of 96 subdivisions.

1 adi tala cycle in tisra gati slow speed: 8x3=24 subdivisions

96/24 = 4 adi tala cycles

1 adi tala cycle in chatusra gati medium speed: 8x4=32 subdivisions

96/32 = 3 adi tala cycles

1 adi tala cycle in tisra gati medium speed: 8x6=48 subdivisions

96/48 = 2 adi tala cycles

We see here that through the gati changes, it all fits nicely into whole adi tala cycles. That's the beauty of it!

Musical Exercise: Switching Gatis in Adi Tala

For you to get started with this beautiful rhythmic concept, I've put together a simple exercise that you can do anytime and anywhere.

This exercise comprises two adi tala cycles, both of which the first four beats are in chatusra gati (4 subdivisions per beat) and the last four beats are in tisra gati (3 subdivisions per beat).

Notice how although the rhythms are exactly the same in both cycles, the groupings of syllables are different. As you stretch the 4-syllable word 'Thakadimi' across multiple beats in the second cycle, you will feel the accents (on the syllable 'tha') shift in-between the beats. This juxtaposition of two different rhythms is a prominent characteristic of carnatic rhythms.


And that's why I simply adore Indian classical music. It is intricate, logical, beatiful, mathematical and simple all at the same time. Learning the intricacies of carnatic music has developed my musicianship in all styles and genres tremendously, and I'm sure it will do the same for you if you put in the hard work!

Do leave a comment with any questions you might have and I'll do my best to answer them. Follow along my musical journey on my YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and website as I share new music videos and lessons on those very music videos, each and every week, to help you along your own musical journey.

Until next time, I'll see you again!

By Neil Chan


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