Music director Madan Mohan in his studio circa. 1960s. How many different instruments can you spot in this photo?
Ever find yourself listening to Bollywood film music and feel like your brain is exploding in ecstasy from the rainbow of instruments striking your tympanic membranes? We know the feeling. The history of Bollywood film music goes much deeper than the playback singers who lived in limelight. The incredible talents of Hindi film music directors and musicians are responsible for the compositions we love today. Their risks and creativity were a gift to generations of music-lovers. Without composer Naushad defying his parents to play the harmonium “live” for silent films in the 1930s or R.D. Burman’s daring musical ingenuity in his break-out film Teesri Manzil, Bollywood music as we know it would be radically different.
To truly understand the brilliance of the men and women who shaped Hindi film music, we must learn their tools. From traditional Indian instruments that date to the Vedic age to the orchestral forerunners of Europe to the unsung instruments of Brazil and Africa, the rich mediums of Bollywood music wrote their own rules. We have created a Beginner’s Guide to the Instruments of Classic Hindi Films for whether you’re a newcomer to Bollywood or a veteran, the innovation of these songs and their mechanisms will stun you. To simplify, we divided the instruments into rough categories with several of our favorite examples and links to videos and song translations beneath. And if you ever wonder which instrument was played in a particular song, refer back to this guide for the answer!
A Beginner’s Guide to the Instruments of Classic Hindi Films
Banjo: A plucked 4-5 string instrument with origins in Africa that traveled to America around the 18th century with African-American traditional music and became a staple of country and folk genres.
Ignore how uncomfortable the heroine’s Stockholm Syndrome makes you, and enjoy Meena Kumari’s decent impression of someone who knows how to play the banjo in the film Azaad. This is the only instance of this instrument’s prominent use in a film song that I know. If you have heard others, please leave a comment!
Kitna Haseen Hai Mausam (Azaad 1955)
Cello: A bass 4-stringed instrument dating back to 17th century Italy, the large cello is held against the seated cellist and traditionally played with a horsehair bow.
Yeh Jo Mohabbat Hai (Kati Patang 1970)
Zindagi Ke Safar Mein (Aap Ki Kasam 1973)
Kuch To Log Kahenge (Amar Prem 1972)
Panna Ki Tammana (Heera Panna 1973)
Meri Bheegi Bheegi Si (Anamika 1973)
Guitar: A typically 6-string instrument with European roots with a multitude of incarnations, from acoustic to electric, that have influenced every genre from hard rock to reggae.
Bollywood film music saw a revolution with guitar use from the more acoustic versions a la “Tadbeer Se Bigdhi Hui” in the early 50s to the electric guitar riots of the 60s such as in the jolting opening of “Aaja Aaja” from Teesri Manzil (1966).
Aaja Aaja Main Hoon Pyaar Tera (Teesri Manzil 1966)
Chura Liya Hai (Yaadon Ki Baraat 1973)
Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh (Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai 1960)
Tadbeer Se Bigdi Hui (Baazi 1951)
Rulake Gaya Sapna Mera (Jewel Thief 1967)
Mandolin: An evolution from the lute family around 17th century Italy with traditionally 4 courses of double strings that feature prominently in classical European music.
This instrument has had a diverse role in Hindi film music–from an instrument of seduction in C.I.D. (1956) to one of tragedy in “Suhani Raat Dhal Chuki.” Fun fact: the mandolin that is featured in the interlude music “Achaji Main Hari” was played by Laxmikant and Manoharida themselves!
Kahin Pe Nigahen Kahin Pe Nishana (C.I.D 1956)
Achaji Main Hari Chalo (Kala Pani 1958)
Tum Bin Jaoon Kahan (Pyar Ka Mausam 1969)
Suhani Raat Dhal Chuki (Dulari 1949)
Santoor: An ancient Kashmiri instrument of 72-strings that are struck with special mallets and heard in traditional Sufi hymns and folk music of Northern India.
The beautiful, reflective santoor is prominent in many Bollywood films, often as a gentle romantic hint in the score during dialogue or first encounters with love. A great example is in “Mere Mehboob Tujhe” where the santoor is allowed to muse solo as the hero recalls his meeting with a mysterious woman for whom he now searches.
Aye Dil-e-Nadan (Razia Sultan 1983)
Sajna Hai Mujhe (Saudagar 1973)
Mere Mehboob Tujhe (Mere Mehboob 1963)
Sarangi: A bowed short-neck stringed instrument famed in Hindustani classical music for its close imitation of the human voice.
I often associate the sarangi with its great performances in courtesan songs. No better example is the hypnotizing opening of Pakeezah‘s immortal “Chalte Chalte.” The sarangi is a very evocative instrument, conjuring unimaginable sadness as in “Do Hanson Ka JoDa” or a lovely shyness in “Dil Cheez Kya Hai.”
Chalte Chalte (Pakeezah 1972)
Saranga Teri Yaad Mein (Saranga 1961)
Do Hanson Ka Joda (Ganga Jamuna 1961)
Dil Cheez kya Hai (Umrao Jaan 1981)
Aansuu Bhari Hai (Parvarish 1958)
Sarod: A lute-like instrument from Afghanistan that rose to prominence in the Mughal courts.
Like the santoor, the sarod often appears in the film’s score outside of a full-blown song-and-dance sequence. The sarod is highly versatile–when played quickly it can denote excitement and movement, and when plucked slowly it can pull at your heart strings. The mesmerizing battle between sitar and sarod in “Madhuban Mein Radhika” demonstrates this instrument’s power to take your breath away!
Madhuban Mein Radhika (Kohinoor 1960)
Man Re Tu Kahe (Chitralekha 1964)
Suno Chhoti Si Gudiya (Seema 1955)
Sitar: An 18-20 string plucked instrument synonymous with Hindustani classical music that influenced the Western pop world in the 1960s when adopted by The Beatles and Rolling Stones.
The ethereal sitar helped bring Hindustani music to the international stage. Used often in Hindi films to denote the gentle falling of rain (a famous Ravi Shankar composition in Satyajit Ray’s Pathar Panchali captures this brilliantly), sitar music is a classic Bollywood backbone.
O Sajna Barkha (Parakh 1960)
Hum Tere Pyar Mein Saara Aalam (Dil Ek Mandir 1963)
Chandan Sa Badan (Saraswatichandra 1968)
Tere Bina Zindagi Se (Aandhi 1975)
Chori Chori Chupke Chupke (Aap Ki Kasam 1974)
Tanpura: A 4-string instrument to accompany a Hindustani classical vocalist that does not play a melody, but rather provides a harmonic drone throughout the piece.
The beauty of the tanpura is in its relative simplicity. The singer plucks four strings in order continuously, allowing them to focus on their vocal composition while maintaining harmony. Listen carefully for its deep drone in the background of many classical and semi-classical songs!
Duniya Na Bhaaye (Basant Bahar 1956)
Man Tarpat Hari Dar (Baiju Bawra 1952)
Sukh Ke Sab Saathi (Gopi 1970)
Violin: A highly popular bowed 4-string instrument with roots in 16th century Italy that has had global impact, including in orchestral performances of Hindi film music.
Violins are an integral part of film music orchestration. I’ve listed several songs that highlight its use as a solo instrument, or more commonly as part of a large orchestra seen in numerous Hindi film songs from the 1950s onwards (the famous opening of “Pyar Hua Iqrar Hua” being but one of dozens).
Ek Pyar Ka Naghma (Shor 1972)
Mujhe Kisi Se Pyar (Barsaat 1949)
Likhe Jo Khat Tujhe (Kanyadaan 1968)
Pyar Hua Iqrar Hua (1955)
Karvaten Badalte Rahe (Mere Jeevan Saathi 1972)
Bansuri: An ancient flute-like instrument with a history dating back to the myths of Lord Krishna and Radha, the bansuri is made from a single shaft of bamboo with 6-7 holes and is associated with pastoral compositions of India.
The lonely bansuri is a common instrument of Hindi films denoting a tragedy, a philosophical side-note, or a quiet village scene. The bansuri of “Chingari Koi Bhadke” represents the second of these themes and will never fail to transport you to a different world of exoticism.
Chingari Koi Bhadke (Amar Prem 1972)
Chahoonga Main Tujhe (Dosti 1964)
Piya Bina (Abhiman 1973)
Na Koi Umang Hai (Kati Patang 1970)
Been (Pungi): An instrument fashioned from a gourd and two reed pipes, the been is the traditional instrument of snake charmers and popular in folk music of South Asia.
The good old been is one of pop cultures favorite instruments, yet is actually only a prominent player in a few classic Bollywood songs. The landmark, of course, is Nagin (1954) where “Man Dole Mera Tan Dole” made been music popular even outside the crowds who gather for snake charmers.
Man Dole Mera Tan Dole (Nagin 1953)
Ek Pardesi Mera Dil Le Gaya (Phagun 1958)
Parde Mein Rehne Do (Shikar 1968)
Western concert flute: A popular sideblown woodwind instrument that dates back to the 11th century Byzantine Empire and is commonly heard in bands and orchestras.
I love how the flute has been used in Hindi film music. Rethink how you’ve always imagined the flute and take a listen to the evocative solo the opens “Ja Re Ja Re Udi Ja Re Panchi” or the seductive twist of the key flute in “Aao Na Gale Lagalo Na”!
Ja Re Ja Re Udi Ja Re Panchi (Maya 1961)
Ruk Ja O Janewali Ruk Ja (Kanhaiya 1959)
Aao Na Gale Lagalo Na (Mere Jeevan Saathi 1972 – key flute)
O Haseena Zulfonwali Jane (Teesri Manzil 1966)
Harmonica: First appearing in Vienna in the 19th century, the easily portable hand-held harmonica has influenced artists from Blues and jazz genres.
Harmonica plays an important role in classic Bollywood film music, often played by optimistic young heroes with a song in their heart despite having great odds against them.
Jaanewalo Zara (Dosti 1964)
Hai Apna Dil To Awara (Solva Saal 1958)
Mere Sapno Ki Rani (Aradhana 1969)
Saxophone: Fashioned in brass originally in Belgium in the 19th century, the edgy saxophone is a key member of jazz and marching bands.
I was first alerted to the presence of saxophones when I heard the haunting and unexpected interlude music of “Awaaz Deke” (Professor 1962). Interestingly, I’ve found that in Hindi film music (due in large part to maestro Manohari Singh whose soprano sax sets your heart on fire in “Mehbooba Mehbooba”), it is just as often as a jazzy party-starter as an edgy bridge toward tragedy.
Awaaz Deke (Professor 1962)
Jis Gali Mein Tera Ghar (Kati Patang 1970)
Aage Bhi Jaane Na Tu (Waqt 1965)
Roop Tera Mastana (Aradhana 1969)
Mehbooba mehbooba (Sholay 1975)
Shehnai: A traditional South Asian instrument known for its auspicious melodies at weddings and processions.
This lovely, but almost invariably tragic-sounding instrument is a staple of wedding scenes. The opening shehnai of “Babul Ki Duaaen” feels as if someone is crying, reflecting the sadness of a father’s loss. One of the more innovative melodies I’ve heard with shehnai is in the song “Chal Ri Sajni” (and incidentally among the most perfectly filmed and edited sequences in Bollywood history, but that’s another story…)
Babul Ki Duae.N Leti Jaa (Neel Kama 1968)
Kabhi Kabhi (Kabhi Kabhi 1976, interlude after ghughat utaa raha hoon main)
Chal Ri Sajni Ab Kya Soche (Bombai Ka Babu 1960)
Trumpet: 3 piston-valves are the hallmark of this 15th century European instrument which has influenced jazz, Latin, and pop music alike.
While a more limited role in Hindi film music, the trumpet moved strictly cabaret club numbers to the beautiful opening of “Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli” where the lifting trumpet solo carries our hopes to the sky with it.
Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli (Anand 1971)
Zuby Zuby Jalembu (An Evening in Paris 1967)
Patli Kamar Hai (Barsaat 1949)
Haal Kaisa Janab Ka (Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi 1958)
Bongo-Conga: Afro-Cuban drums (consisting of the smaller hand-held bongos and the larger barrel congas) that are backbones of Latin music, Afro-Cuban jazz, and the mambo music that swept 1950s United States.
Wanna know why “O Mere Dil Ke Chain” is your favorite Rajesh Khanna song and your heart races every time it plays? It’s not (just) his perfect face, it’s the Bongo-Conga! This exotic and uber-fun percussion instrument translates effortlessly from living room romance to an outdoor gypsy party.
O Mere Dil Ke Chain (Mere Jeevan Saathi 1972)
Dilbar Dil Se Pyaare (Caravan 1971)
Gum Hai Kisise Pyar (Rampur Ka Lakshman 1972)
Castanets: A distinct handheld instrument commonly associated with the Spanish Sevillanas folk dance that is played by clicking two small wooden shells together in a quick rattle.
Once you hear this sound in a song, you’ll never forget it. More popular in Bollywood songs of the 50s and early 60s, the castanets add a playful nuance on top of the base percussion provided by a different instrument.
Tere Sur Aur Mere Geet (Goonj Uthi Shehnai 1959)
Yeh Chand Sa Roshan Chehra (Kashmir Ki Kali 1964)
Door Gagan Ki Chaaon (Door Gagan Ki Chaaon Mein 1964)
Aaiye Meharbaan (Howrah Bridge 1958)
Mora Gora Ang Laile (Bandini 1963)
Madal: A hand-drum used in Nepali folk music that made its debut in Bollywood under music director R.D. Burman and Ranjjit Gazmer in the 1970s.
The madal has a fuller more rounded tone than the tabla or bongo, lending itself well to rustic scenes. It was featured heavily in the destination film “Hare Rama Hare Krishna”!
Hum Dono Do Premi (Ajnabee 1974)
Kanchi Re Kanchi Re (Hare Rama Hare Krishna 1971)
Dhol: A exciting Panjabi instrument famous for its influence on bhangra music, the dhol (and its family members the dholak and dholki) is a double-headed drum featured in genres from pop to qawwali.
The dhol is a great instrument for dancing and some of the best Bollywood choreography has featured the upbeat dhol. If you ever doubted Vijayantimala’s rumored legendary dance skills, just watch and listen to the end of “Honton Pe Aisi Baat” with the mind-boggling dhol spinning circles around the other instruments.
Chadti Jawani (Caravan 1971)
Honton Pe Aisi Baat (Jewel Thief 1965)
Jhumka Gira Re (Mera Saaya 1966)
Yamma Yamma (1980)
Jai Jai Shiv Shankar (Aap Ki Kasam 1973)
Duggi: A traditional Uttar Pradesh kettle drum in the tabla family played with two hands.
Popularized by Bollywood musician Homi Mullan, this percussion instrument creates a more rounded tone than the tabla, but is a perfect pastoral compliment to “Ni Sultana Re” as well as the sultry domestic “Bahon Mein Chale Aao.”
Ni Sultana Re (Pyar Ka Mausam 1969)
Bahon Mein Chale Aao (Anamika 1973)
Roop Tera Mastana (Aradhana 1969)
Dekha Na Haye Re Socha Na (Bombay to Goa 1972)
Ghatam (Matka): An ancient percussion instrument from South India, the ghatam is a clay pot with a narrow mouth and is played with bare hands.
It doesn’t get any more traditional than the ghatam, but R.D. Burman figured out how to use it an as unconventional ways as possible. Bet you wouldn’t have guessed that the percussion of hipster hit “Samne Yeh Kaun Aaya” came from a clay pot?
Samne Yeh Kaun Aaya (Jawani Diwani)
Are Kaise Mitti Ki Maadho (Imaan 1974)
Muttu Kudi (Do Phool 1974)
Reco Reco (Reso Reso): A scraped percussion instrument with a distict sound with origins in Brazilian music.
The reco reco is basically a party in a box! The distinct rhythm it creates adds spice to every song that is bold enough to utilize it. Watch how Kishore Kumar in a hilarious scene from Padosan lipsyncs his own actual recorded voice while playing the Reco Reco (who is in turn lipsynced by Sunil Dutt!) in “Mere Samnewali Khidki Mein.”
Mere Samnewali Khidki Mein (Padosan 1968)
Mere Naina Saawan Bhado (Mehbooba 1976)
Mera Naam Hai Shabnam (Kati Patang 1970)
Tabla: A pair of hand drums used commonly in Hindustani classic music composed of two distinct drums with differing roles for each hand.
This is one of the most common percussion instruments used in old Hindi songs and is always to go-to when all else fails. I once took tabla lessons, but quit after 2 weeks because my guru insisted I needed to cut my nails shorter to play the instrument correctly. He was right, of course, but there are sacrifices I’m not willing to make!
Sanam Tu Bewafa (Khilona 1970)
Jurm-e-Ulfat Pe (Taj Mahal 1963)
Baiyan Na Daro (Dastak 1970)
Jaag Dard-e-Ishq (Anarkali 1953)
Inhi Logon Ne (Pakeezah 1971)
Western Drum Kit: A collection of instruments often including a bass drum, a snare drum, and one or more cymbals that became popular with jazz bands in the early 20th century and ushered in rock-and-roll.
Rock-and-roll and nightclub bands have long been a part of Hindi film traditions and the Western drum kit hit the screen with a literal bang, and usually accompanied by a song better suited for “modern” audiences.
Dil Deke Dekho (Dil Deke Dekho 1959)
Ina Mina Dika (Aasha 1957)
Baar Baar Dekho (Chinatown 1962)
Tumne Mujhe Dekha (Teesri Manzil 1966)
Nain Milakar Chain Churana (Aamne Samne 1967)
Accordion: Believed to have been invented in Berlin in the early 19th century, the accordion, like the harmonium, is played by compressing the instrument’s bellows with one hand while playing keys with the other hand.
The accordion produces a harsher sound than the harmonium, but is often more exciting as in the epic performance in “Anhoni Ko Honi” or the drama-filled “Har Dil Jo Pyar Karega”!
Har Dil Jo Pyar Karega (Sangam 1964)
Awaara Hoon (Awaara 1951)
Sab Kuch Seeka Humne (Anari 1959)
Anhoni Ko Honi Karde (Amar Akbar Anthony 1977)
Jeena Yahan Marna Yahan (Mera Naam Joker 1970)
Heavy Breathing and Grunting: An R.D. Burman signature that marks any classic Bollywood song as particularly racy and is served by both men and women with an extra scoop of awkward sauce.
Yeah, I had to throw this in. Don’t pretend like it doesn’t exist, and definitely don’t pretend that you don’t love it. Awkward breathing and grunting nosies are a strange but important hallmark of many of our favorite classic Bollywood cabaret numbers. They really just have to be heard to understand (and to believe). Now before you start to blush, these noises are actually pretty complicated to make–it takes great breathing control and just the right amount of oomph. Seriously, try these exercises at home when no one’s around to judge. You’ll give your lungs a run for their money!
Piya Tu Ab To Aaja (Caravan 1971)
Duniya Mein Logon Ko (Apna Desh 1972)
Mera Naam Hai Shabnam (Kati Patang 1970)
Aa Jaane Ja (Intaqam 1969)
Lekar Hum Deewana Dil (Yaadon Ki Baraat 1973)
Harmonium: A type of hand-pumped accordion often used as melodic accompaniment in Hindustani vocals as well as qawwali and folk music.
The harmonium is one of Hindustani classical music’s best modern friends and a great accompanist to everything from a layman’s love ode (a la “Bahut Shukriya”) to semi-classical qawwalis (as seen in Nutan’s one-man-show “Nigahen Milane”).
Leke Pehla Pehla Pyaar (C.I.D. 1956)
Bahut Shukriya (Ek Musafir Ek Hasina 1962)
Nigahen Milane Ko (Dil Hi To Hai 1963)
Kajra Mohabbatwala (Kismat 1968)
Yashomati Maiya Se (Satyam Shivam Sundaram 1978)
Manjira: A small pair of hand cymbals that traditionally accompanied bhajans with roots in ancient temple music.
Although manjira are traditionally used as accompaniments to bhajans, I ADORE how they were used in the romantic “Chhupa Lo Yun Dil” to underscore the devotional imagery to a couple’s love for each other.
Chhupa Lo Yun Dil Mein (Mamta 1966)
Na Main Dhan Chaahoon (Kala Bazaar 1960)
Kanhaiya Kanhaiya Tujhe Aana Padega (Maalik 1972)
Piano: One of the world’s most familiar musical instruments, the piano is played through a keyboard that strikes strings connected to a soundboard.
You’ll be the classiest guy in the room if you can burst into song with your own piano accompaniment at a party. Or so classic Bollywood tells us. Piano songs are essentially their own genre in the world of Hindi films. Once the piano comes out, it gets fancy and emotional in a hurry.
Pyar Diwana Hota Hai (Kati Patang 1970)
Dil Ke Jharoke Mein (Brahmachari 1968)
Aji Rooth Kar Ab (Aarzoo 1965)
Dheere Dheere Machal (Anupama 1966)
Dost Dost Na Raha (Sangam 1964)
Shankh (conch shell): An ancient instrument fashioned from the shells of large snails that are typically featured in Hindu religious hymns.
This occasionally heard instrument is usually only found in highly religious songs, but can also be heardwhen our heroes make a trip to a temple or when someone is praying for justice in the world. A powerful example comes during the climax of aarti in Purab Aur Paschim!
Om Jai Jagdish (Purab Aur Paschim 1970)
Mose Mora Shaam Roota (Johnny Mera Naam 1970)
What a whirlwind! We hope our introductory guide to the instruments of old Bollywood is a useful tool as you immerse yourself in the incredibly diverse music of our favorite films! All I have to say after reviewing my list is that I really could have used more cowbell.
Just kidding (in fact, listen to “Kitne Bhi Tu Kar Le Sitam” from Sanam Teri Kasam for some actual Bollywood cowbell action). What other instruments played in your favorite classic Bollywood songs have we left off our list? Leave us a comment with an old film song you wish you knew more about and we’ll try to tell you which instruments are featured!