Indian Rhythmic Cycles

Picture of North Indian Drum

Ancient Traditions Book Cover

Further study on this subject: Ancient Traditions–Future Possibilities:
Rhythmic Training Through the Traditions of Africa, Bali and India.

By Matthew Montfort. Ancient Future Music (1985).
ISBN 0-937879-00-2. Book/CD Set- 74.95. SALE! $53.95:

30 Minute Online Lesson.
Custom private lesson via Skype or other service. $55. SALE! $44:

The concept of the ever-recurring cyclic rhythms of the universe is one of the basic tenets of Hindu philosophy. The perception of the cyclic nature of life is reflected in Indian classical music through the device of tala,  a recurring time-measure or rhythmic cycle. Just as in the Hindu religion, man is born, lives his life, dies and is then reincarnated to begin a new life, so the tala cycle begins, develops and then returns to the sam,  the first beat of the cycle, anchor of all melody and rhythm and the leading beat to which all returns.

There are two different traditions in Indian classical music, the Carnatic music of South India and the Hindustani music of North India. The music of South India retained a purity of development that has led to a highly organized theoretical system. In contrast, Hindustani music has achieved its equally high artistic standards through the cultural interaction between Hindus and Muslims, producing an extremely rich but less-systemized music.

The book Ancient Traditions–Future Possibilities, by Matthew Montfort, contains exercises that teach both North and South Indian rhythms. Some of these exercises are presented here.

North Indian Cycles

The tabla (a North Indian pair of drums with goat-skin heads) has a language all its own. For every sound on the drum there is a corresponding syllable. These syllables are known as bols,  and to the tabla master these onomatopoetic bols and their corresponding sounds on the drums are almost one and the same. Each North Indian tala has a theka, a standard set of bols that identify the rhythmic cycle. The theka aids the soloist in keeping time. Practice reciting the thekas for the thirteen talas linked below while keeping track of the rhythmic cycle, as shown in the following link. The MIDI files of these thekas make excellent groove tracks for creating compositions or practicing.


Thirteen Talas is an explanation of the thekas for thirteen different talas, including instructions for keeping tal  (marking of the beat using hand gestures), as well as audio and MIDI files of the thekas arranged for General MIDI conga and bongo.


North Indian Raga is explained as a melodic recipe for a mood, with sets of notes in ascending and descending order, and a hierarchy of note importance.

South Indian Cycles

Like the tabla, the mridangam  (a South Indian two-headed barrel drum made of jackwood with goatskin heads) also has a language with corresponding syllables for sounds on the drum. Solkattu is the onomatopoetic drum syllable language of the mridangam.


Khanda Gati Adi Tala is a composition in adi tala, an 8 beat rhythmic cycle, and khanda gati, which designates that each beat is divided into quintuplets.

Vina Music

South Indian Vina Music applies South Indian gamaka (note-bending techniques) from the vina to guitar.

Further Resources

Using MIDI

The GM Standard MIDI files of North and South Indian rhythm exercises from Ancient Traditions–Future Possibilities presented here are arranged for General MIDI conga and bongo. Use these to practice, or as a rhythm track for an original composition. Computers with multimedia capabilities now come configured for MIDI playback via web browsers. To set up playback on a MIDI synthesizer or sampler instead, see the mridangam MIDI map of the sounds of the mridangam, or the tabla MIDI map of the sounds of the tabla.

Ancient Rhythms–Future Grooves

Ancient Rhythms–Future Grooves: Audio and MIDI Percussion Groove Tracks from the Traditions of Africa, Bali, and India. Want more audio and MIDI files? Get this complete collection of groove tracks from the book Ancient Traditions–Future Possibilities. For a limited time, get both the book and the enhanced audio CD set with MIDI files for only $53.95 (SALE! Normally $74.95): Add 1 to Cart. Buy 1 Now.

Skype School

Skype online music lesson guitar pick icon carved in Bali for Matthew Montfort

Further instruction on this material is available through private Skype lessons with the author, Matthew Montfort.