Like all art forms in Indian culture, Carnatic music is believed to have a divine origin, thus it has its origins deeply rooted in the antiquities of the Vedas. Even in the Upanishads there are references to music and musical instruments. Epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata also have some references to music. However, the music system which was practiced during Bharata's period can be attributed as Carnatic music in its rudiment form. Bharata's Natyashastra mentions many musical concepts that continue to be relevant to Carnatic music today. The Tamil works like Silappadikaram, Tolkappiam and other Sangam literary works offers archaic Dravidian names for the seven notes in the octave and also portrays the secrets of the technique of modal shifting of existing scales. The concept of Pann which was much in vogue in the old Tamil literature corresponds to that of the modern raga, now used in Carnatic music. The rhythmic meters found in several sacred musical forms like Tevaram, Tiruppugazh, etc., resemble the talas that are in use in Carnatic music today. However, some of the musicologist suggests that in the ancient days Tamil music was practiced by the native Dravidians in the southern part of India. Carnatic music also prevails there, hence scholars believe that the ancient Tamil music to be an important source from which the legacy of Carnatic music began.
Although Carnatic music prevailed in the age old days yet it was only after the composition of the musical treatise, Sangita Ratnakara by Sarngadeva, the word 'Carnatic' was first introduced to represent the typical style of South Indian classical music as a separate genre of music. The clear demarcation between the Hindustani classical music and the Carnatic music as two distinct forms of Classical music was witnessed during this time at the fag end of the 14th century Sangita Ratnakara therefore stands out as a link between the two new systems that gradually split and evolved separately after his period, namely, the Hindustani music and Carnatic music.
In the capital cities of South India, especially in Tanjavur and Vijayanagara Classical music flourished to a great extent. It was during this time a number of treatises tracing the concepts of Carnatic music were written. The Sangeeta Sara written by Vidyaranya was the first to classify ragas as Melas and also coined the word Janya ragas. The present form of Carnatic music is based on historical developments that can be traced to the 15th - 16th AD and thereafter. Music as an art form was handed down from the teacher to the student through direct oral instruction and this form of imparting the education has been a special tradition in Carnatic music.
Carnatic music composition has two elements, one is the musical element and the other represents the element which is conveyed in the composition. And it is for this reason most Carnatic music compositions are ideally composed for singing which brings out the knowledge and personality of the composer. The main emphasis is therefore on vocal music; and even when played on instruments, they are meant to be performed in a singing style (known as gayaki).The most common and significant forms in Carnatic music are the however varnam and the kriti (or kirtanam).
Words and melody accompanied with the divine presence of the taala and raga further contours the structure of the Carnatic music whilst making it an emblem of the rich musical heritage of India. Raga is the Pivotal concept of Carnatic music and is India's proud contribution to world music. The ideal of absolute music is reached in the concept of Raga which is much more than a being a mere scale. Carnatic raga elaborations are generally much faster in tempo and shorter. The opening piece is called a varnam, and is a warm-up for the musicians. Next follows the devotion and a request for a blessing follows. A series of interchanges between ragas (meter less melody) and thaalams (the ornamentation, equivalent to the jor) then follows. This is intermixed with hymns called krithis and is ideally followed by the pallavi or theme from the raaga. Beat or taala for the Carnatic music is important and the Carnatic music singers usually keep the beat by moving their hands up and down in specified patterns, and using their fingers simultaneously to keep time. Tala is formed with three basic parts (called angas) which are laghu, dhrtam, and anudhrtam, though complex talas may have other parts like plutam, guru, and kaakapaadam.
Improvisation in raga is the soul of Carnatic music and is indeed an essential aspect in silhouetting the structure of the music. "Manodharma sangeetham" or "kalpana sangeetham" as it is known in Carnatic music, espouses several other various improvisations. However, the main traditional forms of improvisation in Carnatic music consists alapana, niraval, kalpanaswaram, ragam thanam pallavi, and thani avarthanam.
The theme of Carnatic music is to purify one whilst uniting him with the infinite. The idea is to unite one's breath with that of the spaces and to correlate one's vibration with the vibrations of the cosmos. Quite ideally therefore Carnatic music is essentially spiritual entwined with the rich philosophies of the Hindu religion. This sublime integration of various themes, religion, philosophy, emotions, intellect, entertainment and others with Carnatic music, has created a vibrant life and tradition in Hindustani classical music.
The divine timber, the philosophic overtones, the melodic rhythm and indeed the spiritual facets make Carnatic music a separate entity, a divine way to become one with the Divine.