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International Education Week 2022: World Music Mini-course

Mini Course

As far as we can tell, there has never been a human culture -- anywhere in the world, at any time in history -- that did not have something that we would recognize as music... and yet very little about music is actually universal! Defining music with any precision remains a challenge. Saying clearly who makes music and who listens to it is immensely complicated. Describing accurately or completely what music means is virtually impossible.

Thus, in so many ways, music is whatever people say that it is, and it means whatever people say that it means. Indeed it hardly makes sense to say that there is one single thing called music: the world seems to be full of musics, each with their own theories and communities and traditions and histories.

In this World Music Mini-Course, we will explore some of these musics. The following list should be considered only the tiniest sampling. More has been left out here than has been included, to be sure. Partisans might argue forever about whether something ought to have been included here, or excluded. But we hope that you will enjoy this little taster, and that it will lead you to greater and more satisfying musical feasts in the future.


  1. In West Africa (Ghana and Togo especially), drumming ensembles among the Ewe people maintain a performance practice called Agbekor (ah-GBEH-kaw). Ewe tradition holds that it was originally a war dance, to encourage bravery before combat and to celebrate heroism afterward. Today one can hear Agbekor at major life events within a community, such as weddings and funerals, and also in informal concert settings. Agbekor typically features a percussion ensemble and a chorus of singers, and nearly always traditional dances and dress. Several musical features of Agbekor also characterize many other musical traditions in Africa: the predominance of percussion instruments; call-and-response between an individual and the group; a mixture of modular repetition and continuous improvisation; and multi-layered complexity (polyrhythm), especially the superimposition of a four-beat feel with a six-beat (polymeter).
  2. The panpipe holds a special significance among native peoples across South and Central America. The Quechua in the Andes mountain region (Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru primarily) construct their traditional antara pipes (in Spanish: zampoña [sam-PON-ya]) from bamboo and other hollow reeds. Finished instruments come in different sizes, ranging from very small for higher pitches to very large for lower pitches. Quechua musicians form themselves into ensembles, each performer with a different sized antara, often with a drum and guitar to provide additional propulsive energy to the mix. Notice in the video below how similar the rhythmic pattern of each phrase of the song sounds to the others: Andean folk songs often have this isorhythmic structure, which lends each song its own sense of internal cohesion and distinguishes it from other songs.
  3. Modern Native American powwows are part festival, part concert, part parade, part family reunion, and more. Although most powwows are hosted by specific tribes and will often feature their language and traditions, the modern powwow tends to emphasize and foster a shared intertribal Native American identity and culture. The main event includes many musical elements, most especially the opening Grand Entry, in which participants in Native dress enter the arena in procession in full regalia. At competition powwows, dancers also compete for prizes in various style and age categories: Women’s Jingle Dress Dance, Men’s Grass Dance, and so on. The most spectacular of these, perhaps, are the Men’s and Women’s Fancy Dance contests, in which participants must demonstrate athleticism and intricate choreography, as well boldly colorful and kinetic regalia. Large feather bustles around the waist and shoulder characterize men’s Fancy regalia; women dance in a shawl over their shoulders and arms, ornamented with elaborate beadwork and tassels. Accompanying most of these events are a steady, pulsing drumbeat, typically played by a circle of male musicians around a single drum, singing songs and vocables (non-linguistic syllables) in a high register as they play.
  4. Scottish piobaireachd (PEE-broch, sometimes Anglicized as pibroch) differs markedly from the marching and dancing “pipe band” traditions we tend to associate with the Highland bagpipe. Toe-tapping reels and jigs are ceòl beag (COW-al beg, “small music”) compared to the noble ceòl mór (COW-al mor, “great music”) of piobaireachd. Practitioners and connoisseurs often refer to piobaireachd as the classical music of the Scottish bagpipe, with a repertoire of difficult and serious compositions, characterized by stately tempos and complex forms. The origins of piobaireachd have been traced back to the MacCrimmon family of pipers in 16th-century Scotland, and many of the great piobaireachd composers and performers over the intervening centuries have come from that family. Fans of the tradition prize both its relative obscurity and the challenge it presents to most listeners, and a network of competitions around the world promotes and sustains the practice today.

  5. The oud composition “Hadatha fi al-A’amiriya” (“It happened at al-A’amiriya”), by Iraqi virtuoso Naseer Shamma, does not merely lament or memorialize: the music re-enacts a tragedy. In the pre-dawn hours of February 13, 1991, the U.S. Air Force bombed what they believed was a military site in the al-A'amiriya neighborhood of Baghdad. In truth, it was a civilian air-raid shelter in which hundreds of Iraqi families from the neighborhood had sought safety. Over 400 Iraqi men, women, and children perished. Shamma composed his piece in three parts, reflecting the time before, during, and after the bombing. It begins gently and sweetly, unaware of the violence to come; it explodes into wailing sirens and frenetic strumming; and then it descends into sorrow. It ends, however, with uplift and hope for a better future for the people of Iraq. In the hands of masters like Shamma, the modern oud has left its traditional role as mere ensemble member and in recent decades has become a dynamic solo instrument, a vehicle for deep expression and vivid story-telling.


  6. The Asian-Oceanic nation of Indonesia comprises over 17,000 islands and more than 258 million inhabitants. As the fourth most populous country in the world, it contains an extraordinary diversity of culture, with language and customs varying significantly from island to island. Gamelan (GAH-meh-lahn) music serves as one of Indonesia’s most significant cultural exports and each inhabited island tends to have their own local style. While many gamelan styles are gentle and contemplative, ensembles on the island of Bali perform a style called gamelan gong kebyar, an explosive and crowd-pleasing style that revels in extremes: flurries of fast activity followed by long pauses, quiet passagework interrupted by loud outbursts, and so on. Western audiences are more familiar with gamelan than they know. The gong has long been a part of every Western orchestra’s percussion section, routinely used to lend symphonic music a vaguely exotic flavor. But the word gong and the metallophone instruments to which it refers originally comes from the gamelan traditions of Java, Indonesia’s fifth largest island.