Skip to Content

Novelty That Must Be Subtle: Continuity, Innovation, and 'Improvisation' in North Indian Music

John Napier

Published: 2006-05-01

This paper investigates the interrelation between two aspects of North Indian classical music that at first might appear to occupy opposite poles of creativity and constraint. The first is the soloist's actual construction of melody itself, and the interpretation of this as improvised. The second is sangat, the imitative instrumental accompaniment afforded such melodies when performed by vocalists. Napier argues that the conventional description of North Indian music as 'improvised' downplays the importance of the re-presentation of fixed materials, thus under-emphasising the projection of tradition and transmission. In turn, Napier suggests that sangat has a homologous relationship to pedagogy, the process of transmitting traditional materials. Both melodic construction and imitative accompaniment derive aspects of their overall form and quality from, and may be understood in reference to, and ideational cluster that attempts to reconcile a socially validated and hierarchically underscored conservatism with an acceptance of individual innovation. Both practices may be seen as performed subjectivities standing at temporal interstices between tradition and contemporaneity, the broadly cultural, and the individual.

Available Files

  • Continuity_Innovation_and_Improvisation_in_North_Indian_Music.pdf

    214 KB | application/pdf


Improvisation is, simply put, being and living this very moment. No one can hide in music, and improvising in music is to be truly in this very moment and being completely yourself, with all your qualities and faults. It is probably the most honest state for a human being to be in.

– John McLaughlin in an interview with Daniel Fischlin.