What are the Fundamental Differences Between Eastern and Western Music

Both western and eastern classical music provides a deep level of intellectual satisfaction and while music is universal there are essential differences between Eastern and Western music.

Most people today associate western classical music with the background music in reception rooms, elevators and lounges. For many others, they associate it with high nosed intellectuals or artsy folks. However in reality western classical music is enlightening, great and completely enjoyable. The term “classical” itself has been born from the Latin word, ‘classic’ meaning of the highest order or first class.

Differences Between Eastern and Western Music

Western classical or specifically European classical music is just one amongst varied traditions of classical music. Evolving through the years western classical music has evolved into two distinguishable strands. The first is Church music that comprises Carols, Mass, Requiems and Gregorian Chants and Secular music which comprises concertos, symphonies, opera music and sonatas.

Eastern music on the other hand refers to Indian classical music. It is an amalgamation of two forms of music: North Indian music which is known as Hindustani music and South Indian music which is known as Carnatic music. While there are some differences between both yet they can be considered as the backbone of the eastern classical music scene.

Differences Between Eastern and Western Music

The primary differences between western classical music and eastern classical music are as follows:


Eastern classical music is essentially homophonic meaning that it focuses on melodies created by using an arrangement of notes. Its magic is experienced through the use of different melodies created within the structure of ragas. On the other hand, western classical music owes its magic to its polyphonic composition where texture, counterpoint and harmony are created using multiple voices. And while melody does exist in western classical music too from a broader perspective it is not the singular focus of a majority of western classical works.


While eastern classical music has been improvised western classical music has been composed. Western classical compositions in music are all formally written and there is almost no scope for improvisation. In contrast, eastern music does not have compositions written down and has been passed down from teachers to students through the process of learning leading to every performance being improvised.


While vocals are extensively used in both eastern and western classical music, their treatment in relation to other instruments varies. In eastern classical music, when vocals are used, the other instruments serve as mere accompaniments. However, in western classical music when vocals come into play, the other accompanying instruments also carry a lot of weight. Therefore in western classical music the word “voice” does not always denote a human voice. The term can refer to any theme being played on any instrument for example a piano.


In eastern classical music, an individual performing shines through using improvisation. As can be seen in a recital, where there is always a lead instrumentalist or vocalist expounding the raga while others remain in the background. That is with the exception of occasional interludes where those in the background display their skills. However, in western classical music, while the conductor and composers shine individually, the performance is essentially a group effort. That is again with the exception of solo concerts or solo works where the spotlight is on individual performers.


Where rhythm is concerned eastern classical music uses “Taal” which is a set of beats centering around “Sam” which repeats itself. In comparison, western classical music doesn’t use such a complex set of beats. Again while western classical music is essentially restricted to using semitones, eastern music extensively uses microtones and quarter-tones referred to as “Shruti.” In recent times, however, western classical music does have a few microtonal pioneers.


In the above context, western classical music extensively uses dissonance to enrich the texture of the composition. However eastern classical music discourages dissonance.


Eastern classical music has a closer and more intimate relationship with nature than western classical music. Eastern raags are associated with special times of the day and with specific seasons of the year. In contrast, western classical music does not have any such association. Moreover, eastern music is founded on spirituality while western classical music has a more secular basis.


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