Kerala’s music tradition comprises the Margi and Desi styles. The Margi style follows the classical tradition based on set principles while Desi is evolved out of regional traditions with a more relaxed set of rules.
The state has a rich tradition in vocal and percussion music. It is related to the customs of various religions, rituals in temples and sacred groves and classical art forms such as Kathakali. The contemporary music is influenced by western music too.
Sopana Sangeetham is considered a traditional genre, ethnic to Kerala. It has had a definite influence on Kathakali music.
The state has made tremendous contributions to the Carnatic and Hindustani music genres of the Indian Margi music tradition. The long list of eminent personalities starts with the ruler of erstwhile Travancore, Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma, Irayimman Thampi, Kuttikunju Thankachi, Shadkala Govinda Marar and the like.
The region has a rich tradition of folk and semi-classical / light genres. The Vadakkanpaattu, in praise of heroes, and Thekkanpaattu are noted among the folk music.
The Mappilapaattu with simple lyrics and music are the contribution of the Malabar region. The Vanchipaattu popular in Central Travancore has a prominent place in literature as well.
Ritualistic songs like the Bhadrakalipaattu, Ayyappanpaattu and Kalamezhuthupaattu, mythological songs in art forms like Thiruvathirakali, Kummi and Kolattam, festival and pooram songs show the diversity of the music culture of Kerala.
The Tala scheme (metric style with specific number of beats) is peculiar to the music of Kerala. While the Tala is considered as an accompaniment to the vocal music in other parts of India, the musicians of Kerala chose to be different.
They developed special talavadya performances which combines various percussion instruments. Different instruments like the Chenda, Timila, Kurumkuzhal, Idakka, Madhalam, Kombu, Elathalam and Chengila are used together so uniquely that it imparts an ethinic touch to the percussion music of Kerala.
The drum ensembles like Pandimelam, Pancharimelam, Panchavadyam ensemble and Thayambaka have won international acclaim for the state. Talas in the Kerala tradition are used in art forms like Kutiyattam, Koothu, Kathakali, Thullal, Mudiyettu, Keli and Panakottu.
The major talas ethnic to the state are Chembada, Tripuda, Adantha, Chamba, Panchari and Ekathalam.
Film music is the most popular genre in Kerala. In the beginning film songs were imitations of Tamil ballet songs or a replication of popular Hindi songs. But "Neelakuyil" released in 1954 was a game changer. The songs penned by P. Bhaskaran and composed by K. Raghavan became instant hits.
The pioneering directors in the Malayalam film field had a theater background. The lyricists during the time gave ample scope for the directors to prove their mettle. The film music genre adapted elements from folk songs, Mappilapaattu, Vadakkanpaattu, Sopana Sangeetham, Carnatic and Hindustani music styles.
Lyricists like P. Bhaskaran, Vayalar Rama Varma, O. N. V. Kurup and Sreekumaran Thampi are luminaries whose works were a fine blend of music and literature.
G. Devarajan, Job, K. Raghavan, K. Baburaj, V. Dakshinamoorthy, N. B. Sreenivasan and Chidambaranath took the genre to new heights. These directors were noted for their distinguished styles.
The list of the amazing singers in the state includes Kozhikode Abdul Kader, K. P. Udayabhanu, Kamukara Purushothaman, K. J. Yesudas, P. Jayachandran, P. Leela, P. Suseela, S. Janaki and Madhuri.