Is 'world music' the 'classic music' of our time?

Jan Ling (2003)


Scanned in from Popular Music, vol. 22/2 (May 2003), pp. 235-240.

‘Classic music’| ‘World music’ | Concluding thoughts | Endnote and references


On the way to my library there is a little shop named 'World Music. The Oasis of Music from Asia, Africa'. One morning I stopped my bike and went in just curious to see what world music could be in my little town. In the racks even the smallest country from Asia or Africa was represented with one or two CDs, most of them produced in Paris or London. The other customers were half my age (around thirty to thirty-five, nobody over fifty or under twenty). The owner, an immigrant who has lived in Sweden for more than ten years, had this to say:

The youngsters do not come here, all my customers are between twenty-five and forty. There is a growing interest in world music: people with money are visiting foreign countries as tourists and when they come home they come to me, asking for artists or groups they have heard. Most of them have an academic background and speak English fluently.

Much of the shop owner's talk reminded me of what I was studying at the library: how English, French, German, Russian and Swedish noblemen in the eighteenth century visited Italy on their Grand Tour and brought music home from the southern parts of Europe. If you look around the Globe today, the percentage of human beings who have the economic resources to make tourist trips or buy new records is more or less equivalent to the percentage of noblemen in the eighteenth century relative to their farming and working countrymen. This inspired me to think further about the parallels between the two musical labels: 'classic music' and 'world music'.

Top of document   Classic music [1]

One of our first great musical tourists, Charles Burney (1726-1814), made a journey from London to Italy in 1770 and another to Germany and the Netherlands in 1772. He found that the prerequisite for developing a musical language over borders is to establish a concept of music that accepts the fact that different kinds of music have equal merits. We can still learn from the introduction of his music history from 1789:

The love of lengthened tones and modulated sounds, different from those of speech, and regulated by a stated measure, seems a passion implanted in human nature throughout the globe; for we hear of no people, however wild and savage in other particulars, who have not music of some kind or other, with which we may suppose them to be greatly delighted, by their constant use of it upon occasions the most opposite: in the temple, and the theatre; at funerals, and at weddings: to give dignity and solemnity to festivals, and to excite mirth, cheerfulness, and activity, in the frolicsome dance. Music, indeed, like vegetation, flourishes differently in different climates; and in proportion to the culture and encouragement it receives. (Burney 1789, p. I)

[p.236] His argument is an example of the Enlightenment ideas which gave the musical world at the end of the eighteenth century a new concept. This new awareness of musical styles and expressions by a growing number of listeners led to a new listening attitude. Music became an art, isolated from daily life, given an aesthetic dimension for a virtual life besides the stream of real life, a refuge with its own sense of time.

Burney was one of the first to understand that classic music carried the concept of a new musical language which would conquer 'the civilised world', that is to say 'Europe' in his time. Classic music became a kind of common 'world music' for its time, a time when the world outside Europe did not exist for the vast majority of people living in our small continent. Let us take a look into this eighteenth-century musical life just to remind us what was going on.

In the eighteenth century the musical life of the European upper class developed into a social and musical unit. The same Italian opera was played in London, Paris, St Petersburg or Munich, the same type of pianoforte was played by the music-loving women in Madrid, Bologna, Vienna, Prague and St Petersburg. One of the prerequisites for this development was a new and better system of communication. At the end of the eighteenth century it was easier to travel than fifty years earlier, easier to send and to get letters, easier to publish journals, books, even to print and send music. The new music was also advertised in catalogues and could reach the big cities in Europe a week after it was printed. All Europe was influenced by popular Italian music, easy to grasp, easy to form in national variants, not unlike twentieth-century rock music. A common musical language emerged as a result of communication and competition.

The new composition technique was to take interesting musical ideas from different musical surroundings and put them in forms which were very loose in structure but with sufficient boundaries to be recognised by the ordinary listener. But perhaps more important than the common musical form structures (sonata, symphony, opera, etc.) was the new attitude of attentive listening to music that was now considered as an art. Intensive music listening stopped the earlier constant conversation, reading or eating in the salon, theatre and concert hall. The public became more and more sophisticated: the early eighteenth-century 'snob' or 'galant homme' who told the ladies what was bad or good music was substituted by professional critics who in journals and papers tried to separate the musical wheat from the husk. We are in a time and a stage where professional musicians are recruited from a broad mass of very talented boys and girls, pressed by their parents (if they themselves were musicians) or by their surroundings (cloisters, hospitals) to be good enough to earn their living by their art. Interesting is the change from 'classical' to 'Viennese classic', due to the rising interest in the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The musical institutions and the growing share of writers on music all considered these three composers as the most important in the world, and their popularity became greater and greater in an ever wider, more socially diverse public. That is something that so far has not happened in the 'world music' of today, but perhaps it will emerge, sooner or later. And it is very likely that the centre will be somewhere in Africa or Asia.

Eighteenth-century writers were aware of the creation of a new musical paradigm: they distinguished between what they called 'the modern style' and the music that went before. The prerequisite was, however, not only the synthesis between these modern styles, the so-called galant style and the new Empfindsamkeit, [p.237] but how these two new musical styles were connected with the previous tradition, the old knowledge of counterpoint. This merging of the modern and the old style was the starting point for a musical world language, later defined as classical, later as the Viennese classic idiom. Part of the development was the increasing technical ability needed to play different instruments of a new construction, which, in turn, changed the sonority of the musical landscape. Also, the music theatre began to mix opera seria and buffa as part of the new musical style. At the same time, a new attitude to the public was established, due to the composer's social transmutation from musical servant of the nobility to a seller of music on the international market with professional agents, managers and special concert halls and concert organisations as intermediaries. This wider public exerted an immense influence, for example, on Haydn's musical style during his London period. Haydn paved the way for Mozarf s universality by giving the public what they expected and what their ears accepted: the listeners became acquainted with the new musical language and became prepared to appreciate more sophisticated and original musical structures and expressions. In this process, impresarios like Johann Peter Salomon played a very important role. It is not difficult to find parallels to this development in today's world music.

The situation in Vienna was not the same as in Paris, London and Berlin, apparently because there was an incommensurable number of musical layers in Vienna from which the classical style of Haydn and Mozart could develop to a sublime mixture of styles ... Music created a social bridge and music played a more important role in the social life than in other metropolis. (Dahlhaus 1985, p. 236)

Let us stay a moment and take a look at the different layers Dahlhaus mentions with the help of Leonard G. Ratner's 'classical' book of classic music from 1980. According to Ratner, the musical language was very much built on the popular music of its time: dances like the minuet, allemande, saraband passepied, polonaise, bourre, gigue, gavotte, contra dance, etc., military or hunting marches, ceremonial music like the French Overture, exotic music like Turkish Music, but also different singing styles, collected from opera seria, opera buffa, folk songs, herding calls, etc. All these topics and different style elements were incorporated by the composer in a given two-reprise form, a framework later called the 'sonata'-form, based on combinations of symmetrical grouping of periods following simple harmonic schemes and ending with cadences. Many of these ideas were taken, adapted and transformed from the rhetoric of language.

Let us sum up some of the characteristics of Viennese classic music as it emerged in music history:

  1. It was built on music from different social classes, collected from different parts of Europe.
  2. It had a new public, an intellectual, progressive, middle-class public, interested in innovation.
  3. New methods of communication created the possibility for spreading the interest in modern styles, combined with advertising and selling handwritten and printed music to the urbanised parts of Europe.
  4. A new type of listening required an increase in the qualities of, and innovations in, the music.
  5. Melody, rhythm and harmony were subordinated to loose musical forms, which were easy to recognise.
  6. It was advertised and sold according to new economic laws.

Top of document  [p.238]  ‘World music’

According to Timothy Rice in the article 'World Music in Europe', we can trace world music back to the 1980s when older labels such as ethnic, folk and international gave way to newer ones: worldbeat, ethnopop, wordfusion, etc. Rice finds that this terminological change signals changes in production, reception and aesthetics:

... Apparently believing that the plethora of old and new terms for this kind of popular, neotraditional music hurt efforts to market it, twenty-five representatives of independent labels met in Britain in the summer of 1987 and agreed to substitute the term world music for these old and new terms. Some record companies in the United States followed suit, and in 1990 Billboard magazine introduced a world-music chart (Taylor 1997). By 1987, the term world music was in use by some ethnomusicologists to describe their objects of study, all the world's music, not just its neo-traditional, mass-mediated popular forms. Independently of developments in the music business, these scholars had used the term world music to replace the term non-Western music ... (Rice 2000, p. 224)

Simon Frith tried in his article 'The discourse of world music' to unmask the myth of this story about the label 'world music', revealing it as a conscious attempt from the record companies to link together a community of enthusiasts. The label acted as a way of sorting out the wheat from the chaff:

The record companies involved were in the business of persuading consumers to distinguish themselves from the mainstream of rock and pop purchasers, to be different themselves. World music wasn't a sales category like any other; these record labels claimed a particular kind of engagement with the music they traded and promised a particular kind of experience to their consumers. (Frith 2000, p.306)

Frith suggests that there is a close link between rock music and the concept of so-called 'world music', which reminds me of the close relation between folk and Viennese classic music:

World music, in short, might have come from elsewhere but it was sold in a familiar package - not as global pop but as roots rock, as music like that made by British and American bands who have remained true to rock and roll's original spirit. This was music for grownups not adolescents, unashamedly functional (for dancing, courting), expressive of local community, emotionally robust, (op. cit., p. 306ff)

Frith's social definition 'for grown-up' is given another interpretation in a Danish book, Mon farven har en anden lyd? (Perhaps colour has another sound). The youngsters interviewed did not use the label 'world music' at all. The author, Eva Fock concludes that

world music is the middle-aged middle class harmless flirtation with the strange, the part of the surrounding world which is popular for the moment (Fock 2000, p. 26ff).

Fock's definition of the social strata interested in world music is correct according to what I have seen in the little shop in my hometown. It can be transferred to the eighteenth-century public. The public interested in the new classic music were middle-aged and from the wealthy class, who also harmlessly flirted with the strange, for example the Turkish taste in Mozart's Die Entf├╝hrung aus dem Serail.

Is the world music of today perhaps in its first stage of becoming a new concept of music like classic music? Yes, I think so. And the starting point is the change of musical concept in the middle of the twentieth century. Until then, Viennese classic music was the officially dominant concept of music to the middle of the 1950s at least in Europe, USA and countries under colonialism. New musical styles had [p.239] challenged the tradition, but they were, like jazz, more or less assimilated into the classical 'tradition'. But in the middle of the twentieth century a real paradigmatic break in music happened. Salman Rushdie has explained in his novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) how rock music crossed all frontiers and belonged equally to everyone, but to Rushdie's generation most of all. A Swedish professor of theology, Jan Hjärpe (2003), an expert on Islam, has analysed Rushdie's novel. He argues that Rushdie's presentation of rock music gives it a deeper meaning:

The phenomenon of global popular music is that it gives the interpretational patterns for our existential experiences, feelings, spirituality, the new form of mystical cults, the vehicle of perception and meaning. The mythology and rituals of our time. (Hjärpe 2003)

This new conception of rock music, together with an interest in music from different parts of the world, seems to be the starting point for a new musical era. After 1980 there has been an increasing fusion of different styles, from commercials trying to be exotic to a serious attempt to create new musical worlds out of different cultural and aesthetic traditions.

Top of document   Concluding thoughts

'World music' as a common definition cannot be based on musical material or on musical function. No, it refers to a form of music which is enjoyed by a very sophisticated young middle-class public, who combine their musical interest of new sounds from different parts of the world with a progressive interest in whaf s going on in politics, economics, etc., many of whom are engaged in the peace movement, environment movements, etc. It is similar to the ideology of the Enlightenment at the end of the eighteenth century.

All music called 'world music' was from the beginning promoted by academic expertise which was very much involved in marketing. The CD covers and the catalogues of world music are of a high scientific standard. World music in this sense is not 'music for the people', i.e. the ordinary music fan of MTV, etc. The experts are the equivalent to the galant homme in the eighteenth century telling the middle class what is good and what is bad music, what is worth listening to and what to close your ears to!

And now back to the points I set up as characteristic of classic music. Can we find the equivalent in world music?

  1. World music is built on music from different social classes, collected not from different parts of Europe but from different parts of the world.
  2. The public is the same: 'an intellectual, progressive, middle-class public, interested in innovation' and most of them from the richest parts of the world.
  3. The ways of communication have also given world music 'the possibility for spreading the interest in modern styles'.
  4. We can also establish that 'new type of listening, requiring rising quality of, and innovations in, music'.
  5. Melody, rhythm and harmony are subordinated to the medialisation of music, the recorded sound being equivalent to the form structures of the eighteenth century.
  6. Classic music was launched from the newly born capitalistic market, world music is linked to the global economy and global distribution of products.

The close link between research, music-making and marketing is perhaps the explanation for the success of this label in the global society. The Swedish musician Ale Moller has established what he calls a 'world music laboratory', starting with his [p.240] multicultural music ensemble Stockholm, Folk Big Band. I think we will see more of this kind of ensemble in the future when world music will be more clearly defined and crystallised into a core of works and composers, established by musicians and the public in the same way as Viennese classic music in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

We can see that world music today has taken a place besides the classical heritage, new art music, etc., on the global scene. In the ongoing fight to be heard and to seen, world music has taken a leading position perhaps because of its openness to rock music as a worldwide basic musical language on the one hand, and through its ambition to make aesthetic new combinations of different musical languages with different ethnic backgrounds on the other.

The generation interested in how the world sounds, trying to understand but also to change the world to something better, are perhaps the equivalent to the women and men of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, who created and supported classical music. At least I would like to believe so.

The institutional acceptance of world music is also increasing. For example, today it is part of the official education system in Sweden in the same way as Viennese classic music was accepted in the school curriculum two hundred years ago.

Top of document   Endnote

1. The term 'classic music' is taken from Leonard G. Ratner, Classic Music, Expression, Form, and Style. 1980 (Schirmer Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc). It incorporates the different waves of classicism from the middle of the eighteenth century to the so-called 'Viennese Classic music' composed by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

Top of document   References

Burney, C. 1989. A General History of Music from the Earliest Ages to the Present Period, vol. I, second edition (London)

Dahlhaus, C. 1985. 'Haydn, Mozart und der Begriff der Wiener Klassik', Neues Handbuch der Musikwissenschaft herausgeben von Carl Dahlhaus, Band 5: Die Musik des 18. Jahrhunderts. Carl Dahhaus (Hg.)(Wiesbaden), pp. 232-9

Fock, E. 2000. Mon farven har en anden lyd? Streiftog i 90emes musikliv og ungdomskultuur i Danmark (Copenhagen)

Frith, S. 2000. The discourse of world music', in Western Music and its Others. Difference, Representation and Appropriation in Music, ed. G. Born and D. Hesmondhalgh (Los Angeles, London: Berkeley)

Hjärpe, J. 2003. Entangled Music (in press, next issue of Orientala Suecana)

Ratner, L.G. 1980. Classic Music. Expression, Form, and Style (New York)

Rice, T. 2000. 'World music in Europe', in The Garland Encyclopedia of Music, volume 'Europe', ed. T. Rice, J. Proter and C. Goertzen (New York and London). Garland Reference Library of the Humanities,' Volume 1169, pp. 224-30

Rushdie, S. 1999. The Ground Beneath her Feet (London)

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