Much of the music people in the United States listen to nowadays is composed mainly of music in the Western style, whether it be pop, jazz, rock, classical, or any other style. However there are many other types of music from different geographical regions; one main genre is Indian Carnatic music. This musical form is similar in many ways to Western music—it uses the same 12-tone scale—but the plethora of differences, ranging from minute to genre-defining, gives this form of music it’s own unique flavor within the broad scope of world music. The main differences that can be found between the Indian Carnatic and Western music styles are the absence of harmony, different perception of keys , and the great importance given to improvisation.
When enjoying a piece of classical Western music, for example, in an orchestra, the listener can identify a rich texture that is composed of numerous instrumental sections playing simultaneously. Carnatic music, however, does not employ such harmonic methods; it is purely diatonic, with one note playing at a time. This melody, however, is different in that notes are played in a more complex style; various techniques like note modulation and glissando—sliding from one note to another—are employed to give the melody increasing complexity to make up for the lack of harmony to involve the listener.
Now that we explored functions of specific notes, let’s note the way they specifically function together—namely in the form of keys. Western music utilizes major and minor keys, and their alterations, to provide the listener with different and interesting arrangements of notes. Carnatic music, on the other hand, uses what are known as ragas to establish keys. Ragas work in a way similar to keys, but are considerably more rigid in the way they influence the song itself; they establish a specific pattern of notes that the song has to follow—not unlike Schoenberg’s atonal music in this aspect. Also, each raga is known to establish a specific mood. This way, the composer can connect the lyrical meaning of the piece to the raga to form a coherent and euphonic whole.
Why do people go to concerts? The typical Western audience might say “To watch performers play live;” others might respond “To enhance the listening experience,” depending on which type of music concert. However, the main reason why audiences go watch a Carnatic music concert live is to examine and appreciate the performer’s improvisation. In a general performance of a piece, the portion actually composed by the composer only consists of a quarter to a third of the total time taken. Improvisation always happens in the same raga as the song, and it reflects the performer’s ability to manipulate the notes in the raga (in that pattern) to better bring about the mood the raga evokes. Also, the improvisation adds a great appeal to the audiences due to the various rhythmic and tonal patterns performers employ. This makes every performance of a song truly unique, keeping the audience’s interest in listening to the same song composed centuries ago.
With these new sounds and techniques, Indian Carnatic music gives different audiences a unique taste of an interesting style. Listening to such music serves to broaden people's perspectives—it gives the person a new worldview on the music of different cultures and traditions.