Introduction to Sikh Music
BY GRACE CHAI '23
Before delving into Punjabi Sikh music, I want to take a moment to share some thoughts. The Indianapolis FedEx shooting, resulting in the deaths of eight victims, including four Sikhs, first brought Sikhism to my attention. The Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group, urged authorities to investigate a bias motive, and on July 28, the Indianapolis Metro Police announced that the shooting was not motivated by anti-Sikh bias. However, Amrith Kaur, the Sikh Coalition Legal Director, explains that though the investigation has ended, “for...the Sikh community, and anyone else impacted by hate violence, these questions [about bias] will remain forever.”
While I am not Sikh, the news of this shooting—a violent act that stole the lives of innocent people—deeply disturbed me, especially after reading about Sikh religion and its history. I have written this article to present an abridged guide on Sikh music so you can explore music from the Punjab region of India and glimpse a beautiful part of their culture. Keep an open mind, and you might just learn something new.
Also, visit thespectrumabrhs.com version of this article to listen along as I explain the music theory/performance aspect of Sikh music.
History of Sikh Music
In the 16th century, Sikhism originated in a region of northern India known as the Punjab, and music quickly became an integral part of Sikh worship. While many religions have used music as a form of worship, including Christianity with its monastic chants, Sikh music distinguishes itself with its foundational role in gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) services. It isn’t simply a prelude to a scripture reading, prayer, or sermon—it is the worship itself.
A typical Sikh service consists of ragas, songs conveying a certain musical mood or color, which compose the kirtan—the singing of the Guru’s hymns (Sikh Gurus were spiritual teachers who shared wisdom under divine guidance). Kirtan means to praise, celebrate, or glorify, and it is said to be the highest form of devotion to link one’s soul to the Divine Essence, or God.
The Sikh Music Tradition
Sikh music’s roots can be traced back to the Vedic scriptures about six thousand years ago. It involves fixed compositions in which musicians sing the notes in time but may also improvise and interpret the raga freely.
Performances often center around a vocalist, accompanied by stringed and rhythmic instruments. Like how an artist brushes base colors on a canvas before adding details, a stringed instrument, such as the sarangi, produces a low hum or drone that the rhythm and melody build off of. Next, a percussionist adds a beat using drums like the wooden jori, and the singer joins in, pouring brilliant colors into the song and completing the colorful masterpiece.
Within the piece, vocalists use techniques such as gliding, or smoothly sliding from one note to another; and vibrato, a fluctuation in pitch, to create rich, lilting sounds. As the vocalist glides smoothly from one note to another, anticipation builds to a climax, which dissolves as they land on the original note. Vibrato, used on longer notes, creates warmth in the melody, which complements the metallic tones of the percussion instruments. All in all, the combination of the various musical timbres, or textures, makes for an ethereal listening experience.
What makes Sikh music unique?
It is hard to describe the feelings that Sikh music evokes, but Alain Danielou, a French musicologist likened it to a visual example: a delicate thread. Danielou explained that Eastern music, including Sikh music, is like a thread that “unwinds and rises and falls imperceptibly, but which in every tiniest portion evokes a world of feelings and sensations.” This description reflects the passion of the notes as the imaginary thread traces intricate patterns in the air, its melody swelling and tapering off.
Many cultures produce emotional music, but Sikh music is especially exquisite because of its authenticity. It is not meant for virtuosic displays of musicianship or self-gain; all Sikhs sit on the floor during services, the hymns convey feelings of love and devotion, and the musicians play to worship and serve their community. It is simply raw, real music reflecting the spirit of Sikhism, which promotes peace and equality.
In conclusion, Sikh music is not just another “non-Western” sub genre of music to be lumped together with South Asian or Indian music; it is a living part of a diverse culture, and it deserves to be respected and listened to, just as Sikh people should be treated with respect.
Yours in solidarity,