So, I think it's largely safe to presume that the core of Western musical theory developed almost entirely within Europe -- Greece in its very early history, mainly Italy and also the Franco-Flemish regions during the middle ages and Renaissance, and perhaps a little after that elsewhere.

There are however notable exceptions. Spain's role in the development of classical music cannot be understated, I think. While we may not remember many famous early Spanish composers, I have heard that they were instrumental (no pun intended) in developing various forms of classical composition, perhaps bringing some in from the Middle-Eastern and North Africans musical traditions.

So here are a few of my proposals to start us off:

  1. Some compositional forms popular in the Renaissance and Baroque, e.g. sarabande and passacaglia, are suggested to have originated in the Middle East/Arabia, in some loose stylistic sense.

  2. The horse-travelling nomads of Central Asia are rumoured to have invented and indeed introduced the first bowed string instruments to Europe, which the Italians adopted and improved by way of the Byzantines. (Early examples of harps and lyres were of course found in Ancient Greece and indeed ancient Celtic regions for the former.)

Does anyone else have some suggestions, tentative or well-supported, to share?


5 Answers 5


Let's look at the last 100 or 125 years of Western classical music.

1) American jazz has had a huge influence on 20th-century Western classical music. American jazz originated outside of 20th-century Western classical music. But now its harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary have permanently influenced Western classical music.

2) Minimalism, a la Steve Reich and Philip Glass, came from a conscious attempt to incorporate polyrhythms and repetitive rhythmic and melodic phrases into Western classical music. The concepts behind these polyrhythms and phrases come from studying traditional African drumming. So sub-Saharan African music now influences modern Western classical music.

In my opinion the overriding characteristic of post-modern Western classical music is its emphasis on percussion instruments, on the one hand, and rhythmic complexity in general on the other.

3) Film and the motion picture industry has tremendously re-shaped Western classical music. This started in the 1920s with composers being commissioned to write accompaniment music for live orchestras to play in sync with silent movies. Then when motion picture technology incorporated sound recording, filmmakers the world over enlisted composers to compose and record soundtracks. Writing music to motion pictures has changed compositional techniques significantly, as a practical consideration.

4) Bartok and Stravinsky, among others, championed the use of frequently-changing odd-time signatures, and the impetus for this seems to be various Eastern-European and Middle-Eastern folk music traditions--although 20th century composers took these compositional devices much further. Frequently-changing odd-time signatures are now used in all kinds of classical music, not the least of which are film scores, where phrasing, meters, and tempos shift constantly so the music can follow and accentuate the action on the screen.

5) Charles Ives, Aaron Copland and others incorporated Appalacian folk music and other folk music from the United States of America. This did not have as heavy an implication as what others were doing with jazz, but it is an influence nonetheless.

6) I must also mention Caribbean and South American popular music, not the least of which comes from Brazil. Along with this comes the fertile cross-over of New World classical guitar music (Leo Brouwer in Cuba, etc.)

  • There's some precedent for (4) in Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, and even Brahms. Etudes in particular are prone to time changes. Perhaps the 20th-c. composers were merely developing a previously-tapped source. Nov 21, 2011 at 8:29
  • Let's look at the last 100 or 125 years of Western classical music | +1 for good research, but IMO you are severely limiting the scope of this question by focusing only on relatively recent history. Folk traditions have permeated and often been the sources and inspirations for 'classical' music from the earliest times. Music comes from all people, not just composers sitting in their studios.
    – Vector
    Jul 21, 2017 at 22:03

The turkish motives and joining russians to mainstream western music. Gypsy people is the powerful steering power bringing music from one place to another.

Squeeze-boxes together with harmonicas seems to be originated in China. Xylophones are very old and not of european origin also.


Here is just a very brief list of well-known and prominent examples. Virtually all classical composers - Josef Haydn drew material from German folk tunes - and particularly in the Romantic and Modern Eras, drew from the folk musical traditions they were surrounded with. They by no means lived or worked in some sort of classical/academic musical isolation.

In his youth, Brahms worked with a Hungarian violinist, Eduard Remenyi, who introduced him to Hungarian and Gypsy folk music, which was very influential in his compositions. Among many other things, he later wrote a famous collection of Hungarian Dances (Brahms) .

Here is what appears to be a good article on the subject:

Brahms: The Hungarian Connection explores the composer's love of folk music from the country

Debussy, among the most notable of many, was deeply affected by Javanese Gamelan Music :

Gamelan - Influence on Western music

The gamelan has been appreciated by several western composers of classical music, most famously Claude Debussy who heard a Javanese gamelan in the premiere of Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray's Rhapsodie Cambodgienne at the Paris Exposition of 1889 (World's Fair). The work had been written seven years earlier in 1882, but received its premiere only in 1889. The gamelan Debussy heard in it was in the slendro scale and was played by Central Javanese musicians. Despite his enthusiasm, direct citations of gamelan scales, melodies, rhythms, or ensemble textures have not been located in any of Debussy's own compositions. However, the equal-tempered whole tone scale appears in his music of this time and afterward,[28] and a Javanese gamelan-like heterophonic texture is emulated on occasion, particularly in "Pagodes", from Estampes (solo piano, 1903), in which the great gong's cyclic punctuation is symbolized by a prominent perfect fifth. The composer Erik Satie, an influential contemporary of Debussy, also heard the Javanese gamelan play at the Paris Exposition of 1889. The repetitively hypnotic effects of the gamelan were incorporated into Satie's exotic Gnossienne set for piano. Direct homages to gamelan music are to be found in works for western instruments by John Cage, particularly his prepared piano pieces, Colin McPhee, Lou Harrison, Béla Bartók, Francis Poulenc, Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Bronislaw Kaper and Benjamin Britten. In more recent times, American composers such as Henry Brant, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Dennis Murphy, Loren Nerell, Michael Tenzer, Evan Ziporyn, Daniel James Wolf and Jody Diamond as well as Australian composers such as Peter Sculthorpe, Andrew Schultz and Ross Edwards have written several works with parts for gamelan instruments or full gamelan ensembles. I Nyoman Windha is among contemporary Indonesian composers that have written compositions using western instruments along with Gamelan. Hungarian composer György Ligeti wrote a piano étude called Galamb Borong influenced by gamelan. Avant-garde composer Harry Partch, one of America's most idiosyncratic composers, was also influenced by Gamelan, both in his microtonal compositions and the instruments he built for their performance...

Bella Bartok, credited by many as the first to seriously engage in ethnomusicology, was deeply influenced by the folk music of Hungary and Eastern Europe, from quite a young age:

Bartok - Early musical career (1899–1908)

In 1908, he [Bartok] and Kodály traveled into the countryside to collect and research old Magyar folk melodies. Their growing interest in folk music coincided with a contemporary social interest in traditional national culture. They made some surprising discoveries. Magyar folk music had previously been categorised as Gypsy music. The classic example is Franz Liszt's famous Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano, which he based on popular art songs performed by Romani bands of the time. In contrast, Bartók and Kodály discovered that the old Magyar folk melodies were based on pentatonic scales, similar to those in Asian folk traditions, such as those of Central Asia, Anatolia and Siberia. Bartók and Kodály quickly set about incorporating elements of such Magyar peasant music into their compositions. They both frequently quoted folk song melodies verbatim and wrote pieces derived entirely from authentic songs. An example is his two volumes entitled For Children for solo piano, containing 80 folk tunes to which he wrote accompaniment. Bartók's style in his art music compositions was a synthesis of folk music, classicism, and modernism. His melodic and harmonic sense was profoundly influenced by the folk music of Hungary, Romania, and other nations. He was especially fond of the asymmetrical dance rhythms and pungent harmonies found in Bulgarian music. Most of his early compositions offer a blend of nationalist and late Romanticism elements.

In his later years in the USA, Bartok actually received a research fellowship from Columbia University to study Serbian and Croatian folk songs.

Bartók World War II and last years in America (1940–45)

Having first sent his manuscripts out of the country, Bartók reluctantly emigrated to the U.S. with his wife Ditta in October that year. They settled in New York City after arriving on the night of October 29–30, 1940 via a steamer from Lisbon... Supported by a research fellowship from Columbia University, for several years, Bartók and Ditta worked on a large collection of Serbian and Croatian folk songs in Columbia's libraries. Bartók's economic difficulties during his first years in America were mitigated by publication royalties, teaching and performance tours. While his finances were always precarious, he did not live and die in poverty as was the common myth. He had enough friends and supporters to ensure that there was sufficient money and work available for him to live on. Bartók was a proud man and did not easily accept charity. Despite being short on cash at times, he often refused money that his friends offered him out of their own pockets. Although he was not a member of the ASCAP, the society paid for any medical care he needed during his last two years. Bartók reluctantly accepted this (Chalmers 1995, 196–203).

As mentioned by @user1044 in their answer, many 20th Century American composers, such as Ives, Copland, Gershwin and Bernstein, incorporated jazz, blues and other 'folk music' genres into their compositions.


I read somewhere that polyphonic music and counterpoint were introduced to Europe by Irish monks at the invitation of Charlemagne. Until then, it was all unisons and octaves (no chords!).

  • You seem to be conflating a few different ideas: If you have nothing but unisons and octaves, it's essentially a monotone - not music as we know it - all "A's" or all "C's", etc - no melody. Polyphony means more than one melody line. Before the development of polyphony there was monophony - one melody line but potentially using all the notes of various scales and modes, not just octaves and unisons. The development and use of chords is something else entirely that came quite a bit later - early Renaissance I believe, as the concepts of harmony and polyphony were developed further.
    – Vector
    Jul 21, 2017 at 21:59

The twentieth century influences of world music on classical music are numerous, but there are also some notable earlier examples:

Classical music inspired by Middle Eastern music is common. For instance, Mozart's wonderful "Rondo alla turca" (c.1783), and all the various "Arabesques". As mentioned in the question, Spanish classical music, in particular, is as closely related to Middle Eastern music as European, doubtlessly due to Spain's proximity to, onetime colonization by, and otherwise intimate history with the Middle East.

Von Weber was influenced by Chinese music in his 1804 opera Turandot.

Saint-Saëns wrote several pieces inspired by African music, including one called "Africa" (1891).

Early twentieth century classical composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (named, somewhat confusingly, after the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge) was part African himself, and composed popular and critically acclaimed works based both on African and on Native American musical themes.

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