Laya – The Concept

We said earlier that all music is about sound and time. While the sound element expresses itself through the swara, the time element finds expression through the Laya.

The word Laya has been generally translated into rhythm, or tempo or meter. But in the context of Indian music, the word really means all these, and much more beyond.

Just as we process sound into a musically usable swara, we also pick up the element of laya from nature, and process it for the purpose of music.


Laya is about time intervals. Imagining time intervals and then controlling them requires one to develop this skill or ability. Just in the same way as one develops the skill to produce sounds of different pitches on his instrument, and to control the pitch intervals.

We would need events to punctuate the time intervals. These would need to be audio events, and as sharp as possible, occupying minimum possible time themselves. So these can be finger snaps, or claps or feet taps, or then sounds produced by a percussion instrument. Generally and collectively, we call these as beats.

It will be quite interesting to play a simple game using a table clock, which gives a tick every second. Start counting the tick when the second hand is on 12, and after a few ticks, close your eyes. If you open the eyes on the 60th tick, the second hand should be just reaching 12 again. It is not really difficult to count every tick, and you should not go wrong if you have not missed a tick. Now find a clock which is silent and does not make the ticking sound. And then try the same exercise again.  I am sure you would get it right after about a year’s practice!

The one question which I have always had in my mind is : What is more abstract? Swara or Laya?

As many others, the answer to this question too has changed over the years for me. I always thought the swara to be more abstract, and laya more concrete. However, when it comes to actually practicing, and teaching and learning, a slightly different picture started to emerge. It could be a matter of personal experience, and I will leave it to you to find your own answer.

Just as a true musician is on a lifelong quest of a finer and finer control over the swara, he also pursues the laya, honing his skills to finer and finer levels of control over time intervals. But then, deep down, each artist would have his own private inclination towards one of the faculties. This has a big influence over how his musical material is created, and hence the development and presentation of his music. This eventually gives rise to the variety and different styles of presentation in Hindustani music, which over the generations have evolved in Gharanas.

We will go on to explore how the laya concept is actually put to use for music.

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