World Music

Taking a detour from the more modern popular trends in music, today we are going to be briefly introducing some historically underrepresented musical traditions from around the world. These traditions span thousands of years and have much to offer beyond the typical stereotypes such as the use of a sitar signifying Indian music. In this brief starter to global music traditions, we shall give an overview of common sonic features and instruments.

Japanese Music

Japanese music culture dates back over 2000 years however it is around the 8th century where it began to be more clearly documented. Similarly to western music, early Japanese music developed through religious practices, with music being used for Shinto ceremonies and events. Within Japanese tradition, however, there were various musical customs: folk music (known as min’yō), court music (gagaku) and theatre music (Noh and Kabuki). Early folk music was often unaccompanied and passed down through the generations orally. This led to regional styles however, as court music became more prominent and musicians travelled to main cities be employed, these styles influenced court music trends. Court music encompassed instrumental, singing, dance and ceremonial music. This music was performed exclusively for aristocracy and so was elegant in style. Japanese theatre music developed to accompany the highly stylised and elaborate theatrical performances. Noh typically contains a smaller group of performers and a choir that sings text whereas Kabuki is larger scale with on and off-stage ensembles. Typical sonic characteristics of traditional Japanese music are long, flowing melodic lines, less defined structure, and no chordal harmony. Individual songs or pieces are often based around a particular scale or mode. Instruments to listen out for are the biwa (a four-string melody instrument similar to the lute), the koto (a long, plucked zither-like instrument), the hichiriki (a double-reed bamboo flute similar in sound to an oboe), the sho (a mouth organ), and the Kakko and Taiko (small and large drums respectively).

Notable artists:

Yoshida Brothers

Nanae Yoshimura



Chinese Music

Chinese music is among the oldest musical traditions, dating back as far as 3000 BCE, however, it only began to be documented in detail from around 960 CE onwards. Early Chinese sources suggest applications of music in the court, military, and for folk festivals. The Zhou dynasty (1050-221 BCE) formally established court and ceremonial music. Around this time especially, music was seen as a direct expression of nature. The Chinese tonal system prioritised modes with five core tones (the pentatonic scale) and this was seen as connected with the five elements of fire, water, earth, wood, metal. The subsequent Imperial China era marked an influx of musical styles and influences being introduced through trade and religion. This was particularly prevalent during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) where the imperial growth led to an increase in commercial music. This period also set the stage for Chinese theatrical music, and more importantly, opera. The Ming and Qing periods popularised this musical form. Narrative-based songs, as well as Se and Guqin (both zither instruments) instrumental music became highly popular. Whilst Chinese musical tradition covers a variety of styles, there are some common features. The music is heavily melodic based on the pentatonic scale with no strict sense of chordal accompaniment. The texture is often heterophonic, meaning that one specific melody will be continuously repeated or mimicked with varying degrees of ornamentation and adaptation. Common instruments are the Dizi (a side-blown bamboo flute), the erhu (a two-stringed bowed fiddle), the yunluo (a gong chime consisting of multiple suspended gongs), and the sheng (a mouth-blown organ).

Notable artists:

Lei Qiang

Liu Fang

Jiang Xiao-Qing

Li Xiangting

Indian Music

Traditional Indian classical music evolved from ancient Hindu chants. Similarly to the founding beliefs of traditional Chinese music, it was thought that music in its purest form had close links to the natural world, as well as celestial associations. In ancient Hindu traditions there were two primary genres: Gandharva (structured, ceremonial music) and Gana (improvised, recreational music). Indian classical music emerged as a distinct tradition around the 14th century however, following divisions created by the Delhi Sultanate era, two distinct styles of classical music emerged; Hindustani originated in North India whereas music from South India is known as Carnatic. Carnatic music tends to be more structured and pre-meditated. It uses melakartas which are made up of a collection of rāgas (an ordered collection of tonal pitches as a basis for improvisation, most akin to musical modes). Carnatic works often include notated poems on themes of worship and philosophy. Hindustani music was more effected by external influences, especially Arab and Persian. The music centres around the idea of improvisation which starts with a core idea and then expands. Despite the distinct styles, Indian music can commonly be identified by a heavily melody-influenced structure that incorporates improvisation. You will often hear three clear parts in the music: melody, rhythm, and a drone. Some recognisable instruments are the sitar (a long-necked string instrument that is plucked), the sarangi (a bowed, short-necked string instrument), the tambura (like the sitar but longer and typically plays a drone), the tabla (a pair of small drums) and the santur (a dulcimer intstrument where strings are struck with a hammer).

Notable artists:

Ravi Shankar

Ali Akbar Khan

Sheila Chandra

Hariprasad Chaurasia

Gamelan Music

Gamelan is a traditional musical form originating in Indonesia. It is ensemble music that is based around groups comprised of predominantly metal percussion instruments, as well as the occasional flute, stringed instrument, or vocalist. The early origins of Gamelan are not clearly recognised however by the 12th century Gamelan music had an important role in court music. The Gamelan style was influenced by some other traditions, with the most notable change being the introduction of the gong which is now central to the musical style. The music is based around a central nuclear theme that is the core of the piece. Different instruments layer on top of each other playing embellished or altered versions of this nuclear theme in what is known as heterophony. There are three main instrument families in Gamelan that fulfil different functions: the balungan instruments play the nuclear theme, which is called the balungan, interpunctuating instruments divide the phrases and mark new sections, and the panerusan instruments play embellished variations of the theme. The balungan instrument is commonly a metallophone or more specifically the saron which is a single octave instrument of seven metal bars. Important interpunctuating instruments are the gong ageng (a large gong), the kempel (a collection of medium sized gongs), and the kenong (a smaller, horizontal kettle-like gong). Panerusan instruments include the gambang (a wooden, xylophone-like instrument), the bonang (collection of small, horizontal gongs), and the celempung (a plucked zither-like instrument).

Notable artists:

Suara Parahiangan

Gamelan Pacifica

Gentra Pasundan

Ujang Suryana

Latin-American Music

Latin-American music is an amalgamation of American, African and European influences from when Africans were transported to the Americas, as well as the Portuguese and Spanish colonisation of parts of South America and the Caribbean. Music of Latin-America most commonly refers to the music of the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking areas of Latin-America and, thus, it is most commonly performed in those languages. Due to the enormous range of influences, the music is rich and diverse. Following the Portuguese and Spanish colonisation, various folk styles emerged, drawing on elements from indigenous cultures. Going into the 20th century, trends in art music pushed for a new sense of national identity. Revueltas incorporated elements of Mexican folk tradition into his orchestral writing, in Cuba there was a resurgence of Afro-Cuban culture, and Alberto Williams wrote works that were taking direct influence from the Argentinian gauchos. Latin-American music is hard to typify due to the rich range of styles however some indigenous instruments are commonly used (maracas, guiro, bongos, pan pipes, steel drums), as well as culturally imported instruments (guitar, piano, bass, banjo, trumpet). Latin-American music is commonly dominated by rhythmic features and so syncopation and complex rhythms can often be heard. The style includes various famous dance styles; tango, salsa, samba, son and bossa nova are all part of the Latin-American tradition.

Notable artists:

Guillermo Portabales

Pérez Prado

Raquel Meller

Bobby Capó

African Music

Traditional African music is often very purpose-oriented with work songs, teaching songs and religious songs begin the main purpose for much of the vocal music. Thus, it is inseparably linked to the life and culture of African tradition. There are scenes of music and dance depicted in the form of rock paintings dating as far back as c. 6000 BCE. A history of migration means that different regional areas went on to exchange musical features, leading to a variety of different styles. The music, however, is commonly very rhythmic with a strong importance placed on the use of drums. These drums exhibit characterising features such as polyrhythm (two contrasting rhythms being combined simultaneously) and ostinato (a single pattern being repeated constantly). African vocal music often exhibits built up layers of harmony, usually in thirds, as well as a distinctive ‘call and response’ figures where there is a direct dialogue between two singers or groups of singers. Some commonly used traditional African instruments include the talking drum (an hourglass-shaped drum that can change pitch), the djembe (a goblet-shaped drum), the kora (a plucked string instrument that typically has 21 strings), the mbira (a small thumb piano), and the balafon (a xylophone-type instrument).

Notable artists:

Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabeté

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba

Babatunde Olatunji

Arabic Music

Arabic music is particularly diverse as it includes features from both North African and Western Asia traditions. An early Arabic musical form is recognised as stemming from ‘Jahili poets’ who would recite works whilst incorporating music elements as early as the 5th century. Singing was also assigned to women who would learn accompanying instruments. Around the 11th century music was diversifying and areas such as Al-Andalus became central to the production of musical instruments that would become very influential on key western instruments, such as the lute being derived from the oud. Following the period of the Ottoman Empire, there was a surge of musical nationalism across Arab countries. This was headed by Egypt and Cairo became the epicentre of musical modernisation. Much of Arabic music is based on the maqam, a melodic ordering system much like a mode that determines the pitches of a piece and are used for improvisation. They also utilise quartertones and don’t follow the same intonation system that you would find in western musical modes. Arabic music is frequently melodic, with short, repeated phrases that are embellished to form a heterophonic texture. It is also heavily rhythmic and contains what is called iqa’at, which are repeating rhythmic cycles. Common instruments that are easily identified are the oud (a short, lute-type instrument), the ney (an end blown bamboo flute), the qanun (a large, zither-type instrument that is plucked), the rubab (a bowed, 1-3 string instrument) and the darbuka (a goblet drum).

Notable artists:

Marcel Khalife

Rima Khcheich

Mohammed Saleh Abd Al-Saheb Lelo

Kardeş Türküler

European Traditional Music

Outside of the typical western canon of art music, there are many European folk traditions that have distinctive sounds. There is an astonishing variety in styles, from British sea shanties to Celtic dances and Austrian yodelling. Although not specifically Austrian, yodelling is commonly associated with Austria and other neighbouring alpine countries. The distinctive style is recognisable from the rapid alternation between high and low singing.


Celtic music covers the variety of styles that emerged from the folk music of the Celtic people. This mainly focuses on the musical traditions of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Due its origins in folk, the music is predominantly comprised of dance and song forms including the jig, reel, hornpipe and air. The music is often both very melodic and rhythmic with long, flowing melodies that stick within primary chords to make them more memorable. The instruments you will most commonly hear are the violin, bagpipes, accordion, flute, mandolin, harp and, specifically to Ireland, the bodhran drum.


Nordic folk music covers the traditions of the Nordic countries, namely Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. The most common instruments in Nordic folk music are the fiddle, accordion, harmonica, and the dulcimer. A dulcimer has strings stretched over a soundbox which are then beaten with a hammer. There are various traditions however dance is prominent, with circle dancing to songs and polkas both being important.

Notable artists:




Franzl Lang

Stan Rogers

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