Classical music is not easy to define, but we could begin with the conditions necessary for its emergence: a stable society, equipped with a quasi-priesthood of professional musicians; plenty of time – preferably hundreds of years – for rules of composition and performance to be established; the concept of a canon, and a system of music-theory.

Apply this awesome yardstick globally, and you discover that the European variety is just one of many classical musics: each civilisation has its own cherished Great Tradition. Here we give vignettes of 12 of them, and nobody should be surprised to find, say, the music of Mali and Senegal on the list, as it passes the inclusion-test with ease.

This exercise in classification was prompted in part by curiosity: what might these musics have in common? The answer was much more than might have been expected, in terms of both technical strategy and theory. Most of these musics are modal, and the great majority are based on controlled improvisation: Europe’s long abstinence from improvisation sets it strikingly apart, although the obverse of this – music based on notation – has permitted European composers’ unparalleled achievements in musical architecture.

Classical music versus folk music

There’s an implicit colonialism in the widely held Western assumption that these non-European musics are just folk music – or ‘world music’, a phrase which has no logical meaning. Set aside the fact that all classical music has folk roots, and consider the extreme sophistication of many of the musics listed here. How many European musicians could confidently divide a whole-tone into nine pitch-gradations, as Turkish players do? How many could equal Thai musicians’ extraordinary feats of memory?

The way the world is going, some of these traditions now look seriously endangered. In Afghanistan, the Taliban have driven classical musicians into exile, and their Malian counterparts now face a similar fate; war has reduced Aleppo to rubble, yet that once-lovely Syrian city was for almost a millennium the home of Andalusian music’s most venerated song-form. A classical music is a living organism, and all organisms need sustenance to survive. It’s time to explore…

World music

What makes Thai music unique?

Thai musicians are routinely called on to perform prodigious feats of memory and mental gymnastics. Nothing is notated: their fixed compositions are created and stored in the mind, and they’re exceptionally complex. This is ensemble music, and the most common line-up – the piphat – consists of tuned percussion, a wind instrument, drums, and cymbals. Rather than hearing a single unifying tune, you get tunes layered over each other and going at different speeds; this results in a form of polyphony which can seem chaotic to the uninitiated, and can initially make the head swim. Although Thailand itself is now extensively Westernised, Thai classical musicians are fiercely conservative, resisting any changes to either repertoire or technology: they tune their xylophones and gong-circles by thinning or thickening a mixture of lead and wax on the keys or gongs, as their forbears have done for centuries.

Music of Java, Indonesia

Myth has it that gamelan was originally a signalling system invented by the gods, but with its focus still in the old royal courts, it’s now the musical lingua franca for all Indonesia. A gamelan – the word means ‘hammering’ or ‘handling’ – is one instrument played by many pairs of hands, and each one has its own personality, and a ceremonial name. Gamelan takes many forms, but the Javanese one is dominant: its set-up comprises a wide variety of loud and soft metallophones plus bamboo xylophones, a flute, a spike-fiddle and a singer. Its multiple tuning systems are of such complexity and subtlety that even players can find them hard to explain; their equally complex tempo system is best likened to the gearbox of a car. Thanks to champions like Debussy, Messiaen and Britten, gamelan has gone global: its big attractions are its communal ethos and its wonderfully seductive sound-world.

Japanese music culture

The Japanese imported their oldest musical form – gagaku, literally ‘elegant music’ – from ancient China, together with two of their key instruments, the shakuhachi flute and the six-foot koto zither. But they used these and other musical imports to create the unique sound-worlds of two indigenous theatre forms, noh and kabuki. Noh is a refined fusion of dance and drama which evolved in the 14th century; kabuki is a popular entertainment which evolved as a reaction to the restraint of noh. Zen philosophy underlies much of Japanese music, most notably with the shakuhachi, once played by the ‘priests of nothingness’ who roamed the country with straw baskets over their heads to ‘erase the self’. The koto has for a millennium been the Japanese intellectual’s instrument of choice, with its own repertoire of classics. Japanese music is primarily pentatonic with microtonal elaborations. Pitch-less sounds – evoking everything from otherworldly horror to an arrow hitting its target – are a theatrical speciality.

Traditional Chinese music

The guqin zither is the most iconic of Chinese instruments, and with a history of nearly three millennia it’s by far the oldest (gu = old, qin = instrument). Playing it was one of the four ‘gentlemanly skills’, the others being chess, calligraphy and painting, and Confucius was said to be a fine player. It has always been seen as an adjunct to the practice of philosophy, with its strong associations with the natural world, and its assumed ability to ‘sound the cosmos’. China’s new interest in its cultural roots has sparked a guqin craze; serious players still follow the old rules, making their instrument evoke the sound of water, birdsong, and even the dropping of tears.

In contrast, Jingju, China’s indigenous form of opera, is now mostly for the cognoscenti and had its golden age under the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) who built a split-level stage for it at her Summer Palace. But thanks to Chen Kaige’s celebrated film Farewell, My Concubine, Western cinema-goers can get a vivid picture of it. A stylised amalgam of acting, singing, acrobatics and visual art, this art-form’s vocal wildness belies the labyrinthine codification of its musical rules and the intricately formalised conventions required for its costuming and staging. Soldiers climbing over a table flanked by chairs are crossing a mountain – crazy, but somehow you accept it, as you accept the unearthly shrieks of the singers.

North Indian music

Ravi Shankar with his sitar has revealed to the whole world the formal beauty of Hindustani raga: the exploratory alap followed by the firm-paced jor, after which comes virtuoso flamboyance, before the liberating entry of the tabla. Technically, a raga is neither a scale nor a tune, but something in between, and the Sanskrit term ‘raga’ (pronounced ‘rag’ in Hindi) means ‘passion’. This denotes both the mental state which the performer reaches through improvisation, and also the concept of a sacred essence existing outside the musician over whom it exerts benign control. Hindustani music bears the imprint of the Mongol invasions that led to the founding of the Mughal empire in the 16th century; thus were brought in the instruments, scales, modes and performance styles that give this music its palette of timbres and effects.

Music in South India

Karnatak – South Indian – music differs from the Islam-influenced music of the North through its Hindu religious underpinning. Its roots lie in the temple, and its repertoire is dominated by the works of three composers known as the Trinity: Tyagaraja, Syama Shastri and Muttusvami Dikshitar, all born around the same time in the mid-18th century, and in the same town in Tamil Nadu. They composed hymn-like songs called kriti and, although vestigially-notated versions survive, their transmission has been thanks to a succession of disciples. Karnatak music’s textures are very different from those of Hindustani music: the vocal timbres are mellower and the melodies more elaborately ornamented, to a point where the shakes and appoggiaturas are part of the line.

The music of Mali-Gambia

Ethnomusicologist Lucy Duran and BBC Radio 3’s World Routes programme have ensured that if there’s one form of African music which British listeners are familiar with, it’s the jaliyaa of Mali and Gambia. Its roots go back to the 13th-century Malian empire, its conventions have been faithfully preserved by the Mande people now spread throughout six neighbouring states, and its core figure is the professional singer known as a jali. This person carries out many tribal functions – town-crier, historian, moralist – and his (these days also her) music follows fixed rules as to how it is structured, metred and performed, with recurring vocal cascades over an instrumental groove being the basic mode. Dominated by the balafon wooden xylophone, the ngoni lute and the kora harp, the instruments have irresistible charm.

Andalusian music

‘Andalusian music’ evolved through the cultural interaction of Arabs, Berbers, Jews and Christians in Moorish Spain, and today it can be heard across the whole of North Africa and the Levant. Its most typical song-form, the muwashshah, initially focused on a singer self-accompanied on the lute, with the subject-matter being a love at once human and divine; Sufism was at its heart. Its prevailing musical form now is the suite, with a complex system of melodic modes needing to be mastered. Many ensembles are performing it today in the hope that it might recreate the atmosphere of religious tolerance in which it originated.

Music from the Eastern Arabic world

The history of Arab classical music goes back two millennia, and the Islamic courts became in effect conservatories, with performers honing vocal and instrumental styles under the supervision of scholars who imposed aesthetic and theoretical rules derived from the ancient Greeks; music was seen as a mathematical science, and a 17-tone scale was adopted, thus giving Arab music the ‘extra’ non-Western notes which make it so alluring to Western ears. But today’s repertoire, based on chamber ensembles with lute, zither, flute, and spike-fiddle, dates from the mid-19th century; Turkish influence runs deep, but Cairo has been the power-house for music based on the modal style known as maqam. Forty years after her death, Umm Kulthum remains the region’s most venerated singer, her style appealing both to ordinary people and the educated elite and often uniting Jews and Arabs across their military divides.

Turkish music

Turkish makam, like Arab maqam, involves a labyrinthine system of rules and conventions – each whole-step has nine infinitesimally fine pitch-distinctions, which musicians fastidiously observe – and though it’s music for connoisseurs, it has the strength and richness which comes from a long history. It’s not polyphonic, but the controlled improvisation on which it’s based creates an art of continuous variation, beautiful and subtle. The principal instruments – oud, flute, zither and spike-fiddle – relate to the register of the human voice, a quality reinforced by their defiantly low-tech refinement.

Iranian music

Iranian classical musicians call their art ‘Persian’ in recognition of its long and distinguished history, even though their fortunes have fluctuated cruelly over the centuries: Persian rulers blew hot and cold, and the Ayatollahs have done likewise, driving those musicians who can’t tolerate their draconian laws – women may not perform for male audiences – into exile. But in Iran, public concerts are a modern invention: until the 20th century, Persian classical music was always a private affair – for connoisseurs, Sufi brotherhoods, circles of friends – and mastering the subtleties of the radif (Iran’s version of maqam) demands monastic dedication. The principal string instruments are the spike-fiddle and the tar, whose figure-of-eight belly with its ultra-thin lamb-skin membrane creates a brilliant sonority, with the tombak goblet-drum providing support.

Music from Uzbekistan-Tajikistan

The most mysterious of all these musics, the shashmaqom has its home in three of the world’s most mysterious medieval cities – Bukhara, Samarqand and Khiva – and although it’s now restricted to connoisseurs and rural traditionalists, it’s competitively touted by both Uzbek and Tajik governments as their ‘national’ music. Its roots lay in the medieval Arabic ‘science of music’, it drew heavily on Persian poetry and its golden age came in the 16th-century Silk Road courts. Today’s incarnation of this very austere modal music was codified in 19th-century Central-Asian city-states, and was all but extinguished as a result of Soviet efforts to Westernise it. It’s now enjoying a discreet revival.


Michael ChurchJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Michael Church was one of the founding editors of the Independent on Sunday. He is a former television critic of The Times, and since 2010 he has been music and opera critic of The Independent. He has made BBC World Service programmes on folk music in many countries.