More generally, how can a piece of music be made to sound, for want of a better word, foreign?

I was listening to some of Chopin's mazurkas and the one that struck me the most was Mazurka No. 34 in C Major, Op. 56, No. 2, simply through its opening chords, it sounded... Polish. As a Pole myself, this is something I could recognise but can’t understand, and it made me wonder how it can be written so. Probably the most famous example of this would be Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies, and I’m sure most have never been there, yet would agree it somehow sounds eastern.

This then leads me to wonder how is it that nationality and heritage affect music? How could Chopin have gone about writing a mazurka? Given the piano as a starting point, which ultimately is a series of set pitches, I’d like to understand how arrangements of these pitches can be so different in the environment they invoke, namely how a piece can sound ‘foreign’ or even how does culturally different music evolve in the first place?

I think Mazurka No. 44 In G Major, Op. 67 No.1 and Mazurka No. 23 in D major, Op. 33 No. 2 are the most notable, but I don’t know how they could be analysed, if that would help.

  • 2
    Every time I listen to a mazurka, including any of Chopin's, it doesn't sound particularly Polish or Eastern European to me. Polonaises sound more distinctive, but like most tarantellas, they sound like they've lost their nationality to me.
    – Dekkadeci
    Apr 30, 2020 at 13:53

4 Answers 4

  1. The incorporation of Hungarian Themes
  2. Influence of Gypsy and Roma tunes
  3. Rhythm and tempo change of Hungarian dances

s. Hungarian_Rhapsodies


The Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 is built like a Csárdás: The "sad Andante" of the slow first part, a so-called "Lassan", is followed by the lively second part, a typical "Friska" that ends every Csárdás.

  • 3
    In fact, to make a piece sound like almost any culture is to work folk song themes or chord structures into the work. Apr 30, 2020 at 14:30

Foreign is a relative term. It depends on where you are to know what is foreign to you. Depending on whether you are an insider or an outsider the experience will be different.

When Pat Boone sang rock it sounded foreign to me, because I am a rock native.

For a while in mid-20th century America exotic was the buzz word for "foreign" music. Add bongos and bird calls over the orchestra and American audiences back then thought it was wild and exotic. To a Polynesian the string orchestra and muted trumpets probably would have sounded American.

None of that is about classical music like Brahms, but I bring it up to introduce an important idea: authenticity.

Authentic art is direct from the cultural source. Art derived from the authentic is called stylized. Cultural borrowing with no real understanding is just plain fake. You can also get into the controversy of cultural appropriation, stealing from another culture.

The vast majority of "classical" music is art music and classical dance music is usually stylized. It was not written for actual dance accompaniment. (Some, like sets of minuets, landler, contradances, etc. were meant for actual social dance accompaniment, but those are often considered "minor" works, the well known concert works are usually the stylized variety.) Complete authenticity isn't the point of these works. Classical form is still the main point. The stylized elements are more like literary allusion hinting at styles to give a certain flavor.

Some ways to make a stylized dance:

  • use a characteristic rhythm of the dance, like Czardas (or Scotch snap) for Hungarian
  • use a characteristic scale or harmony, like the Freygish scale for Klezmer
  • incorporate an actual folk tune

That's pretty vague. It treats the proposition as added elements to some unspecified template. I think in most cases the template is assumed to be something like a piano style waltz or German dance in the vein of Schubert dances or Strauss waltzes. Some kind of ternary, da capo form will most likely be the way to make a large composition.

Authenticity will depend on the composer's intentions and how well they knows the style from which they borrow.

  • 1
    "rock native" :-) You are a funny guy! Apr 30, 2020 at 18:11
  • You say this, "Authentic art is direct from the cultural source. Art derived from the authentic is called stylized. Cultural borrowing with no real understanding is just plain fake." That sounds rather subjective to me. Depending on how one defines "direct from the cultural source", this could lead to an "Pierre Menard"-esque situation where two identical songs were judged to be of unequal authenticity depending on the origin of their author. And all that without defining what, precisely, is the source: who (Pat Boone excepted) would be an inauthentic rocker?
    – Obie 2.0
    May 1, 2020 at 1:21
  • It also seems like "understanding" as the determinant of "fakeness" is fraught with ambiguity. Who "understands" rock-and-roll: the proficient music theorist who can characterize the motifs of any rock song, but lacks practical talent or historical knowledge? The self-taught rocker who can riff and improvise like no one's business, but doesn't understand the theory of their discipline or its development? The historian who can trace the genre back to Big Joe Turner (or further) but whose practical and theoretical knowledge are lacking? If they all wrote a rock song, whose would be fake?
    – Obie 2.0
    May 1, 2020 at 1:34
  • @Obie2.0 You wrote a lot... Is your question simply: who has the authority to judge authenticity? May 1, 2020 at 1:50

More generally, how can a piece of music be made to sound, for want of a better word, foreign?

The answer is: both technical means and local culture (and its characteristics) produces a certain idiom of sound.

First, it is important to keep in mind that the Western music system of today is an about universal system which has developed over many centuries, which consists (so to speak) of an extensive toolbox and means of expression to compose and play music.
With this toolbox, many styles of music can be created.

The creation of folk music, which is not necessarily national (as nations arrived later on the scene), but locally produced music, did not proceed using the extensive tools and rules of this advanced Western toolbox. It was thus created using a limited toolbox of means (scales, rhythms, harmonies and instruments). Secondly, probably we should not think too simply in terms of means being the cause, but a correlation of means and temperament, the character and culture of a people. Limitation and exhaustion of a limited amount of means, combined with local preferences, local temperament and character, and limited means produces thus typically recognisable forms of music.

Imagine for instance that at the time the orchestra and its extensive toolbox of instruments which allows for a much greater range of expressions was not yet developed. Limited means thus also implies a limited amount of instruments, with a limited range of possibilities of expression, and again exhaustion of the possibilities of limited means leads to a pronounced character (in the context of local temperament of the people in question). Add to this, spontaneity; the non-precalculated (like much modern music often is). There are recognisable patterns which spontaneity forms on the basis of local temperament.

Also, take into account that many folk melodies were not composed on the basis of the Western general tuning system(s). Many folk melodies and harmonies when converted to be played according to the rules of the Western music system and its instruments, are approximations of the original. Hence, the niche of musicians who use original instruments and tuning systems, trying to approach the original idiom more closely. Nevertheless, the vast and more universal toolbox of the Western music system can approximate the original close enough, and our ears are more used to it.

In short: limited idioms or biotopes, producing the very characteristic with its own riches. It is a paradox perhaps that a more comprehensive universal system produces less of the peculiar characteristic, and that does not only apply to music.

Some of the Western composers where geniuses in trying to 'recapture' these idioms, to capture their spirit using the more universal tool box of the Western music system.

"The master shows himself in his limitations", someone wrote. The art of the real master therefore also has a unique stamp on it, just like folk music bears the unique stamp of a small collective through its limitations.

  • I'm not sure about presenting all non-art musics as "limited" in comparison. Some musical practices do indeed impose limits on themselves, like minimalism and serialism. But many simply look limited in comparison with the one we're accustomed to because we don't yet distinguish their variety. For example, the suggestion that the orchestra has an "extensive toolbox of instruments which allows for a much greater range of expression," and that before that there was a "limited range of possibilities of expression": By the time the symphony orchestra became codified in the 17th century,... Nov 17, 2023 at 19:32
  • ... by that time far more instruments had fallen out of use and relegated to the history books than were even present in the orchestra! See the wide collection in Praetorius' early-17th-century Syntagma Musicum. Nov 17, 2023 at 19:34
  • This is a useful description of the differences between "folk" music and "art" music, for lack of better terms, but I don't think it really addresses the question.
    – Aaron
    Nov 19, 2023 at 1:18

Jonathan Bellman: "The Style Hongrois in the Music of Western Europe" has some information on Hungarian music. He discusses the style as used by Baroque composers, Liszt, Brahms, and popular bands along the Danube in the 1900s.

Balint Sárosi: "Gypsy Music" also has a chapter on the relationship between Hungarian and Gypsy music.

Both books are useful but any book on folk music seems to have some hint of politics.

I would guess that there are resources on the 'net under Hungarian or Magyar or Gypsy or Liszt or Brahms that could help.

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