Historically, it is not easy to trace the root of Bengali music back to very old times, but it has experienced a wide variation. The premodern Bengali literature was supposed to have been sung or recited in a style evocative of music. The Charyapadas, earliest surviving specimen of Bengali literature were meant to be sung. Similarly, Gitagovinda of Jayadeva was sung. And, so were Vaishnava and Shakta padavalis. Most of these singing were in devotional form and some were marked by an element of mysticism such as in the songs of the Baul musicians and Kawaili singers.
A variation of Bengali music derived from folk cultures, different communities of people constructed their own music over a period of time sometime to assist them in repetitive pattern of work or for sheer entertainment. For instance, the Bhatiyali songs of the boatmen of Sylhet, Mymensingh and the Bhawaiya songs of the cart drivers in North Bengal became very popular. There used to be folk operas or Palagaan and musical theatre or shows such as Yatra, Kabigaan, Tarja, Akhrai, Kirtan, Pachali.
Bengal did not have a tradition of classical music until the modern period. In the 19th and 20th century Bengal, rich landlords patronized some forms of light classical music like Tappa, Thumri etc. Two of the best contemporary exponents of North Indian classical music, such as Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan are Bengalis.
A new form of music spearheaded by the reformist Bramho Samaj, the greatest name in this genre is Rabindranath Tagore who wrote and composed more than 2500 songs. Some of the respectable names of poets and composers during this period include Kazi Najrul Islam, Atul Prasad Sen, Dwijendralal Roy and Rajani Kanta Sen.
From the 1930s, a parallel stream of music began to develop that came to be known as Adhunik Gaan which gained traction through Radio and Films – Himangshushekhar Dutta, Sachin Dev Burman, Salil Choudhuri are some of the best-known composers of this trend. In the 1990s, a trend appeared in Bengali music called Jibanmukhi Gaan or life-affirming songs which is a form of urban folk – this was popularized by among others by Suman Chattopadhyay, Anjan Dutta and Nachiketa Chakrabarty. Bengali rock bands which started to become popular in both Bangladesh and West Bengal appeared in the last decades of the 20th century.Like music from any part of the world, Bengali music can be classified into different categories. Here is an effort :
- Folks Songs
- Baul – songs sung by specific groups of traveling musicians known as Bauls. Bauls represent a sect of Bengali culture since the seventeenth century. They have a distinctive appearance with dhotis, saffron color robes and turbans. Usually Baul songs carry a deep spiritual meaning through very casual lyrics. Prominent Baul song singers: Purna Das Baul, Prahlad Bramhachari.
- Bhatiali – Mostly the songs of the boatmen of eastern part of Bengal (now Bangladesh). The songs are composed with wonderful tunes around philosophical words. Sachin Dev Burman did some experiment with these tunes and used them in popular modern songs.
- Kabigaan : Usually composed on the fly by poets in a debate like situation. Kabigaan was very popular in ancinet days as it requires talent on both lyrics, tune and voice.
- Kirtan – Religious songs usually sung in chorus. Most of the songs are some kind of group prayer to Shri Chaitanya and Shri Kirshna. Prominent Kirtan singer: Chhabi Bandyopadhyay, Ramkumar Chattopadhyay
- Other Folk Songs – There are all different kinds of country songs with different anonymous origins. Some of the prominent folk song singers of recent times are: Nirmalendu Choudhury, Angsuman Roy, Runa Laila, Abbasuddin, Amar Pal, Swapan Bose
- Majlishi Classical Songs – thungri, toppa . Ramkumar Chattopadhyay, Nidhiram Gupta, Chandidas Maal
- Classical Music
- Vocal – Kheyal, different ragas. Ajay Chakrabarty, Gnanprakash Ghosh, Chinmay Lahiri, Prasun Banerjee, Girija Devi, Shyamal Lahiri, Rashid Khan, Ahsish Khan
- Instrumental – Sitar, Sarod, Flute, Tabla Ravi Shankar, Nikhil Banerjee, Budhaditya Mukherjee, Monilal Nag
- Devotional Songs – Ramprasadi, ShyamaSangeet, Bhaktigeeti Pannalal Bhattacharya
- Rabindra Sangeet – songs written and tuned by Rabindranath Tagore Kanika Banerjee, Suchitra Mitra, Debabrata Biswas, Arghya Sen, Asoktaru Banerjee, Ritu Guha,Chinmoy Chatterjee, Dwijen Mukherjee, Pankaj Kumar Mallick, Purabi Dutta, Sailajananda Majumdar, Rajeswari Dutta, Rezwana Banya Choudhury, Sanjeeda Khatun, Purba Dam, Bani Thakur, Sumitra Sen, Hemanta Mukherjee, Sagar Sen, Nilima Sen, Subinoy Roy
- Najrul Geeti – songs written by Kazi Nazrul Islam Firoza Begum, Krishna Chatterjee, Anjali Mukherjee, Dhiren Bose, Manabendra Mukherjee, Anup Ghosal, Satinath Mukherjee, Tarun Banerjee, Dhananjoy Bhattacharya
- Atulprasadi, Dwijendrageeti, Rajanikanta Sen – patriotic, devotional and modern songs Krishna Chatterjee, Anjali Mukherjee
- Modern Bengali Songs: Film and non-film songs Hemanta Mukherjee, Manna Dey, Sandhya Mukherjee, Shyamal Mitra, Arati Mukherjee, Kishore Kumar, Sachin Dev Burman, Asha Bhosle, Lata Mangeshkar, Satinath Mukherjee, Jaganmoy Mitra
- Ganasangeet : generally sung in chorus carrying some social message Ajit Pandey, Hemanga Biswas, Ruma Guha Thakurata
- Jeebanmukhi Gaan : 90’s modern bengali songs Suman Chatterjee, Anjan Dutta, Nachiketa Chakrabarty, Mousumi Bhowmick, Lopamudra Mitra
- Band : Bengali rock style group. Cactus, Paraspathar, Chandrabindoo, Bhumi, Moheener Ghoraguli.