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Tamil Music - A brief Introduction

The music of the pre-Christian era, namely, the Sangam period is called Tamil music. This period ranges approximately between 300 BC and 3 AD.

Great musical works like Tolkappiam, Ettutogai, Patthupattu, etc provide a lot of information on ancient Tamil music, which is believed by some, as the mother of Carnatic music. Through various books and ancient Tamil treatises we come to know of the existence of different types of music, musical instruments, musical forms, Panns (the equivalent of Ragas) and so on.

The 7 basic notes known by Sanskrit names today were known by pure Tamil names such as, Kural, Tuttam, Kaikilai, Uzhai, Ili, Vilari and Taram. There are even terms for the notes in different octaves. For example, Kurai Tuttam and Nirai Tuttam refer to the Rishabha in the lower and upper octaves respectively.

The other interesting feature is that there lived another set of three composers called the Tamil Moovar (Trinity), who lived about five decades before the Tiruvarur Trinity (Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri). They were Muthutandavar, Arunachala Kavi and Marimutha Pillai. In fact, the earliest Trinity were the peerless Tevaram Trinity - Appar, Sundarar and Gnanasambandar - who were well known for their language and devotion.

The ancient Tamil treatises like Tolkappiam and Silappadikaram mention 'Pannati', the equivalent of raga alapana. Instruments like Kuzhal (Flute), Yazh (Vina / Harp) and Muzhavu (percussion) seem to have been the accompaniments for both music and dance. 

It is very interesting to note that Sanskrit authors like Sarangadeva and Matanga have made profuse use of Tevaram Panns. It is said that the name “Raga” was given to Panns by Sanskrit authors. Raga was however, a well-known term in the Pann period, e.g. Takka ragam, Natta ragam, Pazhantakka ragam, Megha ragam etc. Ragas are not very different from Panns. Though the Panns find great elaboration in Silappadikaram long before the Tevaram songs, it was Gnanasambandar who gave these Panns a new life through his songs and poetry. In fact, Muthutandavar has even composed songs in the traditional Pallavi-Anupallavi-Charanam format, thus laying the foundation for the present day kritis.

Later composers like Gopalakrishna Bharati, Papanasam Sivan, Subramanya Bharati, Periasami Tooran and others have also contributed towards the propagation of Carnatic music with Tamil as the medium of language.

Tamil Music can be studied under different topics like (a) Ancient Musical Treatises and Historical References (b) Musical Instruments (c) Musical Forms (d) Melodic and Rhythmic Forms.


Tamil music is considered one of the most ancient music systems in the world. This is a very special system of music, characteristic and specific to the Tamil people. The historical references to the structure of music, musical instruments, method of singing, the circumstances under which the music developed, etc have been cited in very ancient texts that date back to as early as the 1st and 2nd century AD.


This text, written by Tolkappiar, gives references to the music that prevailed about 2000 years ago, besides dealing with the life of the early Tamilians, their customs, social and political conditions and the physical and geographical particulars.

From this work, one understands that the country was divided into four main regions - Kurinji (hills), Marudam (arable lands), Mullai (pastoral regions) and Neithal (coastal belts). Later Palai (wastelands) was also added. Each region had its own food, occupation, Gods, music and so on. As mentioned earlier, each region also had a mode or Pann, melodic instrument or Yazh and percussion instrument or Parai. The following is a list of the different regions and their specific Pann-s, Yazh-s and Parai-s.

Kurinji Kurinji Kurinji Tondaga
Mullai Sadari Mullai Erukot
Marudam Maruda Maruda Nellaikinai / Munamuzhavu
Neithal Sevvazhi Vilari Minkot, Navayapambai

It appears that these five Panns were in use from the earliest times and must have originated from the simple folk tunes and tribal songs of the ancient Tamils. The system of naming the musical modes after the land seems to have a parallel in the Greek music system too, where the 5 ancient modes were called Dorian, Lydian, Phrygian, Aeolian and Ionian, after the lands in which they originated.

Tolkappiam refers to the mode of production of sound as “Ahattezhu Vali Isai”. This is the primordial sound that originates from 'mooladhara' and sounds musical. (The great composer Tyagaraja has also echoed this thought in many of his compositions, with special reference to the Charanam of the kriti, ‘Mokshamu Galada’ in raga Saramati).

In the section on alphabets, the author talks of vowels and consonants that exceed the limit of sound. Here, he probably refers to the inter-relationship between language and music.

Tolkappiar mentions a musical form called 'Pattu Vannam'. He has given about 20 different types of Vannam-s, probably classified on the basis of the letters of the alphabet in each of those. He has also given different types of songs like Asiriapattu, Neduven pattu, Adivarai, Seer, Ahaval Osai, Vellosai, etc. which are classified on the basis of the musical quality, metrical structure etc. He also refers to a special type of musical song called 'Tazhisai'.


As the name suggests, this is a collection of eight different works, as explained below:
  • NATRINAI:This consists of 4000 verses of Ahaval type. There are many references to musical instruments like Yazh, Muzhavu (percussion), etc and these are equated to the hum of bees, sound of waterfalls etc. There is mention of Ambal Pann, which could be essayed very beautifully, on the flute. There is also a reference to the Muzhavu being used during festival times. Various other drums also have been mentioned which were used in the battlefield, during tight-rope walking, to drive away sparrows from the field and so on.
  • PURANANOORU: This is a set of 400 ballad songs mainly sung by court minstrels and wandering bards in praise and honour of the kings of South. The instruments mentioned here are the Seeriyazh with shining strings and Manamuzha, a percussion instrument that was used to accompany female singers. There are references to Panns Sevvazhi, Padumalai and Vilari. Mention of Orchestral music, the 3 octaves and seven notes are also found.
  • AINKURUNOORU: Five hundred Ahaval type verses are found here, apart from references to Mullai region and the Nalyazh. The other instruments mentioned here are the Tattai, Tannumai (both percussion) and the Thombu and flute (both wind instruments). It is said that Ambal Pann was played on the flute in the evenings. There is also mention of a Pann Panjuram, which was used to portray the emotion of fear. Panjuram, in the present day context, happens to be Sankarabharanam.
  • KALITOGAI: This work of Ettutogai is a collection of love songs. Music served various purposes in this Mullai region. References have been made to the yazh, which was used to tame wild animals which in turn, could attract cattle, control a mad elephant and so on. There is a reference to a seven-stringed yazh too. The 2 types of flutes mentioned here are the Ambal and Konrai. The music of the flute, which was compared to the dragonfly, was also used as a drone instrument, which prevented the yazh from deviating from its pitch. Mention is made of 4 kinds of Murasu, namely, Ponmurasu, Viramurasu, Koraimurasu and Nayamurasu (all drums). These have been used in the battlefields and also to pass on information. Another interesting reference to Kuravai Koottu (a type of folk art) has been made, wherein the accompaniment was Tannumai, which is equivalent to the present day mridangam. Panns Nottiram and Sevvazhi have been mentioned as creating the Soka (pathos) rasa (emotion). Besides, there is a mention of Unjal pattu or swing-song. There is also a reference to the people in the Neithal region making use of the whole bone to make yazh with the tree fibres as strings.
  • AHANANURU: This consists of 400 songs apart from many references to music. The most interesting one is the likening of Panns with rasas and the cries of animals. It has been said that Sevvazhi Pann expresses grief. There is also a reference to an elephant that stood transfixed after listening to the strains of Kurinji Pann. Sevvazhi Pann was also performed on yazh while praying. Yazh seems to have been a very popular instrument. The wind instruments referred to are Konrai Kuzhal and Thombu. Muzhavu is mentioned as having been played with hands and sticks and the Kinai was used as an accompaniment for vocal music.
  • PARIPPADAL: Of all the works in Ettutogai, this is the one that abounds in references to music and music related aspects. This could also be called Paripattu. The songs are in praise of Vishnu, Muruga and river Vaigai. After every poem, the name of the poet, the music composer and the Pann are specified. The first 11 songs are set in Palaiyazh Pann, the next 5 in Nerthiram or Nottiram (Bhoopalam) and the next four in Gandharam. There are a number of poets who have contributed to Parippadal. There is a verse, which compares vocal music and instruments to Nature. It is also mentioned that the blending of the yazh with the 2, 5 or 7- holed flute sounds beautiful. Another interesting feature is the mention of yazh being played to the pitch of the flute.
  • Neival Pann was used to portray happiness and this was sung to the accompaniment of yazh. Palai Pann was used to depict the emotion of joy to the accompaniment of yazh, kuzhal and muzham. We see references to Seer and Pani as being synonymous to Tala. We also find references to the descriptions of dancers and musicians. Among the wind instruments, there are references to Thombu, which resembles the flute and to flute itself. It has been mentioned that the blending of flute and muzham sounded good and that the flute was played opening and closing the holes with fingers. Muzham was considered to be an auspicious instrument, which was played during festivals and marriages. It's mentioned that Lord Muruga was propitiated by girls to the accompaniment of Muzhavu. A particular verse suggests that a paste called 'Mann' was applied on the ‘eye’ of the Muzhavu. It almost resembled the Tannumai. These details prove that the Muzhavu had carved an important position for itself in the music for that period. There are also references, which indicate that the Murasu was played by beating with a stick and that the three instruments Maddari, Tatari and Tannumai were played to the beat of ‘seer’ which is a synonym for Tala. Mention is made of brass instruments also. There is a very interesting reference to modal shift of tonic found in Parippadal.
  • PADITRUPATTU: This work consists of 100 Ahaval type verses. This is divided in to 10 sections with 10 songs each and for each song, the rhythm and melody (Tookku and Vanmai) have been mentioned. Tookku is a synonym for Pani, which means Tala. There is a reference to Kuravai dance. It is also mentioned that the female musician, Virali, sang Palaiyazh pann to the accompaniment of yazh, which sounded very pleasing. Apart from the Periyazh, references are also made to Seeriyazh. 'Sangu' or conch was another instrument that was highly respected. 'Valampuri Sangu', a conch with an anti-clockwise twist was accorded even a higher place as this was scarce to procure. There is reference to Thombu, a wind instrument that was probably a larger version of the flute. There is a verse that suggests that one side of Tannumai, the percussion instrument, had a paste applied on it and that it was played with hands. This seems to suggest that Tannumai can be considered the equivalent of the present day Mridangam. Muzhavu was used in festivals while Murasu was used in battlefields. It seems each region had its own native tree. The king or chief who won the battle would make a Murasu out of the defeated King’s native tree and sound it, which would cause embarrassment to the defeated king. Lord Muruga was the special deity. There are many references to music in this work, which gives us an insight into the music of Kadai Sangam period (later Sangam period).
  • KURUNTHOGAI: In this, the Panar are mentioned extensively as being devoted to learning music and entertaining the people. These people were richly rewarded with presents. The chief of peasants, Yevvi, gave flowers of gold as a reward. Thus, where the chief died, the Panars sang with a lot of grief.

The instruments referred to here are Tannumai, Tondagam, Padalai, Murasu and Muzhavu of the percussion category. The flute and conch are the two wind instruments that are referred to. It is said that the music from the flute resembled the chirping of a bird called Vanga. This is the reason why flute got the name Vangiyam. The conch is also known by another name called 'Panilam'.

The instruments, Parai and Sangu are said to be played during marriage. The Tondaga Parai or Siruparai, belonging to the Kurinji land, was said to have been played by the people who guarded the city during nights, in order to drive away the beasts. The Pann Padumalai is said to belong to the Palai land and is portrayed as one sung for happy occasions. The Vilaripann, also called Irangarpann, is said to belong to the Neithal land and is supposed to portray a sad mood/emotion. The musical composition mentioned here are 'Vallai pattu' or 'Aval pattu' belonging to the folk-music, Kalarippa and Parani, belonging to martial music. The Vallai pattu is supposed to be sung by a young damsel in love, in praise of her lover while pounding. The martial music was sung by the Panar in the battlefield.

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