What does Western music sound like to non-western ears?

In another thread about using heavy metal as an “interrogation aid” with Iraqi prisoners, somebody mentioned that certain music would have a magnified impact on somebody who isn’t familiar with western music.

That got me thinking about things like Chinese opera, which, when first I heard, I was surprised to learn was music. Not to be disparaging to any culture’s art forms, but from my limited perspective, I didn’t think of this as music.

So… how does, for example, Mozart sound to somebody whose musical tradition is completely different?

Western Music sounds much the same as foreign music sounds to you. In other words, the Peking Opera sounds like a cat screeching with some random pans being banged around in the background to you is the same as Mozart being played to a non-westerner.

Well, my composition teacher told my class a wonderful story about this, by way of illustrating why one shouldn’t assume that musical value judgments are set in stone. (In fact, the story is so good, I have to wonder in retrospect if it was true at all; no names were given, and Googling the relevant words turned up nothing. So take it with a big grain of salt).

Seems some ethnomusicologists had been researching the way western music was interpreted by non-western ears. In one instance, they located an isolated Eskimo family who had little to no experience with western classical music, and arranged for them to attend a performance of Beethoven’s 9th symphony.

To a man, they reported the same impression: they loved the first part, but found the rest to be not very pleasant. The researchers were puzzled–why would the first movement sound so different to the Eskimos–until one Eskimo mentioned that if there was a fault with the first part, it was that it was way too short.

I’m sure you saw this coming–the part the Eskimos liked was the orchestra tuning up!

Seems a bit Snopes-worthy, though, doesn’t it?

There’s a joke here somewhere relating to the line “we like both kinds of music: country and western”, but I’ll be damned if I can find it.

I suppose dorkusmalorkusmafia’s point is valid. However western music is very well known, studied and played the world over. There are rock bands nearly everywhere except perhaps in the countries being run by Muslim extremists and I wouldn’t be surprised to find some even there.

Western classical music is popular in the east. I think most music is comprised of 12 tones. How they are applied very greatly from west to east and some music is microtonal like sitar stuff for example. I’m curious to hear a Chinese Opera now.

Hoops, I read the exact same thing that you cited in my World Music book in college; however, it was an Indian musician (a sitar player I think) instead of Eskimos.

I hit submit too fast. Fatjack, take a look at the foreign movie, Farewell My Concubine. It is about the fall of the Chinese opera when the communists took over. It is a wonderful movie, has a great story, and it helps interpret a lot of the music to a westerner’s ear. It still sounds a bit like a cat fight to me though.

On a side note, traditional Geisha music and a lot of Indian (from India) music uses some very virtuosic yodeling techniquest that are not common in western music anymore. It can be very pretty or very jarring depending on the specific performer/composition.

Yes, I think Bela Fleck did some touring with someone that does something called “…” throat singing. I think he’s capable of hitting three notes at once.

Yes, I do suppose it is somewhat too late for me to ask the question, as the number of people in the world who could really answer this question from experience has become rather small (and possibly unavailable on this message board).

The success of Western “classical” music in parts of Asia could be attributed to marketing - the very same thing that brought Coca-Cola to the Yangszte and Calvin Klein over the silk road. Mozart is marketable in China. But why (in general) doesn’t Peking Opera perform before a packed Carnegie Hall?

There are at least three variables to consider here:

  1. The music itself. Is there something intrinsic to the music that makes it more accessible to a broader audience? The eskimo/Sitar player story sounds apocryphal, but it does underscore a suspicion I have that no music is so special that it can transcend cultural boundaries. And the soul that is stirred when listening to Mozart? Culturally constructed as well.
  2. The listener. Perhaps we Westerners have narrower boundaries in what we are able to appreciate, and Asians have more cosmopolitan tastes. There are surely differences, between cultures, in how open people are to music of other cultures.
  3. Marketing. With this to consider, the waters are muddied. It may be a fair generalization that McCulture, including music, is packaged to move East. It’s got nothing to do with the music or the people, it’s who can sell more refrigerators to more eskimos.

Quick and dirty, I know… but what could be the main factor here?

PS On preview, I do see another example of individual cases where non-Western music has done okay stateside, this time a throat singer who had some help(?) from Bela Fleck. But it still sounds very exotic to us, and what I’m getting is that Western music does not sound so foreign to anyone these days.

Hell’s Bells, do you know when? There was a documentary about this kind of music some years back called Genghis Blues - awesome title - and I heard a snippet once. Blew my mind.

In case anyone here’s not familair with Chinese opera, you can hear some samples here

Just as English and Cantonese are wildly different languages in terms of basic sounds, phrasing, structure, etc., “western” and “eastern” music bear little similarity except for being played on what either culture can recognize as some sort of musical instrument. We may not care for how it sounds, but if it looks like a banjo, it’s probably gonna be used in a similar way.

I’m not certain but there’s a concert Flecktones DVD out with him on it. I haven’t seen it but I bought one for a Christmas present.

Tuvan throat singing. I learned that in Physics class in high school. Go Feynmann!