The Incorrectness Of The Term World Music Cultural Studies Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Music is a commonality spread across all cultures and peoples: from the deeply spiritual Qawwali practiced in Sufi shrines, to the highly vocal celebration of life that is African "Pygmy" music. As a result of its extreme degree of variedness across cultures, the concept of "World Music" has been coined to describe music outside the norm to western audiences. In his essay entitled "Why I Hate World Music", the successful musician David Byrne illustrates how the "World Music" categorization can be an extremely harmful idea (Byrne). The concept suggests incorrectly that music of other cultures can be fully appreciated locally, narrow-mindedly elevates western music above music of other cultures, and discourages growth and fusion of both western and cultural music.

The idea of exploring another culture by listening to "World Music" certainly seems like an attractive prospect. However, the truth is that the music that westerners take to be authentic "world music" is only a fraction of the rich and diverse musical ideas and culture endemic to a given region. Perhaps the most compelling reason for this is the fact that music for many cultures does not only include the sound itself: it is a celebration, a religious ritual, a way of bonding between peers. While those entrenched in the western culture may understand the youthful rebellion and social change associated with their own sixties rock music, they may find the idea that music's purpose is to experience God (i.e in Islamic music) an odd or foreign notion. Therefore, although it is very well possible for a western audience to find the music of other cultures to be enjoyable, they cannot claim to have truly experienced "World Music".

According to Titon's Music-Culture Model, music is composed not only of the performance, but also of its meanings to a particular audience or community, the context under which it is performed, and its lasting influence on history (Titon 1 - 15). Many advertisements for musical performances or for CDs may claim to allow for the full authentic experience of a new and foreign musical culture, such as with the "Drum Atlas Series", a collection of CDs claiming to provide a genuine experience of cultural music (Sweeney). However, they are simply insufficient in transporting the listener to the authentic cultural experience, demonstrating the social context under which it is to be appreciated, or conveying the unique meanings for the culture's people. It is also important to note that even the sound itself cannot be truly "authentic". For example, the modes and scales for an Indonesian Gamelan are not only specific to a given region; they are specific to a given musical ensemble. Therefore, any attempt to remake Indonesian gamelan music (and music of many other cultures) using the arbitrary set of musical notes used by western music would be wholly inaccurate. It is for these reasons and more that "World Music" is a misnomer, despite the fact that those of a certain region can certainly appreciate music from another region, the music classified as "World Music" cannot possibly demonstrate what music truly is to a particular culture.

Not only is the concept of "World Music" inaccurate, it can also be argued that the term is ethnocentric or offensive as well. Firstly, although western listeners obviously accept the music of other cultures as genuine forms of expression, the fact that music of 2 completely opposite cultures can both be categorized under the same "World Music" category suggests that western listeners do not care about the background from which the music originated, only the sound itself. Therefore, a dichotomy exists between a western audience's appreciation of "World Music" and their insistence that the music of other cultures is somehow below western music (Byrne). Further, a glaring example of this issue of ethnocentricity regarding "World Music" is the case of Live 8, a worldwide benefit concert with the noble goal of providing more aid to countries in need. While one of the goals of the concert was to expose western audiences to "World Music" and to encourage these musicians to perform, much of the advertisement concerning the event focused on performers of popular western music (Live 8). This and the fact that even many of the other participating countries invited popular North American singers to perform illustrates the fact that "World Music" as it stands is more about what can be considered acceptable to western audiences, proving that the music of other cultures are not very well represented in "World Music".

Along with the fact that the music of other cultures are given an unfairly tiny amount of attention in western society, it is important to give light to how many western listeners consider the music of other cultures to be less advanced than Western music. In Nettl's introduction to Excursions in World Music, the arrogant idea that the music of East Asian regions is 'ancient' and that the music of so-called tribal peoples is akin to music of the Stone Age is presented (Nettl 1 - 19). In truth, the music of all the world's cultures is constantly changing, not static or less advanced than western music. The idea that "World Music" is less advanced is largely fuelled by the general lack of understanding of the cultural basis upon which music of other regions change. This is clearly illustrated by the example of Chinese music: Before the rise of communism in 1949, Chinese music was created purely as something to be enjoyed and something with an aesthetic value. After the communist rise, Chinese music was indoctrinated with political propaganda and political ideals, demonstrating how sweeping social change influences music of all cultures.

Going along with the idea of musical growth, the "World Music" concept can actually be seen to be impeding the advancement of the music of all cultures. This is because in defining a certain region's music as "World Music", one inadvertently separates the region's music from one's own. It is this separation that discourages musicians of both western and other cultural regions to experiment, as a result of being confined into a given category (Byrne). In actuality the foundation of many forms of modern music lies in fusion of different ideas and cultures. Take India for example: Karnatak or Southern Indian music is known to have incorporated the western violin into its ensembles, allowing a sort of fusion of a foreign element and subsequent growth of the art as a whole. In contrast, many western audiences may be surprised to find that modern popular music draws great influence from Indian music. The Beatles, one of the most influential bands of western music, incorporates Indian themes and instruments into their music as a result of an inspirational trip India. Therefore, western music and "World Music" both benefit from the incorporation of each other's musical ideas. The separation of the two is counterproductive to musical growth, and should be discouraged.

To summarize, the only logical conclusion to be reached regarding the concept of "World Music" is that it is on a whole a negative influence on the cultural richness, image, and growth of the musical heritage of both Western and Non-Western regions. A far more compelling alternative is to simply categorize music according to one's own tastes, and not let meaningless labels discourage musical exploration.