top of page

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.

A dizi sitting in two parts with engravings of a poem along the side.

Traditional Chinese folk song pieces are often played solo or in small groups, typically featuring wind and percussion instruments, such as traditional instruments like flutes (dizi), mouth organs (sheng), suonas, drums, and gongs. In the richer eastern provinces, where Jiangsu lies, folk musicians also play stringed instruments, such as the gu zheng, erhu, and gao hu. Their version of the flute in particular was an extremely popular and recognizable instrument. It’s called the dizi and written in D. It is made of bamboo and played transversely, or to the side, with six open holes. Due to its lack of keypads to cover the open holes of modern flutes, more sound techniques could be utilized to manipulate how a player’s finger can cover the hole. Like a modern-day silver flute, the dizi has a corked top and an open bottom. It was often decorated with tassels attached to a ring of a polished cow bone and engraved with classical poems. It was bound at different points with thread coated in thick red varnish to protect the bamboo from large changes in humidity in the region.


A flamenco performance. Image by Rene Hererdia.

Spanish music can be seen in the background of modern-day music, as it has played an important role in the development and influencing of Western-style and Latin American music respectively. In the Middle Ages, Spain was conquered numerous amount of times by the Moorish Muslims, who brought with them their music. Their traditional music instruments and melodies influenced much of the traditional music of Spain. As the Spanish Empire conquered other countries, the exchange of music was passed through trade routes and conquerings, with many music genres in South and Central America having been created by mixing styles from Spain.

Regions of Spain have their own unique musical traditions, ranging from the signature sound of flamenco guitar to bagpipes. Places like Andulausia are best known for flamenco music, which is a signature of Spain itself. In defining and finding the true flamenco in a piece, it's important to understand and take note of the musical tonality, the rhythm being used, and the performer—all elements that make up a huge part of the genre. The musical scale used in this is known as flamenco mode, a harmonized mode/scale used in flamenco songs and pieces. The key itself is similar to the Phrygian mode, which is a type of scale that is based on E and involves all the white keys on the piano starting and ending on E: E F G A B C D E. The half-step between E and F gives it its notable characteristic of sounding vaguely Middle Eastern, as influenced by the conquerings of their past. While the E key of the Phrygian mode is most common in flamenco, the A Phrygian mode is also commonly used. The scale for this would be A Bb C D E F G A, with G sometimes being replaced by a G#.

In addition to the tonality and structure of the flamenco mode, rhythm plays a crucial role in the sound of the music. As flamenco music is danced to, the rhythms are kept simple for those performing. They are typically written in 12, 4, or 3 beats, using rhythmic values known as compas. One compas of 12 beats corresponds to 3/4 rhythms, but with compases of 4 or 3 beats, one compas corresponds to one 4/4 or ¾ rhythm. Compases of 12 beats tend to have stronger beats on the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 10th, and 12th beat, with the rhythm itself usually ending at the 10. However, different styles within flamenco music call for different rhythms, mainly differing on the emphasis of certain beats and when they are played. For example, in the style known as Solea, the strongest beats in this are the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 10th, and 12th, but more specifically the 3rd, 10th, and 12th. All beats except for 1 and 4 have downbeat notes played on them, and notes played on off beats can vary, but are usually featured between the 1 and 2, 4 and 5, and 9 and 10, played as eighth notes directly between beats. For another style, Alegria, the compas is also 12 beats and is similar to the pattern of Solea, only with this, there tend to be two people clapping together during different intervals. In tangos, tarantos, tientos, rumbas, and more, the compas is 4, so there are only 4 beats per measure. The rhythms place an emphasis on the 1st and 3rd beat, similar to popular and classical Western-style music. In a typical tango-style piece, the 1st beat is in rest, with downbeats on 2, 3, and 4, and an additional eighth note off-beat between 2 and 3.

A flamenco guitar. Image by Johannes T’Kindt.

The main instrument behind flamenco music is the flamenco guitar. It descended from the classical guitar which originated in Southern Spain. What sets it apart from an acoustic guitar is the structure. The strings of flamenco guitars tend to be made of nylon, unlike the steel-stringed acoustic guitar. The neck is slightly narrower on the acoustic guitar as well. Flamenco guitars are built for faster playability, and the wider neck supports this, as the strings are slightly less cramped together, but forces a more aggressive right-hand technique. The sycamore backings of flamenco guitars create a brighter sound through the instrument, a staple of the flamenco music it was meant for. The guitar is tuned in E, which gives it the unique native Spanish style sound. It features two open strings in E, which makes the fingerings easier in Phrygian mode most notably.

Historical events and traditional instruments play an important role in the development of music systems around the world. The native sounds of different countries are often recognized easily due to their uniqueness against other cultures, but the music theory behind these insights is not often recognized. With an understanding of the musical systems of other cultures, we can begin to notice the patterns and gain new insight as to what sounds shaped their countries today.

46 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page