Introduction to Indian Classical Music -6

The Science of Laya or Rhythm

Tania Banerjee


Laya is the tempo, or speed of a musical piece.  It is a very simple concept, but its application is sometimes complicated.

It goes without saying that there have to be some practical limit to use tempo.  One beat every ten minutes would be so slow as to be musically useless.  At the other end of the spectrum we can see that 100 beats per second would be so fast that it would be perceived as a tone and not as a rhythm.  A general breakdown of Indian lay is explained below:

Here are seven options of extreme speed to extreme slow rhythm of classical beats Ati means “extreme”, drut means “fast”.

ati-ati-drut 640 beats-per-min

ati-drut 320 beats-per-min

drut160 beats-per-min

madhya 80 beats-per-min

vilambit 40 beats-per-min

ati-vilambit 20 beats-per-min

ati-ati-vilambit 10 beats-per-min

The above example is an  idealized breakdown of laya; however, the real world is considerably more complex.  For example the designations of ati drut, ati vilambit, etc. are seldom heard among practicing musicians.  This tends to stretch the previous table so that there is no longer a 2-1 relationship between the various designations.  To make matters even more complex, it has been observed that vocalists use a slower definition of time than instrumentalists (Gottlieb 1977a:41).  Furthermore the rhythmic concepts of the light and film musicians run at a higher tempo but show a peculiar compression of scale.

The laya or tempo usually changes throughout the performance.  These changes in tempo are inextricably linked to the various musical styles.  In general we can say that only very short pieces will maintain a fairly steady pace.  Most styles will start at one tempo and then increase in speed.

Laya and Layakari

The most important part of rhythm in Hindustani Music is the Laya (Speed or tempo). The simplest implication of Laya would be: “the number of beats played in the time period of a single beat” which essentially signifies the time between two bols.  

Layakari (kari means “to do”) is just the implementation of various Layas. The best way to understand Layakari is to go through the various types of Layakaris that are played. Note that the meaning of some complex layakaris are slightly disputed among scholars, but that shouldn’t be a hurdle to our understanding. 

Types of Layakaris

Thah Laya : Playing one bol in each matra is the simplest of Layakaris. A certain Laya is fixed by the accomopanying singer or instrumentalist, and one bol is playeed for each matra. 

Dugun Laya:  Playing two bols in one matra is called Dugun. Whenever this is written in notation form, the bols are shown as clubbed together by drawing a line under them –  1 2  3 4  5 6  7 8 

Tigun Laya: Playing three bols in one matra is tigun – 1 2 3  4 5 6

Chaugun Laya: Playing four bols in one matra is called chaugun – 1 2 3 4  5 6 7 8 

In Indian Classical Music Laya is used in 2 different but related senses.

  1. Rhythm   2. Tempo

Tala [see previous month’s article] is a rhythmic cycle. To simplify things, let us first understand these terms in a non-musical setting.


Listen to the footsteps of a person running, or the dripping sound of a leaking tap, or the ticking of a clock. You will realize that there is a strong sense of regular repeated pattern.

This is rhythm.

The key factors are regular and repeated.

If there is no regularity, or if the sounds are not repeated, you will not get a sense of rhythm. Thus, rhythm is either present or absent.


Now focus on the time gap between two consecutive beats. If the gap is smaller, the beats will be closer to each other. They will sound faster, and you get a sense of greater speed just from the sound.  This is the tempo.  The key factor is the time gap between consecutive beats of a rhythm.  If you decrease the time gap, you increase the tempo, and if you increase the time gap, you decrease the tempo.

Rhythmic Cycle

If all beats of a rhythm sound the same, there is no ‘cyclic’ effect. However, if there is a different sound or pattern that repeats after a fixed number of beats, you will be able to feel a cyclic effect.  This is the rhythmic cycle.


  1. To understand the above concepts, say the word “Da” continuously :

Da Da Da Da Da Da Da Da Da Da Da Da Da Da Da Da …..

If you say it with a regular, even pace you will get a sense of rhythm. You can change the tempo by saying it faster or slower. But there is no sense of a cyclic repetition. It just keeps going on and on.

2. Now add a “Ho” after every 3rd “Da” as under :

Da Da Da Ho Da Da Da Ho Da Da Da Ho Da Da Da Ho ….

You still get a sense of rhythm and tempo. However, in addition to that you also get a sense of cyclic repetition. Since every 4th word is a Ho, you get a sense of a rhythmic cycle of 4 beats – Da Da Da Ho.

3. Now modify the above slightly as under :

Da Da Da Din Da Da Da Ho Da Da Da Din Da Da Da Ho ….

You still get a sense of rhythm, tempo and cyclic repetition. However, now the repetition is not after 4 beats but 8 – Da Da Da Din Da Da Da Ho

You notice now that there are 2 groups of 4 beats each in each rhythmic cycle of 8 beats. “Da Da Da Din” is one group, “Da Da Da Ho” is the second group, and the 2 groups together make up the rhythmic cycle.

As stated earlier, Laya refers to both rhythm and tempo. Tala refers to the rhythmic cycle.


Laya – Rhythm and Tempo

In music and dance, Laya (both rhythm and tempo) is always present. There are times when the rhythm is not easily apparent, and is said to be hidden. This may happen either when the tempo is too slow to be discernible, or if there are interludes of silence in between.  However, once the tempo increases, the rhythm becomes discernible.

Example : âlâp, Jod and Jhâlâ of a Dhrupad recital of Hindustani Classical Music. âlâp has a hidden rhythm, Jod has a discernible rhythm but with a slow tempo, and Jhâlâ also has a discernible rhythm but with a faster tempo. However, there is no rhythmic cycle. This can also be experienced in many instrumental recitals like Sitar, etc.

The Laya (tempo) of a musical composition is generally defined in relation to an average person’s heartbeat. A tempo roughly equal to tempo of heartbeat is called Madhya Laya (middle tempo), half that speed is Vilambit Laya (slow tempo), double that speed is Drut Laya (fast tempo).

Example : Khayal or Instrumental compositions. You will often hear the announcers say “a Vilambit composition set to …”. The Vilambit here refers to the Laya (tempo).

Tâlâ – Rhythmic Cycle

In addition to Laya, musical compositions have an extra element of Tâla (rhythmic cycle).

The Tâlâ becomes easier to identify due to the use of percussion instruments like the tabla. However, the percussion instrument is not mandatory for this purpose. Certain Tâlas have been in use since ages. Each Taal has  a fixed number of beats per rhythmic cycle,  set groups of beats within each cycle,  set pattern of sounds (called bol or theka) to be played for each cycle,  and  a starting point (called Sam) which is the first beat of the cycle

Example : A popular Taal called Teen Taal has 16 beats per cycle

4 groups of 4 beats each, arranged as 4–4–4–4

Theka (with a vertical bar to mark each group) –

Dha Dhin Dhin Dha | Dha Dhin Dhin Dha | Dha Tin Tin Ta | Ta Dhin Dhin Dha

The first Dha (marked in bold above) is the Sam.

Example : Another popular Taal called Jhap Taal has

10 beats per cycle

4 groups of 2 or 3 beats, arranged as 2–3–2–3

Theka (with a vertical bar to mark each group) –

Dhi Na | Dhi Dhi Na | Ti Na | Dhi Dhi Na

The first Dhi (marked in bold above) is the Sam.

You will notice that the Tâlâ with its Theka gives you an idea how it will sound in a cycle. but there’s no way you know its tempo unless you are also told the Laya.  The Tâlâs of Hindustani & Carnatic music are structured differently, although the basic concepts are very similar.

I hope this exciting information of Tâlâ and Laya will help one understand the wonderful science behind music.

Also enjoy this soothing Flute by the Great Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia:





is a musician and a student of the science of music. She has been introducing the inticracies of classical music to Vedanta Vani readers.

Abhishek Chakraborti

is the Contributing Editor of the Music Page

Abhishek lives in Holland and is an excellent musician. He is also devoted to the ideals of Sri Ramakrishna, Mother and Swamiji.