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.