The heritage of music from around the world

Maori performers displaying the haka

Maori performers displaying the haka

Alyssa Bruner, staff writer

   Music is often said to be the universal language that anyone can understand, no matter the genre, instruments used (both modern and ancient), or actual language in which the lyrics are sung. In addition to the emotions that all types of music can convey to the world, the history or cultural significance of genres can most definitely add to how you enjoy your tunes. So here’s some different music from all over the world, old and new, for you to bump through your earbuds.


   Tropical island vibes, mixed melodic notes from African drums and plucked guitar strings, the legendary Bob Marley. Reggae music has been popular since the late 1960s, and originated in the Caribbean island nation of Jamaica. This stereotypically relaxing music is popular with people of all kinds, but particularly with those that follow the Rastafari religion. Rastafari is an Afrocentric religion that promotes Pan-Africanism, and Rastafari messages are often embedded in songs by the song-writers in order to spread its message. This genre was also further popularized by Bob Marley, and the relaxing rhythm has also proved itself admired by marijuana smokers for its light mood. 

Throat Singing

   Every choir kid knows how difficult it is to get the hang of certain notes, and how frustrating it can be when you just can’t perfect a melody. Disheartening, right? Well, imagine how throat singers feel! Throat singing is the technique of overtone singing, where the singer will create additional high-pitch vocals over regular musical notes. On the Mongolian steppe, Tuvan throat singing has an ancient history, and was performed by male herders on the plains. This style of singing also is connected to ancient Tuvan religion, or animism, and they replicate the sounds of nature with the singing. However, in Inuit culture (the Arctic peoples of Canada, Greenland, Alaska, and Russia) put a fun twist into their throat singing. It involves a friendly contest between women to see who could outlast the other, and was done in order to pass time while the men were out hunting. 

Folk Instruments

   Before we had any sort of modern instruments, like the electric keyboard or grand pianos, humanity started out with primitive noise-makers that eventually developed into cultural heirlooms. These types of instruments are also used to make folk music from their respective cultures. For example, the balalaika from Russia is a triangular-shaped stringed instrument, similar to a guitar, and produces a sharp sound that is often characteristic of Russian peasant music. Another prominent example would be the didgeridoo of the Aboriginal Australians, which is a long wooden “pipe” that is blown into with vibrating lips (known as circular breathing), and produces a deep, thunderous drone that sets the spiritual mood for sacred ceremonies in different Aboriginal tribes. The didgeridoo is also often accompanied by dancing and vocalization. Finally, we have the shofar, which is a hollowed ram’s-horn trumpet that is blown by Jews during sacred ceremonies or holidays, most notably Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year). The sound is similar to that of a low bellow, invoking a solemn or prideful feeling in the listeners. It was also once used as a battle signal in Ancient Israel. 

Indigenous Dances & Chants

   Speaking of battles, the Maori haka is well-known around the world, as it is used by New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team before matches and is recognized for its ability to strike fear or awe into anyone who witnesses the performance. This ancient dance was frequently used as a war cry and a challenge between tribes (or an iwi). Hakas are characterized by distorted faces (pūkana) and terrifying vocalizations, along with aggressive and synchronized movements. It’s everything you wouldn’t want to see before your tribe goes to war. However, on a lighter note, dances performed by the Natives of North America are often happy ones meant to bring joy or good health to the community. One notable example is the jingle dress of some tribes (such as the Ojibwe) which are performed at pow wows (or a get together of Natives that involves singing, dancing and feasting). The jingle dress dance is a sacred ceremony where women dance and connect with the tribe’s ancestral spirits in order to heal their people of illnesses or disasters. 

Blues & Jazz

   Duke Ellington. Louis Armstrong. Billie Holiday. Skip James. These are just some of the most famous names in the genres of blues and jazz, which mostly developed in the early 1900s. First, the blues. This genre first developed in the Deep South of the U.S. and was influenced by African-American work songs, field hollers from slavery, spirituals, and narrative ballads. Blues also incorporates heavily from religious themes, such as the “deal with the Devil” motif at crossroads, as well as the liberation of African-Americans from slavery and their struggle for rights in Southern U.S. Jazz, however, saw popularity later in the 1950s and was influenced by blues itself. Jazz is most commonly associated with New Orleans, Louisiana today, due to the West African musical influence of former slaves in the region and religious practices such as voodoo. Jazz also saw some popularity during Prohibition, a time in U.S. history where the sale or consumption of alcohol was banned. 


   When you think of Appalachia, what do you visualize in your mind? Do you see sharply-tuned banjos, tight-sounding fiddles and mandolins, blowing into jugs on your porch in the deep mountains of West Virginia? If you do, then you correctly envisioned the roots of bluegrass music. This genre, although slowly developing since settlement, quickly boomed in the 1940s thanks to the band called Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. And while this genre is heavily influenced by the religion of the players (most often Protestant Christian), it also has a rich influence from the poverty that’s experienced in Appalachia. This usually manifests in lyrics about the struggles of being poor, isolation in the mountainous region, and surprisingly, protest music. The protest music is mostly from the breakdown of the coal mining industry, which was often the primary source of income for Appalachians. 

   Even though most of this list consists of more foreign styles or ancient rhythms, there’s certainly more genres of music than meets the eyes. What’s more, even more mainstream genres such as rap/hip-hop or soul music have significant cultural and emotional meanings. The point of music is to find what resonates to you, and most importantly, speaks to you in the language of musical notes.