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Discovering Parallels Between Western and Indian Classical Music


Aug 19, 2022

In India, they start with Sa, Re, Ga, but in the West, they start with do, re, mi.

“The first three notes simply happened to be…”, Julie Andrews would explain in the 1959 musical drama The Sound of Music.

The syllables of western classical music vary from those of Indian classical music, yet the vibration they produce is same, as does the melody they produce.

Purists of classical music would be certain about the glaring contrasts between western and Indian classical music. However, it is not impossible to bring these two disparate musical offsprings together.

If it were the true, there would not have been as many performances including Saraswati veena and Hindustani sitar performed in tandem with violin, double bass, and clarinet.

So, what characteristics bring western classical music closer to its Indian cousin, and what elements put it apart? Let us discover out…

Western and Indian Classical Music Origins
Classical Indian Music – The oldest mention of music in India is found in Vedic literature and is thought to have happened before 500 BCE. The majority of the early texts were written in couplets, indicating a practice and culture of rhythmic recitation.

The majority of ancient Indian texts were passed down to future generations via oral recitals. Classical music in India has evolved in the same way. The pupils were taught verbally by the early instructors of Indian classical music. Even today, lessons in Indian classical music are taught in the same way.

The wonderful thing about Indian classical music is that while it has been handed down through centuries, it has only been strengthened by improvisation and participation from new practitioners. Documentation, categorization, and refining occurred in the years that followed, and it is still developing.

Western Classical Music – Beginning with plainchants in the Roman Catholic Church throughout the Medieval times, western classical music was advanced by the French poet-musicians Troubadour and Trouveres, who set their poetry to music.

Western classical music evolved over time, from monophonic religious songs and chants sung in churches to courtly love presented as a theme by troubadours, to refinements in rhythms, pitches, and being accompanied by instruments.

Over time, many performers and instruments joined in, contributed, and grew alongside the pitches and chords. Polyphonic compositions first appeared in the tenth and eleventh century.

Following that, when opera and orchestras began to be produced, western classical music thrived even more. As a result, both vocal and instrumental music evolved throughout time, and the process continues to this day.

The Parallels
While both traditions originated in countries thousands of miles away and have various distinguishing elements that define them unique, the two ancient musical traditions share some characteristics.

The first parallel is the first manifestation of the human soul via tone, rhythm, and song.
In both traditions, the first emotion portrayed via music was devotion, which was later followed by love and, finally, other human feelings.

There are some aspects of western and Indian classical music that have distinct names yet are similar in appearance and sound.
Both traditions, for example, employ the same set of seven notes (west) or swaras. In India, they are known as Saptak, whereas in the West, they are known as Solfege.

Saptak’s song is Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni.

Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti – Solfege

In both Western and Indian classical music, the vibrations they produce, their functions, and their contributions to musical creation are the identical.

In Western classical music, an Octave represents intervals or the space between notes. The octave is split into twelve notes in both traditions.
Similarly, Indians have raagas and thaats for modes and scales in the western tradition. Some thaats and modes have similar features. They are the Ionian mode from the west and Bilawal thaat in India, the Dorian mode to Kafi, the Phrygian mode to Bhairavi, the Lydian mode to Kalyan, the Mixolydian mode to Khamaj, and the Aeolian mode to Asavari.
Seasons are particularly important in both Indian and Western classical music. Thunder, rain, and the time of day may all have an impact on musical works in both traditions.
Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, for example, effectively depict the beauty of each season via magnificent musical works.

Indian Ragas have also delved deeply into each season in order to extract the finer subtleties of each season and associate them with human emotions.

Furthermore, there is a strict rule regulating which Raga should be performed at what time of day. Raag Bhairavi, for example, should be sung in the morning, Raag Deepan in the evening, Raag Basant in the spring, and so on.

Western music, like Indian classical music, employs melody in its compositions. In the west, however, the melody is just a component of the total, as opposed to the Indian tradition.
In India, however, the melody is the fundamental soul of the song.

Final thoughts…

Though there are many similarities between the two traditions, the differences are also extremely clear. What better way to conclude than with a few lines from Rabindranath Tagore –

“By day, the world is like European music; a flowing concourse of immense harmony made up of concord and discord and countless unconnected bits.” And our Indian music is the night world; one clean, profound, and sensitive raga. They both move us, yet their spirits are diametrically opposed.”