Western Classical vs. Indian Classical Music

[This post is #3 in the West­ern Clas­si­cal Music Series]

Relat­ed to the chal­lenges in appre­ci­at­ing WCM for Indi­ans, are the dif­fer­ences between WCM and Indi­an Clas­si­cal Music (ICM). Note that by “Indi­an Clas­si­cal”, I am refer­ring to both Hin­dus­tani as well as Car­nat­ic. There are sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences between the two, but for our cur­rent focus, they can be con­sid­ered as one. Also, there are excep­tions to every point below, what we’re con­cerned with are broad dif­fer­ences.

Homophony vs. Polyphony / Melody vs. Harmony

ICM is pri­mar­i­ly homo­phon­ic, which means its focus is on melodies cre­at­ed using a sequence of notes. ICM’s mag­ic is pri­mar­i­ly expe­ri­enced with dif­fer­ent melodies con­struct­ed with­in the frame­work of the Raa­gas, while WCM’s mag­ic lies to a great extent in poly­phon­ic com­po­si­tion, where coun­ter­point, har­mo­ny, and the tex­ture cre­at­ed using mul­ti­ple voic­es is crit­i­cal. Melody exists in WCM too, but from a broad per­spec­tive, is not the sin­gu­lar or defin­ing focus of most of WCM works. Watch this brief video to lis­ten to the dif­fer­ence:

Homopho­ny vs. Polypho­ny

Composed vs Improvised

WCM is com­posed, ICM is impro­vised. All WCM com­po­si­tions are for­mal­ly writ­ten using the Staff Nota­tion, and per­form­ers have vir­tu­al­ly no lat­i­tude for impro­vi­sa­tion. The con­verse is the case with ICM, where no ‘work’ is ever writ­ten down, and the Teacher-Stu­dent tra­di­tion of learn­ing ICM leads to each per­for­mance being an impro­vi­sa­tion.


Vocals are used in both ICM & WCM, but the way they’re treat­ed in rela­tion to oth­er instru­ments is dif­fer­ent. When vocals are used in ICM, all the rest of the instru­ments are mere ‘accom­pa­ni­ments’ — there are Tan­pooras that act like drones, har­mo­ni­um that fol­lows the tonal­i­ty of the voice by pro­vid­ing chords, etc. Where­as in WCM, when vocals are used, the instru­men­ta­tion still car­ries a lot of weight in the over­all com­po­si­tion.  In oth­er words, Voice forms the basis of the struc­ture sur­round­ing an ICM recital, where­as it is an addi­tion to the instru­men­tal­ly-gen­er­at­ed struc­ture of a WCM com­po­si­tion.

The term ‘voice’ is hence used in a gener­ic way in WCM and doesn’t always mean human voice. A ‘voice’ can be any theme played by an instru­ment. Thus, one can have a four-voice fugue being played on the piano using two hands, where each hand is play­ing one of four voic­es at any giv­en time.

Group vs Individual Dynamics

In ICM, the indi­vid­ual per­former shines through his impro­vi­sa­tion. In any recital or per­for­mance, there is a lead vocal­ist or instru­men­tal­ist who expounds the raga, while oth­ers pro­vid­ing accom­pa­ni­ment are rel­e­gat­ed to the back­ground (except for occa­sion­al inter­ludes where they show off their vir­tu­os­i­ty). In WCM, the com­pos­er and con­duc­tor shine as indi­vid­u­als, but the per­for­mance is large­ly a group effort. It is only in solo works and solo con­cer­tos that indi­vid­ual per­form­ers are under the spot­light.


ICM uses ‘Taal’ — a cycle of beats cen­tered around ‘Sam’ that repeats itself. WCM doesn’t use such com­plex beat cycles.

Shruti’ / Microtones

ICM makes exten­sive use of quar­ter-tones & micro­tones, usu­al­ly referred to as ‘Shru­ti’. WCM has a few micro­ton­al pio­neers in recent times, but has large­ly been restrict­ed to using semi­tones.

Consonance & Dissonance

As far as I know, ICM doesn’t use or encour­age dis­so­nance. Mod­ern WCM has used dis­so­nance exten­sive­ly to add to the tex­ture of the com­po­si­tion.

Nature & Spirituality

ICM has a clos­er, inti­mate asso­ci­a­tion with nature than WCM. Ragas have spe­cif­ic times of day or sea­sons of the year asso­ci­at­ed with them, while most of WCM doesn’t have any such char­ac­ter­is­tic. ICM’s roots are spir­i­tu­al, while sec­u­lar works in WCM have roots in fac­tors like indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ences, sig­nif­i­cant his­tor­i­cal events in human his­to­ry, enter­tain­ment, occa­sions with dance cel­e­bra­tions, and so on.

Concluding Thoughts from Rabindranath Tagore

For us, music has above all a tran­scen­den­tal sig­nif­i­cance. It dis­en­gages the spir­i­tu­al from the hap­pen­ings of life; it sings of the rela­tion­ships of the human soul with the soul of things beyond. The world by day is like Euro­pean music; a flow­ing con­course of vast har­mo­ny, com­posed of con­cord and dis­cord and many dis­con­nect­ed frag­ments. And the night world is our Indi­an music; one pure, deep and ten­der raga. They both stir us, yet the two are con­tra­dic­to­ry in spir­it. But that can­not be helped. At the very root nature is divid­ed into two, day and night, uni­ty and vari­ety, finite and infi­nite. We men of India live in the realm of night; we are over­pow­ered by the sense of One and Infi­nite. Our music draws the lis­ten­er away beyond the lim­its of every­day human joys and sor­rows, and takes us to that lone­ly region of renun­ci­a­tion which lies at the root of the uni­verse, while Euro­pean music leads us a var­ie­gat­ed dance through the end­less rise and fall of human grief and joy.”

Next, we will try to under­stand a few impor­tant musi­cal con­cepts.

Further Reading


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  • It would be inter­est­ing to include Jazz and do a three-way com­par­i­son. It seems like it is some­where in between. Harmony/polyphony (big bands), impro­vised, both group/individual dynam­ics, com­plex rhythms, dis­so­nance (Monk), not sure about micro­tones …

    • Yes, agree. I hope some­one picks this up and does that! 🙂

  • As usu­al, you’ve summed it up very nice­ly. Remind­ed me of a love­ly arti­cle by Yehu­di Menuhin, which I can­not seem to be able to find at cur­so­ry glance.

  • g

    Rhythm — WCM fol­lows its own rhythm cycles too, right? Usu­al­ly in 2/3/4 by 2/4/8 tim­ing, much as there have in fact been com­po­si­tions in more com­plex time sig­na­tures.

    I’d say Tri­taal (Teen­taal) and per­haps Ker­va (Keherwa) could be com­pared to 4/4, and Dadra can be com­pared to 3/4 tim­ing. The rhythm in WCM com­po­si­tions is gen­er­al­ly not­ed on the left, just after the clef in Staff nota­tion.

    [Unless you meant some­thing else when you said WCM does not fol­low such com­plex beat cycles, in which case this com­ment does not stand.]

    • There are 3 aspects to this, and I’m sor­ry I was ambigu­ous.

      1. Yes, rhythm is uni­ver­al to all music and one can draw many par­al­lels between a ‘Taal’ and a beat/time sig­na­ture. (Notice ety­mol­o­gy of ‘rhee-da-m’ and ‘rhee-da-y’ — all rhythm orig­i­nates from the heart­beats we heard when we were in the womb). The per­spec­tive of above post is to high­light dif­fer­ences, omit­ting excep­tions. Are there equiv­a­lents to ‘Ektaal’ and ‘Vil­am­bit Ektaal’? Are they com­mon in WCM?

      2. A ‘Taal’ is more than a sequence of beats. For e.g. let’s com­pare Tri­taal with 4/4. Does 4/4 dif­fer­en­ti­ate or enhance the dif­fer­ence between ‘Dha’ & ‘Na’, and ‘Dhin’ & ‘Tin’? Is there a ‘Tri­ka’ like there is in Ektaal in any beat cycle/time sig­na­ture? If one sim­ply plays any time sig­na­ture on a drum or cym­bal, would it sound mel­liflu­ous, like it does in ICM?

      3. ICM gives per­cus­sion­ists space to demon­strate their vir­tu­ousi­ty, pure­ly rhyth­mic vir­tu­os­i­ty — where the per­former devi­ates from the tem­po, audi­ence retains it for sus­tained peri­od, final­ly applaud­ing when per­former returns to the ‘Sam’. There is no equiv­a­lent in WCM. Such rhyth­mic com­plex­i­ties have no space in WCM.

      Thanks for the com­ment, I should have high­light­ed these aspects! 🙂

      • Com­plex time sig­na­tures may be found in Jazz — par­tic­u­lar­ly Latin Jazz.

        • Thanks for that info. I haven’t dived into Jazz at all, and am begin­ning to real­ize that the top­ic is going to sur­face often in this series…keep shar­ing it in the com­ments! 🙂

          • …Fast­Dots…

            I had a long dis­cus­sion with my father-in-law a few weeks ago, when I was explain­ing the con­cept of rhythm as it applies to west­ern music (clas­si­cal or oth­er­wise). He is the most con­sum­mate lis­ten­er of ICM, and through­out the dis­cus­sion, his reac­tion to west­ern rhythms (in any giv­en piece) was that “its so open end­ed”. It took me a lit­tle bit of time to fig­ure out that he was look­ing for the “sum” and of course, there isnt one — even more fun is the fact that rhythm time sig­na­tures can (and do) change with­in a WCM piece!

            • Though that sounds fun­ny, it is a very insight­ful obser­va­tion. Since there are no cycles, there is no ‘sam’ or ful­crum, hence it feels ‘open-end­ed’. There must be much more to learn from your FIL! 🙂

  • K

    Per­haps a link to an excerpt from your favourite ren­di­tion of Bach’s “The Well Tem­pered Clavier” would be a nice addi­tion?

    Unless, of course, you plan to write about Equal Tem­pera­ment and Well Tem­pera­ment in more detail lat­er 🙂

    Also, micro­tones apart, ICM makes lib­er­al use of inflex­ions /around/ them; In Car­nat­ic Music, they’re called gamakam, I don’t know the name of their equiv­a­lent in Hin­dus­tani music.

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  • I play the Veena (Saraswati Veena) and I was try­ing hard to remem­ber my homo­phon­ic and poly­phon­ic class when I was read­ing this. This is my fav of the 3 posts I read until now, just the right amount of info not to over­whelm the read­er but yet enough to tick­le their neu­rons. Am now wait­ing for your list of rec­om­men­da­tions 🙂

    • Lots more to come.…:) Thank you for tak­ing the time to read and pro­vide feed­back.