Fixed and variable scales

One major point of difference I’ve noticed between Indian and Western classical music is about the starting point of scales. Western music has a fixed starting frequency, and all instruments and voices are supposed to be tuned to that. Every guitar is tuned identically, and I’m talking about absolute frequencies of various strings here. Similarly with other instruments.

Indian classical music on the other hand doesn’t bother as much about absolute freuqencies. The frequency of the base Sa doesn’t matter at all, it’s only the relative frequencies of various notes that matter and as long as those are perfect the music will be good. This allows greater flexibility to artistes, especially vocalists and allows them to find their own range rather than having to conform to set standards.

Related to this is the individualist nature of Indian music (you usually have one lead performer here, accompanied by two or three others) and the orchestra nature of Western classical. When the “band” is small, it is not so much of a big deal to retune instruments to match each other and because of this it is not so much of a problem to coordinate. When you are part of an orchestra, however, it is important to have a standard and have everyone conform to that, rather than have a large number of musicians retune for every performance.

What I wonder, however, is which came first – synchronized tuning or the orchestra.

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