All around the world

Music, like language, shows much regional variation

Western music has tended to be polarised into ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, with social elites favouring the classical tradition. But this formal music has always coexisted alongside informal music traditions – folk music. Towards the end of the 19th century interest grew in European and American folk music, with composers such as Béla Bartók travelling widely in eastern Europe documenting songs and incorporating traditional music into their own compositions.

In the UK and the USA, Cecil Sharp was influential in the revival of interest in folk music, and did much to ensure that traditional music and dance was recorded for posterity. It was probably Sharp’s interest that kept morris dancing alive.

Interestingly, because many traditional songs were passed on from person to person without being formally written down, they often varied from place to place. The ancient ballad ‘Barbara Allan’ (mentioned by Samuel Pepys in his diaries) exists in many different forms. Indeed, Cecil Sharp likened the process to evolution by natural selection – whereby different variants appear and those proving most popular in a particular population thrive and are passed on.

In the 20th century many efforts were made to capture and document traditional music. In recent decades a surge of interest in ‘world music’ has seen many traditional forms of music reach Western ears. New and old forms of music have been combined in fusion music, including dance music incorporating traditional sounds and modern electronic beats. African musicians have absorbed Western instruments such as the electric guitar, creating unique and distinctive new musical forms.

Nonetheless, creeping globalisation runs the risk of swamping local and traditional forms of music, just as other forms of Western culture threaten ancient ways of life.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Ecology and environment, History
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development