15 classical music traditions, compared

Other Classical Musics argues that there are at least 15 musical traditions around the world worthy of the title “classical music”:

According to our rule-of-thumb, a classical music will have evolved… where a wealthy class of connoisseurs has stimulated its creation by a quasi-priesthood of professionals; it will have enjoyed high social esteem. It will also have had the time and space to develop rules of composition and performance, and to allow the evolution of a canon of works, or forms… our definition does imply acceptance of a ‘classical/ folk-popular’ divide. That distinction is made on the assumption that these categories simply occupy opposite ends of a spectrum, because almost all classical music has vernacular roots, and periodically renews itself from them…

In one of the earliest known [Western] definitions, classique is translated as ‘classical, formall, orderlie, in due or fit ranke; also, approved, authenticall, chiefe, principall’. The implication there was: authority, formal discipline, models of excellence. A century later ‘classical’ came to stand also for a canon of works in performance. Yet almost every non-Western culture has its own concept of ‘classical’ and many employ criteria similar to the European ones, though usually with the additional function of symbolizing national culture…

By definition, the conditions required for the evolution of a classical music don’t exist in newly-formed societies: hence the absence of a representative tradition from South America.

I don’t understand the book’s criteria. E.g. jazz is included despite not having been created by “a quasi-priesthood of professionals” funded by “a wealthy class of connoisseurs,” and despite having been invented relatively recently, in the early 20th century.

As far as I can tell, the question that best predicts whether the book considers a given tradition “classical” or not is: “Is this musical tradition considered, by its home culture, to be a ‘serious’ tradition for musical sophisticates?” Philip Tagg’s concept of “art music” tracks this book’s selection to some degree, but not that well. 1

Here are the listening recommendations from each chapter that I found on Spotify, plus some of my own recommendations in some cases.

Finally, I present below some features of the musical traditions covered in the book, as far as I could tell from the book and some Googling. The first column is a list of common instruments, all listed in the singular and using English language category names — e.g. the Andalusian rabāb and the Hindustani sitar, both of which are types of lute, are simply listed as “lute.” The last two columns are subjective ratings from 1 to 5 that I made up on the basis of my impressions after reading each chapter. Historical documentation refers to how well-documented the tradition’s compositions and stylistic developments are. Innovativeness refers to how much pressure there seems to be within the tradition to invent new musical ideas, and how much musical innovation we observe (before ~1950, when Western classical music invaded everything).

I got bored part-way through assembling the table, so it is incomplete.

Some typical instruments Historical documentation Innovativeness
European piano, harpsichord, violin, viola, cello, double bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, french horn, trombone, tuba, drum, voice 5 5
Jazz piano, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, bass, drum, guitar, voice 5 5
Southeast Asia xylophone, gong circle, oboe, drums, cymbal, voice 1 1
Java metallophone, drum, xylophone, flute, spike fiddle, voice 1 2
Japan flute, pipe, mouth organ, lute, zither, drum, gong, voice 2 2
China zither, lute, harp, fiddle, dulcimer, guitar, voice 2 2
North India lute, drum, veena, violin, zither, flute, oboe, dulcimer, harmonium, voice
South India
Mande Jailyaa  xylophone, lute, harp, voice  1  2
Andalusian  lute, flute, clarinet, drum, tambourines, voice  2  2
East Arabian
Central Asia


  1. Tagg (2000), ch. 2, distinguishes art music, folk music, and popular music by historical development (figure 1) and by other characteristics (figure 2).[]
  2. I didn’t list the selections for Vietnam, here, because from the chapter it seemed to me that traditional music of Vietnam had less of a claim to being a “classical music.”[]


  1. Abhijeet Krishnan says

    Not sure if you’re still keeping this up, but you’d find a lot more information on North and South Indian classical music traditions if you looked for ‘Hindustani classical’ for North Indian, and ‘Carnatic classical’ for South Indian. Here’s a good playlist (https://open.spotify.com/user/spotify/playlist/37i9dQZF1DX1VHgGvdVgaZ?si=TfzUJtqwTZW9vH-GvRGiZw) and this is one of my personal favourites from there (https://open.spotify.com/track/2drAAhn6C7ijUx3KlTbevR?si=1uKwSmjxQSaIjLt9bFM82w).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.