A language family is a group of languages related through descent from a common ancestral language or parental language, called the proto-language of that family. The term "family" reflects the tree model of language origination in historical linguistics, which makes use of a metaphor comparing languages to people in a biological family tree.

English for example is a Germanic language, which is a Indo-European language.

It would seem that different people's folk/traditional music are somewhat related to differing extents, whether by a form of pentatonic scale or the scale common to Klezmer, arabic, Indian music, etc. Or perhaps by other means like tuning or rhythm.

Is there a 'family tree' similar to what we have for language that attempts to trace the historical lineage of different people's folk music?

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    The study of music within culture is ethnomusicology, and if what you're asking about exists, it would exist in context of that field of study. Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 13:37
  • @DaveJacoby Thank you very much. I've added the tag. The discussion of universals in that area seems very relevant and related.
    – Modal Nest
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 13:51
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    Note that while we can construct family trees for languages, they're not true trees because the branches mix back together. Likewise for music. Furthermore, analysis of origins can be done on any music genres, not necessarily related to a specific culture. But it's even more tangled than music, because music cross-pollinates even more easily than language. Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 14:42
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    @JeffLearman Technically family tree branches mix back together. At the 34th generation you require more unique ancestors than the current population of earth. I deliberately restricted my question to folk music(s) as I think the cross-pollination will be most similar. Once you introduce 'art' and recent (last 100 years or so) technology music is a lot more widely heard and entangled.
    – Modal Nest
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 18:08
  • Good point! Family trees aren't actually trees. We often use the tree model for categorization, but it rarely fits completely. Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 17:32

2 Answers 2



I think yes.

I think it all falls under the broad category of culture, and that is where the sense of analogy lies. Language and music are both cultural artifacts.

You probably want to consider whether some musical thing developed independently in different cultures. I'm sure such things are topics of hot debate between scholars. For example: pentatonic scales are found in various musical cultures. Did they are stem from one original cultural source? Is it an acoustic versus cultural phenomenon? To what extent would any such view be provable?

Beside scale, tuning, rhythm, etc. I have seen melodic "prototype" used in folk music study. Different songs will be compared and analyzed for the underlying melodic structure. Some kind of abstracted or prototypical form of the melody will be be used to identify tunes and propose their origin.


Never occurred to me before now, but I'd have thought it followed the same trajectory. As goes the language, so goes the folk music tradition.
The further apart the languages get, the music follows. Isolating itself culturally & linguistically until fairly recent times.
You could even apply this to the differences between English, Scots, Welsh & Irish folk. Even though all four countries (can) speak the same language, the cultural separation left differing effects on the music.

The same could be said for later merges - as the UK & others later borrowed from America, who had been influenced by black music, which in effect had arrived independently of other European settlers & their influences.

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