Teaching Embodied Musickmaking: Pedagogical Perspectives from South Asian Music and Dance

May 13, 2016

Embodied cognition posits that the mind and body function as a single entity and that all aspects of the mind are shaped by the body. Embodied pedagogy, influenced by embodied cognition, realizes the role of the body and its relationship to the mind through the experiences of teaching and learning. This article explores what it means to “embody” music in pedagogical practice. What are some of the applied dimensions of embodiment? How might embodiment aid in music learning, particularly multicultural music learning? Through case studies involving South Asian music and dance, the authors demonstrate how the body and mind may be cognitively engaged in music and movement, and what is uniquely learned by using embodiment as a pedagogical tool.1

The concept of embodiment – the representation in bodily or material form of an idea, quality, or feeling – has deep roots in classical Western philosophy. The perception of the mind’s relationship to the body, however, has fluctuated greatly in philosophical thought. For centuries, a dominant dualistic trend argued that mind and body are separate entities, made of vastly different substances in which an immaterial mind is considered objective, transcendent, and even disembodied from a material body (i.e. Descartes). Proponents of a phenomenological approach, however, recognize that the mind itself is embodied, and therefore all cognition and perception is largely determined, shaped, or influenced by the body.2 Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy of the Flesh (1999) attempts to put to rest the idea that humans have access to any objective or transcendent human reason, and holds that all cognitive thought is embedded in, and influenced by, our bodies and bodily experiences. Motor systems influence the mind, just as the mind influences action.

The longstanding philosophical schism between mind and body has had a great impact on educational practice which, in large part, created a curriculum and pedagogy privileging the mind’s reason. The resulting hierarchical model emphasized abstracted and “objective” knowledge imparted via instructor down to the “empty vessel” students waiting in neat rows of desks to receive it. In practice, the lecture held sway and students were expected to learn passively.

As educators, recognizing that both body and mind are educable requires an adjustment in the pedagogical paradigm, one that can accommodate the notion that “the experiential body is both a representation of self (a ‘text’) as well as a mode of creation in progress (a ‘tool’).”3 The view that the mind and body causally influence one another, or interactionalism, means that that thought itself cannot be separated from the body. Likewise, embodied forms of knowledge reside in both the orientations of the mind and dispositions or “demeanours” of the body.4

Engaged pedagogical practice, furthermore, encourages thoughtful, subjective, and highly interactive learning employing personal reflections, independent or group projects, and fostering critical thinking and questioning. Much of the recent thinking in this area emerged from research in the cognitive sciences, including work on artificial intelligence and human-technology interaction, as well as the critical pedagogy of Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), which encourages students to work towards co-constructing their own educational experience and become “critical co-investigators” along with the instructor.5 Such techniques serve to help develop strategies beyond the Cartesian dualism, known more commonly as the separation between mind and body, and advance a pedagogical system valuing “embodied minds whose conceptual systems arise from, are shaped by, and are given meaning through living human bodies.” 6

What is Music Embodiment?

Embodied or somatic learning is a way of learning that draws on bodily experiences and relies on the body’s knowledge.7 The act of embodiment is in and of itself inherently experiential. Music is an embodied art form and the musical mind functions as an embodied mind. This embodiment occurs as we cognitively form musical meaning, in the signification that results from listening, and in the physical act of performing.

Musical perception, a cognitive activity, is directly connected with music listening and musical performance. Human perception processes and transforms physical input (such as soundwaves, light, etc.) into cognitively constructed meaning such as pitch, melody, rhythm, and color. It is worth noting that perception is also influenced by context, culture, and personal experience. Merleau-Ponty’s account of embodiment, for example, distinguishes between the objective body, which is the body regarded as a physiological entity, and the phenomenal body, which is a particular physiological entity (i.e. “my” body or “your” body) as it experiences. Musical perception, therefore, is highly influenced by the embodied mind and situated cognition “in which physical/temporal embodiment and socio-cultural environment contribute crucially to the structure of the mind.” 8 The receiver experiences the physical or audible gestures along with the influence of cross-modal senses on the perception of that musical experience.9

Embodiment is integral to the field of ethnomusicology, in which an understanding of the experiential aspects of music includes phenomenological as well as cognitive acts of thinking and belief formation. As noted in Jennifer Post’s text, “Ethnomusicologists explore the encoding and enacting of identities in historical, social, and geographic contexts as they consider place and space, body and music, and the embodiment of ideas and issues in music and dance, musical instruments, and performance practice.” 10 As ethnomusicologists in general favor a contextual approach, embodied pedagogy can be seen as part and parcel of a philosophy in which “learning and teaching take place, and have always taken place, within embedding social contexts that do not just influence, but essentially determine the kinds of knowledge and practices that are constructed.”11 The related concept of situated cognition also postulates that knowing is inseparable from doing, and that action is bound in social, cultural, and physical contexts. In other words, it is the experiential aspect of musicking in the body that invites broader discussion and leads to other kinds of knowledge.

What can be Learned Using Embodiment as a Pedagogical Tool?

Which experiences are useful and effective pedagogically? Are certain experiences more “educational” than others? Certain movements? Lawrence suggests that the idea of embodied knowing is a “profound physical, emotional, mental and spiritual experience, it has the potential to transform learning as well.” 12 Certainly, systematized body practices of all types come to mind such as dance (ballet, jazz, contact improvisation, bharatanatyam, etc.), gymnastics, aerobics, gesture, yoga, and martial arts, as well as theatrical performance, dialogue, monologue, mime, singing, instrument playing, and listening, as well as various forms of meditation and breathing practices (or any other action that draws awareness to one’s body). To some extent, it is the conscious intention with which the instruction is applied that provides the catalyst for transformation rather than any one specific type of action or movement itself.

Since the praxes associated with learning music (and dance) are inherently embodied, optimal teaching should employ embodied pedagogies. In designing music pedagogies and methods, however, we often neglect to teach our students in a way that connects the cognitive aspects of music learning with the embodying process. Employing strategies that focus on embodiment heightens intellectual awareness, and opens up the body, and therefore the mind, for experiential learning. As Joy and Sherry note, “our conceptual systems and our capacity for critical reflection are shaped by the nature of our bodies and our bodily interactions.”13 They also apply this philosophical shift to perceptions about art examining “not just the process of thinking bodily but how the body affects the logic of our thinking about art.”14 Even abstract and intangible concepts become real and accessible through the process of embodying, including a culture’s values, social relations, aesthetics, musical concepts of time and space, relationship to the environment, and the relationship between private experience and its socio-cultural context. This Vygostskyan approach identifies the importance of social relationships and cultural context in cognitive development.15

Teaching a non-native culture’s music and dance, however, requires that the student embody the unfamiliar – including cultural practices that are not previously embedded in the mind and body’s known schema. This issue is critical to teaching multicultural music and dance, and provides a pedagogical opportunity to connect the action (gesture, movement, pitch, rhythm) with the socio-cultural values from whence they originated. The following two examples, case studies of embodied pedagogy drawn from music and dance of India, will demonstrate how the body and mind may be engaged in learning world music.

Teaching World Music as Embodied Pedagogy

Teaching music, particularly world music, requires that students learn a different verbal, as well as musical, language. The cognitive experience necessitates not only that students translate lyrics, but also learn to recognize unfamiliar linguistic and musical sounds such as phrasings (pitches, cadences, phrase length, direction) and rhythms. While some students may embrace the challenge of learning something new, teaching musical “otherness” sometimes results in blank stares or even dread on the part of students. Unfamiliar people, places and sounds can seem abstract and distant, and it requires additional work on behalf of the student to engage and process them.

Embodiment encourages whole-body and mind interacting – the physicality of putting movement with song and words. Two ways to further embed the embodied material into memory are to create a context for the student that approximates, as closely as possible, the environment of enculturation, and to emulate the process of teaching, as closely as possible, to that of the original culture. Teaching music in context relies on a transmission of values. The sounds of a single instrument or groups of instruments, for example, are symbolic and embedded in the psychology of place, as are pitches of a Western scale, Indian rāga, or Turkish makam.16 Phrase length, direction, ornamentation or lack thereof, timbre, and rhythmic structures, all carry significant cultural imprint. Likewise the process of musical transmission (master to student, aural or written, etc.), is an inherent part of the musical experience.

Embodied pedagogy means having students physically embody the music through movement, spatial recognition, non-verbal expressions, and gestures. Most college-age students have experienced activity-based, hands on learning particularly in the elementary school setting. Many students feel comfortable “doing” and engaging in the material rather than passively receiving it. The physicality of moving or performing – a human’s motor capacity that concerns playing an instrument, singing or dancing – however, does not require that person to understand the physiological mechanisms underlying those actions. Simply having students re-create motions or actions may at times be sufficient, but often it is not pedagogically sound. Thoughtful discourse is required in order to satisfy the need to fully understand the motions or actions and fully make a careful and deep mind body connection.

Good embodied pedagogy results in the ability of the recipient to recall the feel and flow of a song, dance, or game, through mind-body experiential learning and not by intellectual recall only. It allows layers of meaning to emerge -- drawing from physical, musical, and cultural aspects of the practice. It also requires an investment of time, and an in-depth understanding of the process and the outcome on the part of the professor.


How will you know if your students have learned anything from the experience? Students should actively demonstrate that they have “processed” the experience (e.g., through written or verbal reflections or discussions). Since the end result is, hopefully, embedded in the body through forms of skill building and technique, students may be evaluated through some type of performance related activity or performativity. Performance enables the group and the instructor to easily assess whether or not students have achieved the movement and muscle memory, while more cognitive and experiential memories and connections can be revealed through discussion and reflection.

Case Study #1: India, Children’s Game-Song (Natalie Sarrazin)

The Indian children’s song “Okā Bokā,” is a multiple-part, complex game-song. Hindi lyrics reinforce local tradition, customs, geographic location, and particularly “Indian” gestures and motion. This song also includes motions and formations commonly found in children’s game songs (circle formation and communal movement, hand clapping, foot stomping, finger play, leader/follower, etc.) from the British and subsequent American traditions.17

I teach “Okā Bokā” in an undergraduate course entitled “Music and the Child,” a required course in the Interdisciplinary Arts for Children bachelor’s degree program. Most of the students in this program will go on to become regular classroom teachers in K-6th grade settings, and will use arts integration (theater, dance, music and visual arts) to create integrated lessons. As part of its teaching process, the program draws on the phenomenological aspects of education, requiring students to quantify their experiences as they perform activities in the class. How might they express different thoughts or connections they have while doing, singing, dancing, moving, or playing. As an instructor in the program, therefore, I not only teach students how to teach in highly interdisciplinary and integrated ways, but give them opportunities to experience this type of teaching firsthand in class. Class material and teaching approach draw heavily on the work of Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, and accommodate a diversity of learning styles.18 Through the course and the program, students are made aware of teaching through the intelligences (musical-rhythmic, interpersonal, kinesthetic, verbal linguistic, etc.) and to a variety of learners (aural-hearing, tactile-kinesthetic, visual-spatial, etc.). The embodied approach is useful to teach music to education students in this integrated program. My goal and the goal of the program, is to have students construct and demonstrate understanding of and through an art form.

The Interdisciplinary Arts for Children students I work with are quite familiar with integrating creative performance in their education, and are partners in their cognitive construction and development. While performing an activity, students immediately begin connecting (motion, gesture, sound, visuals, etc.) to things that they have previously experienced, such as other games or songs involving similar actions, rhythms, pitches, or movements.

Teaching Goals

  • Experience a deep understanding of the collective and social nature of musicmaking and game playing
  • Embody musical and linguistic concepts (rhythm, tempo, form, “flow,” onomatopoeia)
  • Develop an understanding of cultural gestures (everyday and symbolic)

Indian Cultural Values: Gesture and Movement

A solid context requires substantial background into the nuances of movement, sound, and gesture. Gestures in Indian dance and music have a long history. In classical Indian singing, different types of gestures are acceptable. The Indian philosophical connectedness of mind to body is somewhat contentious; some gestures are considered bad or uncouth, with “spontaneous everyday gestures” or gestures made lower on the body being of lower status, and higher gestures, or more canonical and systematical gestures considered higher status.19

Ritual gestures in dance known as mudrās, are symbolic gestures mostly performed by the hands. These gestures respond to everyday gestures (teaching, protecting) and to aspects of religious Hindu and Buddhist teaching. Mudrās can be both abstract and mimetic. They are used in yogic practice for meditation and in dance to tell a story such as imitating a deer or other animal. In many folk, classical and religious dance, the nature of movements are often narrative, mimetic and didactic, and directly illustrative of storytelling.

The Natyasastra, a second-century Sanskrit treatise on the performing arts, contains the following śloka (couplet) on the power of the gesture stating:

yato hasta stato drishti, (Where the hand is, the eyes follow)
yato drishti stato manaha (Where the eyes go, the mind follows)
yato manaha stato bhava (Where the mind is, there is expression)
yato bhava stato rasa (Where there is expression, there is rasa [i.e., mood, flavor, aesthetic appreciation])

This śloka outlines the process of embodying aesthetic expression – movement-perception-thought-emotional embodiment (body-mind-body connection).


Begin by introducing the Hindi game-song text, as well as its English translation. A rich, meaningful discussion can ensue just from examining the words and ideas from the lyrics themselves. Then, practice the rhythm of the words in English, but hopefully also in Hindi. Linguistic patterns of speech embed unique rhythms, accents, inflection and so forth. Speaking the rhyme in English does not impart the same type of “sonic” cultural knowledge or information as does performing it in Hindi. Many of the sections have only a few words or words that are repetitive and can easily be learned. A review of Part 4, “Ant, Silly Ant,” the only sung part should follow until students are comfortable.

Figure 1

Part 1: “Okā Bokā”

okā bokā tīn tarokā (okā bokā three goats)
lauā lāthī chandan kāthī (twig and stick and sandal wood and)
chandanā ke nām kā (what is the name of sandalwood?)
ijayī bijayī (victory, wictory)
panawā phūlelawa puchūk (betel leaf, perfumed oil, squeeze)20


Children sit in a circle and place both hands in front with palms down and fingertips touching the floor (like a spider). The leader taps the back of each hand to the beat. On the word “squeeze” (puchūk) the hand is flattened. Teader continues until all hands are flat. This first section of the song requires a Leader who eventually will eliminate all of the other children in the circle (including him/herself) by flattening one hand on the last word of the verse.

  • Cultural Gesture-Movement-Proxemics: Small groups of 5-6 sit on the floor in a circle, in extremely close proximity.
  • Cultural Value, Significance: No stakes elimination game
  • Familiar Memory: Evokes memories of many familiar hand elimination games such as “Eenie Meenie Miney Mo,” again, without the fear of losing the round.

Embodied Element

While it isn’t uncommon for a class of elementary education students to sit on the floor to play games or do activities, it is unusual for them to sit as close to one another as is required to play “Okā Bokā.” Cultural proxemics vastly differ between the U.S. and India in what is considered acceptable in terms of personal space. Sitting this close, and even sitting on the floor in general which is very common in India, is uncomfortable for many of them physically, but also psychologically.


While the leader eventually eliminates all the other children (and him/herself) from the game, there are no final consequences to the elimination, i.e. no one is determined a “winner” or “loser” as they very quickly would be labeled in Western/American culture. The cultural impetus behind this is an emphasis on the collectivity rather than competition.

Part 2: “Will you be a big ant?”

chiuntā leba ki chiuntī (Will you be a small ant? Will you be a big ant?)


The Leader pinches the back of each flattened hand and lifts them into a single pile in the middle of the circle.

  • Cultural Gesture-Movement-Proxemics: Pinching the back of children’s hands. Simulating the gesture of a cincihna mudra to pinch.
  • Cultural Value, Significance: Stories of ants are part of Hindu mythology.
  • Familiar Memory: None

Embodied Element

“Pinching” of the back of the hand is uncommon in Euro-American children’s games. However, it does seem to be part of children’s games elsewhere, including indigenous Zulu children’s games from South Africa. In the South African game, in which children pinch each other’s hand very hard even causing bleeding, the test is for the recipient to withstand pain.

In order for the leader to “pinch” hands, the leader’s makes a gesture where thumb and index finger touch. This gesture resembles the cincihna mudrā, which is a gesture that represents understanding in which the thumb and index finger grasp an object as fine as a grain of truth. The cincihna mudrā is an inverted position of the powerful gyān mudrā, practiced by yogis for centuries to reach spiritual understanding and knowledge. In “Okā Bokā,” the leader is trying to gain knowledge of which type of ant the players wish to become.


Although it is not specified in the game-song, stories of ants are found in Hindu mythology. In the Brahma Vaivarta Purana text, for example, ants are used to illustrate the endless cycle of reincarnation to teach humility to Indra, king of Gods -- the march of ants representing all of the incarnations of Indras before him who were reborn as ants by their prior life deeds.

Part 3: “Pitter Patter”

atkan chatkan dahī chatākan (pitter patter, splitter splatter)
ban phūle banaila (wildflowers bloom in the jungle)
sawan mẽ karailā (bitter gourds grow in the monsoon)
neuri gailī chorī (someone’s mongoose was stolen)
dhar kān mamorī (hold the ear and twist!)


The leader places their hand on top of a pile or tower of hands comprised of all the children's hands. The leader then alternates slapping their hand palm up and palm down atop the pile on the beat of the music.

  • Cultural Gesture-Movement-Proxemics: Leader slaps one hand palm up then palm down
  • Cultural Value/Significance: Bitter gourds, monsoon, mongoose, and jungle
  • Familiar Memory: Front and back of the hand clapping found in “Double This, Double That,” “Eenie, Meenie, Sassaleeny,” “Oh Say, My Playmate”

Embodied Element

Slapping the leader’s hand palm up and palm down atop a pile of hands is relatively unfamiliar, although handclapping games found in North America also use a fair amount of front and back hand clapping in pairs.


Similar to the first section, this section focuses on the beat as the leader taps palm up and palm down. Culturally, this section mentions four items likely to be unfamiliar to those outside of India. The monsoon is one of the three main seasons in India (winter, summer, monsoon), and part of a climate very different from that found in in the Americas, Europe, Russia, etc. Tropical and subtropical regions support certain vegetation, and in India, the bitter gourd (karailā) is popular during the monsoon season. Likewise, the mongoose, native to Eurasia and mainland Africa, is a relatively unfamiliar animal in the Americas.

Part 4: “Ant, silly ant”

chiuntā ho chiuntā (Ant, silly ant,)
maamā ke gagariyā kāhe phora (Why did you break uncle’s vase?)
lā ho chiuntā (O ant, silly ant.)


Seated in the circle (leader now blends back in with the group), the children grab the earlobes of the people to the right and the left of them and sway to the music as they sing this section. Note: this is the only sung portion of the game.

  • Cultural Gesture-Movement-Proxemics: Each child grabs an earlobe of the person on their left and an earlobe of the person on their right. Group collectively sways back and forth in this position.
  • Cultural Value/Significance: Grabbing one’s earlobes is an act of sincere apology.
  • Familiar Memory: None

Embodied Element

Grabbing one’s earlobes is an outward sign of repentance for having done something wrong – a gesture that symbolizes the Hindi phrase “māf kījiye” or please grant forgiveness. This gesture is very common in Indian culture, and one of the most significant cultural gestures in the song. This earlobe grabbing in the song accompanies the lyrics “why did you break your uncle’s vase,” and assumes that the culprits are sorry for their actions. The fact that the whole group is intertwined and holding ears and swaying implies that all are at fault.

Part 5: “Kick and kick”

lātā lāti chal bariyāti (Kick and kick and then go to Baryaati)


This is the most “chaotic” section of the game, where everyone in the circle kicks their legs frantically so that the soles of their feet are touching.

  • Cultural Gesture-Movement-Proxemics: Everyone in the group sits with their legs stretched out the soles of their feet facing each other, and “pedals” their legs in a wild frenzy so that the soles of their feet touch others in the group.
  • Cultural Value/Significance: Mimics the lyrics of walking or running
  • Familiar Memory: A type of “footsie” where the soles of the feet touch each other.

Embodied Element

“Footsie” or touching soles of the feet with others is rare but not entirely unfamiliar activity in children’s games. However, in India and in many other Muslim and Asian cultures, the soles of the feet are considered dirty. It is socially inappropriate to show the soles of your feet to someone.


There could be two explanations for its inclusion here: one, it is borrowed from British children’s games, or two, the motion of running is the dominant gesture, and is more expedient to do sitting down since the next activity requires a seated posture as well.

Part 6: “Cut the palm tree”

tār kāte tarkul kāte kāte re (Cut the palm tree, cut the palm grove)
ban khājā (cut the palm fruit open)
hāthi upar ghanta bāje (Atop the elephant the bell rings and the)
chamak chale re raja (King arrives in splendor.)
rājā ke dulari beti (The lovely daughter of the King)
khub bajāwe bājā (beautifully beats the drum.)
int māro jhint māro chhup (Hit it, hit it, hit it, chop it off!)


Children create a tower of fists in the middle of the circle, with thumbs extended up, each child grabbing the upturned thumb of the child’s hand beneath. The leader makes a sawing motion to cut down this fist tower, “chopping” off a hand or two from the top when they say “hit it chop it!”

  • Cultural Gesture-Movement-Proxemics: Children create a tower of fists with each child grabbing the upturned thumb of the child’s beneath them. The leader makes “sawing motion” with the side of their hand “chopping” down this tower one hand at a time.
  • Cultural Value/Significance: Palm trees are common in India, and are important sources of food such as coconuts, but their sap is also used to make jaggery. Children imitate chopping the palm tree using their fist with thumb up, building the trunk of the tree that will be cut down by the leader.
  • Familiar/Cultural Memory: This motion is similar to the Club Fist game found at the turn of the 20th century in Newell’s book Games and Songs of American Children.21

Embodied Element

The action of chopping down a palm tree is a narrative, mimetic gesture. The “Club Fist,” as its called, was a game found at the turn of the 20th century in Newell’s book Games and Songs of American Children, involving the type of tower of fists as described here. The lyrics are vague, but possibly describe the “exotic” island of Taprobane (Ceylon) off the coast of Sri Lanka, which was regaled for its “riches and wonders” elephants and kings. It also might refer to the rajas in any of the princely states in India.


While most song analyses focus on the lyrics, my analysis focuses primarily on the gestures and movements involved, including the spatial proxemics. For this section, I will be referring to ideas concerning personal space and proxemics, specifically as they apply to Indian society. Cultural practices regarding bodily placement in space, movements, and gesture are highly important components when using an embodied pedagogy, for even slight differences contain significant cultural meaning and values. The peer group with whom children associate will most likely be of similar caste and/or socio-economic status. In this way, social restrictions regarding touch are avoided. According to Thirumalai,22 touching behavior is found among children more commonly if the children belong to lower economic classes, and touching behavior is found among children more commonly if the children involved belong to same age group and profess familiarity and/or intimacy. For Indian children, the idea of close group settings, and particular body placements and movements such as grabbing each other’s ears and swaying during Part 4, is a culturally familiar practice. It is common to grab one’s ears in remorse, and the institutionalization of this action in the song seems natural. In the United States, however, this unfamiliar action violates anthropologist Hall’s ideas on acceptable ranges and behaviors involving personal space and touching for Western children, and is therefore uncomfortable for them. Several students I worked with even balked at the idea that they should touch someone else’s ear lobes, citing this as “germy” or “dirty” in some way. The familiarity of the action for Indians renders it harmless, whereas for Western students, the unfamiliarity of the action and violation of cultural codes regarding touch triggers the movement as foreign or different, and allows the concept of uncleanliness to overshadow the action.

The final category I’ll discuss is that of personal or cultural memory. The body is a site of memory, and any type of bodily action and sonic experience may unlock memories and connections in the brain to other, more familiar moments. Key issues here concern how music accesses prior experiences and memories forged during social contexts in which movements or music occurred. For general movements that did not violate Western proxemics codes (touch, visual, vocal, olfaction, etc.), students performing unfamiliar gestures, movements or songs will often recall more familiar experiences in order to make sense of the activity. These experiences are shared with the class in an effort to find group agreement that this movement is similar to ones that they have experienced.


Teaching by recognizing an embodied element such as proxemics, mudra gesture, and even pinching, as well as connecting it to cultural beliefs and practice, allows the experience of feeling as well as understanding.

Case Study #2: Sangīt, Integrating Rhythm, Melody, and Movement (Sarah Morelli)

The classical arts of North India include Hindustani music and kathak dance, which are united in a shared artistic language and overarching system of rhythm, melody, and movement. In South Asia, the term sangīt encompasses these three aspects of the performing arts and communicates their interconnectedness, a process hindered in the English-language classroom through unwieldy translations such as “music and dance” or other terminology proffered by scholars such as “musicdance” and “dancemusic.”23 While utilizing the term sangīt in the classroom reflects and reinforces the concept of rhythmic-melodic-kinesthetic interdependence; teaching through embodied pedagogy results in a fuller, richer understanding of this crucial relationship.

Teaching Process

In the classroom, I first introduce these three elements of sangīt—the rhythmic, melodic, and kinesthetic—separately, in stages involving conceptual understanding, and embodied practice. All the exercises described below are taken directly from my experiences learning Hindustani music and kathak dance,24 in which mimesis and embodiment are already integrated into the traditional guru-shishya pedagogical system.25 In the final steps described in Part 4 below, the three elements of rhythm, melody, and movement are combined through Kathak Yoga, a term coined and practice developed by my kathak guru, Pandit Chitresh Das. These steps might be completed in one classroom session, but may be more effectively understood and accomplished over the course of several class meetings.

Teaching Goals

  • To experience a deep understanding of sangīt, the interdependence of rhythm, melody and movement in North Indian classical performance.
  • To embody musical and linguistic concepts through use of different combinations of singing, dancing, clapping patterns, counting numbers, and reciting musically meaningful syllables.
  • To explore the cultural significance of combining various aspects of sangīt as a form of yoga, and as bhakti (Hindu devotionalism).

Part 1: Rhythm (Tāl)

Conceptual Understanding

North Indian classical music and dance utilize a rhythmic structure known as tāl or tāla (meaning “clap”). There are many tāls for performers to choose from, each with a set number of beats. Once selected, performers will continue within the same rhythmic cycle for a full portion of a performance, though the tempo might increase within the course of that performance section. The tāl can be marked by a percussion instrument such as the tabla or by a repeating melody sung or played by a melodic instrumentalist. Tāls vary in the number and phrasing of beats, and are each communicated using a signature pattern called a ṭhekā. Typical tāls include tīntāl (16 beats), jhaptāl (10 beats), rupak tāl (7 beats), ektāl (12 beats), and dhammār tāl (14 beats). Their ṭhekās can be expressed verbally using syllables, called bols, which correspond to specific drum strokes. For example, sixteen-beat tīntāl can be communicated using the bols found in Figure 2 (or variants thereof).


Ask the students if they (visually or aurally) can discern patterns in bols above by comparing the sounds that conclude each syllable. They should notice that there are four groupings of four beats each. The first four-beat pattern is repeated in beats five through eight; nine through twelve are similar, but differ in their beginning consonants, and beats thirteen through sixteen are almost the same as the first four-beat pattern.26

Embodied Practice: Clapping rhythmic cycles

Tāls can be marked physically by counting on the hands in established patterns common in Indian society that reinforce their rhythmic structure. For example, tīntāl’s pattern of four groupings of four beats each, discovered above through analyzing the syllables of the ṭhekā, appears in physical counting as well. In one method of counting tīntāl, the left (or non-dominant) hand is held still in front of the body with the palm up, and the right (or dominant) hand moves around it in a “clap-pinkie-ring-middle” pattern:

  • Beats one through four: The right palm claps the left palm to mark beat one; the right pinky finger touches the left palm for beat two; the right ring finger touches the left palm for beat three; and the right middle finger touches the left palm for beat four.
  • Beats five through eight follow the same “clap-pinkie-ring-middle” pattern but the right hand shifts forward to touch the fingers of the left hand instead of the palm.
  • Beat nine is physically expressed as an open wave of the right hand with the palm facing inward. Using the right thumb as the point of contact, beats ten through twelve are counted with the right pinkie touching the right thumb, then ring and middle finger.
  • The right hand returns to count on the left for beats thirteen through sixteen, using the left wrist as the base for the same “clap-pinkie-ring-middle” pattern.

Have your students count this pattern verbally using English numbers while physically counting with their hands.

Going Deeper

Based on the sonic intensity produced by the hands while counting the beats of this pattern, what do your students think are the most important and least important beats in this tāl?

  • They may notice that beat one is the loudest and therefore the most important, followed by beats five and thirteen; these are the three beats of tīntāl in which the right palm claps the left palm, fingers, and wrist. Tīntāl literally means “three claps.”
  • Beats nine through twelve, expressed with a wave of the hand, have relatively less stress, and comprise the subsection of the tāl known as khālī, or “empty.” 27

Next, ask students to recite the syllables for the ṭhekā as they count with their hands. The syllables for the ṭhekā are onomatopoeic.

  • Find a recording online of a tabla player playing the ṭhekā of tīntāl and ask students if they can hear a similarity between the sounds of the drums and the ṭhekā’s syllables.28

Part 2: Melody (Rāg)

Conceptual Understanding

The melodic aspect of North Indian classical performance involves the concept of rāg or rāga. More elusive than the Western concept of scale, each rāg has specific musical and extramusical characteristics. A rāg must include at least five notes, which might be used differently in ascent and descent, and can include “a wide range of possibilities, from simple scales to complicated melodies.”29 Within a particular rāg, each note has a particular treatment including its intonation, the possible application of appropriate forms of vibrato, its relative stress, and placement in melodic phrases. The technique for moving from one note to another can vary significantly, and specific phrases are characteristic of particular rāgs. Certain rāgs are appropriate to play during certain seasons, times of day, or festivals and some are even associated with specific deities or visual representations (called Rāgamāla paintings).

The concept of rāg can be difficult for students to grasp when communicating through spoken or written language (as above), and even when participating in guided listening. Furthermore, this method of learning music is not in keeping with the tradition’s pedagogical methodology, in which a rāg is “not learned through the memorization of theoretical concepts” but rather by “learning how it behaves in the context of … compositions.”30 Participatory understanding helps students grasp some of the complexities of rāg much more quickly and effectively.

Embodied Practice: Learning Laharā

When melodic instrumentalists take on an accompanying role, they often play what is called a laharā. One of the simpler forms of rāg-based composition, a laharā is a repeated melody which functions to mark the passage of time within a particular tāl; so for example, a laharā in sixteen-beat tīntāl will usually be sixteen beats in length.31 The laharā found in Figure 3 is in rāg Jog (pronounced with a long o as in “road”). Although Figure 3 is written with A as the tonic, in North Indian classical music, the tonic (or “Sa”) is movable, so this can be transposed to suit the range of your students. First sing through this melody several times with your students while counting the numbers aloud (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

For Classroom Discussion

Based on having sung this laharā several times, what scale degrees are used in this rāga?

  • Students will notice that the laharā includes both a major third and a minor third, one of the signature elements of this rāg. The scale degrees include tonic, minor third, major third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, and minor seventh. Because both minor third and major third are considered different forms of the note gandhār (the full name of the third note in the Indian system of solfege), this is considered a pentatonic rāg.

Is there any pattern for when the major third is used as opposed to the minor third?

  • Students might notice that the major third is used in ascending motion and the minor third is used in descending motion. Musicians today generally follow this rule; though occasionally will perform the major third leading into the minor third.

Embodied Practice: Adding Tāl

Next, ask students to sing the laharā and count as they clap the sixteen beats with their hands. Based on the placement of notes within the differently emphasized beats of the tāl, which note might have most importance?

  • The major third generally is considered to be the vādi or most important note of the rāg, and is emphasized in this laharā by its placement on beats one through four.

Going Deeper

Once the students have become somewhat familiar with rāg Jog through singing (with and without counting on the hands) and analyzing the melody, they will be better prepared to absorb other aspects of the rāg.

  • A glissando, called mīnd, is utilized in moving from the minor third to first note of the scale. Ask students to sing the laharā again practicing mīnd while moving from the minor third to tonic on beats five and nine.
  • Time of day: Remind students that most rāgs have specific times of day in which performance is most appropriate. Jog is generally played at night after sunset. Ask them to guess what time of day is associated with the rāg and give reasons for their guesses.
  • Listening practice: Have students listen to a recorded performance of rāg Jog.32 Ask them first to identify the tonic, then to try and pick out the other scale degrees and melodic characteristics of the rāg. Thus far, the students have only learned a portion of Jog’s aspects; do any other repeated musical gestures or melodic phrases in these recorded performances stand out to the students as perhaps characteristic of the rāg itself?

Part 3: Movement (Kathak)

Conceptual Understanding

Kathak dance involves storytelling through gesture utilizing delicate movements of the eyes, eyebrows, neck, wrists, and hands, fluid arm movements, and fast turns. Perhaps most characteristically, it incorporates rhythmically sophisticated footwork performed within the framework of tāl. One basic footwork pattern performed by kathak dancers, called tatkār, includes eights steps subdivided into two groups of four steps. The first group begins on the right foot and the second group on the left. As with the ṭhekā for a specific tāl, this footwork pattern has its own set of bols, or corresponding syllables (see Figure 4):

Embodied Practice

Ask students to practice this pattern of stepping while reciting “right” and “left” in synch with the appropriate steps; then have them shift to using the corresponding syllables. They might notice that the syllable “tā” corresponds to starting on the right foot and “ā” to the left. As they get comfortable with this pattern, have students begin to increase their pace.

Next, incorporate a steady external beat. The tatkār footwork pattern can be danced at different speeds in relation to that beat. Clap a steady beat as students dance one step per beat, maintaining the footwork pattern of tatkār. Next have them attempt to perform two steps per beat, and even four steps per beat. (Note that proficient dancers can subdivide at faster, more technically advanced levels.) Throughout this exercise, students should continue to reinforce the footwork pattern by reciting either “right/left” or the appropriate syllables in time with their footwork. The exercises in Parts 1-3 might be practiced for multiple class sessions before attempting Part 4.

Part 4: Sangīt (Kathak Yoga)

Embodied Practice

Once students have gained some level of comfort dancing and reciting the tatkār footwork pattern at different speeds relative to a steady beat, the next step is to try to count the sixteen beats of tīntāl as their feet continue the tatkār footwork pattern. As with dancing to a steady pulse, footwork can be performed at different speeds relative to the tāl (see Figure 5):

Whereas the last phase of this practice involved reciting in time with footwork while keeping in time with an externally generated pulse, in this phase, the student is responsible for maintaining the immediate footwork pattern as well as a regular pulse and passage of the tāl cycle.

At first, students will likely lose track of either the footwork pattern or the numbers they are counting. This practice draws on and reinforces the “habit memory” developed through earlier practice of the tatkār footwork pattern. As an intermediary step, try splitting the class into two groups. All of the students will dance the same footwork pattern together, but one half will practice counting to sixteen, and the other half will recite the footwork pattern (helping to ground the entire group). Have each group try both roles.

The next step is to include sing the laharā, which serves as melodic reinforcement of the tāl. In this exercise students will sing the laharā for rāg Jog, but note that other laharās in other rāgs can be used for the same purpose. First practice singing and reciting numbers while dancing; if successful, students can try reciting the bols of tīntāl (see Figure 6).

Figure 6

Conceptual Understanding/Classroom Discussion

This final step, called Kathak Yoga by its creator, Pandit Chitresh Das, unites the rhythmic, melodic, and kinesthetic elements of sangīt that are otherwise interconnected, but usually the charge of different performers working in tandem. Having attempted dancing, reciting and singing simultaneously, engage students in the discussion of the following topics:

  • The students are performing a form of self-accompaniment, which necessitates both attention to the immediacy of the dance and to the longer passage of time represented by the sixteen beats of tīntāl. Ask students to articulate this experience. Have they felt a similar sense of multiple attentions while engaged in other musical practices?

Ask students to watch one or more of the clips of Kathak Yoga available online.33 Several clips include playing instruments in tandem with reciting, singing, and/or dancing.

  • One such video states, “integrating intense cardiovascular and weight-bearing exercise with sophisticated rhythmical mathematics, the dancers form a perfect union between mind, body, and spirit, with the goal to achieve pure bhakti through the dance.”34 Bhakti, in brief, is a devotional form of Hindu religious experience. Consider having your students read a slightly longer description of bhakti.35 Having briefly experienced kathak yoga, do they sense a connection between the practice and spiritual devotion?
  • Yoga, while most familiar in the West as a set of physical postures and exercises, is more fully a system preparing the body and mind for meditation. The term “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit root “yuj” meaning to join, to yoke, or to combine.36 How do these various definitions of yoga relate to your experience of Kathak Yoga?

Watch a clip of a traditional kathak performance involving musicians and dancer.37

  • Is the interrelationship of all the elements of sangīt easier or differently understood after trying it yourselves?


Embodiment is a powerful pedagogical tool, which reaches students on physical, psychological and physiological level. This approach is particularly appropriate and even crucial in understanding performance traditions such as kathak, that combine music, gesture, dance, and theater as it re-engages the connection between a student’s mind and body through active, bodily participation and reflective thought. Re-connecting mind-body split enables students to learn and be informed through their bodies’ actions and experiences. Deep understanding also comes through muscle memory, and through entrainment – the brain and body’s experiences with multiple rhythms.

Embodied pedagogy builds on ideas of engaged and critical pedagogy, with a shift in focus on teaching through the mind’s influence on the body, as well as the body’s influence on the mind. The emergence of the terms embodied pedagogy, engaged and critical pedagogy suggest educational approaches that value and advocate for utilizing a mind and body confluence as a basis for instruction. Teaching for the body as well as the mind, represents a substantial departure in practice for most educators. Understanding that the experiences of the body can shape, influence, and teach the mind requires thought and techniques differentiated from prior pedagogical practice, but which are inherently compatible with music.


1This article partly derives from presentations made by the authors at the 2013 CMS Conference in Boston in Cambridge, Massachusetts on October 31. The authors wish to thank to our fellow presenter, Carol Babiracki as well as Pandit Chitresh Das, Gretchen Hayden, George Ruckert, Sean Campbell, Carrie McCune, Rebecca Moritzky, Cailey Salagovic, Thomas Jennings and Anand Dwivedi.

2See, e.g. Husserl, Logical Investigations, Heidegger, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception.

3Perry and Medina, “Embodiment and Performance,” 63.

4Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” 46-58.

5Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 62.

6Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, 6.

7Lawrence, Bodies of Knowledge, 1

8Iyer, “Embodied Mind, Situated Cognition,” 387.

9Fatone et. al.

10Post, Ethnomusicology, 9.

11Nunez, et al., “Embodied Cognition as Grounding,” 45. See also Lave and Wenger, Situated Learning; Rogoff, Apprenticeship in Thinking; and Walkerdine, “From Context to Test.”

12Lawrence, Bodies of Knowledge, 75.

13Joy and Sherry, “Speaking of Art,” 259-260.


15Vygotsky, Mind in Society.

16Throughout this article we selectively make use of diacritic marks for Hindi-language terminology as found in McGregor (1993). Consonants with dots underneath (, and for example) are retroflex and pronounced with the tongue pulled to the roof of the mouth. Some consonants are aspirated by adding a slight exhalation after the initial consonant (such as dh and kh). Some have both a retroflex and aspirated quality such as ṭh in ṭhekā. Additionally you will find the following diacritics and their approximate pronunciations:

  • ā as the “a” in car
  • ī as the “ee” in teen
  • ś as the “sh” in should

17References to universal dance and gestures/motions can be found from Newell’s 1883 Games and Songs of American Children, to Blacking’s 1967 Venda Children’s Songs.

18Gardner, Multiple Intelligences.

19Bharatamuni, Natyasastra, 9: 61-66, 191; in Rahaim, Musicking Bodies, 17.

20Lyrics here and below are in Hindi with English translation in parentheses.

21Newell, Games and Songs.

22Language in India Volume 3: 11 November 2003, retrieved on February 22, 2015

23Mats Nilson in Van Zile “18th Symposium,” 68.

24My study of the North Indian classical music-dance system has included continued training in kathak with Chitresh Das and his disciples Gretchen Hayden and Seibi Lee beginning in 1999, as well as study of Hindustani vocal music and the sarod with Ali Akbar Khan, George Ruckert, Rajeev Taranath, and Steve Oda beginning in 1998.

25Nuttall, “A Pathway to Knowledge”; Rahaim Musicking Bodies.

26Gottlieb, Solo Tabla Drumming, includes information on the relationship of bols to specific tabla drum strokes (16-29), and a more detailed breakdown of the structure of tīntāl (34-36).

27Although khālī begins on beat nine, the tabla’s bass drum drops out (signifying khālī) from beat 10 to beat 13. This displacement of khālī by one beat makes the ṭhekā for the otherwise square four-by-four construction of tīntāl more musically interesting.

28For example White India -Tabla Lesson 2 - How to play Vilambit Teental Slow Theka  from 1:26, accessed November 28, 2014, This recording is particularly useful because the musician recites the ṭhekā’s accompanying syllables while playing. He next shows how to enhance the musicality of the rhythmic pattern by adding extra drum strokes to embellish the main beats.

29Khan and Ruckert, The Classical Music of North India, 3.

30Ibid., 4.

31A possible exception can be heard when musicians are playing high speeds, at which time the laharā might be two or four cycles in length.

32The following performances in rāg Jog by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (sarod), Ustad Amir Khan (vocal) and Pandit Ravi Shankar (sitar) are available both online and in CD format:Ali Akbar Khan (2) Raga Jog Live in Amsterdam 1985  accessed November 28, 2014.Ustad Amir Khan - Raga Jog  accessed December 4, 2014. Ravi Shankar - Raga Jog  accessed November 28, 2014. See Discography for recording citations.

33Several examples can be found in an internet search of the phrase “Kathak Yoga” Kathak Yoga - Chitresh Das Dance Company makes history  accessed November 28, 2014, (involving a 9 ½ beat tal and 16-beat tīntāl). Kathak Yoga (Part 2 of 2) accessed November 28, 2014, (involving 16-beat tīntāl in slow and fast tempi).

34Kathak Yoga - Chitresh Das Dance Company makes history accessed November 28, 2014

35e.g. Constance A. Jones and James D. Ryan, Encyclopedia of Hinduism, 76-77.

36Klaus K. Klostermaier, A Concise Encyclopedia, 213.

37See, e.g. Pt. Chitresh Das performs his legendary traditional Kathak solo - Pt. 2  accessed November 28, 2014


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Khan, Ali Akbar (sarod) with Swapan Chaudhuri (tabla). Live in Amsterdam Part II (Rag Jog). Recorded December 7, 1985, Mozes & Aaronkerk, MCMA8512, 1985, 1 of 2 compact discs.

Khan, Amir (vocal). “Memorable Evenings With Ustad Amir Khan Saheb.” Saregama, 1983. Shankar, Ravi (sitar) with Chatur Lal (tabla) and Pradjot Sen (tamboura). Three Ragas. Angel Records, CDM 7243 5 67310 2 8, 2000. Digitally remastered from the original LP World Pacific, 1956.

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