17 Music around the World

Learning Objectives

  • Identify music from various countries and cultures.
  • Describe how everyday life influences music from various countries and cultures.
  • Identify instruments unique to the various countries and cultures.
  • Describe how American music has been influenced by music from various countries and cultures

This chapter is an adaptation of chapters from three texts: Understanding Music: Past and Present, by N. Alan Clark, Thomas Heflin, Jeffrey Klubal, and Elizabeth Kramer; Music: Its Language, History, and Culture, by Douglas Cohen; and Resonances: Engaging Music in Its Cultural Context, by Ester M. Morgan-Ellis (editor-in-chief). It also includes original content and information from Wikipedia as noted. Reviewed and edited by Bonnie Le and Francis Scully.


Adapted from Understanding Music: Past and Present, by N. Alan Clark and Thomas Heflin

Just as we have observed in the Western concert music that we’ve explored, musical cultures all across the globe have their own traditions, styles, practices, rules, and instruments that are often vastly different from the music many Americans are used to.

The following sections provide examples of many different music styles from all over the world. This review will be a very cursory introduction to only a handful of the thousands of musical styles that exist across the globe with which you may not be familiar. Bear in mind that many of these musical traditions date back hundreds and sometimes thousands of years and deserve further exploration outside of the context of this textbook. Beyond these examples, much more music is available to you through YouTube. In this review, we will primarily focus on the musical elements of melody, rhythm, instrumentation, and harmony and describe the processes that different societies use to combine these elements.

Original content by Constance Chemay

You will find numerous mentions of the pentatonic scale throughout this chapter in various cultures and countries around the world. The following video is an excerpt from a much longer discussion titled “Notes & Neurons: In Search of the Common Chord,” part of the World Science Festival, June 2009, which discusses whether music in human society comes naturally, if it is influenced by our surroundings, or both. The discussion that led up to this segment was on the apparent prevalence of certain scales in different cultures’ and countries’ traditional music, differences in what emotions are evoked, and what listeners may or may not expect to hear in music.

Video 17.1: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale (2009)


Adapted from Music: Its Language, History, and Culture, by Douglas Cohen

Africa is the second largest continent in the world and home to a tenth of the world’s population and at least a thousand different indigenous languages. Therefore, it is impossible to describe a single entity called “African music.” One need only compare the sacred music of the Gnawa musicians of Morocco with the choral traditions that arose in the townships of South Africa to see the vast range of musical practices found throughout this huge and complex region.

As different as African musical traditions may sound from each other, they do tend to share some cultural and musical elements. However, one must always be cautious when trying to view these traditions through a Western musical or aesthetic lens.

  1. Music and dance: Linguistic scholars have been hard-pressed to find a single word that means “music” in many African languages. Music and bodily movement are usually considered part of a single whole, and sound cannot be separated from the cultural (and often religious) function of musical performances.
  2. In many African cultures, music and dance are considered communal activities; the Western idea of sitting silently while a performance is taking place is an anathema to these traditions. Many musical techniques that are shared by African musics— particularly the idea of “call and response,” where a soloist or group of performers will engage in short exchanges with other performers—seem to have arisen from this communal attitude toward music-making.
  3. Oral traditions: Nearly all African traditions have been passed down orally, and their study by Western scholars has often involved the transcription of performances into Western musical notation, which often proves woefully inadequate for the job. The influx of Christian choral music, especially in the southern regions of Africa, has resulted in music somewhat more easily notatable, and some African musicians do now use the familiar five-line system to capture their art.
  4. In many African traditions, rhythm—the way music moves through time—seems to be privileged over melody and harmony. Many African performances are highly polyphonic and made up of several layers of interlocking rhythmic ostinatos, which are combined to create an overall effect suitable for the religious or cultural ceremony for which the sounds are being produced.
  5. Instruments: The variety of instruments found throughout Africa is astounding. Perhaps most impressive is the range of percussion instruments (both idiophones and membranophones) that are often combined with distinctive uses of the human voice. In listening to performances of African music, those of us immersed in the Western musical tradition may be initially drawn to the vocal line as the most important feature, yet it may just be one element of a larger, complex musical texture.

Call and Response and the Blues

An example of the African call-and-response style of singing can be found in the blues song by Bessie Smith “Lost Your Head Blues.” Bessie Smith is the “caller” who sings the verse and is followed by the cornet player who plays the “response.”

Video 17.2: Bessie Smith—Lost Your Head Blues


From the description posted on YouTube: “Asmaâ Hamzaoui (27) is the leader of the group Bnat Timbouktou and one of the genre’s few—and youngest—female ambassadors. She inherited her passion from her father, the famous mâalem Rachid Hamzaoui. From a very young age, she learned to play the guembri, a sort of 3-string plucked lute, which she uses to accompany celebrations. Traditionally, women do not play during ceremonies and can only touch this instrument in private settings (which is particularly the case for the wife of a mâalem). Women performing in public is still a widespread taboo.”

Video 17.3: Music of the Gnawa: Asmâa Hamzoui & Bnat Timbouktou—La ilaha ila lah

Especially during the last century, however, scholars have tried to find ways to talk in general about Africa’s rich traditions while always acknowledging the sometimes very subtle differences between countries and ethnic groups. Beyond the recognition that African musicians maintained a vibrant and very distinct art, it has also been noted that this music—especially that of West Africa, from where the majority of enslaved people were taken—has played a significant role in the black cultural Diaspora, with important implications for the music of Latin America, the Caribbean, and a variety of African American traditions. Thus, understanding a few concepts that are shared by much African music helps listeners appreciate not only the continent’s music itself but also a host of related traditions. Fortunately, in today’s digital age, recordings of music from virtually all corners of Africa—both traditional repertoires and styles influenced by Western popular music—are readily available.

The Sahara Desert, which takes up almost the entire northern third of the continent, is perhaps the most important dividing line that comes into play when discussing music in Africa. Countries that lie partly or entirely north of the Sahara (Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, etc.) tend to share many qualities with music of the Middle East. The rainforests and grasslands of Sub-Saharan Africa (Ghana, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, etc.) have produced very different traditions. In addition, distinctions are often made between Sub-Saharan musical traditions of Western, Eastern, Central, and Southern Africa.


Video 17.4: Traditional Egyptian Lullaby (2016)


Video 17.5: Kenyan Traditional Music (East African); this video includes examples of Kenya music and dance.

Video 17.6: Ayub Ogada demonstrates a Nyatiti (African instrument)


Adapted From Understanding Music: Past and Present, by N. Alan Clark and Thomas Heflin

Senegal is a country located on the far coast of West Africa. In Senegal, the traditional stretched skin drum is called the djembe. By way of contrast, modern Senegalese music shows an American influence; electric bass and guitar, drum set, flutes, etc. are often used.

Video 17.7: Senegal Day Djembe Show

Video 17.8: Takeifa—Afro Pop from Senegal / Fire


The mbira is an integral part of the folk music of Zimbabwe. It is a common small keyboard-type instrument that is played by the performers’ thumbs. Its metal reeds are tuned to different pitches, and it is usually used to accompany vocalists.

Mbira Dzavadzimu
Figure 17.1: Mbira Dzavadzimu | Photographer: Alex Weeks | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Video 17.9: Solo performance of Rwavasekuru by Zimbabwe’s Queen of Mbira Music, Ambuya Stella Rambisai Chiweshe

European Folk Music

Adapted from Understanding Music: Past and Present, by N. Alan Clark and Thomas Heflin

Folk Music of France

Much of European folk music is largely built around song forms that are tied together by the lyrics of the songs. In the following example of folk music from France, you may notice that the scales and instruments sound a little like those of our modern American folk music (except for the language). The development and use of major and minor scales are what give our Western European music its distinctive sound.

Video 17.10: French Folk Song—M’en Suis Allé Aux Noces (Breton Folk Song)

Celtic Music

Rapalje (Dutch Celtic folk band)
Figure 17.2: Rapalje (Dutch Celtic folk band), 2015 | Photographer: Atamari | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 4.0

The Celts refers to a diverse group of people who lived during the Iron Ages in what is now Great Britain and Western Europe. In addition to speaking Celtic languages, these people shared a common musical heritage, one that is still used by their descendants. Celtic music is often recognized by its instrumentation, which combines bagpipes, various stringed instruments, and drums. Celtic music also has a distinctive melodic style, with wide leaps that outline the harmonies of the song, creating a feeling of jubilance.

Video 17.11: Traditional Celtic Song—Fill-iù Oro Hù Ò & O Cò Bheir Mi Leam

Video 17:11: “The Flags of Dublin,” performed by FourWinds

This video is a medley of three Irish tunes. The instruments from left to right are a bouzouki, Uilleann pipes, concertina, and bodhran.


Norway has a centuries-long history of vocal and instrumental music. Indeed, many of their folk ballads and songs date back to the Middle Ages; often, they describe the dramatic tales of historical figures from that period. The Norwegian folk music linked below is one such Norwegian ballad of the Middle Ages era. It uses European-sounding scales as well as several wind instruments.

Video 17.12: Heming og Gygri (Norwegian Middle Ages music)—Kalenda Maya

Hardanger fiddle made by Knut Gunnarsson Helland
Figure 17.3: Hardanger fiddle made by Knut Gunnarsson Helland | Photographer: Frode Inge Helland
Figure 17.3a: Full view | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0
Figure 17.3b: Scroll detail | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0


Russian folk music uses what we would call the modern minor scale. Listen to how distinctive this Russian folk music sounds as its slow introduction gradually gives way to faster and faster verses, slows and speeds up again and again, until it reaches a very fast and exciting dance-like conclusion.

Video 17.13: Russian Folk Music—Kalinka

Tenor Balalaika
Figure 17.4: Tenor Balalaika | Author: Arent | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Balkan Peninsula (Southeastern Europe)

The region of Southeastern Europe that includes Hungary, Romania, Albania, Macedonia, Turkey, and several other countries is called the Balkans. This region has a rich musical heritage with many fast, exciting, dance-like songs using accordion and clarinet. Balkan music is unique in that it incorporates complex rhythms that we do not often hear in classical music.

Video 17.14: Balkan Traditional Music—Rozafa Folk, Albania

Gdulka/Gadulka (Bulgarian knee-violin with bow)
Figure 17.5: Gdulka/Gadulka (Bulgarian knee-violin with bow) | Author: Arent (based on copyright claims) | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Jewish Klezmer Music

Adapted from Music: Its Language, History, and Culture, by Douglas Cohen

Klezmer music is a term used to designate the Yiddish dance music of Ashkenazi Jews that dates back to the Middle Ages when it developed in Eastern Europe before eventually migrating to the United States. The Yiddish term “klezmer” comes from two Hebrew words, kleizemer, which translates as “vessel of melody.”

Early Klezmer bands played for a variety of social occasions, including weddings, holiday celebrations, and rite of passage ceremonies throughout European Jewish communities. Up through the eighteenth century, fiddles, cellos, string basses, flutes, drums, and tsimbls (hammered dulcimers) were the primary instruments. By the early nineteenth century, the clarinet became the primary lead melodic instrument, and brass instruments, including the trumpet, trombone, and tuba were added to the ensembles. Repertories were wide, including Yiddish melodies, Hassidim chants and dance tunes, non-Jewish dance forms such as the polka, light classical pieces, and salon dances such as the waltz.

Klezmer tunes are most often built around 8 or 16 bar, AB or ABC sections that are repeated with small variations. Melodic lines tend to be modal with complex ornamentations resulting from the generous use of trills, slurs, slides, and triplets. The clarinet is known for its particularly wild, shrill sounds (the dramatic clarinet glissando that opens George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is thought to be influenced by klezmer styling). Harmonic accompaniments are characteristically built around minor chords; often a piece will feature dramatic shifts between minor and major modalities. Most klezmer dance pieces have a strong rhythmic pulse stressing the downbeat of a 2/4 or 4/4 meter producing a bouncy feel. Occasionally irregular meters such as 3/8 or 9/8 are used. Klezmer tunes sometimes begin with a taxim, or free meter modal improvisation, usually played on the clarinet.

Social and political unrest in Russia, Poland, and other regions of Eastern Europe fostered the immigration of millions of Yiddish-speaking, Ashkenazi Jews to America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most of whom settled in New York City. Klezmer music became popular at Jewish-American weddings, holiday celebrations, and social club dances and by the 1920s was being recorded by Jewish musicians like virtuoso clarinetist Dave Tarras. Born in Ukraine into a family of musicians, Tarras immigrated to New York in 1922 and became the leading klezmer clarinetist of his generation. In the tradition of the old-world klezmer bands, early New York Jewish ensembles consisted of reeds, brass, and string instruments, often backed by accordion or piano and drum accompaniment. As Jewish musicians came under the influence of American tin pan alley and early jazz of the 1920s and 1930s, they created innovative hybrids like Yiddish swing and the popular Yiddish theater songs.

Interest in traditional Ashkenazi culture in general and klezmer music in particular waned during the Holocaust, World War II, and the early post-War years. The 1970s saw a revival of activity by a new generation of Jewish musicians bent on rediscovering the roots of their Ashkenazi ancestors. Not surprisingly, New York was the center of the action, and at the forefront of the revival was Brooklyn-born clarinet virtuoso Andy Statman (b. 1950). A protégé of Dave Tarras, Statman spent years mastering the traditional klezmer style and repertoire. His eclectic tastes have led him to incorporate elements of bluegrass, jazz, rock, Middle Eastern music, and Western classical music into his innovative sound. Today klezmer has become a true world music, blending the traditional Ashkenazi tunes of Eastern Europe with the sounds of modern classical, jazz, rock, soul, rap, and various North African and Mid-Eastern music.

Video 17.15: Original Klezmer Music, performed by Daniel Hoffman (klezmer fiddle), Gilad Ephrat (contrabass), Boris Martzinovsky (accordion), and Yair Salzman (drums). Composed by Daniel Hoffman, “it begins with an original doina, continues to Jewish Luck Wedding Hora, and then to a terkishe called Schnapps vas Gibn.”

Middle Eastern Music

Adopted from “Middle Eastern Music,” Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

The various nations of the region include the Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East, the Iranian traditions of Persia, the Jewish music of Israel and the diaspora, Armenian music, Kurdish music, Azeri Music, the varied traditions of Cypriot music, the music of Turkey, traditional Assyrian music, Coptic ritual music in Egypt as well as other genres of Egyptian music in general, and the Andalusian (Muslim Spain) music very much alive in the greater Middle East (North Africa); all maintain their own traditions. It is widely regarded that some Middle-Eastern musical styles have influenced Central Asia as well as Spain and the Balkans.

Throughout the region, religion has been a common factor in uniting peoples of different languages, cultures, and nations. The predominance of Islam allowed a great deal of Arabic and Byzantine influence to spread through the region rapidly from the 7th century onward. The Arabic scale is strongly melodic, based on various maqamat (sing. maqam) or modes (also known as makam in Turkish music). The early Arabs translated and developed Greek texts and works of music and mastered the musical theory of the music of ancient Greece. This is similar to the dastgah of Persian music. While this originates with classical music, the modal system has filtered down into folk, liturgical, and even popular music with influence from the West. Unlike much western music, Arabic music includes quarter tones halfway between notes, often through the use of stringed instruments (like the oud) or the human voice. Further distinguishing characteristics of Middle Eastern and North African music include very complex rhythmic structures, generally tense vocal tone, and a monophonic texture. Traditional Middle Eastern music does not use chords or harmony in the Western sense.

Often, more traditional Middle-Eastern music can last from one to three hours in length, building up to anxiously awaited and much applauded climaxes, or tarab, derived from the Arabic term, tarraba.

Instruments Used


Many instruments originate in the Middle East region. Most popular of the stringed instruments is the oud, a pear-shaped lute that traditionally had four strings, although current instruments have up to six courses consisting of one or two strings each. Legend has it that the oud was invented by Lamech, the sixth grandson of Adam. This is stated by Al-Farabi, and it is part of the Iraqi folklore relating to the instrument. Legend goes on to suggest that the first oud was inspired by the shape of his son’s bleached skeleton.

Historically, the oldest pictorial record of the oud dates back to the Uruk period in Southern Mesopotamia over 5,000 years ago. It is on a cylinder seal currently housed at the British Museum and acquired by Dr. Dominique Collon, Editor of Iraq at the British Institute for the Study of Iraq. Used mostly in court music for royals and the rich, the harp also comes from ancient Egypt ca. 3,500 BC. The widespread use of the oud led to many variations on the instrument, including the saz, a Turkish long-necked lute that remains very popular in Turkey.

Another popular string instrument is the qanoun, developed by Farabi during the Abbasid era. Legend has it that Farabi played qanoun in court and alternately made people laugh, cry, or fall asleep. The qanoun developed out of string instruments described in inscriptions that date to the Assyrian period. It has about 26 triple-string courses, plucked with a piece of horn. The musician has the freedom to alter the pitch of individual courses from a quarter to a whole step by adjusting metal levers.

Middle Eastern music also makes use of the violin, which is European in origin. The violin was adopted into Middle Eastern music in the 19th century, and it is able to produce non-Western scales that include quarter-tones because it is fretless.


Percussion instruments play a very important role in Middle Eastern music. The complex rhythms of this music are often played on many simple percussion instruments. The riq (a type of tambourine) and finger cymbals add a higher rhythmic line to rhythm laid down with sticks, clappers, and other drums.

An instrument native to Egypt, the darbuka (both “tabla” and “darbuka” are its names in Egyptian Arabic), is a drum made of ceramic clay with a goatskin head glued to the body. The darbuka is used primarily in Egypt, and it has its roots in ancient Egypt. It is also used in other countries in the Middle East.


The Armenian duduk is a very popular double-reeded, oboe-like instrument made out of apricot tree wood. The Moroccan oboe, also called the rhaita, has a double-reed mouthpiece that echoes sound down its long and narrow body. A similar instrument is called the sorna. Equivalent to the mizmar and zurna, it is used more for festivals and loud celebrations. A Turkish influence comes from the mey, which has a large double reed. Bamboo reed pipes are the most common background to belly dancing and music from Egypt. Flutes are also a common woodwind instrument in ensembles. A kaval is a three-part flute that is blown in one end, whereas the ney is a long cane flute played by blowing across the sharp edge while pursing the lips.

Music of the Ottoman Empire

Adapted from Resonances: Engaging Music in Its Cultural Context, by Ester M. Morgan-Ellis

The Ottoman Empire was founded in 1299 by the Turkish tribal leader Osman I. In 1453, the Ottomans captured the Christian city of Constantinople, which had until that point been the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Renamed Istanbul, that city became the capital of the Ottoman Empire: a centralized seat from which the sultan (Arabic for “supreme authority”) could expand his reach. The Ottoman Empire achieved the height of its power in the late 16th century, at which point it extended from Central Europe across North Africa and well into the Middle East. The 19th century, however, saw the empire’s gradual decline as it ceded power and territory to its neighbors. Following the Great War (later renamed World War I), the empire was formally dissolved and ultimately replaced by the Republic of Turkey in 1923.

For several centuries, however, the Ottoman Empire mediated between European powers and the Far East. The Western border of the empire came very near Vienna, which was a major European political and cultural center in the 18th and 19th centuries. As a result, Ottoman music had a significant impact in Europe. The Ottoman military band tradition, in particular, can be identified as the precursor to Western marching bands, while composers like Mozart and Beethoven frequently referenced Ottoman instruments and styles in their music.

The Ottoman Empire certainly cultivated rich musical traditions. Here, we will examine the most elite of those traditions: makam music, which was performed for (and sometimes even created by) the sultan and members of his court. As in most great empires, the Ottoman rulers sought to manage cultural diversity, not eradicate it. As the empire absorbed citizens from three continents, it simultaneously assimilated their cultural traditions. Ottoman musical practices, therefore, reflected Byzantine, Armenian, Arabic, Persian, and even European influence.

The term makam is itself derived from the Arabic maqam, which describes a system of musical modes. In European music, modes are scales, the most prominent of which in use today are major and minor. A makam, however, is more than just a scale. To begin with, there are many more makams than there are European modes—between 60 and 120. They are difficult to count because makams are always coming and going. An individual makam might fall out of use, or a new one might be developed.

The number of makams is so high because each contains a great deal of information about how music associated with it is expected to sound. A makam determines not only pitches but characteristic melodic motifs, ascending and descending melodic patterns, phrase endings, and the specific tuning of individual notes. This last element can be particularly striking, for the Turkish system divides each whole step into nine possible microtones (the European system divides it into only two). A note that is meant to be just slightly flat or slightly sharp, therefore, will sound out of tune to a Western ear, even though the performer has in fact placed it with perfect precision.

Makam music is performed using instruments that can be found across the Mediterranean region. These include the oud (a type of lute), the kanun (a plucked zither), the ney (an end-blown reed flute), and the rebab and kemençe (both bowed fiddles), although these last instruments have been almost completely replaced by the violin. Percussion instruments are also important, for they mark the rhythmic cycle, known as the usul. These instruments include the pair of pot-shaped kudüm drums, the bendir (a circular frame drum), and the def, which is related to the tambourine. In the performance of makam music, only one of each instrument is typically present, and their unique timbres are easy to discern in the texture.

Ottoman musicians organized their court performances into suites of individual pieces. Such a suite is known as a fasıl, and it might contain six or eight pieces, all in the same makam, totaling about thirty minutes of music. A traditional fasıl is full of variety: It contains different types of songs and several vocal and instrumental improvisations. Although most of the pieces feature a singer, the fasıl starts and ends with lengthy selections for the instrumental ensemble. The introductory peşrev is slow and stately, while the concluding saz semâisi contains passages in a lively dance tempo.

Samâi Shad Araban

We will consider a famous saz semaisi composed by Tanburi Cemil Bey (1843-1916). Cemil Bey was famous for his virtuosity as a performer. Although he began his training on the violin and kanun, he soon gained renown for his skill on the tanbur—a long-necked lute that developed in the Ottoman Empire—and kemençe. Cemil Bey lived late enough that he was able to leave behind recordings made on 78 rpm discs. These attest to his ability and continue to influence performers today, who still employ techniques that he developed and popularized.

In addition to revolutionizing performance techniques, Cemil Bey left behind a large number of compositions, many of which are among the most frequently performed in the Turkish classical tradition. Although Cemil Bey did not personally serve in the court of the sultan (the Ottoman Empire, after all, was well into its decline during his lifetime), he worked in the forms that had been developed for court entertainment. His “Samâi Shad Araban,” therefore, has the typical characteristics of a saz semâisi, and by examining it we will be able to understand how this type of composition has functioned for hundreds of years. We will also have an opportunity to hear the typical Turkish instruments and consider how they are used in performance.

Video 17.16: Samai Shad Araban, Ensemble Al-Ruzafa

To begin with, we must consider the nature of composition in the Ottoman tradition. Like medieval Europeans (consider, for example, the Countess of Dia), Ottoman performers learned, composed, and taught music without the aid of notation. Although Ottoman music was notated as early as the 17th century, the purpose of notation has always been primarily to record compositions for future reference, and it is seldom used for teaching or performance. Even today, Turkish classical musicians rely on aural and oral processes—that is, listening, imitating, and correcting—to acquire techniques and repertoire.

A typical characteristic of music in oral traditions is variation. When a performer learns a tune by ear, they are likely to introduce minor alterations by accident. However, in the Ottoman tradition, variation is not only accepted but encouraged. The composer expects individual performers to interpret the melody in a way that reflects the characteristics of their instrument, their training, and their own personal preference. As a result, while a performance of “Samâi Shad Araban” is always recognizable, no two musicians will play exactly the same notes.

Another type of variation emerges due to the norms of Ottoman performance practice. A piece of music such as Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio in G minor, discussed at the end of this chapter, is intended for a specific assortment of instruments: one piano, one violin, and one cello. Schumann also used notation to indicate exactly what each performer is supposed to do. Compositions in the Ottoman tradition, however, can be realized using any permutation of the classical ensemble. “Samâi Shad Araban,” therefore, can be performed as a solo or by an ensemble. A typical performance will feature about six performers, with only one playing each of the instruments described above. However, a rendition by a smaller or larger ensemble is perfectly viable.

This flexibility is a characteristic of the heterophonic texture of Ottoman classical music, in which all pitched instruments play essentially the same melody. “Samâi Shad Araban,” for example, can be transcribed (written down using staff notation) as a single melodic line. However, no two instruments play exactly the same pitches. Sometimes the variations have to do with the technical limitations of the instrument: a rebab player, for example, can slide between pitches, while a kanun player cannot. Other variations have to do with training or personal preference, as described above. The result is a complex musical texture in which the listener can easily perceive a core melody, even as the performers constantly alter that melody with diverse shadings and ornaments.

We will hear all of this in our recording of “Samâi Shad Araban.” First, however, we must consider the typical characteristics of a saz semâisi. In terms of form, a saz semâisi always features a repeated melodic refrain (known as a teslim) that follows upon a series of disparate melodic passages (each of which is termed a hane, or “house”). The form of “Samâi Shad Araban” can be summarized as A T B T C T D T, in which T (for teslim) is the refrain.

While each of the hane is melodically distinct, the D hane is markedly different from the others. To begin with, it contains a great deal of internal repetition—each of the first three melodic phrases is repeated at least once. Most striking, however, is that it is in a different meter. While the predominant usul (meter) of a saz semâisi consists of a cycle of ten beats in a moderate tempo, the usul of the D hane has six beats and is performed at a significantly faster tempo. As a result, the penultimate passage of “Samâi Shad Araban” is more energetic and exciting than those that preceded it. This makes the saz semâisi a good piece of music with which to conclude a suite, for it always comes to a rollicking finish.

The melodic instruments in our recording are the violin, ney, oud, and kanun. Because the timbre of each is so different, it is fairly easy to pick the various instruments out of the texture. In addition, each adds unique, improvised ornaments. The kanun player periodically contributes melodic flourishes and rhythmic elements that are not played by the other instruments, while the violin player emphasizes their ability to slide between pitches. The oud is foregrounded near the end of the performance, when it renders a solo version of the teslim before we hear it one last time from the entire ensemble.

The percussion accompaniment to “Samâi Shad Araban”—and, indeed, to any saz semâisi—is not specified by the composer. Instead, the performers use their knowledge of the usul and the melody to improvise an accompaniment that demarcates the rhythmic cycle while also reflecting the character of the melodic phrases. In this recording, we can clearly hear the jingling sounds of the def above the regular beats of the various drums.

Finally, a word about mode. The makam of “Samâi Shad Araban” is indicated by its title, which tells us the type of piece that this is—a saz semâisi—and its mode, Shad Araban. (This is similar to the European convention of naming a piece of music something like Symphony in E Minor.) The pitches of Shad Araban are not particularly similar to those of the major or minor scale. This makam features two intervals of an augmented second: a large interval that is not present in any European scale. It also contains a large number of half steps, the smallest European interval. As a result, melodies in Shad Araban move by intervals that seem alternately cramped and spacious.

Audio ex.: 17.1: Arabic Scale—Shad ‘Araban Arabic scale—Shad ‘Araban | Author: lubito | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Asian Music

Adapted from Music: Its Language, History, and Culture, by Douglas Cohen


North Indian Classical Music (Hindustani sangita)

Music from the Indian subcontinent is one of the non-Western repertories that has fascinated Western musicians and audiences in recent decades. Improvisation is central to the performance of North Indian classical music (Hindustani music) and is mastered only after years of study with a guru. The skeletal elements from which the improvisation springs are the raga, an ascending and descending pattern of melodic pitches, and the tala, the organization of rhythm within a recurring cycle of beats. Rather than the 12-semitone octave of Western classical music, Indian music divides the octave into 22 parts. Although only some of those 22 pitches are used in a particular raga, the complexity and subtlety of Indian melody are attributable in part to this relatively large vocabulary of pitch material. With respect to temporal organization, Indian music organizes spans of time into cycles of beats, somewhat comparable to the Western concept of meter. But whereas Western composers have worked predominantly in a framework of time spans divided into repeated cycles of two, three, or four beats, the time span of a tala is composed of units of variable length—for example, a 14-beat tala of four plus three plus four plus three beats. A tala may also be of enormous duration in comparison with a Western measure, which rarely exceeds a few seconds in length.

There are hundreds of talas and thousands of ragas. Each raga has specific extra-musical associations such as a color, mood, season, and time of day. These associations shape the performer’s approach to and the audience’s experience of an improvisation, which can last from a few minutes to several hours. Indian music also has an important spiritual dimension, and its history is intimately connected to religious beliefs and practices. As stated by the great sitarist Ravi Shankar, “We view music as a kind of spiritual discipline that raises one’s inner being to divine peacefulness and bliss. The highest aim of our music is to reveal the essence of the universe it reflects.…Through music, one can reach God.”

The typical texture in Indian music consists of three functionally distinct parts: (1) a drone, the main pitches of the raga played as a background throughout a composition; (2) rhythmic improvisations performed on a pair of drums; and (3) melodic improvisations executed by a singer or on a melody instrument. One of the most common melody instruments is the sitar, a plucked string instrument with a long neck and a gourd at each end, six or seven plucked strings, and nine to thirteen others that resonate sympathetically. The melody instrument or voice is traditionally partnered by a pair of tablas, two hand drums tuned to the main tones of the pitch pattern upon which the sitar melody is based. The drone instrument is often a tambura, a plucked string instrument with four or five strings each tuned to one tone of the basic scale and plucked to produce a continuous, unvarying drone accompaniment.

A raga performance traditionally opens with the alap, a rhapsodic, rhythmically free introductory section in which the melody instrument is accompanied only by the drone. Microtonal ornaments and slides from tone to tone are typical elements of a melodic improvisation. The entrance of the drums marks the second phase of the performance in which a short composed melodic phrase, the gat, recurs between longer sections of improvisation. Ever more rapid notes moving through extreme melodic registers in conjunction with an increasingly accelerated interchange of ideas between melody and drums produce a gradual intensification as the performance progresses to its conclusion.

Video 17.17: Ravi Shankar—Raga Mala, from “Ravi Shankar—Tenth Decade in Concert,” 2012

Music of India and Its Instruments Used in Rock Music

By Bonnie Le

Rock music groups such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were 1960s British rock groups who were fascinated by Hinduism. In 1968, the Beatles traveled to India to take part in a transcendental meditation training course. Their interest in Hinduism led to the group incorporating the Indian sitar instrument into some of their music. The Indian sitar has two sets of strings, the strings which are played and a set of strings called the sympathetic strings which resonate “in sympathy” with the played strings creating a droning effect. An example of the Beatles’ use of the sitar can be found in their song “Norwegian Wood,” where the droning strings are very distinct.

Video 17.18: The Beatles—Norwegian Wood (2001 Stereo Remaster)

Guitarist Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones often experimented in the use of Eastern instruments, particularly the Indian sitar, to add texture and complexity to their music. Jones was familiar with the instrument after studying under Harihar Rao, a disciple of Ravi Shankar. Their song “Paint It Black” uses the Indian sitar to add an element of mystery to the work. In the video below you can see Brian Jones playing the sitar around 35 seconds into the video.

Video 17.19: Rolling Stones Paint It Black HD

South Indian Classical Music (Karnataka sangita)

South Indian classical music (Karnatic or Carnatic music) evolved from ancient Hindu traditions and is relatively free of the Arabic and Islamic influences that contribute to Hindustani music. Karnatic music is primarily vocal and the texts devotional in nature (often in Sanskrit). The instrumental music consists largely of performances of vocal compositions with a melody instrument replacing the voice and staying within a limited vocal range. It is important to note that the vocal style is so advanced that it seems almost instrumental in nature. One could say in Karnatic music that vocal and instrumental styles merge into one. Works in this tradition are normally composed, as opposed to the improvised Hindustani tradition, with new compositions being written every day. Four Karnatic composers of great importance are Purandara Dasa (1494–1564), Shayama Shastri (1762–1827), Tyagaraja (ca. 1767–1848), and Muttusvami Dikshitar (1775–1835).

Karnatic music uses the same system of raga (scale) and tala (meter) as found in the north, but the systems for classifying raga and tala are more highly developed and consistent thanks to a long period of growth with a minimum of influence from the outside.

Just as Hindustani instrumental music often follows the formal outline of an alap (slow meditative section exploring the raga), followed by a gat (faster section with percussion accompaniment), many Karnatic compositions are in the form Pallavi (Opening Section), Anupallavi (Middle Section), and Charanam (Concluding Section) with an abbreviated pallavi serving as a refrain between subsequent sections and concluding the piece. Towards the end of the composition, an improvised section, called the svara kalpana, is often inserted where the vocalist expands on the pitches in the raga while singing with “sa re ga ma” syllables instead of the text. This improvised singing may alternate with a melody instrument, such as a violin, imitating the singer.

Two Western instruments have become a standard part of Karnatic music, the aforementioned violin for melodic use and the hand-pumped harmonium for playing the sustained drone pitches. A present-day concert ensemble might include a lead vocalist, a violin, a mridangam (a two-headed drum functioning as the tabla does in Hindustani music), a ghatam (a large mud pot reinforcing the tala), and one or two tambura (large string instruments performing the drone pitches).

Video 17.20: Carnatic Vocal, Sanjay Subrahmanyan, “Raga Nattakurinji”

Something to Think About

Rock music groups such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones incorporated Eastern musical instruments into their music to give their songs an added element of texture and complexity.

Can you think of any other popular music groups that have experimented with instruments from other countries to enhance their music?


The People’s Republic of China occupies a vast land area and is the world’s most populous nation. It is also one of the earliest centers of civilization, as evidenced by religious and philosophical texts, novels and poetry, scientific literature, and musical instruments that survive from the early dynastic era (beginning in 1122 BC). In the sixth century BC, Confucius wrote about the value of music to man in achieving the goals of living in harmony with nature and maintaining a well-regulated society. Although Chinese systems of notation can be dated back to the fourth century BC, most Chinese music has been passed on orally.

Video 17.21: Traditional Chinese Music: “Fisherman’s Song at Dusk,” performed on a Chinese guzheng (Chinese zither), 2013

Peking Opera

Over the course of China’s long history, different districts evolved distinctive linguistic dialects and cultural practices, including those associated with music. One tradition that is common throughout China is that all theater is musical, and all regions maintain companies of singers and instrumentalists for theatrical performances. Peking Opera is the form of Chinese musical drama best known in the West and has enjoyed great popularity both at court and among common people in China. The stories, of which there are over 1,000, deal mainly with social and romantic relationships and military exploits. Staging is without sets and props, and until the 1920s, all roles were sung by men and boys.

Notable features of Peking Opera are its repertory of subtle and highly stylized physical movements and gestures and a tight, nasal vocal timbre. The singers are accompanied by an orchestra consisting of strings, winds, and percussion, which, in the Chinese system, are classified according to the materials from which they are made—metal, stone, earth/clay, skin, silk, wood, gourd, and bamboo. Among China’s important instruments are the erhu and ching-hu, both bowed strings; the cheng and ch’in, plucked strings; the lute-like pipa; the ti-tzu, a transverse flute made of bamboo; the double-reed so-na; and a wide array of gongs, chimes, bells, drums, cymbals, and clappers. The “conductor” of a Peking Opera orchestra is one of the percussionists, who sets the beat for the ensemble.

Video 17.22: Classic Peking Opera “Drunken Concubine” from Mid-Autumn Festival, 2020

The music of Peking Opera exemplifies three characteristic features: (1) pentatonic scale, in which the octave is divided into five steps, producing a scale whose intervallic distances approximate the whole step and step-and-a-half of the Western system; (2) monophonic texture, one melody performed by both singer and instrumentalists, although in different octaves; and (3) heterophony, a performance practice whereby the players spontaneously and simultaneously introduce variants of the melody, sometimes producing brief moments of improvised polyphony.

That these features are also found in the music of Japan and Korea is indicative of China’s contact with other cultures of Asia, sometimes through military conquest. China also maintained naval and overland caravan routes for trading with Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the countries along the Adriatic and Mediterranean. A nineteenth-century German geographer dubbed this network the Silk Road. European influence on Chinese music was especially strong during the Republic of China period, 1912-1949, when Chinese musicians went to Europe to study, Western-style orchestras were established, Western notation was adopted, and Western harmonies were added to traditional Chinese folk music.

Following the establishment in 1949 of the People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao Zedong, the role of music was to promote the ideology of China’s Communist Party. The spheres of musical activity were particularly restricted during the Cultural Revolution, 1966- 1976, when China entered an isolationist period. The evils of capitalism and the bourgeois and decadent values of Western culture were denounced, and intellectuals and members of professional classes were sent to the country to be “re-educated.” Since the 1980s, the revival of traditional Chinese musical practices and repertories and renewed contact between the musicians of China and the rest of the world are important manifestations of the modern phenomenon of globalization and cross-cultural exchange.


Adapted from Understanding Music: Past and Present, by N. Alan Clark and Thomas Heflin

Like Indian music, Japanese music is also performed in small groups and uses pentatonic scales, but that is where the similarities end. Japanese folk music is not improvised. Rather, it is composed and is almost always built around lyrics that are either borrowed from poetry or composed for the specific song. The music is made up of regular rhythms, but there is no intentional harmony as in Western music. Japanese musicians pride themselves on memorizing each composition and then performing it exactly the same way every time. Three common instruments include a large thirteen-string instrument called a koto, a three-stringed instrument called a shamisen (or samisen), and an end-blown flute called a shakuhachi.

Listen for the koto and the shakuhachi in the traditional Japanese selection below.

Video 17.23: Tsuki no shizuku (played on koto and shakuhachi), Kunpu-Note


Adapted from Music: Its Language, History, and Culture, by Douglas Cohen

The Republic of Indonesia consists of a string of about 6,000 islands, including Java, Sumatra, New Guinea, and Bali, which lie between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The main instrumental ensemble of Indonesia is the gamelan, a percussion ensemble of up to 80 musicians that accompanies ceremonial plays, religious rituals, community events, and dancing in Indonesia. All gamelan traditions are rooted in Hindu-Buddhism, and gamelan performance is deeply connected with rituals. Gamelan instruments can be made of wood and bamboo, but the ensemble’s distinctive sound derives from the preponderance of instruments made of bronze—large tuned gongs, kettles of various sizes, and bars of different lengths in a xylophone-like arrangement. The instruments are themselves charged with charismatic power and are often intricately carved and brilliantly painted with figures and designs that replicate elements of the universe. In Bali, gamelans belong to village communities, and in Java also to families and the state.

“Gamelan or native orchestra,” cropped from Java, Sumatra, and the other Islands of the Dutch East Indies, 1911
Figure 17.6: “Gamelan or native orchestra,” cropped from Java, Sumatra, and the other Islands of the Dutch East Indies, 1911 (p. 127). | Author: Antoine Cabaton | Source: Internet Archive | License: Public Domain

Each gamelan composition is based on one fixed and unique melody—in Java, balungan, and in Bali, pokok. There are thousands of these melodies, which have been passed on mainly through oral transmission. The melodic material is derived from numerous ways of dividing the octave into five or seven pitches, thereby producing a variety of scales. In the course of a performance, the performers execute highly complex variations, with the tempo of the ensemble controlled by drummers playing interlocking rhythmic patterns. The resulting layers of related melodies, which coincide at points punctuated by the sound of huge gongs, mirror the overlapping and interweaving of cosmological forces.

Video 17.24: Instruments of the Javanese Gamelan, 2012. This video displays several types of gamelan “as played by Permai Gamelan, Melbourne, Australia. The instruments are played together, then by themselves: Gambang, Bonang Barung, Bonang Penerus, Gender, Kendhang, Slenthem, Kenong, Saron Demung, Saron Sanga, Saron Barung, Saron Penerus, Kempul & Gong.”

Chapter Summary

In this chapter, we explored a wide range of musical cultures outside of North America and the Western concert music tradition, including music from Africa, Europe, and Asia. Despite the remarkable diversity of sounds and styles presented in the chapter, our training in music fundamentals (pitch, scales, rhythm, form, tone color, etc.) allows us to observe and describe characteristic musical features of these different cultures. For example, knowing about scales allows us to distinguish the pentatonic scale featured in Peking Opera from the twenty-two-note “chromatic scale” heard in North Indian classical music or the modern minor scale frequently heard in Russian folk music. Listening to the North African oud, or Japanese shakuhachi, or Balinese gamelan, one can marvel at the extraordinary array of tone colors in music across the world while also recognizing the affinities these instruments share with string, wind, and percussion instruments that may be more familiar to us. As always, when encountering unfamiliar music and cultural practices, however, it is important to be cautious of viewing them through a Western musical or aesthetic lens.

As we also observed, many musics around the world rely on performer improvisation as an essential feature of the music, and much of this music is passed on through an oral tradition. As the example of the Klezmer tradition reveals, however, musical cultures are always transforming through globalization and musical exchange such that what we regard as “culture” or “tradition” is never truly fixed.

Something to Think About

Many musical artists in the global traditions we’ve studied in this chapter are highly successful recording artists (even if they don’t always appear on the American pop charts). Using the links below, research a famous and popular “world music” artist or performing group and read a little bit about them. Find one of their songs on YouTube and listen to it. Introduce your artist to the class and share a YouTube link to the song you heard. Tell us a little bit about your artist and describe the song using your music fundamentals vocabulary. What do you like about the music? How is the music similar to and different from some of the other music you listen to?

The following links provide a few good sources to get started:

Test Your Understanding


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Music Appreciation Copyright © 2022 by LOUIS: The Louisiana Library Network is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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