Carnatic music is traditionally taught according to the system formulated by Purandara Dasa. This involves sarali swaras (graded exercises), alankaras (exercises based on the seven talas), geetams or simple songs, and Swarajatis. After the student has reached a certain standard, varnams are taught and later, the student learns kritis. It typically takes several years of learning before a student is adept enough to perform at a concert.
The learning texts and exercises are more or less uniform across all the South Indian states. The learning structure is arranged in increasing order of complexity. The lessons start with the learning of the sarali varisai (solfege set to a particular raga).
Carnatic music was traditionally taught in the gurukula system, where the student lived with and learnt the art from his guru (perceptor). From the late 20th century onwards, with changes in lifestyles and need for young music aspirants to simultaneously pursue a parallel academic career, this system has found few takers.
Musicians often take great pride in letting people know about their Guru Parampara, or the hierarchy of disciples from some prominent ancient musician or composer, to which they belong. People whose disciple-hierarchies are often referred to are Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar, Syama Sastri, Swathi Thirunal and Papanasam Sivan, among others.
In modern times, it is common for students to visit their gurus daily or weekly to learn music. Though new technology has made learning easier with the availability of quick-learn media such as learning exercises recorded on audio cassettes and CDs, these are discouraged by most gurus who emphasize that face-to-face learning is best for students.
Notation is not a new concept in Indian music. However, Carnatic music continued to be transmitted orally for centuries without being written down. The disadvantage with this system was that if one wanted to learn about a kriti composed, for example, by Purandara Dasa, it involved the difficult task of finding a person from Purandara Dasa’s lineage of students.
Written notation of Carnatic music was revived in the late 17th century and early 18th century, which coincided with rule of Shahaji II in Tanjore. Copies of Shahaji’s musical manuscripts are still available at the Saraswati Mahal Library in Tanjore and they give us an idea of the music and its form. They contain snippets of solfege to be used when performing the mentioned ragas.
Unlike classical Western music, Carnatic music is notated almost exclusively in tonic sol-fa notation using either a Roman or Indic script to represent the solfa names. Past attempts to use the staff notation have mostly failed. Indian music makes use of hundreds of ragas, many more than the church modes in Western music. It becomes difficult to write Carnatic music using the staff notation without the use of too many accidentals. Furthermore, the staff notation requires that the song be played in a certain key. The notions of key and absolute pitch are deeply rooted in Western music, whereas the Carnatic notation does not specify the key and prefers to use scale degrees (relative pitch) to denote notes. The singer is free to choose the actual pitch of the tonic note. In the more precise forms of Carnatic notation, there are symbols placed above the notes indicating how the notes should be played or sung; however, informally this practice is not followed.
To show the length of a note, several devices are used. If the duration of note is to be doubled, the letter is either capitalized (if using Roman script) or lengthened by a diacritic (in Indian languages). For a duration of three, the letter is capitalized (or diacriticized) and followed by a comma. For a length of four, the letter is capitalized (or diacriticized) and then followed by a semicolon. In this way any duration can be indicated using a series of semicolons and commas.
However, a simpler notation has evolved which does not use semicolons and capitalization, but rather indicates all extensions of notes using a corresponding number of commas. Thus, Sā quadrupled in length would be denoted as “S,,,”.
The notation is divided into columns, depending on the structure of the tāḷaṃ. The division between a laghu and a dhrutam is indicated by a।, called a ḍaṇḍā, and so is the division between two dhrutams or a dhrutam and an anudhrutam. The end of a cycle is marked by a॥, called a double ḍaṇḍā, and looks like a caesura.