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Around the world of music tonality

By Mia Walker

Editor's Note: To understand the following article, a basic understanding of music theory is required.

From dizis to didgeridoos, the traditional music world of foreign countries is so widely different and unfamiliar from our Western perception of music. While we’ve grown accustomed to the Western 12-note octave scale system following an equal temperament structure, it’s not the same everywhere around the world. With various traditional instruments and various uses for music, every country’s past has shaped its musical systems differently.

The first thing that musicians do together before playing their instruments is tuning, a process where the ensemble agrees on a particular pitch to match a note. For example, in a wind ensemble, the first oboe or first clarinet player typically plays the note that we know as concert “A” or “B flat”. From there, the rest of the orchestra plays that note and adjusts their instrument to completely match the pitch. Some pull or push their instrument’s parts apart or together depending on whether their own pitch is slightly higher or lower than the given note. Others adjust the angle of their instrument or their embouchure, which is the way a player’s mouth is positioned against the instrument. In doing this, all of the instruments synchronize their tones so that the music to be played sounds more harmonious. Across the world, different cultures use different tuning systems to decide what pitches best fit the notes played.

Western music

In modern Western music, music from regions within Europe, North America, and Oceania (considered as the Western world), the 12-key octave scale is the basis of all music. It consists of the division of an octave into twelve notes, each separated by an interval of a “half step”. This tuning system is called equal temperament, and it recently replaced the sound of many countries’ modern music.

A chromatic scale starting from C showcasing all 12 notes.

This is easier visualized on a piano, with every white and black note representing notes a half-step apart from one another, and with black keys being the flat and sharp keys, making the note half a step lower or higher than the corresponding white key.

Image by Find Your Melody, a piano labeled with each note’s name.

However, pianos (and other similar instruments) are tuned in and considered as “C instruments”, while many other Western orchestral instruments are built in other keys, such as Bb or F. This results in their concert notes being transposed versions of their true tones. They’re built in this way because of the historical versions of their instruments, with the makers not having the accuracy or tools to make instrument keys in tune with other instruments. Since many instruments were created during a time in which music theory was not set in stone, they had instruments in single scale degrees, with certain notes unobtainable. For example, early versions of the clarinets weren’t suited to playing chromatic scales, so instruments of different sizes made it possible to play in any key. But as time went on, makers learned of more precise ways to create instruments, and the number of clarinets needed to play the full range of scales diminished, leaving three soprano clarinets as the most used. They were A, Bb, and C, with Bb sounding the best and ending up being the most commonly played in orchestras.

While some modernized music from other countries has adjusted to fit the Western sound, traditional music is deeply rooted in history and music traditions.


Image by Bucknell University, Sounds of China performance featuring traditional Chinese instruments.

Chinese music is thought to be one of the oldest and most highly developed musical systems, with their folk music in specific dating back 7,000 years. During the Zhou Dynasty (500 BC), music had an extremely vital role as a pillar of society due to how, ideally, China was to be governed through ceremonies, rites, and rituals. While other countries saw music as entertainment, China saw it as an important tool to achieve social and political goals as it was often thought to have healing characteristics and the ability to build or break morals within people. According to Confucius, China’s foremost philosopher of music and prominent music teacher of his time, musical knowledge was to be considered higher learning and was one of the six most important subjects to study, falling second behind the knowledge of the importance of ritual and public ceremonies.

Chinese folk music was often written to tell tales and traditions of China during the 12th century. The Northern and Southern Chinese villages have different approaches to their regions’ folk songs. Northern villages' folksongs are based on and descended from imperial temple music. The tone tends to be more mellifluous and dreamy as compared to Western music, with an emphasis on expression and emotions conveyed through the piece. In Southern Chinese villages, traditional ballads were popular, known as Nanyin or Nanguan. The melodies were sorrowful and broken-hearted, sung by a woman accompanied by traditional instruments such as the xiao and pipa.

It’s important to note that Chinese musicology features scales different from Western pieces, which makes it so interesting and unique to listen to. The Chinese music system doesn’t employ equal-tempered tuning as Western music does. Instead, it concentrates on a seven-tone scale with five core tones, similar to a Western pentatonic scale, which features five notes. In general, the music tended to follow the pentatonic scale, but also sound quite similar to Middle Eastern music in some regions. This is seen in the utilization of grace notes in the pieces, imitating the sound of bagpipes (which were invented in India), as well as penny whistles and Celtic instruments. The form of the pieces did not follow a European folk song structure of ABABAB, but rather had their own individual and unique phrases that developed in complexity as the piece went on.