The Western world has a vast musical heritage that has evolved over many centuries; however, some Asian, Polynesian, African and Near-Eastern musical traditions have thrived for THOUSANDS of years.  While Japan, China, India and Indonesia have long-standing art-music traditions (in which music is performed by a select few well-trained artists), the majority of non-Western societies do not have art music ("formal concert") traditions—instead, they perceive music-making as a functional part of everyday life in which the society as a whole participates. Much of this music is improvised and survives solely through oral transmission; thus, it cannot be described in standard Western musical terms, or written down using Western notational symbols.  Such music can only be studied through a painstaking combination of musicological and anthropological means.

So, even though a distinction must be made between so-called "art-music" (played by professionals) vs. other types of "functional" music, this is not intended to imply that "art music" is more artistic or superior to any other.


Important Musical Considerations in non-Western Music

Most types of Non-Western music are founded on concepts quite different from those of the Western tradition:


Non-Western music (especially African) can make greater and more creative use of rhythm than Western idioms.

Non-Western music rarely uses dynamics as an independent concept. Changes in loudness/quietness occur by increasing/decreasing the number of performers.

Non-Western music often uses microtonal
melodic intervals that are smaller or larger than those of the traditional Western scales

In general, harmony is not as important in non-Western idioms as it is in the West. Non-Western music may have no harmony at all, or it may base its harmonies on completely different scale systems than Western music.

Tone color
Though non-Western music is primarily vocal in nature, some cultures have also developed unique independent families of instruments. Colorful percussion sounds, and unique string and wind instruments are most commonly employed.

Since harmony is not an important consideration, non-Western music is often either monophonic (a single note or melody sounding alone) or heterophonic (two slightly different versions of the same melody being performed at the same time).

Non-Western music is more freely-structured than Western music, and most types are heavily reliant on improvisation (on-the-spot creativity).  Such music is transmitted orally; thus, it is rarely—if ever--performed the same way twice.








Music—especially vocal music—is an integral part of daily life in the African world. Practically any event of importance to an individual or to the culture as a whole is celebrated with music. Many African languages are "tonal" (the meaning of a word depends on the pitch-level at which it is spoken); thus, African melodies usually follow the pitch contour of their texts.  African melodies are based on scales that are quite different from those found in the West. 

A common feature of African vocal songs is "call and response," in which the leader of the song will improvise a narrative "call" about a past or current event, and then the group at-large will sing a repeated "response," that remains the same throughout the song. Call and response technique eventually became an important feature of Black-influenced popular music in the Western world.

Improvisation and intricate polyrhythms (the simultaneous combination of two or more different rhythmic patterns) are richly abundant in African music, and African musicians have developed these to a much higher level than usually encountered in traditional Western musical styles.

Long before the invention in the Western world of the telegram, telephone, or Morse code, there had already been a long tradition of using various kinds of drums to "talk" (recite poetry, send out "verbal" warnings, or transmit actual complex messages in the manner of the spoken word over long distances).


Figure 1: The various musical regions on the African continent (see map on right)


Musical examples:

Click here to see African drumming, singing, dancing from Angola (lower west Africa) via YouTube.


Click here to see the Kora (a 13-string bridge harp) played and explained by Kinobe--a singer/performer from Uganda (Dungu--The Democratic Republic of the Congo).


Click here to see an explanation and a brief example by a Nigerian drummer of how an African "talking drum" is played (notice that the player's left arm squeezes the strings that surround the hour-glass shaped outer wooden shell of the drum in order to raise its pitch).  In this way, drums can be used to simulate actual language and literally transmit complex messages.




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The Republic of Indonesia is comprised of some 13,000 islands in the Pacific Ocean, of which only 4,000 are named and only 1,000 are inhabited.  This complex society fuses more than 300 ethnic groups and over 250 different languages.  Out of this diversity has arisen a universal variety of distinctly "Indonesian" music—the Gamelan of the islands of Java and Bali (especially Bali, which has a very complex tradition). A Gamelan is a colorful instrumental ensemble, comprised primarily of unusual percussion instruments including drums, gongs, and xylophones made of wood (such as the gender ["Jen-DARE"] or bronze (such as the bonang).  These percussion instruments may be supplemented by a small bamboo flute or a simple string instrument, and can be used as an accompaniment to traditional ritual dances.  The instruments of the gamelan feature pitches that sound "out-of-tune" to Western ears (microtones).  As a result, this music cannot be represented accurately with Western notation.


Figure 2: Map of Indonesia (highlighting Bali, and Jakarta (the capital of the island of Java)


Musical example:

Click on the Gamelan illustration below to see a YouTube clip.


Figure 3: Common Instruments of the Gamelan


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Before the Spanish Conquest (1519-21), music was a vital part of Aztec and Mayan social life on the Mexican peninsula. With the arrival of the Spaniards, European instruments were quickly blended with native musical traditions.  The most noteworthy outcome of this combination of influences is Mexican Mariachi music—a lively song and dance tradition featuring singers, treble and bass acoustic guitars, violin, trumpet, and sometimes harp.  Despite their European genesis, these instruments render sounds that are uniquely Hispanic.



Figure 4: Map of Mexico, highlighting Jalisco--the birthplace of Mariachi music.



Figure 5: Traditional Instruments of a Mexican Mariachi Band

Musical example:

Click on the Mariachi photo above to see a YouTube clip of the renowned Mariachi Vargas.



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Japanese music has enjoyed a rich popular and classical tradition that has spanned over 1,000 years, with many styles and idioms. The most important Japanese instruments are the koto, the shamisen (a 3-stringed "banjo"), and the shakuhachi (a 4-holed bamboo flute). The 13 strings of the koto are tuned to a 5-note pentatonic scale.  The strings are plucked, scraped or struck by ivory "finger picks" to produce a variety of musical effects.  The player may also alter the pitch of a string by pushing or pulling on the string with the left-hand.


Figure 6: A map of the traditional regions of Japan












Figure 7: Traditional art-music instruments of Japan


Musical examples:

Click on the Japanese Instruments illustration above to hear a beautiful rendition on YouTube clip of the famous Japanese folk song "Sakura" ["Cherry Blossoms"] played on the koto.


Click here to see a basic demonstration of how to play "Sakura" on the koto, as seen on YouTube.


Click here to see a merging of koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi with rock instruments in a YouTube clip of "Sakura" ("Cherry Blossoms").



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The Near- and Middle-East includes many countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, West Asia and North Africa, and dominated by Islamic Arabic-, Persian-, and Turkish-speaking peoples who share folk and art-music traditions dating back to the 7th century. One of the most pervasive aspects of Middle Eastern art-music is the 'Ud--a short-necked fretless lute with a pear-shaped body and five pairs of strings.  Unlike the Western lute, the 'Ud is played as a monophonic melodic instrument, often joined by the colorful rhythmic accompaniment of the darabukkah (also called "Darbuka" or "Doumbek")--a small clay drum that changes its pitch when the player applies variable finger pressure to the drumhead.


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Figure 8: A political map of the Middle East



Figure 9: Traditional Instruments of the Middle East




Musical examples:

Click on the Midde-Eastern Instruments illustration above to see a YouTube clip of the 'Ud and Darabukkah playing together). if you are interested in studying the internal structure of this example of a Turkish "sama'i", you can watch then entire video, which points out the alternating sections, which are referred to as the kjana [verse] and the taslim [refrain/chorus].


Click here to see a master Darabukkah drummer, perform some amazing licks on YouTube.


 Click here to see the "Ud and Darabukkah accompanying the singing of penitential prayers in a YouTube clip of a Jewsih Selichot Service in preparation for the High Holy Days.



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Traditional Chinese music can be traced back 7,000-8,000 years based on the discovery of a bone flute made in the Neolithic Age. In the Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties, only royal families and dignitary officials enjoyed music, which was made on chimes and bells. During the Tang Dynasty, dancing and singing entered the mainstream, spreading from the royal court to the common people. With the introduction of foreign religions such as Buddhism and Islam, exotic and religious melodies were absorbed into Chinese music and were enjoyed by the Chinese people at fairs organized by religious temples.

Diverse types of Chinese opera developed during the Ming (1300s-1600s) and Qing (1600s-1900s) Dynasties, with the famed Beijing Opera becoming one of the three main aspects of Chinese culture (along with Chinese medicine and Chinese painting)  Two important Chinese instruments are the Zheng (a large, picked instrument with 13 to 21 bridged strings) and the Erhu (a 2-stringed bowed instrument)).



Figure 10: A map showing the close proximity of China, India, Indonesia, Japan and the Middle East



Figure 11: Traditional Chinese Instruments--the Erhu and the Zheng


Click on the Chinese Instruments photo above to see a YouTube clip of The Orchid Ensemble playing the erhu, zheng, and a variety of Chinese and Western percussion instruments.


 Click here to see an example of Chinese traditional opera, on YouTube, with embedded translation, and a completely different sound and aesthetic than Western opera. (The idea here is not to judge whether the music is "good" or "bad", but just to get some idea of the wide range of sounds and expression that are possible in world music.)




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The musical traditions of India date back some 3,000 years. Indian classical music is improvisatory, using sophisticated melodic and rhythmic systems called ragas (melodic patterns) and talas (rhythmic patterns) that govern the performer's choice of complex pitches, ornaments, and rhythms. Indian performers consider their music to be spiritual in nature—each raga is associated with a particular mood, such as tranquility, love or heroism. Indian music is transferred orally from master-teacher (guru) to the student, who learns by strictly imitating the teacher—not from a written tradition.  Only the basic elements of a piece are notated—the essential ornaments and elaborations cannot be written down, and must be internalized through years of intense study.

The most important art-music instrument of India is the Sitar—a long-necked lute with a wide fingerboard and moveable frets. During the 1960s, when rock artists such as the Beatles sought enlightenment through Indian gurus, the Sitar became popular in the West. The most well-known Indian guru/Sitar master is Ravi SHANKAR, best-known in the West for his performance at Woodstock in 1969. The Sitar may be accompanied by a percussion instrument called a Tabla.


Figure 12: Traditional Instruments of India

Musical examples:

Click on the Sitar/Tabla illustration above to see a YouTube clip of both instruments playing together.


Click here to see a brief video documentary clip on YouTube of The Beatles' George Harrison taking a sitar lesson with Indian guru Ravi Shankar.