Bringing Western Classical and Indian Carnatic Music Together


Adithya and I have been friends since grade 5. But it is only recently that we have started to talk about and share our experiences in two distinct classical music traditions—those of the West and India. Even though we had heard each other perform many times, it was not until last fall that we decided to learn about each other’s music. Music Without Borders provides us the opportunity to learn, explore and even create something that is rooted in, yet transcends the boundaries of both our respective traditions. Below are a few blog posts that capture a part this exploratory process. We’ll begin with identifying some of the fundamental elements of Indian and Western Classical music.



Carnatic Music

Carnatic Music is an ancient system of music originating from Southern India. It is one of the main genres of Indian classical music that evolved from ancient Hindu traditions. The main emphasis in Carnatic music is on vocal music; compositions are almost always written to be sung, and even when played on instruments, they are meant to be performed by voice.

There are a number of aspects of Carnatic Music that make it a unique art form. For one, it is one of the few genres of music that place almost an equal emphasis on written composition and extemporaneous music. Almost all other music forms place a heavier emphasis on one or the other: Jazz, for example, places a very heavy emphasis on extemporaneous music, whereas Classical music, focuses almost exclusively on pre-composed songs. Carnatic Music strikes a balance between these two aspects, which makes it incredibly unique. 

In addition, many elements of music that are considered as staples in Classical Music do not exist in Carnatic Music and vice versa. For instance, there is no harmony in Carnatic, only melody. There is a main artist (often a singer) who is accompanied by instrumentalists who simply follow along. On the flip side, Carnatic Music gets its unique sound from "gamakam", meaning "oscillation" or "glide". Oscillations are used quite heavily in Carnatic Music, whereas in Classical Music, they are used sparingly and only in certain instances. 

That was a sneak peek at some of the main features of this art form. Come and catch some Carnatic Music live in action at the MWB concert on April 2nd, 2016!



Western Classical Music

Let’s try to break down this large question into smaller parts. What is its history? What distinguishes Western classical music from other traditions? Classical music originated in the holy chant of European monks around the 7th century. With there originally being only one line of melody sung at a time, more voices were slowly added and a distinct notation system developed to keep track of all these extra parts. This system is one distinguishing feature of classical music.

By the end of the 17th century, a unique process of “harmony” had evolved, along with many new musical instruments, “forms” and genres. Aside from the fact that classical music is mostly written out (not improvised), the idea of harmony and functionality is another distinguishing element in traditional western classical music and has been carried into jazz, rock, and pop music. You can think of harmony as a progression of “chords”—combinations of notes all derived from one larger set (“scale”) of notes. Each chord made up of different notes from the same scale can have a “function,” describing where the chord should move next. This creates movement direction in the music.

However, if we take a step back, we can notice that harmony is derived from all the different parts in a composition. “Polyphony”—many different voices playing simultaneously—is even more central to western classical music. Most classical music is written for multiple instruments playing multiple parts or one instrument that can play multiple parts. An orchestra is a great example of the former, with the unique sounds (“timbre”) of each instrument blending together and creating a texture that still has movement, direction and depth even when there is no clear system of harmony. This combination of polyphony and harmony, lying at the heart of Western classical music, has a potential for huge expressive power.