Hindustani Music: The Four-Syllable Darling and Text Setting in Hindi

Learning Hindi in its written and sung forms simultaneously has been revealing in so many ways. Little idiosyncracies I would have otherwise missed in the language are illuminated through song.

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During the year I spent living in Delhi, the Bollywood song “Munni Badnam” was one of the most popular tunes in the country. The song was absolutely everywhere. It was wafting out from shops I passed along the road, spilling out of rickshaws whizzing by on the street. Even as I worked late into the night, I would occasionally hear it radiating through the walls from nearby apartments. Each time I listened to “Munni Badnam” (which is in Hindi), there was one word in the first line of the song I just could not catch. It bugged me to the point that I finally looked it up on a Bollywood lyrics website. I realized then that it wasn’t even a Hindi word: it was the English word “darling”. Munni badnam hui, darling, tere liye [1]. But it wasn’t just the context that made me unable to recognize the word: this version of “darling” was actually four syllables: daa-ruh-ling-guh.

As a composer, I am constantly fascinated by the way different languages can be set to music. Each language has a specific way of interacting with music that unleashes its inherent sonic beauty while maximizing its comprehensibility. When I learned Italian, it seemed to me that the naturally rhyming verb endings and open vowels were almost designed to be able to perfectly accommodate settings of strophic poetry. The subtlety of the French language is so beautifully preserved in the unique rhythmic and melodic choices French art song composers make in their music. Each language has specific traits that are accentuated and built upon in their musical setting.

I learned to speak and sing in Hindi over the same span of time[2]. Exploring the language in both its spoken and sung formats concurrently illuminated Hindi for me in a unique way. Many points of connection between speech and song surprised me, as they differed not only from English, but from many of the other the Western languages I knew. These observations prompted me to think more deeply about the connections between music and language, about the ways that one effects and enhances the other, and about new directions I might explore while setting text in Hindi, English, or any language.


Hindustani music is primarily sung in the chest voice, or what Hindustani musicians call the “natural” voice. However, the actual pitch of spoken Hindi is higher than the pitch of spoken English. Just watch any American movie overdubbed in Hindi, and you will immediately hear this distinction, as your favorite American actors and actresses are paired with a voice that is disturbingly higher than the one you are expecting.

Even with these opposing range considerations, the Hindustani singing range shakes out to be markedly lower than the Western one. For example, the range of a female singer who sings in A [3] will go comfortably down to an E below middle C, and up to a C#, and possibly an E within the treble staff. Above the E is considered virtuosic, whereas in Western music, it is standard for a high-voiced female singer (even a non-professional one) to sing up to G and even A above the staff. The Carnatic (South Indian classical) range is often lower still.
Some of the drawbacks of utilizing the lower range in Western art music are the decrease in clarity and definition, as well as the decreased ability to project—both of which result in a decreased intelligibility of text. However, in Hindi, the difference in sound production technique in the language changes the quality of the voice and markedly increases its intelligibility, even in the lower range.

Vocal Placement and Timbre

I find that I have a very different voice when I speak Hindi. My Hindi-speaking voice is higher in pitch and much more forward in my head and mouth. Vowels resonate in the face mask and through the nose, a fact that is incorporated into the grammatical constructions in the language itself. For example, the only difference between the singular and plural forms of many common Hindi words is that a small nasalization is added to the last vowel in the plural form of the word–the back of the tongue closes the throat slightly to feed air through the nose which creates the sound. Additionally, the particular sound quality of nasal resonance on consonants like M and N allow them to be heard when held. While the sustained portion of an English word is almost always a vowel, the nasal quality of the Hindustani sound allows M and N to also serve as sustaining notes in Hindustani music.
I’ve noticed that when I speak or sing in Hindi a lot (especially after a prolonged interval away from it), the tip of my tongue gets a little raw, as it plays a much more active role in the pronunciation of Hindi words than of English ones. Consonants are formed right at the lips, with the tongue tip either against the back of the teeth or brushing the ridge of the hard palette. There are no swallowed or imploded consonants like the letter T in the word “mountain.” I was so surprised when a friend of mine from Delhi told me of his fascination with the way I pronounced the word “totally.” He said, “I’ve been trying to imitate you for weeks, but my T’s just keep knocking together…” However, the fact that Hindi mandates this definition of consonants markedly increases the clarity of the language when sung.

In written Hindi, transliterated English words [4] sometimes look like snarled bramble in comparison to the Hindi ones. The main cause of most of these snarls can be boiled down to one main difference between the languages: Hindi rarely has multiple consonants in a row. Devanagari, the script in which Hindi is written, uses a single consonant as the main anchor of each syllable, with the vowel modifying that consonant in the way an accent would modify a letter in a Latin-script language. Two consonants in a spoken syllable is somewhat common and navigable, but more than two consonants creates written havoc that the Devanagari script is simply unequipped to handle.
While written and spoken English is much better equipped for consonant clusters, sung English still struggles with them. I remember trying to set a beautiful text for choir a few years ago. At the end of a particularly ethereal line, the poet had used the word “forests.” There was simply no way I could set the word without creating an unseemly rustling cloud of consonants at the end of the phrase. In the West, we compensate for these moments of ambiguity by printing full texts in programs or flashing them in supertitles, one phrase at a time. However, Hindustani musical culture does not make substantial use of written material in any form—just as the performers have no written music, the audience has no written program. Anything that needs to be communicated is spoken or sung directly to the audience from the stage. How, then, is the audience able to understand what the singer is saying?

In addition to the pitch, tone quality, and production of sound that have been touched upon above, there are two additional features of the particular method of text setting in Hindustani music that contribute greatly to the communication of a text.

Textual Repetition

Khayal singing (the dominant style of Hindustani vocal music since the 18th century) makes use of a wealth of poetry. One or two poems in Hindi or Brijbasha (an ancient Indian language not unlike Hindi) are always the centerpieces of a khayal performance. However, a text of about four to six lines will be used over a span of, perhaps, ten minutes of music. There are general guidelines for the repetition of each line, though they are loose and leave a great deal of room for improvisation and spontaneity. Each time the text is repeated, it is accompanied by a unique musical variation. Hearing the same text with different music perhaps 20-30 times over the duration of a section allows the audience multiple opportunities to grasp its meaning. Additionally, it allows the singer to color the words differently each time, highlighting different aspects of their pronunciation. This varied repetition results in both greater intelligibility for the audience and a more multifaceted characterization of their meaning.

The constant repetition of text allows the music to open up in other areas as well. When I first began singing Hindustani music, the tradition’s flexibility with declamation surprised me. There are many places in the music where weak syllables fall on strong beats. To Western ears this text setting may be perceived as off-kilter, because in Western music the strength of syllables closely follows the beat pattern. However, in Hindustani music, because the text is repeated so often, the disjunct relationship between the musical and textual stresses can be a source of interest and engagement rather than confusion. Also, Hindustani music is marked by incredibly long melismas in both slow and fast tempi. Melismas that occur on consecutive syllables can separate a word over a long period, so as to make it unintelligible in real time. However, perhaps similarly to a composer like Handel (who is also known for his long, patterned melismas), the repetition of text allows it to be understood in a simpler, more direct form before vocal pyrotechnics take over.

Sung vs. Spoken Consonants

For me, the biggest revelation in exploring sung Hindi is in the way the music handles consonants. In Western music, a lot of our consonants get swallowed at the end of syllables, or bunched together so that they are lost in the millisecond between sustained vowels. Professional Western singers work on the articulation of consonants for years to be able to communicate a text to an audience effectively.

Sung Hindi addresses this issue by articulating each consonant as a separate syllable. So, for example, the word “badnam” is spoken as two syllables (bad-nam), but is sung as four (ba-d-na-m). The extra syllable emphasizes a consonant that would be otherwise lost at the end of the word, which allows sung Hindi to be instantly understood. Sometimes the note will even change on these added syllables. (See the example below—both the D and M in the word “badnam” are on different notes.) While these “ghost” syllables are often shorter than the main ones, they are often also accented or stressed in some way, which adds a unique layer of rhythmic zing to words that might have otherwise sounded a little metrically flat.
Though the above is an example from a Bollywood song, the same practice is used in Hindustani classical music, and in many other Indian languages as well. In Hindustani music, there can even be melismas or long held notes on these ghost syllables.
This addition of an extra consonant syllable is a brilliant feature of Hindi text setting, and I so wish this system also worked for English text setting. But considering my confusion with the four-syllable version of the word “darling” in Munni Badnam, I doubt it would be effective on a larger scale. While Hindi consonants are certainly not as delineated in speech as they are in song, listening closely to a Hindi speaker will reveal that those consonants are still pronounced very prominently. This trait of Hindi pronunciation makes the leap from a clearly articulated consonant to a short extra syllable completely conceivable. Trying to make the word ”darling” into the four syllable “daa-ruh-lin-guh” would be so out of character with the English language that it would have the opposite effect—it would render the word completely meaningless.

Maybe this particular solution doesn’t transfer between these two languages, but even understanding why this is the case tells me so much about how each language is articulated. Perhaps there are other languages where this technique might be incredibly effective. And perhaps there are other points between Hindi and English where a successful transfer of methodology is possible. I am eager to find them.

Learning Hindi in its written and sung forms simultaneously has been revealing in so many ways. Little idiosyncracies I would have otherwise missed in the language are illuminated through song. Learning how to sing in Hindi has been teaching me volumes about the type of voice I need to use when I speak, the way words are formed and feel in the mouth, and the way the sounds resonate in my head and through my body. And, perhaps most importantly, discovering the unique ways in which the language and music connect allow me to explore new pathways in my own relationship to text setting, whether in Hindi, English, or any other language.


[1] Translation: Munni (referring to herself) has become infamous, darling, for you (or, for your sake).

[2] I am what is sometimes referred to as a “heritage speaker” of Hindi. While I did not grow up speaking the language (I began learning it during my masters degree at Yale), I did grow up speaking Gujarati, another Indian language from the state of Gujarat, where my father’s side of the family is from. Gujarati is about as far from Hindi as Spanish and Italian are from one another, so there are certain constructions that feel completely intuitive to me, and others that require me to think of grammar rules in order to say the right thing.

[3] Indian musicians usually have a specific drone note they sing on. A common note for women is A or Bb, and for men it is (I believe) C# or D. While Western musicians change keys in every piece, and even within a piece, Hindustani musicians will often sing in the same key for an entire career.

[4] English is widely spoken in India, and modern conversational Hindi makes increasing use of English words. Indians lovingly call this light, English-infused form of Hindi, “Hinglish.”