Now a Break From Our Regularly Scheduled Programming…

…to talk about “world music.” Not just the concept, but the term.

When you Google the definition for “world music,” it defines it as “traditional music from the developing world.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “popular music originating from or influenced by non-Western musical traditions and often having a danceable rhythm […].” Personally, I absolutely hate both of these definitions, and like David Byrne explains in his article entitled “I Hate World Music,” (which I highly recommend reading, and that isn’t something I do often), I have really come to hate the term. Let me explain why.

The closest thing to any amount of all-inclusive truth in either of these definitions is the phrase “traditional music,” but even this is largely untrue about music categorized as world music. The only reason this is close to true is simply based on stereotypes. When someone who has not spent time studying this field, which in all fairness is most people since it is a pretty new field of study relatively speaking, is asked what they think is considered world music, the most common response from musicians and non-musicians alike is, more often than not, a reference to African drumming, Latin music, or Asian music, all three of which can very easily be broken down into hundreds of categories of their own. Just within African drumming, there is West African drumming, within West African drumming is Ghanaian drumming, and within Ghanaian drumming is Ewe drumming, and within Ewe drumming is a popular style called Gahu, which is finally just one style of African drumming. Similarly, within Asian music is Korean music, within Korean music is South Korean music, and within South Korean music is K-Pop, which houses the famous “Gangnam Style” by Psy. Who out there would put Gangnam Style and traditional West African drumming of any style in the same category? Anyone? Anyone at all? No? I didn’t think so… so why are we doing this on a regular basis?

Some of you may be saying, “But Gangnam Style isn’t in the same category as West African drumming,” which is correct, but only because Gangnam Style gained popularity. For those of you that still spend any amount of time or money at a record store or pay attention to the “genre” section of any digital music library, I guarantee you will find many things under the label “world music” that sound just like Gangnam Style – which, coincidentally, sounds just like most American pop that was being released at the time – but are in a different language and therefore considered “world music.”

In fact, some of them may even be European languages and European-based bands. Why does this matter? Let me do the politician thing and answer that by asking you this – do you consider Europe to be part of the developing world? Most people would not, yet that’s part of Google’s definition. Additionally, Europe is typically considered part of the Western world (particularly in terms of music and culture), yet Merriam-Webster’s definition says “world music” is “originating or influenced by non-Western musical traditions.” Well, technically (as I’m sure some of you may already be thinking), to say European music was originated from and/or influenced by non-Western musical traditions would be true…well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but so is American music. Every bit of it. Even jazz, the one style of music actually attributed to the U.S., is heavily based on African and Afro-Cuban musical traditions, especially regarding rhythm.

So, if every bit of music we ever knew is based on non-Western music, then by definition is everything world music?


It really is that simple. Based on the definitions we have, all music in all the world could and should fall under the term “world music,” and this is exactly why it is an awful, almost useless term. When we already have the general term “music” (which people already debate), why do we have another umbrella term that could literally mean anything? It’s like when someone asks what kind of food you like and you say “the edible kind.” This is one of my personal favorite responses, but because I know how uncomfortably vague it is. Sure, there is some food that certain people may dislike so much they may consider it inedible, but at the end of the day, if someone tells you they prefer edible food, you’re still going to give them this look:


So stop telling people you like music from the other 75% of the world that is not otherwise categorized. Believe it or not, there are more kinds of “world music” out there than types of music you and I are familiar with, combined. So get out there and discover it!

“But Michael, what do I call it?” How about…what it is? Everything has a name – every song, every style, every cultural/musical region. Don’t just panic and call it something at face value, because that kind of laziness is what created things like racism and stereotyping in this world. No one is perfect, myself included; in fact, my degree will have the words “world music” on it, but this doesn’t mean I can’t be proactive and call things what they are as I learn them.

So next time you hear, pick up, or buy something that sounds foreign to you, don’t just put it under that blanket “world music” category. Take the opportunity to learn something new and grow as a human being, maybe even tell your friends! Society may call those people “nerds,” but in reality everyone starves for knowledge, so if everyone has it, we just have an educated society with some killer taste in music, and who wouldn’t want that?