Tanpura: The Musical Drone

Written by Shalini Saxena, Chaitra Sontakke on 18 November 2017

The Tanpura truly justifies that there is sheer beauty in simplicity. The simple Indian classical instrument does not play a melody of its own, instead it supports and sustains the melody produced by another instrument or singer with its continuous harmonic drone. This long-necked four string instrument is an essential part of Indian music. The Tanpura is considered to be the perfect accompaniment for vocal practice. Any vocal practice is effective only when singing is in sync with the melody and rhythm. The Tanpura helps the singers to achieve absolute control over their pitch. The powerful resonant drone produced by it creates an environment which acts as a prelude to the performance. This exotic instrument also holds a deep relationship with different cultures of Indian society.

The Celestial Drone

Drone music is produced by adding or subtracting long sustained notes continuously. Drones basically provide a strong foundation over which other sounds can be built. The Tanpura is an essential accompanying instrument which provides a point of reference for creating other sounds; musicians or singers can freely improvise over the drone.  

Drone in music is a sustained sound, unbroken throughout the performance of a song or a concert. In Indian music Tanpura provides the canvas for creating a myriad soundscape. The Tanpura gives the essential base note Sa or Aadhar Shadja, on basis of which all other instruments are tuned up. Tanpura is a constant reference for the singer and accompanists to stay in sync with each other. The Tanpura also gives the 5th note Pancham (Pa) which provides the additional support along with the Sa.  

Hindustani and  Carnatic Variants

Hindustani and Carnatic Variants of Tanpura

A Carnatic Tanpura also called a Tambura is constructed using wood entirely. A Hindustani Tanpura uses dried gourd for the resonator along with wood for the neck. The way the Tanpura is strummed has got subtle difference in both styles. In Carnatic Tanpura the first string is strummed and sustained for 2 counts. In Hindustani Tanpura the first string is strummed and sustained for one count:

Miraj style is the preferred variant for Hindustani performers. Named after a town in Maharashtra the Miraj Tanpura is primarily used by Hindustani Classical musicians. Mostly three to five feet long, it has a well-rounded resonator face (tabli) and a long hollow straight neck. The round lower chamber is pruned from a hand-picked and dried gourd (tumba).


The Tanjore style is the south Indian variant used by Carnatic musicians. Its shape and style of decoration is slightly different from the Miraj. Mostly, the gourd is not used for making the instrument instead a solid block of wood is used to gouge the spherical part. It has an asymmetrical neck which tapers towards the top. Also, the diameter of the neck is slightly smaller and front plate relatively flat than its north Indian counterpart.


The instrumental tambura or the Tanpuri, is a small-scale instrument which has become quite popular because of its size. Typically two to three feet long, the instrument has wooden body with a shallow resonator and slightly curved tabli. It is the favourite instrument for accompanying solo performances and preferred by travelling musicians due to its light weight.

Tanpura Playing Technique

Proper posture is important for the proper playing of the Tanpura.

  • Be seated in a cross legged posture on a mat.
  • Place the Tanpura vertically with the resonator (Tumba) placed on your lap
  • Rest your right arm in parallel to the stem of the Tanpura. Thumb rests on the stem. Your fingers need to be almost parallel to the strings.
  • Strum using the left edge of your fingers. For Pancham, use middle finger. For the three Sa strings use fore finger.
  • In the Hindustani style all four are played strings at equal intervals.
  • In the Carnatic style Pancham is played for 2 counts.
  • You could also play the Tanpura keeping it horizontally. The seating would be cross legged position.

Tuning Your Tanpura

There are different Tanpuras available to suit a male voice and a female voice. The male voices are generally in the Shrutis between C, C#, D. The female voices are in the range of G#, A, A#. Children’s voice is in the same range as  female voices. The male Tanpuras are larger in size and the gauge of the strings used is suitable for the male Shrutis. The female Tanpuras are constructed with strings suitable for specific Shrutis ranging from G# to A#. Tanpura string can be customized to one’s Shruti. Using different gauge strings.

String 1 is tuned to Mandra Pa (Lower Octave Pa)

String 2 and 3 together are called Jodi strings. They are tuned to the Aadhar Shadja i.e. the Middle Octave Sa.  

String 4 is known as Kharaj and is  tuned to the Mandra Sa (Lower Octave Sa)

  1. Choose the Tanpura of your Shruti
  2. Use a reference of a standard tuned Harmonium/Shruti box/Electronic Tanpura/Tanpura app for tuning the Jodi strings.
  3. Tuning is done by tightening or loosening the strings using the knobs or Khoonti. Tighten the string to increase the pitch. Loosen the string to reduce the pitch.
  4. Use the beads or Mankas provided at the bottom of the strings below the bridge. Pulling the Manka down, tightens the string. Pushing it up loosens the string. Adjust the placement of the Mankas simultaneously playing the string.
  5. Notice the threads placed below the strings on the bridge. These threads can be slided up or down till you achieve the desired tone. Do this as you are continuously playing the string.

Our next post will talk about the Journey of the Tanpura from an acoustic instrument to its modern form in apps.