Culture Shock: Music Theory Around the World

by jayhavaldar

Culture Shock: Music Theory Around the World

by Jay Havaldar


In The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews is tasked with teaching a group of children how to sing. She begins by singing a chorus that is now instantly recognizable across Western culture:

Doe, a deer, a female deer…”

The song introduces the idea of the solfege major scale (do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do), which, along with the minor scale (which I assume Julie Andrews could not think of enough adorable metaphors to write a song about), forms the basis of much of Western popular music. We tend to think of these two scales as templates for music, often forgetting that it’s sometimes okay to play notes outside of these guidelines. Although it is true that adherence to these rules creates what Westerners consider to be the aesthetic ideal, it is entirely subjective and indeed, a cultural construction.

For example, Indian classical music (more specifically Hindustani classical music, which is based on North Indian Vedic chants), explores many different interpretations of the musical scale. The closest thing Indian classical music has to a scale is called a raga, and there are hundreds of them. For example, the Raag Yaman differs from the major scale by one note; the “fa” note is a half-step lower. A composition based on Raag Yaman would thus have significantly different colors and textures than anything we hear in Western music. The “Japanese mode”, which appears almost exclusively in Japanese folk music, uses only five tones—and, as you would expect, that leads to a drastically different tradition of music. Meanwhile, musicologists and scholars today are still trying to figure out how to formalize a theory of Persian music, which eschews the idea of musical scales entirely and often relies on microtones (which are even smaller than semitones). Exploring different modes and scales can open up an entirely new dimension of emotion and atmosphere in music.

Fortunately, there are compositions out there that explore foreign theories of music and blend them with our own. A shining example is the most recent release by the Silk Road Ensemble, a project led by cellist Yo-Yo Ma that attempts to combine instruments and musical flavors from all over the world. In my opinion, the most outstanding track on the album (which is entitled, fittingly enough, A Playlist Without Borders) is the fourteen minute epic Atashgah. Composed by an American violinist, the piece frantically works its way through a stunning flurry of exotic timbres and musical ideas. About halfway through the piece, a classical quartet presents a striking theme (composed in an Eastern musical mode) that is embellished by Indian drums and traditional Persian strings—only to be supplanted by a dance tune in ¾ time that draws influence from Eastern European folk music. The effect is indescribable; though the sounds and instruments are unfamiliar, the piece radiates with a certain emotional universality that is absolutely astonishing.

Although music theories differ across cultures, the emotional potential of music does not. The lens through which we view tonality and harmony is a reflection of our cultural ideas of aesthetics, and it is certainly interesting to think about how perspective can create entirely new sounds and emotions.

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