WMS Music Tidbit

These tidbits are a bit of interesting information about music or composers that we are studying, or something about current events in music that might relate to us, or who knows what! If you have ideas for me, let me know!
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Music From China
Music From Japan
Music From Korea


Music From India
Klezmer Music and Music from the Jewish Tradition
Latin America

Last spring we looked at "Music From Where??" . That Tidbit page opened with:

Often as we listen to a particular piece of music we think, "That sounds like music from Israel." Or, "That sounds like music from Africa." Or, "That sounds like music from China." Or Ireland, or Central America, or India, or... Or sometimes we might note that it sounds like Native American music or Zydeco (Cajun music).

What makes us say that? What in the music makes it sound like it comes from a particular country or culture?

Some of the characteristics that identify music are the instruments used, the scale the piece is based on, rhythms used, the way accents & stress are used, harmonies, and the structure & format of the music.

This fall (1999), as the Symphonic Band is playing a piece called Asian Song, we are going to explore the characteristics of some types of Asian music.

(Parents & students of Asian heritage: If I leave out something important, make an error in my research or if you have something to add, please let me know! Also, if you play an traditional instrument from your home country, please come demonstrate it for us!)

Music of China


Our piece, Asian Song, is based on the pentatonic scale, which is most frequently associated with Chinese music. Click to go to a page explaining the pentatonic scale. This page also includes a sound file of the pentatonic scale. Go to the pentatonic scale page now.

I assume you looked over the info on the pentatonic scale, if not, go do it.


So, using the pentatonic scale is one way of getting a piece to sound like it is from China. But the scale can't do the job alone! Listen to the two examples below. Both are simple melodies using the pentatonic scale, but they sound very different!

The first uses a simple drone bass note as an accompaniment and has an "Asian" sound.

The second example, however, uses the same notes & scale, but has swing rhythms & accents and uses the riffs one might find in a blues. Consequently, this second example sounds like jazz. Both use the same notes and scale but sound very different.

(The play bar only shows with certain browsers. If it doesn't show up, click on the link to download the midi file.)


In Asian Song, we identified a few instruments that were included to help the piece sound like it came from the Chinese culture. This piece uses a gong, the temple blocks, finger cymbals and drums (not a snare, which is more European military sounding). Also, the melody is often in the flutes.

Traditional Chinese Instruments

Below are some traditional Chinese instruments. For more information on these and other Chinese instruments, follow the link (on this link, click the little picture for a lovely picture of the instrument and click the words "Play Sample" for an audio file).




Tao Chen, a di-zi player


Yangqin (Chinese Dulcimer)

The Pipa

Links about Chinese Music

Information about classic music recordings from China & where to purchase them http://www.medieval.org/music/world/china.html

Sound files for all kinds of music from China. Includes folk music, ceremonial music, opera & music from Taiwan & Hong Kong. http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~felsing/cstuff/tunes.html

Information, pictures and sound files Chinese instruments, follow the link (on this link, click the little picture for a lovely picture of the instrument and click the words "Play Sample" for an audio file). http://www.sco.com.sg/english/co/co.html

The Internet Chinese Music Archive - MP3s of traditional, contemporary & even pop music from China. http://www.ibiblio.org/chinese-music/

Chinese Music Society of North America - links to many articles & books pertaining to Chinese Music in this part of the world as well as in China. http://chinesemusic.net/

A fasinating discussion (and order form for the book) of Cultural Acoustics of Chinese Instruments - for example, why a violinist playing an erhu doesn't always sound appropriate. http://chinesemusic.net/book_instruments_acoustics.asp

Greater Boston Chinese Cultural Association which has the Chinese Music Ensemble, the Chinese Youth Orchestra (in which many of our Wayland students perform!) and a Choral Society. http://www.gbcca.org

The Heaven of Chinese Music - a site with information about traditional Chinese music and the instruments. http://www.geocities.com/Vienna/2682/chmusic.html

About Chinese popular music http://www.geocities.com/Tokyo/Harbor/6080/music/Yinyue.htm

Information for this page was taken from the following sources:
  • Colin, Dr. Charles and Don Schaeffer. Complete Encyclopedia of Scales. New York: Charles Colin, 1977. p142.



The basis for Japanese music was brought to the island from China and then over the centuries it was changed and developed into a unique style. Much of Japanese traditional music is also based on the pentatonic scale. If you haven't yet looked at the pentatonic scale information, do so now. Go to the pentatonic scale page.

A traditional pentatonic scale used in the Japanese folk song, "Sakura" is (in half steps, whole steps, etc. R=root)

R - W - H - 2W - H  

G - A - Bb - D - Eb

This has a very different sound than the pentatonic scale on the link above. Play it on your instrument, then go to "O-Koto Culture of Japan" http://www.genkienglish.net/genkijapan/koto.htm and try it on the virtual Koto on that page. This virtual koto is tune to this pentatonic scale so that you can play "Sakura". (The koto can be tuned to other scales as well.) Experiment with the sound and see if you can learn to play "Sakura"!



picture from: http://web-japan.org/kidsweb/virtual/koto/music.html


picture from: http://web-japan.org/kidsweb/virtual/koto/music.html


picture from http://koto.home.att.net//ensemble.html


picture from: http://home.san.rr.com/koto/instru.htm

Links about traditional Japanese instruments:

"O-Koto Culture of Japan" http://www.genkienglish.net/genkijapan/koto.htm - Try your hand at playing a virtual Koto with all of the strings available to you so you can make your own Japanese melodies! There is a sample of the traditional Japanese folk song, "Sakura". You can try to play the melody, or make your own.

For a look at three traditional Japanese instruments, the shamisen, shakuhachi, and koto, check out "Traditional Japanese Music" - (http://web-japan.org/kidsweb/virtual/koto/music.html). This section has an indepth look at the koto and even a virtual koto game where you get to play and see if you can put the notes in the right place!

Another site about the shamisen, shakuhachi, and koto is "Reiko's Koto: About the Instruments" http://home.san.rr.com/koto/instru.htm. This is a good site for listening to some traditional Japanese music.

Another interactive site by PBS, "Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire: Interactive Instruments" (http://www.pbs.org/empires/japan/instruments.html) looks at 5 different instruments, the shamisen, shakuhachi, tsutsumi, taiko and koto, and allows you to hear the individual sound and then combine them and arrange the music to your liking.

More information about the Koto at "Koto no Koto - About the Koto" http://koto.home.att.net//about.html

More instruments are described at JNTO Website- Illustrated "Look into Japan" http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/illustrated/culture/p.html

Styles of Music


Gagaku: A type of traditional Japanese music, Gagaku is an ancient style of Japanese music favored by members of the court. It is considered to be the earliest form of orchestral music in the world, and has been discovered to be used as early as around 700 AD! A number of differnt string, woodwind and percussion instruments played in ensembles to entertain the household of the Emeror. This music is still played at the Imperial Household today.

Nohgaku: Nohgaku is another kind of traditional Japanese music and was music to accompany the Noh Theater presentations, a favorite of the Samuri class (the warriors).

For more information on Gagaku and Nohgaku and the instruments used, go to "Koto no Koto - Ensemble" http://koto.home.att.net//ensemble.html


All music in Japan is not traditional styles!! Many of the world's greatest musicians in "western" orchestral music come from japan (such as, Seiji Ozawa, the conductor of the Boston Symphony for 29 years. Every major city has an orchestra and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra is one of the world's great orchestras.

Likewise, Japanese youths listen to the same kinds of music as young people all over the world, including many American pop stars!


Devillier Donegan Enterprises. "Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire: Interactive Instruments" http://www.pbs.org/empires/japan/instruments.html. 2003.

Robertson, Scott. "Koto no Koto" http://koto.home.att.net. 2003.

Web-Japan. "Traditional Japanese Music". http://web-japan.org/kidsweb/virtual/koto/music.html.

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