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Music as Communication: Eastern Music

This week we’re looking at the differences between eastern and western music with specific focus on the theories used in Eastern music.

Eastern music vs western music

If you’ve ever heard me talk about music theory, I usually say the building blocks of Western music are blah, blah, blah. And that is because we in the west have a certain music theory. The rules of music, if you will.

In the east, the Arabic countries and over into some of the the Indian Subcontinents, there is a totally different theory going on. So to show you the difference and try and keep it without being too technical, the smallest increments of music pitch that we use to create songs or music in general is a semitone. A semitone has a hundred cents in it. So cents are the measurement we use to measure acoustic pitch.

If I’m tuning my guitar and I’m tuning it to a specific semitone, my tuner will tell me if I’m 7 or 8 cents below it or 7 or 8 cents above it, and I’ll be trying to pull that down, to being only 1 or 2 cents above or below or, better still no cents above or below, but that’s a bit difficult.

So semitones are the smallest stepping stone we use when we’re playing music. And in actual acoustic pitch, we have 100 cents in a semitone in Western music. So, and in Western music, our regular patterns of how we group notes are termed scales, and that’s the different runs that we use. A ‘normal’ scale that hits all the notes on the way up is called a chromatic scale. It is very recognisable and everybody feels familiar with that. They are the framework essentially that our music in the west hangs on.

So what makes Eastern music quite different to a Western musician’s ears is that these basic building blocks are entirely different. So going back to Western music very, very briefly, our semitone, I said was our smallest block. And that is generally true, but in jazz, you can split that down to a quarter tone and usually we call it bending the note, and you can cut that down to the quarter tone, but it’s not done as regularly in Western music. And if you’re not into your jazz, you are probably not going to be doing it or coming across it very often.

In Eastern music, their entire scales and their stepping stones and musical blocks are so much smaller. So for us, as I said, a semitone is 100 cents. So if I tell you that in eastern music, some of their smallest blocks can be 25 cents or 75 cents, and you can be going up then by 25s or 75s, which means you’re gonna be landing on pitches that we are just completely unfamiliar with in the West.

Their scales are land on different notes that we don’t have. So in, in the space of one of our Western octave scales of say eight notes, you could have 12 or 16 notes in that same space of pitch in an eastern scale.

So the word maqam means we can equate it to meaning a scale or the melody theory. It doesn’t directly translate to scale. It means a little bit more than that. But that is essentially the idea of moving up three different pitches. And then these limmer and these commas are these smaller increments, the equivalent of our semitones, but so much smaller.

Different area have slightly different building blocks. So in the same way as I mentioned that jazz might use quarter tones, in Eastern music, different geographical areas will use slightly different spacings. And that’s part of what can make the sound very different.

Eastern music is much more fluid and there’s much more variety within it, where western music, we’ve become very standardised in our theory and very structured so that jazz is the only type of music that will move outside of that. And even then, only occasionally.

And on the whole, we stay structured within this framework, which is neither good nor bad. It is what it is.

Check out the video to go with this blog in which I’ll attempt to sing eastern scales!