Discovering Classical Music
Discovering Classical Music

Chapter 9

Non-Western Art Music (India, Indonesia, Japan)

In the recent past music from non-western countries—those outside of Europe and the United States—was often collectively called "World Music". However, this is a contentious and outdated term that has the effect of othering the people and music from the many, many countries outside of Western countries and their culture. The term World Music was created and adopted by the music industry to characterize non-English recordings that were released in the United Kingdom and the United States in the 1980s. In some ways, the history of this term is the story of the marketing of foreign music by Western record companies in order capitalize on the popularity of musical styles from Africa, South and Central America, Asia, and many other corners of the world.

In this class, the musical genres that we are learning about are broadly split into two categories, classical/art music, and vernacular/popular music. More time is devoted to the exploration of Western art music styles and American popular styles because these have historically provided a foundation for musical study for students living in Western countries. Western musics are notated, so there is a rich tradition of research, pedagogy, and theoretical investigation of music and culture from these places. However, it is important to note that the preponderance of research and study of American and European creative output over the past few hundred years is also due to colonization and hegemony (cultural, social, political, and military dominance). The exploration of music and culture from countries outside the United States and Europe in this class is an attempt to provide a broader world view of music and its accompanying cultures. In the next Unit we will explore popular styles from countries such as India, Bulgaria, and Africa.

This chapter briefly explores the rich classical music traditions from three countries: India, Japan, and Indonesia. These regions have music that connects to the ancient world and have influenced musical styles and culture around the globe for centuries.


Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar (1920-2012)

During an interview in 1978, Shankar explained that his music should be viewed just as music from Western classical music. He said, "My music is classical...there are only two types in the world: Indian classical music and Western classical music." He insisted that his work should be as "respected" as music by other great composers like Bach and Beethoven, instead of people simply being "superficially drawn to it" because of its novelty.

Indian classical music originated in South Asia around 6,000 years ago from Vedic (Sanskrit) scriptures in which a system of musical notes and rhythmic cycles were developed. Because of this, Indian classical music is very closely connected to nature, influenced by natural phenomena such as the seasons and time cycles of each day. Ragas function as a musical expression of these events. Ragas represent musical moods and "taals" (or tala) represent time cycles.

The classical music of India is mostly improvised within the structure of musical notes and mathematics, and this means that each artist and performance is completely unique. Although it may seem that the improvisation lends it an informal implication, the classical forms have codified, studied, and elaborated upon in a highly disciplined manner over the course of thousands of years. Indian classical musicians spend years studying with a "guru" or teacher, learning the philosophical, and moral principles of music and life.

Since the thirteenth century, musical styles of India have primarily been identified according to the north and south regions of the country: Hindustani music in the north and Karnatic music in the south.

In Hindustani music, the primary or lead instrument is the sitar. It is a plucked instrument with 18 to 21 strings. It is typically accompanied by a tabla, a type of drum, and a tambura, a string instrument with four strings that plays a drone which supports and sustains the melody of the sitar.

In Karnatic music, the lead part is played on a plucked string instrument such as the vina and accompanied by the mridangam drum, a sarangi (bowed string instrument), and sometimes a solo singer.

Unlike Western art music, Indian classical music is not written down. It is organized into the raga or the melodic pattern (mood), and the tala or the rhythmic pattern (time). The artistry comes of the musician's ability to explore and develop the melodic pattern to its fullest extent and to explore all the rhythmic intricacies implied in the tala.

A raga performance can last for 30 minutes or longer. It starts with the sitar player performing a slow and rhythmically free, improvised statement of the raga, and continues with a second section with more repetitive rhythmic activity accompanied by the drone (tambura). The third section gets faster and more intense in anticipation of the final section, and the last part establishes the tala and showcases the improvisation and interaction between the sitar and the other instruments.

One of the most famous sitar players in the world was Ravi Shankar (1920-2012).


In 21st century Japan a music listener could hear an abundance of various styles of Western classical, American pop, folk, and jazz on any night of the week. For over 100 years the Japanese school system of all levels has taught the Western styles and aesthetic value systems, leading many Japanese people to be fans of those styles. However, Western musical styles and values are very different and distinct from traditional Japanese music, and listeners that are accustomed to Western music may be required to open their minds to the unique sights and sounds from this region to understand it further.

Japanese traditional music still exists and is performed today, although it is not as well-known as contemporary popular styles. The salient feature of traditional styles in Japan is the combination of drama, dance, and music. Indeed, theatre is central to the music of Japan. Small-group performances are valued so that each part can be heard separately, and public performances usually involve from one to three musicians. Traditional music is often performed in traditional costumes.

Aesthetically, listeners pay close attention to the skill and beauty with which a musician manipulates conventional musical material rather than exploring new ideas. This is very different from the Western tendency toward experimentation and evolution in musical genres. Japanese musicians are required to show restraint and control and perform in service to the music; they strive to show the emotion of the music not their own emotions. They endeavour to achieve the maximum effect from minimal resources; they refine a few meaningful musical gestures and ideas rather than explore a range of sounds.

Similar to the way Indian classical music is an oral tradition, Japanese music is learned by memory and is taught by a master teacher known as a sensai. They do have notational systems in place, but they are very vague and require a lot of knowledge to be interpreted.

Common characteristics of traditional Japanese music are:

Gagaku Gagaku
Japan's first instrumental genre is gagaku, which developed in the 11th – 15th centuries and is music for the Imperial court. Gagaku translates to "elegant music", and provided a theatrical experience that included dance, masks, and visual effects. Gagaku is static, with little movement. The primary instruments are the hichiriki, a double-reed similar to the oboe, and the sho, a mouth organ with 17 small pipes.

Kabuki theatre is an important form of classical Japanese music drama that has been around since the 14th century and grew out of the Noh tradition. Kabuki is melodrama that includes colorful dancing, an onstage music ensemble called the nagauta, and narrative songs performed onstage with shamisen accompaniment. A shamisen is a plucked string instrument similar to a guitar or lute.

Three important Japanese traditional instruments are the koto, shakuhachi, and shamisen. The koto is a large instrument with 13 strings, and players learn to play it from master musicians called kengyo ("maestro"). The koto player uses various techniques such as slides, scrapes, struck strings, and other techniques to produce the unique sounds required of the music. The shakuhachi is an end-blown flute that is related to the ancient bamboo flutes of Japan. It is frequently heard in combination with the koto. The shamisen is a three-stringed, plucked instrument used by entertainers and amateurs, and is used as accompaniment in a lot of the folk repertoire of Japan. The koto is a classical instrument while the shamisen is used in folk music and stories.


Indonesian Gamalan Gamalan
Indonesia is made up of several islands in southeastern Asia, southwest of the Philippines and northwest of Australia. There are hundreds of individual ethnic groups that speak their own languages, but Indonesian is the official language. Java is the island with the most inhabitants, with almost 100 million people living in an area approximately the size of New York state. Jakarta is the capitol, with 9 million people.

Indonesian music is incredibly diverse because of the various ethnic groups that have contributed to it. Gamelan music is the classical music from Indonesia, and a gamelan is a set of instruments primarily from the percussion family. Gongs, drums, and metal keyboard instruments that are struck with a mallet are the most prominent in a gamelan ensemble, but sometimes there are wind and string instruments, singers, and dancers added to the group.

Gamelan orchestras are used in several different capacities including for recreation, entertainment, official ceremonies, dances, wedding receptions, and street music. Gamelans can range from 4 to 30 musicians. Similar to the traditional music of Japan, gamelan is related to poetry, drama, and dance.

Gamelan from Bali, or Balinese gamelan, is one of the most recognizable forms of gamelan to people from outside the culture. The music of these ensembles sounds very different to the conventions of Western music. The instruments, the way that they are tuned, and the scales that they use all sound different from what listeners familiar with Western music and instruments are accustomed to; five-tone and seven-tone scales are used (in contrast, Western music uses eight-tone scales, an octave).

In Balinese gamelan, the instruments are primarily made from bamboo and bronze. In a gamelan orchestra there are usually several bamboo xylophones, cymbals, drums, gongs of various sizes, and flutes. Instrument making is a robust industry in Indonesia because there are so many instruments required for each gamelan ensemble. Gamelans can be found around the world, and many colleges and universities in the United States have ensembles that perform.