It's Humanity's Music

As music educators, let’s drop the terms, “Western Music” and "World Music."

Today, Western Music and World Music have become code words, and their meanings are unclear at best, hegemonic and othering at worst. They are virtually impossible to define, yet their use potentially has alienating and even noxious effects in the music classroom.

Let’s try to define the terms.

What is Western Music? Is it music in the West? (Western music is performed and composed all over the world.) Is it music that originated in the West? (There are/were peoples in the West that are considered not to be a part of Western music culture and tradition.) Does it have something to do with music notation? (Western music notation has evolved over the centuries and has had many very different variations, including such representations as Gregorian chant notation, shape notes, guitar tablature, lead sheets, and graphic scores. What defines Western music notation? And, some World music uses variations of Western music notation.) Is it music played on certain instruments? (World music can be found composed or performed on virtually every known instrument.)

What about World Music? Is it non-Western music? (In order to answer this we need to define Western Music.) Is it music from other countries besides North America and Europe? (There is non-Western music in North America and Europe. People in countries of the East compose Western music. And aren't Western countries part of the world?) Is it music that sounds different from what we're used to? (First of all, who’s “We”? And, doesn’t some Western music also sound different from what we’re used to?) Is it music that is not notated? (Cadenzas in classical music are often not notated. Jazz improvisation is not notated. And, some World music is notated.) Is it music that uses certain instruments? (Bongo Drums? Sitar? Steel Drums? These are used in Western music.) Music with unusual rhythms? (Western music frequently introduces new and unusual rhythms.) Music with unusual scales or modes? (Western music frequently introduces new and unusual scales and modes.)

Let’s keep trying.

Some might say it's about sound, or rhythm. Does World music have a particular sound? For example, do we expect lots of drumming? If so, then, is the high school band drum line World music? Is the elementary school bucket drumming ensemble World music? Does it change anything if students are bucket drumming to Top 40 songs or reading music notation while bucket drumming?

Some might say it’s about location, perhaps East versus West? But there are few places on Earth that don't have citizens learning Bach and Chopin and Scott Joplin on the piano, and composing in both classical and contemporary styles, including orchestral music, choral music, jazz, avant-garde, music for TV, film, concert halls, church, etc. And writing and performing popular music in near infinite variety with all kinds of instrumentation and vocalism, including acoustic and electronic with amplification. Is the pop music of India, Korea, The Philippines, Mozambique, Iran, Jamaica, or Brazil considered World music? (The designation of each of these countries as Western or non-Western seems unclear.)

Some might say World music has certain features, such as chant. Perhaps chanting with few or no instruments is an attribute of world music? Tibetan chant is considered World music? Yet, Gregorian chant is considered Western music. There is a capella in Western music and World music. Is beat boxing World music?

Some might say World music is from a particular period. Like older folk music. Perhaps Native American folk music written in the 1700's is World music? In that case, is colonial American folk music written in that same time period also World music? Why is folk music written on the prairie by Native Americans World music, but folk music written on the prairie by European Americans Western music? Is Hungarian folk music of that period World music? Does World music have something to do with ancestry?

So, when we try to define Western music and World music, we can’t. And, we run into problems. We use “We” a lot. But who’s “We”? And who's not “We”?

Western Music is glorious, genius, and greatness. World Music is… well, complicated.

And this brings us to the next part of the problem: Hegemony. Hegemony involves the perspective that there is an Us and a Them, a We and a They, and that We are what’s normal or standard, and They are what’s different or unusual. We measure and define Them by Our standards and interpretations. When we talk about Western music, we use hegemonic terms, such as “common practice,” “standard repertoire,” and “the Canon.” We then lump everything else into World music: the “Other.” When we teach the history of Western music, we get excited about how much there is to be proud of: creative geniuses, talented superstars, great works, great masters, important eras, and connections to significant cultural and political events and milestones. When we teach World music, there are lots of unknowns, and perhaps we’re even a little scared to talk about it. We don’t really know their geniuses, their great works, or their important eras. We’re unsure about lots of things, we lump things together, and it’s a very broad topic (a whole World of music.) It’s interesting, yes, and exotic, adventurous, imaginative, and different.

We can’t define the two categories of music, but we know viscerally that it’s “Ours” and “Theirs.” (Have we defined “We” yet?)

The term "Urban" used in education is often a code word. As in "urban school." There's an element of "city" in there, but more importantly, what many hear is: Inner city, low income, high crime, depressed and devalued, less-literate and hard-to-educate students with behavior problems and absentee parents, and probably, not-white. (“Urban school” probably doesn’t invoke an image of a wealthy private mostly-white college prep school in downtown Beverly Hills.) In a similar way, has "World music" become for many unofficial code for less-sophisticated, less-civilized, indigenous, unwritten, less-literate/less-educated, more-improvisatory, lower-income, and probably, non-white?

When we teachers, with good intentions, decide to program (to perform, compose, arrange, orchestrate, etc.) World music, we think of peoples or places, and we likely unwittingly begin boxing in and stereotyping them. Native Americans have loved music in the style of, say, Johnny Cash, for example, with elements of bluegrass and R&B and country/Western and rock and other popular styles for decades, and their musical artists have been composing and songwriting in these and other styles for as long as not-Native Americans have. In fact, they have been writing "Western style" music since the 1500s. They composed, arranged, and performed music in North American churches, for example, since colonial times. And they had their unique folk music and chants as well. Yet when we see an example of Native American music in a music class, concert, or piano book, that's none of what we usually hear. We are more likely to hear instead trite and simplistic musical inventions by Western composers based on the imaginations and prejudices of Western Hollywood filmmakers and scorers.

And this is true of many other peoples and places: so-called Asian music, or worse, "Oriental" music, Egyptian music, Arabian music, Island music, and the derogatory "Gypsy" music. When we as music educators program World music, we're too-likely programming music sounds in repertoire arranged by Westerners imagining the music of "exotic" peoples and places based on, or at least influenced by, a century of Hollywood make-believe and often negative and demeaning stereotypes.

The term "Western" is problematic for more than music. The whole concept of Western Civilization (as in textbooks that might read, "The Rise of Western Civilization") is problematic. There is not really any such thing as Western Civilization. The rise of global Civilization since the dawn of man has been collaborative over wide swaths of Earth, in every place and in every age. Peoples of the Eastern parts of the world were intricately and cooperatively involved in developing the Western parts of the world and vice versa. What differentiates East from West, really? If it’s not geography, or even culture, then it's more likely physical features including skin tone. I think, if we take a hard look, we’ll see that what is meant by Western Civilization, really, is White Civilization. I can’t figure out any other way to characterize or define Western vs Eastern. Without consideration of physical characteristics and skin tone, West and East are too integrated, too overlapping, and too collaborative. (We should end the concept of Western Civilization in all textbooks, too.)

So back to the hard question in music education: Who is “We,” and who is “not We,” who is “Other?” Who is Western, and who is World? The hard answer, perhaps the true answer, is: We means White, and Other means non-White. Western music means white people music, or music highly valued by white people, and non-Western music, or World music, means non-white people music, or music not highly valued by white people. Does any other attribute or set of attributes work as well in defining the difference in these two music categories? (If one thinks there is, let’s walk through it.)

So, "World Music" is a masked way of saying "Other Music," which is the way We make Our music at the center of the universe and Their music elsewhere. Hegemony. Our music is normal, the standard, and highly valued, and Other music is different-- interesting, perhaps, but different, non-standard, and not as highly valued. Our instruments, music, and notation are common practice, part of the tradition, part of the standard repertoire, the Canon; their instruments and notation are non-traditional, non-standard, outside the Canon. All this reinforces the feeling of the superiority of white traditions, inventions, culture, creativity, and example-setting.

We want to teach our students about their world, we want them to experience other people and cultures, we want them to be accepting of other people and cultures, but in all this lies the rub: why do we consider them and their music “Other” to begin with? If we’re in the USA, for example, why are the people of England or France considered fundamentally the same as us but the people of Nigeria or India fundamentally different? How is teaching about Gregorian chant Western music, and teaching about Tibetan chant World music? Why does teaching tabla or steel drum or snare drum or bongo drum or bass drum or bucket drum or any other drum, including discussing their origin and traditions, require any distinction between Western music and World music?

The participation in and ongoing evolution of Western music is no longer white-only. People all over the world, including non-whites, perform Western music, compose Western music, mix and combine Western music with non-Western music, and contribute to Western music’s evolution. "We" can no longer claim ownership of this music. It would make no sense to try. But, "We" still claim ownership of the Canon and the Practice: its invention, its origin, its history, and its evolution up to recent times, and its corresponding perceived greatness, and we still place it at the center of the universe, and teach students that everything else is Other: World music.

In truth, there’s no logic in what we consider Western music. Western music evolved over centuries with input from many cultures, sometimes in very unexpected, different, and even much-hated varieties. Consider the introduction of serial or 12-tone music. Would that compositional style have been accepted into the Western Canon if it were developed by composers in India or Thailand? No, it would be World music. What if the sitar had been invented by entrepreneurs in London or Los Angeles? Might it now be a familiar instrument in Western country music? Western music theory includes a variety of non-diatonic scales, including pentatonic, blues, whole tone, and octatonic. Why can’t we add other scales to the list? Why do some scales have to be considered Western music scales and others World music scales?

So, as we can’t define Western music versus World music in any other way than white music history and tradition versus non-white music history and tradition, then I think it's time we reevaluate the concepts of Western music and World music altogether. As teachers especially, we should avoid othering, and we should avoid reinforcing a white-centric status quo, hegemony, and egoism. Instead, we should be inclusive of all peoples and their music traditions and cultures, not as a very interesting Them, but as a valuable and important part of Us. There is no center of the universe, and even if there were, no one culture should claim it, especially white culture.

Western music, in truth, is just one contributing part of an evolving World music, just as each and every other music culture is a contributing part. All the world's music should be seen as important influences on the entire body of humanity's music.