One of my favorite anecdotes tells of Abraham Lincoln taking a Native American leader to an orchestral concert in Washington D.C. Three pieces were played, each by different composers such as Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. At the end of the performance Lincoln asked his guest what he thought of the concert and the man replied, “It was very nice, but why did they play the same piece of music three times?”
When westerners listens to music they expect it to follow certain rules, even if they’re unaware of this habit. If the rules are not followed to some extent, the music might sound confusing or unappealing. Presumably, all cultures expect music to follow certain rules. However, these rules differ from culture to culture.
Western music is extremely goal-oriented. Tension and resolution occur repeatedly until finally a climax is reached, with perhaps a short denouement rounding off the piece.
Most non-western music, by contrast, is not goal-oriented. If one listens to Indonesian gamelan music with a Beethoven symphony as a model for musical expectations, one will be sorely disappointed. Gamelan, the name of the orchestra as well as the name of the music, is circular in nature. Patterns of a certain length repeat, and with each repetition new bits are added and subtracted. There’s nothing that a westerner would recognize as a melody, and there is no melodic or harmonic tension and release. The music can be stunningly beautiful, but confusing to the uninitiated.
African drum-based music relies on intricate variations in rhythm as a method of development. While each drum might be tuned to a different pitch, there is nothing readily recognizable as a melody in the music.
Bulgarian vocal music utilizes tight, dissonant harmonies and an extremely nasal vocal technique.
Tuvan throat singing showcases a single person singing two pitches simultaneously: one a low frog-croak of a drone, the other a high wispy melody.
Many cultures rely heavily on improvisation in their music. In India, classical musicians train furiously in the use of ragas (melodic scales) and the rules that govern ornamentation and improvisation over those ragas.
It seems odd to refer to Native American music as non-Western since it occurs geographically in the west, but stylistically the music does not fit under the “western” umbrella. Typically, Native American flutes are tuned to pentatonic scales, which produce melodies that are not goal-oriented but rather are in a somewhat pensive mood.
Native American flute music is often meditative, improvisational, and inspired by nature. If you’d like to experience this music in person, come hear Peter Ali perform at the Main Library Auditorium, Monday, February 6, 6:30-7:30 pm as part of the Everett Reads! progam. In addition to presenting flute music, Ali will share stories relating to his heritage and the flutes that he plays. Take advantage of this unique experience to gain insight into a possibly unfamiliar musical tradition.