The classical music appreciation student should broaden his or her listening palette by including music from all over the Asian continent. Outsourcing and globalization has brought people and cultures together which used to be separated by much more than an ocean. Studying music from Asian history and culture helps Westerners form friendships and business relationships with literally billions of people.
East Meets West: Asian Music and the Western Ear
Asian music predates Western music by centuries. Some music historians believe the first strands of music came out of the Orient and Middle East. Tonalities are very different than what the Western ear is accustomed to hearing. Often Americans, in particular, tease about the sound of Oriental music, because it sounds out of tune to the American ear. This “out of tune” sound is caused by a very ancient scale, called the pentatonic scale. This scale only has five notes, or tones, to it. The modern day Western scale has 12 tones. Interestingly enough, within the simple pentatonic scale, there can be as many as 22 steps. Since Western ears are not trained to hear these tiny quarter-steps, we think the music sounds strange.
Classical Asian music celebrated major events and included dances and plays or pantomimes. As Western cultures were introduced into China, India and Japan, those countries began to adopt some Western practices. Today there are many Japanese and Chinese pop artists and bands. Many video game tunes are written in the East. Of course, a whole industry surrounds Bollywood in India.
Indian Music, the Hindu Culture and Classical Chinese Music
Classical Indian music, for the most part, is tied to the Hindu religion. The Rigveda includes many chants and hymns called Brahma. Someone who sang these hymns was called a Brahman. The entire caste of Brahmans came from the ancient Vedic hymn singers. Legend has it that Brahma’s wife gifted India with the vina. This instrument is a bamboo pipe with a hollow gourd, which has seven strings and nineteen bridges and is plucked like a guitar. The Hindu scale has 72 different tones. Some tones are designated to be played at certain times of the day or days of the week.
Music in China is chiefly instrumental. Chinese “songs” are more whines and wails, telling the tales of great battles and heroes. The Chinese us a lot of percussion instruments such as drums and Chinese gongs. The most popular traditional stringed instrument in China is the kin, which looks like a lute. In the past, it could only be played by holy men. Confucius taught that a nation’s music told whether the country was moral or not.
Classical Japanese Music and Instruments
Classical Japanese music is very different from either Indian or Chinese music. The Japanese were prolific folk song writers and accompanied these songs with various instruments. One popular instrument is the samisen, or sanshin, a small guitar or banjo favored by the kimono wearing Japanese geisha. Another popular traditional instrument is the koto, which is a 13 stringed zither. It is plucked with plectrums attached to the player’s fingers. Japanese music often includes the flute.
Listening Selections for the Music Appreciation Student
Classical music appreciation students may enjoy listening to HIndu worship hymns called “Raga Lalat” and “Raga Shivranjani,” played on an Indian flute. Listen to “Shaving in the Wind” for an entertaining composition using traditional Chinese instruments. There are some excellent Okinawan folk music videos available for viewing on Youtube to develop an ear for the Japanese samisen. Listen to Kazue Sawai play “Midare” on the Japanese koto for a wonderful sample of traditional Japanese folk music.
Classic Musical Instruments: A Brief Overview
When we refer to classical music, a discussion of classic musical instruments becomes necessary. The classical music that ruled the nineteenth and most part of the twentieth century would have been but little popular without the use of some of the finest musical instruments ever made, the classic musical instruments, such as the piano, the harpsichord, bagpipes, the organ and many more.
The evolution of classical music took place in different parts of the world at different times and with different classic musical instruments. Indian classical music made use of a lot different instruments including the sitar, the tabla, the veena and many more whereas the western world had developed instruments such as vihuelas, hurdy-gurdies and bagpipes. More modern classic instruments in the western world included the acoustic guitar which was later modified to be used even today.
Western Classic Musical Instruments – Bagpipes, Organ, Harpsichord, Hurdy Gurdies, Vihuelas and Acoustic Guitar
Bagpipes can be traced back to the 16th or the 17th century. These are aerophones with a reservoir of air, mostly in the form of bags. The chanter is the name given to the melody pipe. Most bagpipes have one or more drones with a sliding joint which assists in manipulating the pitch of the drone.
The organ is one of the oldest musical instruments dating as early as the eighth century. It is a keyboard instrument consisting of one or more divisions, and is played mostly with hands but can be played with the feet.
A Harpsichord is again a keyboard type classic musical instrument that plays a sound by plucking a string whenever a key is pressed. It dates back to somewhere in the 17th century. The player presses a key in the middle of its length which causes the other end of the key to rise. This lifts a long strip of wood to which is attached another wooden piece which plucks the string.
The hurdy gurdy is a stringed instrument that produces sound when a wheel rubs against strings.Melodies are played on a keyboard. The keys when pressed, in turn press small pieces of wood that act as tangents. These tangents then pluck one or more strings to produce the desired sound.
The Spanish Vihuela can be traced back to the 16th century. It is a string instrument with 12 paired strings. They were tuned almost similar to a modern day guitar. Several people consider vihuela as a instrument which was developed to be structured into the modern day guitar.
Indian Classic Musical Instruments – Tabla, Harmonium, Sarod, Veena, Tanpura
The tabla is a drum instrument consisting of two differently sized hand drums. The larger drum is used to change the pitch of the sound by applying pressure with the sliding of the hand to produce the desired sound. Extensive use of the fingers and the palm helps produce mnemonic syllables from the tabla.
A harmonium is a keyboard instrument similar to an organ. Sound is produced by the help of air which is sucked in by the instrument and is let into the instrument mostly by the use of hands. Though its origins lead back to Europe, it has been a part of Indian classical music all along.
The Sarod is again a stringed instrument that can be called one of the most prominent classic musical instrument in the Indian classical music. The sarod is used to produce a deep weighty sound that is of a resonant quality. The sarod is mostly used along with a sitar which produces a contrast of sweet melodies.
Veena is a plucked string instrument used mostly in the south Indian classical music. The interesting part about veena is that it has been described in the ancient vedic literature of India that goes back to about 1500 B.C. Moreover, it is still an important part of Indian classic music.
The tanpura is similar to a sitar in some ways but originally, is a plucked flute stringed instrument.
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