Meter, thaLam and Rhythm

By Arularacan


Some general Gas:

There are three fundamental elements of music: (1) notes, known as swarams, (2) length of notes, as in full note, half note, ... (3) rests. Melody and harmony are those aspects of music which use all the three extensively. Percussion (commonly but erroneously, in my humble opinion, known as Rhythm section) on the other hand uses same (set of) note(s) with judicious choice of (2) and (3) mentioned above. Indian and some African/Latin percussive instruments can produce a limited set of notes (different swarams). Western percussion (except for the tympani and snare drum, as far as I know) produce only one note; so by a combination of different percussive instruments one could produce a variety of notes. This is what is done in “Drums” – a kick-drum, a snare, two or three toms, hi-hat, cymbals, ... . Jalatharangam is a unique instrument in that it is a combination of a large number of cups filled with water (percussive instrument) each tuned to a different swaram thereby allowing one to play a melody!. Similar instruments are found in the Indonesian Gamelan (pronunced – ga’ ma_ lawn) where pots (for lack of other “common” descriptive word) of different pitches are used to play melody[1]. Therefore technically one could use a combination of percussive instruments to play melody. I remember seeing on TV, long time back – 15 year ago, some mridhangist do this with a set of 12 mridhangams!! It was innovative and awesome. Anyways, I am running out of general gas :-). Before I completely run out of it, here is a question: What then gives us a feeling of rhythm in a musical composition?


Pulse, meter and nitrous oxide:

People with some introduction to music would have heard the terms like tempo, onnAngkAlam, reNdAm kAlam, ... . As could be expected, tempo is a well defined quantity while its Indian counterparts onnAngkAlam ... are not. Basically, tempo refers to how many notes of a given duration are played in one minute, for ex., 90 quater notes per minute. If one is careful, one could note that tempo is actually a definition of the length of a note! Quantities like quarter notes are abstract quantities. Only through tempo do they take any meaning. Instead of saying 90 quarter notes per minute, one could more accurately state that the quarter note is of length 1/90 of a minute. Tempo is usually referred to as kAlapramANam in carnatic music.

If one were to create a musical piece with notes of a fixed duration without rests, then that piece of music will sound like saraLi varisai (the first lesson in carnatic musical tradition). It will be like a clock ticking (but with different pitches). Any good composition will have notes with different durations interspersed with rests of different durations.

Now as with anything human we want to groups these notes. This grouping is the basis of  rhythm. Before we get to rhythm we need to understand what is meant by pulse, meter and thALam. I am hooked on to Gerald Eskelin for the definition of these quantities. (See his book “Lies my music teacher told me” – GREAT BOOK). A pulse (= beat) is a unit of a repetitive event conceived or perceived with kinesthetic movement. !!!! :-). What this means is this: Listen to a song and let your body sway or hands/feet tap automatically. If one pays close attention this will be a repetitive event. (kinesthic movement refers to this bodily movement). It’s conceived by the composer and perceived by the listener.

Once a pulse (or beat) is “fixed”, one then tends to group them. It is amazing that both the western and Indian music have only a very small number of groupings. In the western musical traditions these pulses are grouped in twos (known as duples) and threes (triples)  (and sometimes fours known as quadruples). In the Indian traditions, the pulses are grouped in ones (anu-dhrutham), twos (dhrutham) and threes, fours, fives, sevens or nines – all these have the same name laghu[2]. The term “jAthi” refers to the type of laghu. Thus the five types are laghus are known as thisra jAthi, chathusra jAthi, khanTa jAthi, misra jAthi and sankIrNa jAthi.

Every larger grouping can be obtained by using these basic grouping elements. In the Indian traditions, collections of these basic groupings are called thALams. When there is only one laghu, it’s called Eka thALam; when there is a laghu and two dhruthams, it’s called thripuTa thALam (a thripuTa thALam with a chathusra laghu is called Adhi thALam), ... . One complete cycle of a thALam is known as an Avarthanam.

There is an another common human tendency that comes in to play here: division!. We like to divide a give pulse in to smaller pulses. Western tradition allows for division of a pulse in to twos and threes (and fours some times). In the Indian traditions these divisions are called “nadai”-s (also known as “gathi”) and divisions are allowed in the following amounts: three (thisram), four (chathusram), five (khaNTam), seven (mishram) and nine (sankeerNam). One could now easily build complex repetitive events using these division and groupings. For example, think aabout the khaNTa nadai (each beat divided in to five sub-beats) misra jAthi (each laghu is a grouping of seven beats) maDya thALam (laghu, dhrutham, laghu, laghu)!

In a musical piece, the point where the origins of the sub-divisions, groupings and Avarthanam meet is called samam. This is known as metric accent in western terminology. Once the samam is identified it’s quite easy to figure out the thALam. In western terminology, the term “meter” is used to denote the number beats of specific duration in one measure. This is usually denoted as  (number of beats)/(duration of a beat). Ex. 4/4 = 4 * ¼ notes = 4 beats of quater notes per measure, 3/8 = three beats of eighth notes per measure.


Accents and Hydrogen Sulphide:

Accents are the most confused concepts in music. In general, an accent is an event that sets it apart from the (immediately) preceding and (immediately) following events. A sudden change in volume (dynamic accent), a big jump of notes (melodic), note duration (agogic), a rest, a sudden change of instrument – all of these could be used as an accent. These accents should not be confused with metric accent.

Ok, I get all these things, but what the heck is rhythm?



In the most general terms, rhythm is nothing but a grouping of notes and rests of different (or same) durations. The common listener’s definition of rhythm is a bit different. Using a definition similar to that of pulse, I define rhythm as “a conceived or perceived repetitive groupings of notes and rest of varying durations”. Should be quite easy to grasp, I hope :-). Generally, if one could identify a repetitive pattern using the “thananannA” type vocalization then that is the rhythm. This is what called chandham in Indian terms!!! Obviously, when different instruments are playing together, one could have different rhythms for each one of them. Generally, the melodic instruments follow one set of rhythms and the percussion instruments, follow a different set. Most people use the term rhythm to denote the rhythm for the percussion.

            Well, let’s try putting all these things together. Take a simple song: oLiyilE therivadhu dhEvadhaiyA. There are 4 beats to a measure in this song. Each of “oLiyilE ...”, “therivadhu...”, “dhEvadhaiyA” have 4 beats in them. One can count beats per measure for the whole song using this as a guide. Also, if you notice closely each beat is divided in to two sub-beats!! Therefore the meter is clearly 4/4. The thALam is just a chathusra jAthi Eka thALam with chathusra nadai.

If one tries to decipher the chandham, for the pallavi it would go like “thanananA thanananA thAnananA”. One would also find that the chandham for the anupallavi (idhu nesamA nesamillaiyA...) is a small variation of this. The charaNams have beautiful but simple – watch out for the bridge in “orupOdhum aNaiyAma ninRu eRiyaNum”. One could also note that the percussions dont follow this rhythm. A slightly complicated example is “AgAya veNNilAvE”. The melody follows the classic 3/4 meter while the percussion is played in 4/4 meter!

Disclaimer: This article is written following a few email exchanges between me, Ram, Sindhuja and IR – isairasigai. Any conceptual or other inaccuracies are mine. Please send corrections/suggestions to .

[1] Gamelan is quite different from the Indian/western music. It’s atonal in character. The emphasis is not to “understand” each instrument separately but to understand the total sound. There different Gamelans sound different – even sound wise.

[2] Since dhruthams don’t exist by themselves, laghus can be thought of as a measure in western terminology.