I have always wondered what it is that makes music from different cultures/regions sound different from each other?

For example, if we compare Western music, Indian music, Chinese music they all sound so different from each other. Nor do I come across much western music (which is a broad concept) sound ever anything like Classical Indian or Chinese music.

Can Indian or Chinese music be viewed as genres? But I would assume that Indian music and Chinese music would also have their own genres. Same as how western music has for example pop music and jazz genres, they don't really sound similar.

Is this just because of the instruments used and the ornamentations that the music sounds different? Or is there more to it?

  • The icky part is that the "world music" genre tends to be brought up, which covers all foreign music (probably in unequal proportions) regardless of country.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Sep 23, 2020 at 11:28

2 Answers 2


We know the number one difference between genres and musical cultures is the scales, harmonies, and rhythms used in composition. This becomes clear when music from one genre or culture is played on instruments idiomatic to another genre or culture.

For example, a Scottish jig or reel melody played on a viola is still instantly recognizable as a Scottish jig or reel. It’s not mistaken for the viola part from a classical symphony or a vocal line from a Beatles tune.

Of course, it’s immediately clear that if music from a particular genre or culture is played on the idiomatic instruments, it firmly reinforces the source of the music. If we played the jig or reel on highland bagpipes, there would be no doubt that it’s Scottish music.

That makes (to my mind) instrumentation a close second in importance in recognizing genre or cultural sources for music. There are also situations where genres and/or cultures have enough overlap in their musical traditions that merely changing the instrumentation changes the apparent source. Modern pop and rock are genres with a wide range of influences, such that playing Latin, African, or Asian centered rhythms on a Ludwig drum kit goes a long way to making those rhythms sound like a fresh beat that is still pop or rock, and not some other genre.

At the same time, we can still understand cultural and genre influence despite instrumentation, as in songs like “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin or “Desert Rose” by Sting.

There is a link between the instrumentation and the “theory” of the music (the scales, harmonies, and rhythms), in that many instruments have characteristics that either enforce or reinforce the genre or culture to which they are idiomatic. For example, despite their similar ranges, it would be hard to play Penderecki-style cluster glisses and knocks written for a cello on an electric guitar instead. Different cultures use different tuning systems as well, such that reproducing the pelog scale and tuning of a Balinese gamelan orchestra would be quite difficult on a piano. That last example shows that sometimes, the original culture or genre of music can be very much obscured by different instruments, because playing Balinese gamelan music on a modern piano tuned with equal temperament makes it sound like some kind of 20th century minimalist etude in the style of Ligeti, and not so clearly Balinese. Conversely, some of Ligeti’s piano works would sound pretty convincingly Balinese if played by a gamelan orchestra.

My thinking is the following components are used by listeners to judge source culture or genre, in order of importance:

  1. Composition
  2. Instrumentation
  3. Tuning/pitch system
  4. Other particulars (e.g. drone notes from bagpipes)
  • I think the tuning, rhythm, scales and instruments are the main factors, apart the polyphony as we know it in traditional western choir and orchestra works Commented Sep 23, 2020 at 18:25

The main fundamental difference between western music and all other cultures is the polyphony and the chord based harmonic tunes, while other cultures have only known heterophony.

The other categories have been mentioned by Todd Wilcox.

  • 1
    Musicology doesn't seem to back up the assertion of polyphony versus heterophony being a reliable cultural distinction: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyphony#Oceania Commented Sep 23, 2020 at 17:21
  • 1
    You mean Polynesia is also using polyphonie? ;) Commented Sep 23, 2020 at 17:31
  • The semi-famous group Ladysmith Black Mambazo from South Africa, who made many popular recordings in the 70s and 80s in the isicathamiya and mbube styles, show at least partial counterpoint in many songs. The euro-centric nature of this answer is very concerning to me. It could be seen as implying that polyphony is superior to hererophony and therefore that "western" music is "more developed" than other cultures. Even if that's not the intention, the basic facts of the answer are incorrect. Commented Sep 23, 2020 at 17:32
  • If this isn't polyphonic starting around 1:35, then we have to agree to disagree on what "polyphony" is: youtube.com/watch?v=UEWCCSuHsuQ Commented Sep 23, 2020 at 17:36
  • 1
    I’m not in a mission to value the music of Palestrina, Bach or Beethoven against other cultures. But this example reminds me rather on the music of ars nova or the time of Leonin and Perotin and the school of Notre Dame. And you can’t deny that there has been a continuous development since early medieval music to Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, Wagner, Mahler, Tchaikowsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Debussy, Ravel and the great American composers of the 20 th century. This doesn’t mean that I don’t respect world music. Commented Sep 23, 2020 at 17:53

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.