Exploring Music's Complexities

Overview of Non-Western Music

note names


Comparing Western Music With Non-Western Music

One of the first things you will probably note when researching Non-Western Music is the scarcity of information. Unlike Western music, Non-Western music grew out of environments or cultures that did not require the development of commonly accepted standards for tuning. The Western tuning agreements developed over time provide musicians with the ability to play together. For musicians this means agreeing on exactly what pitch (what frequency) is an “A”, what is a “B flat” and so on. The agreed upon set of expected pitches for a composition are then arranged into either Major or Minor scales using a tuning system called equal temperament. A variety of tuning systems exist. They include Pythagorean, mean-tone, just intonation, well temperaments, equal temperament, and wide tuning. All are based on the physics of sound traditions but may also be influenced by instrument characteristics (1).

Non-Western music will have a recognizably exotic sound to those who listen to Western Music.  The sound is the result of using different tuning systems, different scales, different, performance practices, and different approaches to melody and harmony  (1). Rather than considering music as “art music” performed in concerts it is perceived as being an important part of everyday life. It relies a great deal on improvisation.  Non-Western music is still with us due to being passed down via oral transmission as it cannot be  written down using Western Music concepts.

When Western Music is compared with Non-Western music a number of very different concepts are identified. Among the differences are the use of rhythm, dynamics, melody, harmony, Tone color and texture. Below is an excerpt from an article entitled “World” Music (non-western). It provides a comprehensive summary of these considerations. See reference 2.

non-western concepts




  1.   Tuning Systems.  https://www.earmaster.com/music-theory-online/ch06/chapter-6-.html#m11639.  Retrieved August 15, 2018


  1. “World” Music (Non-Western) http://www.wmich.edu/mus-gened/mus150/WorldMusic.htm “World” Music. Retrieved August 15, 2018.

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