Indian Film Music - The Most Popular Music Genre in India

Written by Shankar Mahadevan Academy on 04 June 2014

Bollywood films (referring to Hindi language Indian cinema), are mostly musicals and are therefore expected to contain catchy music in the form of song-and-dance numbers woven into the script. A film's success often depends on the popularity of such musical numbers, which has in turn given birth to India’s most popular genre of music- Bollywood filmi music. Accounting for approximately 72% of music sales in India, film music has few serious rivals in India. Film songs permeate class, creed and language, making it the lingua franca of most Indians. From dominating the airwaves and satellite channels to turning into ringtones and popping up on the Internet, Indian film music is statistically, commercially and aesthetically the most popular music genre in India.

India film music emerges as the most popular music genre:

The arrival of India's first talkie Alam Ara in 1931 ushered in the birth of the first filmi song. Adapted from the theatre, the producers of Alam Ara, retained the original songs that were in the play. This decision proved to be a success since the songs in the film were able to woo the largely illiterate audience to the cinema. Right from then on music proved to be the essential ingredient that played a necessary part in every Indian movie. 
The trend set by Alam Ara continued and between 1931 and 1940, India produced 931 Hindi feature films with an average of 10 songs per films. An interesting observation is that during this early period producers did not favor "playback" singers as many of the original actors sang their own songs. In fact, actors were chosen specifically for their singing abilities. The 40’s and 50’s saw a shift in the way movies were produced, from big motion picture studios to independent producers, and this trend opened doors to many new musicians and music directors. This period was also noted for the introduction of the "playback" singer. Many famous playback singers rose to prominence in this period including Lata Mangeshkar, Hemant Kumar, Mohammed Rafi, Geeta Dutt, and Asha Bhosle. Major music directors like Naushad, C. Ramchandra, S. D. Burman, Shankar - Jaikishan, and Madan Mohan became very popular with their soulful and inspiring numbers.
The 60’s and 70’s on the other hand witnessed a change in the technical quality of film music. Latest technical innovations resulted in an ever-increasing standard of recording quality that improved the sound quality of film songs. The 80’s and 90’s saw the advent of television and satellite TV that became a part of most Indian homes. This changed the way in which film music was perceived. Songs were no longer distributed only via the radio and on tapes, but also via the hugely popular satellite / cable networks which curiously not only internationalized Indian film music but also increased its overall consumption. The above trends paved way and established Indian film music as the most important music genre in the country.

The international success of Indian film music:

India’s traditional music, including Hindustani and Classical music, has always has immense appeal among International audiences. However, the recent years have brought about tremendous success for Indian film music on the International scene. While it is almost impossible to characterize the musical aspects of Indian film music, it is this originality that has encouraged its mass appeal. Although Classical and traditional elements are part of the genre, it is more likely to be dominated by Western jazz, rap, disco or whatever styles may currently be in vogue. Very often songs are produced with a mix of all of the various elements, giving birth to the original style that has come to symbolize Indian film music. 
A article titled “Bollywood Films Head Abroad” spoke about how the International market contributed to a considerable amount of revenue towards the Indian film music industry. Even though western audiences may not be comfortable with the usual song-and-dance routine in an Indian film, Indian film songs as standalone unit are immensely popular. Proof enough is the two Academy awards won by internationally acclaimed film music director and composer, A.R. Rahman. Winning the 2009 Academy Award for Best Original Music Score and Best Original Song for the movie Slumdog Millionaire, A.R. Rahman brought international acclaim and recognition for the Indian film music genre. "We have a different philosophy of approaching film music and I would say there's lots to give which I always wanted to happen," said Rahman, in an interview with the International Herald Tribune, about how Indian film music differs from other music genres.

The future calls for an “all for one genre” marketing strategy:

A recent article titled “All For One Genre”, that appeared in The Times of India spoke of the influence of marketing on Indian film music. The article quoted noted singer, composer and music director, Shankar Mahadevan, of the Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy trio, viewing his thoughts on the importance of music marketing in India. "Creating a song is only half the work done”, he says. “The song needs to be marketed well to reach the public. You need to market songs to get good visibility."
The article also voiced concerns over the need to popularize all genres of music in the same way as Bollywood music is being marketed. Only this will improve the overall quality for both film and non-film music. Many musicians feel that Bollywood is monopolizing the Indian musical market and that belligerent marketing of Hindi film music is leading to the neglect of other genres. The solution to this problem is to provide equal marketing platforms for all good music. As Shankar explains, “It is only when music companies and musicians will be in sync about which songs need to be marketed will the standard of music increase exponentially." Until this happens, Indian film music will continue to hold fort as the most popular music genre in India.

Learn Bollywood film music online:

Shankar Mahadevan, sensing the need for quality music education has set up The Shankar Mahadevan Academy, to promote the study of Indian music via the Internet. “Anything to do with music is important to me”, says Shankar Mahadevan, explaining why he choose to set up the Academy. “I set up the Shankar Mahadevan Academy because there are thousands of people who love music -- Hindustani, Carnatic, Devotional, Film music - and want to learn it, but don't know where to go. So I thought, why not make world class music education available to people online, in the comfort of their own personal spaces? My online music academy is a small but sincere effort to help aspiring people learn music and revel in their talent.”
The Academy ( offers the benefit of having experts teach you to sing famous Bollywood songs apart from Classical, Hindustani and Devotional music. Alternatively, you can also use their specially designed self-study OM (online music) books to master singing at your own schedule. For those interested in learning a musical instrument, the Academy also offers online classes for the tabla and flute.

Did you know that Indian film music accounts for approximately 72% of the total music sales in India?