Classical Music Around the World
Music has always been considered as a vital element in celebration, worship and ritual and it has been a constant support in coping with life’s crisis, work and warfare. For instance, the Indian raga was associated with certain moods as well as with different times of the year. This unique relation between music and belief persists in many parts of the world. Egyptians, Hindus, Indonesians and Native Americans in ancient times believed music was a gift from the god. The instruments and their sound and appearance had a symbolic significance for the Sumerians and Egyptians. Many Native Americans, Oceanic people and others still consider music as the expression of sacred beings.
Musical influences have flowed between people across different countries and continents. Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel were fascinated when they came across gamelan music from Java in the late 19th century, Olivier Messiaen found inspiration in a 13th century Indian treatise and Steve Reich was influenced by the traditional music of Asia and Africa.
Classical Music across Regions
Western Classical Music: The western classical music has been believed to have started with plainchant, the vocal religious practice of the Roman Catholic Church. This form of classical music is known for its sophisticated instrumental music like sonata, concerto, fugue, and symphony. It is also known for its mixed vocal and instrumental styles such as cantata, opera and mass. The later part of the 18th century is often referred to as the “Classical” period in Western music.
South Asia: South Asia has two great classical music traditions, North Indian (including Pakistan and Bangladesh) and the Carnatic (southern India). The absence of harmony and simpler four-square rhythms in both these traditions meant that music was not played in large ensembles. Indian traditions instead followed a refined art of solo improvisation in expressive forms called ‘ragas’ and rhythmic frameworks called ‘talas’. This oral tradition was entirely different from classical music in Europe.
The history of the classical Hindustani Indian music goes back to the 17th century, the same time Bach devised the circle of fifths and other important elements of European music. Simultaneously in India, Tansen began scripting the formal structure and framework of the Indian classical music.
Southeast Asia: Countries like Cambodia and Thailand have classical music that is complex with their own formal systems. In these regions there are many Hindu temples and thus they have an Indian influence from 5th century itself. Early Javanese Kawi literature tells about percussion ensembles accompanying battles, shadow puppetry and masked dances. Wind and string instruments were also played for women’s court dancing. Music is intimately linked to the theatrical arts throughout Southeast Asia. Between c.1300 and c.1750, the northern mainland was introduced to Chinese theatrical forms and the southern mainland received Arabic influences.
China: Shang, the earliest recorded dynasty in China, developed the system of writing which today gives records of Chinese musical activity spanning 5000 years. The writings also tell about the destruction and reinvention of music theory throughout centuries. The traditional classification for instruments was called ‘eight sounds’ (pa-yin) to mark the significance of the eight different materials to make instruments. The earliest musical instruments found in China are stone-chimes, ocarinas and bronze bells.
Classical Arabic Music: Countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria as well as Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey have a different form of classical music. They follow a system of melodic notes called ‘maqam’. The art of improvisation in classical Arabic music is called ‘taqsim’. Classical Persian music exerted a large influence on various genres of Indian music as well as on their musical instruments.
How is Indian Classical Music different from Western Classical Music?
Indian classical music is mainly homophonic which means it focuses only on the melody created using certain notes. Western classical music on the other hand is polyphonic, i.e. the melody created is not singular and thus cannot be defined. Western classical music is composed whereas Indian classical music is improvised. When vocals are used in Indian classical music, the instruments used along with it can just be considered as mere accompaniments. This is different from Western classical music where instruments carry a lot of weight in the overall composition. Indian classical music uses ‘taal’ which is the cycle of beats that repeats itself. Western classical music on the other hand uses no such complex beat cycles.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.