Whether you realize it or not, you have a set of timbral expectations every time you listen to music. Remember that timbre is the main way in which we can differentiate between instruments and sounds. Timbral expectations are the reason why a saxophone would sound out of place in a Mozart symphony, why a guitar with heavy distortion usually wouldn’t sound good in a folk song, and why a classically trained opera singer sounds wouldn’t typically sing on an R&B song.
When looking broadly at the music of various cultures around the world it becomes obvious that the timbral expectations of western music are not universal. Oftentimes similar questions will arise from listeners upon their first listen to music from non-European traditions:
It’s worth noting that these questions, however valid they may be, are usually coming from a place of ignorance of the culture and its music.
It’s not feasible for us to cover every difference in every culture’s timbral expectations, but what we can do is lay a groundwork for how to approach a new style of music when hearing it for the first time. This step by step guide is meant to help acclimate you to the new sounds so that you can listen intently without being focused solely on the timbral differences.