Sample classes on world music with a thematic approach

The series below is based on a lecture cycle for music education students at the Amsterdam Conservatory, designed in 2000 by Huib Schippers and Adri Schreuder to deliver an alternative to geography-based introductions to world music and refined in various settings since. It fulfills three conditions that are important in the context of cultural diversity in music education: it naturally includes music of all periods, styles, and genres, including Western classical music; it highlights music as a dynamic phenomenon that interacts with (changes in) society; and it provides students from all backgrounds with opportunities to connect themes and ideas to music they are familiar with. With the first six themes presenting various contexts for music and the latter six offering links to emotions and social factors, this course is a highly concentrated "History of the Musics of the World," which can be delivered at most levels of education with slight variations in musical examples (most of which are readily available through online sources in audio and-even better-video formats).

Music and the Supernatural

Many cultures attribute divine or supernatural beginnings to music or even musical beginnings to the world. We find this in the Indian concept of the primal sound aum at the heart of creation; in Pythagoras's "harmony of the spheres"; in the legend that the different maqams of Arab music came from the rock that Abraham hit with his stick; and in the traditional belief that the African kora was given to the first jail by a spirit in a well. There are hundred of stories of this kind.

As a logical consequence, music has come to be seen as an appropriate means to accompany ritual or even to communicate directly with higher powers. This does not extend only to the low overtone singing of Tibetan monks, the rain dances of Native Americans, or the mystic union sought by the Whirling Dervishes. The Catholic mass has a section that calls out directly to God, Kyrie eleison ("Lord have mercy"); J. S. Bach wrote Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ ("I call out to you, Lord Jesus Christ"); and Janis Joplin wailed, "Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz."

Music and the Royal Courts

Court music has been a massive phenomenon and influence in music for more than fifteen centuries. Often, court music developed from religious traditions, sometimes taking inspiration from folk music. Its key characteristics are that it tends to be refined (what the French so poetically call musiques savants, literally "knowing musics"); often unashamedly elitist (only for the king and those close to him); and a sign of prestige/distinction, down to the rather childish but very frequent "I've got more (or better) court musicians than you." The last mentioned has greatly helped musicians' employment prospects through the ages.

It is quite exciting to make a fourteenth-century journey across the world from the European courts in Europe, to the kingdom of Mail (which covered an area roughly as large as western Europe), to the courts in Istanbul, Baghdad, or Tehran, to the courts in India, to those in Indonesia, China, and Japan. The music sounds very different, but the setting and accompanying expected way of listening are remarkably similar, as are the stories of chivalry and courtly intrigue, of great courage in the face of danger, and of cowardly kings who ordered their court musicians to compose songs about their imagined heroic deeds.

Music and the Middle Classes

With the decline of courts (over a period of roughly hundred-fifty years from the time of the French Revolution in 1789), music "went public." Court music found new audiences among the intellectual, cultural, and often financial elites. As these elites were also prominent in government, the state became the chief patron of the arts in many countries: concert halls were built, orchestras were formed, and formal music education was organized. National radio often became the new patron of orchestras (e.g., in Australia) or of the masters of raga (in India).

Recordings exist from the time when many of these changes took place, so there are numerous musical examples of the shifts of audience and the music that accompanied this change. Current orchestral practice stems from this period. A little later, most strikingly in the twentieth century, initiatives were taken to educate the "common people" to appreciate fine music, in most instances the ideological basis of our current systems and continued ethos of music education.

Music and Travel

Music has always traveled with people. This has led to a number of phenomena: the establishment of dominant forms of music in other cultures by beauty, power, or money; enriching musical life by adding new cultural presences or influences; and cross-fertilization by in-depth exchange among musicians.

This theme lends itself to exploring expansionism and colonialism, not only by Europeans but also by Muslims, who occupied a territory stretching from Morocco to China within a hundred years after the death of Muhammad in 632, spreading musical genres and instruments. The stories of exoticism—such as Debussy being fascinated and inspired by Indonesian gamelan at the Paris World Exhibition in 1889—also belong to this theme, as does the fascination with African drumming (traditionally an all-male activity) by Western women from the 1980s. The story of musical styles developing in ports (often in houses of ill repute); of Spanish and African musical elements mixing into Cuban son and later salsa; of world musicians from Turkey and Azerbaijan on tour; of the violin in European, North African, and South Indian music—all of these are fascinating illustrations of music traveling across the globe.

Music and Fusion

Where musics and musicians meet, encounters in sound take place. Fusion can be inspired by a variety of motivations. The most desirable are probably musical curiosity and the will to improve oneself as a musician. Other common motives may involve financial gain or career (a particular form of fusion secures a job or pays better) or power relations (the oppressed adopt music of the colonial force or the economically strong). But mostly, exploring new musical horizons is the main driver.

Fusion can take many forms. It may entail using an instrument from another culture, direct quotation from melodic structures, inspiration from rhythmic ideas, imitation of (perceived) sound quality, using themes from history or other arts, taking religious/spiritual inspiration, or simply getting together onstage or in the studio. In many cases, it can be argued that the process is more interesting than the product: it is exciting to see musicians exploring one another’s musical idiom, but often the result highlights rather than bridges the gap between sound cultures.

    Music and Technology

In retrospect, the technological developments of the past fifty years have probably changed the face of music production and dissemination more than any technological, religious, social, or political change ever before. Music recordings and then broadcasting have become principal means of music consumption; amplification has made it possible to reach vast audiences with a single concert; and the video clip has emerged as a new, interdisciplinary format, first via television and from the Web to iPods, computers, and phones. This has become the prime provider of music to young people today. It is relatively simple to create an overview of the various stages of this rapid development.

Music and Love

Love has possibly been the most powerful inspiration for creating music. The intense and ineffable emotions that come with strong attraction lend themselves well to expression in sound, from country to opera, from Bulgarian love song to Indian film music. It is interesting to note that the pain of love has probably yielded more (and more lasting) music than the joys of love.

This theme opens the road to juxtapose Maria Callas and Hank Williams, the legendary Egyptian singer Oum Kolsoum and the ironic love songs of African tribal women. Jazz, rock, and pop catalogues offer several thousands of other examples.

Music and Death

While music is strongly associated with love, it also plays a key role in how we deal with death. In addition to Irish keening and laments from the Pacific Islands, there are fabulous requiems in the Western classical traditions and heartrending songs in the popular traditions.

Music and Nature

After love, nature is probably the most common source of inspiration for music. There are Indian ragas dedicated to the rainy season (with the chance of cloudburst if it is sung really well at other times of the year), beautiful blue rivers inspire European composers, and a silent meditation on waves inform the Japanese shakuhachi player.

Music and Place

While most music travels quite well, much of is has a strong link to place. Many popular songs have place names in them, which anchor them in association with San Francisco in the 1960s or the province of Oriente in Cuba. The music of Indigenous Australians is deeply rooted in place, and avant-garde works are increasingly site- specific.

Music and Dissent

Music has been the carrier of protest through the ages, from the subtle irony of medieval jesters to the cutting texts of contemporary hip-hop singers. The Indonesian dalang has the rare freedom to criticize the government from behind his wayang screen, and youths revolt against the status quo in the voices of Bob Dylan in the United States, Mercedes Sosa in Latin America, and a stadium full of AMC members clamoring for democracy in South Africa under apartheid.

Music and Commerce

Money has always been important in music. While there are many amateurs and semiprofessionals, thousands of musicians want and need to make a living from their art. The payment can be very direct: successful praise singers in Africa and qawwali singers in Pakistan have their instruments covered in bank bills at the end of a performance. Others get paid discreetly after a performance or even receive a monthly salary as a rather abstract sign of appreciation. The most influential players in music and money have been the major record companies, many of which are now rapidly reorienting themselves as their "ownership" of artists and copyright claims may become a thing of the past. Enter online models with much more direct control by the artist of what he or she wants to do and what can be delegated.

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