He was a child prodigy. He inherited music from his mother and father. His father S D Burman inherited it from his mother and father, who was a Sitar player and proficient Dhrupad singer.
Initially, he was nicknamed Tublu by his maternal grandmother but later changed to Pancham. There were many stories about naming his name. It is believed that actor Ashok Kumar gave him this name because once he heard him crying, it sounded in the fifth note (Pa), He immediately suggested the name 'Pancham' to Dada Burman. Another story says that the baby was nicknamed Pancham because he could cry in five different notes.
S D Burman saw that Pancham had a little interest in studies, he initiated his son to music. The first instrument he learned was Tabla under a blind Tabla ustad Brajen Biswas in the early days. His training of Tabla continued almost lifelong. After Tabla he was enrolled to learn Sarod at Ali Akbar Khan's school in Calcutta. Pancham spent a lot of time watching Jugalbandi between Ali Akbar Khan and renowned Sitar player Pt. Ravi Shankar. This created his interest in Indian Classical Music.
In the late 40s, his father was a busy Music director in Hindi Films. Pancham got introduced to film music When he was nine years old, R. D. Burman composed his first film tune which was used after many years by his father in the Navketan film 'Funtoosh' 1956 in the song, 'Aye meri topi palat ke aa'. Another of his tune was used in the song 'Sar Jo Tera Chakraye' of the film Pyasa 1957.
In Bombay, Burman was trained by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (sarod) and Samta Prasad (tabla). He also considered Salil Chowdhury his guru. He served as an assistant to his father and often played harmonica in his orchestras. In the song, 'Hai Apna Dil To Awara' he played harmonica which became very popular.
Pancham was very impatient about music, he wanted to learn more numbers of instruments. He had an inclination for Western music particularly the Jazz and Cuban Big Band Music.
Kersi Lord who was a musician with S D Burman was instrumental in Pancham's interest towards Jazz. Kersi Lord had a large collection of Long-Playing Records of Jazz, Latin American, European, and Middle Eastern Music.
It was in 1951that Pancham met Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar in a studio. He met Lat once again during the recording of the song 'Thandi Hawayen" of the 1951 film Naujawan.
According.to the Film Historian Raju Bhartan during that time once he questioned his father when he was composing a song for Jaal using Tagore's tune in the interlude of the song to be picturized in Goa. This reflects his understanding of film music at that age. He was not even in his teens.
Pancham was living with his grandmother in Calcutta, he used to visit Bombay only during his school vacations. In Calcutta, he made many friends and formed his Band called Melody Chimes. He started smoking and he was lured into the pot. This perturbed Dada, in 1955, he brought him to Bombay to live with him. This shift gave his life a 180-degree turn. He was now with the music all the time. he started assisting father in films.
Pancham played Sarod in the famous Bengali song sung by Dada Burman 'Ghum Bhulechi Nijhum' composed by Dada itself. This tune was later taken in Kaala Pani song 'Hum Bekhudi Mein Tumko Pukare Chale Gaye'
Guru Dutt who knew the potential of this genius offered him a film 'Raaz' an independent composer in 1959, Unfortunately, this film got shelved. During the making of Raaz in 1959. Manohari Singh and Pancham decide to make a team but the idea fell through.
After a gap of one year comedian Mehmood gave him his first film as a producer 'Chhote Nawab'. The film was released in 1961, the film was a flop but Pancham left a mark in Bollywood that he will be a Music Director of class. In this film, he displayed his skill both in Indian classical and western tunes. The song 'Ghar Aaja Ghir Aaye Badra' sung by Lata Mangeshkar. This song is based on a lesser-known Raag called Raag Malgunji which is a mixture of Raag Bageshree and Raageshree. This Raaga was very unusual for Hindi Films, most of the composers used to make songs on Bhairavi, Malkaus, Yaman or Darbari. When the song was recorded even Lata Mangeshkar admired Pancham’s talent.
His versatility was visible in the song 'Matwali Ankhon Wale' sung by Mohammad Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar. In this song, he used Resso Resso in the interlude for the first time. This instrument is one of the favorite instruments of R D B. We can hear the sound of Resso Resso in many of the hit songs of RDB. Another highlight of this song is the prelude of the song by Mohd Rafi the way he adjusts his voice to suit Mehmood.The Genious of a would-be world-class music director us visible in his first movie. The film was not successful so RDB was not offered films. The music was appreciated but he had to wait for 4 years to get the second assignment.
In the meantime Pancham continued to assist his father in Tere Ghar Ke Samne, Benazir, Meri Surat Teri Aankhe, Ziddi, Guide, and Teen Deviyan.
In 1964 Mehmood decided to produce & direct Bhoot Bangla, he once again invited Pancham to compose the music of this film. This was the first time Kishore Kumar sang for R D Burman, Jago Sone Walon' The music of Bhoot Bangla was a hit but critics were against it. This is the film in which Pancham introduced his voice in a song Kahaan Aa Kar La Hum Dono Ko' sung by him and Mehmood.
In 1965, the third film 'Teesra Kaun' released. This film brought Pancham and Asha Bhosle together. Versatility, greatness, intensity, and supremacy of RDBurman reflect in his 3rd film. In the song 'O Dilruba' sung by Asha Bhosle had a sharp skid from B flat to F note., a new experiment, never attempted before, beautifully handled by Asha. This was the beginning of Asha and R D B magic. There was another song by Asha 'Achha Sanam Kar Le Sitam' is a fast-paced, hummable composition.
The hit song of the film was 'Pyar Ka FasanDil Diwana' was sung by· Lata Mangeshkar and Mukesh. A point to note in this song that the rhythm pattern in the interlude of this song was maintained by Bongo, coupled with the damped strokes on the guitar. This he did in many of his future songs.
Pati Patni (1966) was his fourth film release. In the song 'Maar Dalega Dard e Zigar sung by Asha Bhosle, for the first time, he introduced the Brazillian Bossa Nova rhythm. Asha Bhosle in an interview once said that this song made her wakeup to a thoroughly new rhythm and metre. Interestingly Pancham not used those beets as it is but Indianized to a beautiful melody as well as western fragrance. This bossa nova base Rd Burman used in his next venture Teesri Manzil in the famous song, 'O Hasina Zulfowali Jane Jaha' and'. Aaja Aaja Meini Hu Pyar Tera',
Teesri Manzil was the fifth film of Pancham We all know how hit the music of this film was? It changed the definition of Hindi Film music. There was so much of freshness and innovation in this music. Even the versatile singers Rafi- Asha was astounded by the way they were made to sing and who later on was showering praise on Pancham for his originality and concepts. And Shammi had made it a point to be present at each recording as he was thrilled with the thought of how he would be dancing and singing those numbers on the screen.
Everywhere there was a talk of his music, a new Emperor had emerged in the musical arena of Bollywood.The trend was set RD Burman has arrived and later followed by the music of Baharon Ke Sapne, Padosan, Pyar Ka Mausam, Caravan, and Hare Rama Hare Krishna.