July 19, 2023
With approximately 1.4 billion people, India surpassed China and became the world’s most populous nation in 2023. The country is home to a rich array of culture and unique musical sounds, as exemplified by its traditional music, as well as modern musical genres such as Bollywood and Indi-pop.
This is #2 of a three-part series.
India is full of vibrant energy, with more than half of its population under the age of 25. For years, Yamaha has strived to find ways to contribute to the nation’s colorful musical culture, establishing Yamaha Music India (YMIN), a local sales and distribution office in 2008, as well as building its first factory in India in Chennai in 2019.
One of Yamaha’s key focuses in India has been the development of customized instruments for the local market. Portable keyboards account for roughly 60% of Yamaha’s instrument sales in India, and since 2007, Yamaha has been providing specialized models that incorporate sounds from traditional Indian music. The third-generation Indian keyboard model, the “PSR-I500,” in particular, crystallizes Yamaha’s respect for the musical culture of India. With an earnest nod to its musical traditions and sensibilities, Yamaha hopes to bring eternal musical joy to the country as it experiences rapid population growth. It is from this commitment that the PSR-I500 was born.
Diverse Sounds for Diverse Demographics
The third generation Indian keyboard is better equipped than any of the previous models to enable the enjoyment of the rich, dynamic sound of Indian music.
The keyboard features a whopping 40 traditional Indian instruments (“Voices”), as well as 50 auto-accompaniment patterns (“Styles”) that range from traditional music to Indi-pop. Another notable built-in feature called “Riyaz” is capable of reproducing 30 different instrumental tracks that help users practice traditional Indian music. The third-generation model is also newly equipped with a feature that allows users to sample new sound sources. The keyboard has therefore vastly expanded the scope of Indian sounds and music that users can enjoy.
The team behind the development of PSR-I500 strived to make it more inclusive than previous models. The story behind the Riyaz feature exemplifies these efforts. The Riyaz feature had existed since the second-generation model, the PSR-I455, which was released in 2012, but at the time it was called the “Tabla & Tanpura” feature. “Tabla” refers to a pair of hand drums and “tanpura” to a string instrument — both of which are predominantly used in the traditional music of northern India. As it turned out, most people in southern India were unable to relate to the feature because the names of the instruments sounded unfamiliar to them.
Tsukasa Yamashita, who was involved in the development of the Indian keyboard, explains: “We first created the Tabla & Tanpura feature with the intention of incorporating more aspects of traditional Indian music. However, we realized that the second-generation model was skewed toward northern India. India is a large country full of linguistic and cultural diversity, and we felt we were not accommodating that to the full extent.”
The bias toward northern Indian music was partially affected by the location of YMIN, Yamaha’s local subsidiary. Because the office is in Delhi, YMIN naturally attracts employees from northern India, leading to an under-representation of the southern Indian perspectives.
Applying the lessons from the second-generation model, Yamashita and his team set a goal of making its successor, PSR-I500, more inclusive of the diverse musical sounds from across India. They traveled to various cities including Jaipur, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai, meeting and engaging with users and musicians in each region. They also actively incorporated feedback from Indian product specialists at YMIN. This extensive product development process gave way to the birth of PSR-I500 — a model more reflective of India’s diversity than any previous keyboard. It was released in 2019, seven years after the launch of the previous model. The northern India-inspired Tabla & Tanpura feature was reborn as Riyaz; the name was inspired by a Hindi word that has a wide range of meanings, spanning from “practice” to “inheriting tradition that has been passed down through generations” and “inheriting something from a mentor with gratitude.”
Born from the Voices of Locals
What Yamashita found to be most challenging during the product planning for the PSR-I500 was choosing which instruments and musical modalities to include in the keyboard. “It was difficult for me, as a Japanese person, to choose from the numerous sounds India has to offer.” While he and his team were set on including music from both northern and southern India, they struggled to narrow down the vast array of timbres found in Indian music to just 40. Nevertheless, these dilemmas led him to a key insight: “It’s precisely because I am an outsider that I was able to genuinely put myself in the shoes of the users,” he says.
Yamashita elaborates: “I committed to letting go of any preconceived notions I had as a foreigner and instead focused on creating something that Indian people would truly enjoy. Of course, I faced many challenges due to my lack of familiarity with Indian culture. But listening carefully to the locals always helped me choose the best way forward.”
His commitment seemed to resonate with the users in India. According to Yamashita, Indians respond strongly to products that are created specifically for the Indian market. “For many of them, it fills their hearts when they hear the term ‘Indian model’.” Perhaps users resonated with the PSR-I500 because they were able to feel the respect and care for India that was put into it.
While the PSR-I500 is a big step forward compared to its predecessor, Yamashita believes that “there is still room for improvement.” First, the instruction manual for PSR-I500 is currently available only in English, despite the hundreds more languages spoken in India. The pricing has room for improvement as well, as the current range is not within easy reach of most customers in India. Despite these challenges, there’s no doubt that this Indian keyboard has resonated with many of its Indian users.
Beginner-Friendly Instrument Opens the Door to Music
While Yamashita currently puts his soul into the product planning of keyboards, he says that his interest in music came relatively late compared to his peers. The initial spark of passion was kindled in his teenage years when he listened to pop music on late-night radio while studying for high school entrance exams. He later grew fond of electronic music, and in high school, he saved money to buy his own synthesizer. For him, the synthesizer was a magical tool that gave non-musicians like him the power to become music creators.
“Like a lot of people who were not exposed to instruments from a young age, I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to learn a musical instrument; digital musical instruments helped me overcome that doubt. What is amazing about synthesizers is that they allow anyone to create music with just a bit of programming knowledge.”
At one point, Yamashita yearned to become a professional musician, but he knew that it would be difficult for him to compete with players who worked toward the same dream since childhood. Instead, he decided he wanted to share the life-changing impact of synthesizers with others. “I always enjoyed playing music and I love showing other people that same joy,” Yamashita says. “That’s why it wasn’t too difficult for me to let go of my ambitions to play music professionally.”
Yamashita went on to major in electrical engineering at university and set his sights on working in the music industry. He chose Yamaha because his very first synthesizer was made by the brand. He worked as an electrical engineer for digital musical instruments before shifting to process planning at a factory in Tianjin, China. Since returning to Japan in 2012, he has been involved in product planning for digital musical instruments.
Yamashita’s own musical background was what drove his passion for creating beginner-friendly instruments like the Indian keyboard. “Because I didn’t play music as a child, I can sympathize with people who want to start learning music later in life. Many employees at Yamaha have professional-level musical talent; while they also have an important role in the company, I think casual players like me can be better suited to make beginner-friendly instruments. Maybe someday we can even provide an instrument that can help people learn to play a phrase from their favorite song with just three hours of practice.”
Instruments that are welcome to new and casual players can help open the door to musical culture for many. The Indian keyboard is a brilliant example of this, as it allows its players to instantaneously tap into diverse sounds and styles of traditional Indian music. In May 2023, Yamaha introduced the “PSR-I300,” an entry model of the Indian keyboard series that is more accessible in terms of musical level and cost. “I hope this new entry model will open up more possibilities for beginner players. My passion is to keep providing experiences like this so that a wider range of people can enjoy playing music.”
The PSR-I500 was developed for players all across India, with an array of carefully selected sounds that resonate with the hearts of locals. The keyboard can offer a chance for Indians to develop a further sense of love and connection with the country’s diverse and vibrant musical culture. The Indian keyboard and the AMIGO Project, which we covered in the previous article, may have been born on opposite sides of the globe, but they are united by a common theme — love and affection. In the next and final article of the series, we will get up close and personal with the Key that runs through these two stories.
As a member of the Digital Musical Instrument Strategy Planning Group, Yamashita works on the product planning of entry-level keyboards. He joined Yamaha in 2004, and after working as an electrical engineer for a few years, he got involved in process design at a factory in Tianjin in China. He returned to Japan in 2012 and is currently in charge of product planning for keyboards, including that of the Indian keyboard series.
*Bio as of the time of the interview
Three-Part Series: Deepening the Love for Instruments and Culture
#2 Growing Seeds of Joy for a Growing Nation