Kerala has shared the general musical culture of peninsular India from the earliest times. South Indian music is generally known as 'Karnatic music' because of its common features. Each region of the south has its own culture. Kerala's music is known as Sopanam. Sangeetam (Music) appears to have acquired its name from the 'Sopanam' which means 'Sanctum Sanctorum' of the temple. Its essential features were born out of a happy blending of the Vedic, the folk and tribal music of the region.
The characteristic features of this music are, simple structure and peculiar forms of expression.
The structure of the Sopanam music is believed to reflect the experience of the devotee in ascending the heights of devotion. Sopanam music developed and became popular through the practice of singing invocatory songs in front of the 'Kalam' of Kali (floor drawing of Kali) and later on at the sanctum of the temple. There are a few powerful schools connected with the temples like Pazhoor, Tiumandhamkunnu, Guruvayoor, Ramamangalam. In these temples, this music had been hereditarily practiced by temple singers. Neralattu Rama Poduval of Tirumandhamkunnu bani, Janardhanan Nedungadi of Guruvayoor, Damodara Marar belonging to the Mudiyettu bant of Pazhoor are some of the most effective experts.
Sopanam music as it is practiced in different schools, maintains its rustic nuances with the feeling of devotion as its basic quality. From the temple sanctum this music has taken many diversions and grown as dance music in Ashtapadiyattam; the mould of which was later adopted by Krishnanattam, devotional music in Kalam pattu and dramatic music in Mudiyettu and Kathakali. In spite of its ramified developments, it failed to become pure concert music.
The system got the greatest rejuvenation when 'Geet Govindam' was introduced to Kerala in the local musical mould during the14th and 15th centuries A.D. It was certainly a revival of the pattu school of music which was preserved in the devotional tyanis (simple prayers of two line structure, sung at the sanctum of the temple along with different puja- ceremonial rites- at each time of the day). The musician is inspired by the particular time, when the offering is made to the deity and he selects ragas which is most suited for that time. Such ragas are known as Samaya (time) ragas because time is the deciding factor in singing. The singing of tyanis takes its roots from the music of the earliest singers of the land as mentioned in the great text 'Chilappatikaram'.
The value of Kerala music, its primitiveness, nativity and spontaneity can be assessed from its rudimentary usage preserved in the rustic musical and dance forms of a wide variety. The region has maintained in its flourishing repertoire some of the rare melodies specially conceived for the purpose of embellishment of certain emotions. These melodies are 'Pati', Indisa', 'Puraniru', 'Kanakurinji'.
Certain other ragas like 'Sri kandi', 'Desakshi', 'Nalatha' and 'Samantamalahari' used in old devotional songs, can produce remarkably fascinating lilt and swing of a local character. The rhythm accompaniment to those songs with instruments like edakka, maddalam and chenda creates a parallel process of graceful rhythmic music bringing out the universality of sentiments with musical roots reaching into the past.