Introduction

We often misunderstand what music is to other cultures simply because we impose our own interpretation of music – our own ontology – onto it. In Western tradition, music is a tangible ‘thing’: we have works of music, made up of separate musical notes: music can be read, critiqued and discussed. But for a number of cultures, music is an altogether different thing. The Muslim Hausa people of northern Nigeria have no specific word for ‘music’, despite their distinguished musical tradition. In Japanese musical tradition, a pause or silence in the middle of a piece of music is known as a ma, rather than a simple ‘absence of sound/music’, as we interpret it. To the uninitiated westerner, the Muslim recitation of the Qur’an – the qir?’ah – sounds like a sung piece of music, but in Islam it is never considered to be music.

Although every culture has music, not every culture sees or understands music in the same way. The rise of a ‘world music’ tradition, in scholarly halls as well as sections in record shops, goes some way towards removing the perception of a ‘universal language of music’. Although music is universal in the sense that every human society has a form of it, there is no mysterious, magical musical language that transcends cultural boundaries. Cultures create their own distinct musical languages: often these musical languages intersect, but at times they are so different from one another that gathering all these forms under the umbrella term ‘music’ seems like wishful thinking.


This module will explore a selection of different musical forms from across the globe. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list of musicians or musical styles, nor does it seek to provide a complete history of development and human rights through music. What we hope it will do is help you to explore new musical styles, introduce you to musicians you might otherwise never have heard of, and start thinking about music as a reflection of culture, politics and history.

We’ve purposely structured this module in order for you to dip in and out of it at your leisure. You might want to read about the way music can reflect a culture’s political history (see ‘History Through Music’) on one day, but simply feel like exploring Indian traditional music (see ‘Indian music’) the next.

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