Music Theory
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Ethnomusicology
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Is melody important to music derived from non-European traditions?

Ok, at first, this might seem like a fairly obvious question to answer. Obviously there’s melody wherever there’s singing, and singing is a basic part of the human experience; but let’s not take this point for granted and instead let’s look at some specific examples of melody from around the world.

India

Classical Indian music, much like many other styles of music, is a genre that one can study for a lifetime and still not complete an exhaustive review. It would be impossible to discuss the melodic content of this music without mentioning “raga” (literally “coloring”). Raga are a collection of notes that a musician uses as the basis of improvisation. While they might seem similar to the seven note scales found in western European music, there are some key distinctions

  • Unlike the seven note scales of the European tradition, ragas aren’t limited to a specific length and can vary in length from a simple song structure to a grand performances lasting over an hour in length.
  • European music is traditionally limited to about 84 scales (12 keys with 7 modes in each key). One could argue that the various forms of the minor scale (harmonic and melodic) should also be included, but that only brings our total to 108 scales. Comparatively, while thousands of potential ragas exist, tradition has narrowed them down to a few hundred.

China

As a nation, China has an extremely long and rich history. An example of this history can be seen in the Imperial Music Bureau, which was established around 220 BCE by the Qin Dynasty to supervise the court and military music. Much of the traditional music of China features solo performers or small ensembles and typically make use of monophony and heterophony (a single melodic line performed by an ensemble with improvised embellishments added by each member of the ensemble). In general, the musical focus is on melody rather than harmony.

Africa

Africa is one of the largest continents on the planet, and its music is wildly diverse. For instance, North African music shares many similarities with the music of the Middle East including the use of similar modes. While the Ethiopian highlands created a modal system called qenet, consisting of four primary modes: tezeta, bati, ambassel, and anchihoy. Music serves a functional purpose in many of the cultures of Africa, specific songs accompany specific parts of life like childbirth, work, hunting, and marriage.

America

The music of the Native American peoples varies between the different tribes and nations, but, generally, featured the use of pentatonic and tritonic scales as well as vocal, percussion, and woodwind instruments. The music of Native American tribes can be understood in geographic regions.

  • Arctic
  • Northwest Coast
  • Great Basin
  • Plains
  • Eastern Woodlands
  • Southwest

Each of these regions have their own distinct musical traditions ranging from simple monophonic songs, to tribal dances with percussion, to native polyphony featuring chromaticism!