The Dust of Colonialism: Eurocentrism in Art Music

This article is derived from Chapter 2 of Reza Vali’s Return to the Origins, published in Nov. 2022 by The Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at Princeton University, and has been edited for content and length.

The cultures of the world, like the oceans, are all interconnected. Every culture bears traces of other traditions and heritages, and no single culture can or should claim to be superior to another. Some European civilizations, however, amassed enough economic and military might to conquer significant tracts of the earth beginning in the 16th century. By the time the 19th century rolled around, European countries occupied nearly the entire planet. Take Britain, for example; it’s a country half the size of Iran, and yet the English occupied about 25 percent of the landmass of the earth during the 1800s, giving rise to the saying “The sun does not set in the British Empire.”

To justify their colonialism, some European countries theorized that European culture is a “super culture” and that European humans were more advanced than Asian or African humans. This theory is at the core of what is known as “Eurocentrism.” Numerous books and articles have been written about the political, social, and cultural aspects of Eurocentrism, but there has been far less discussion of the artistic and musical implications of this issue.

Musicians and scholars often examine the structural elements of music — polyphony, monophony, form, rhythm — from a European perspective rather than in the context of their own historical development and significance. But pluralism can offer an alternative to this Eurocentric way of thinking. Also known as multiculturalism, pluralism is a state in which cultural diversity is valued over any single culture’s alleged superiority. It is the opposite of Eurocentrism, as the value of each individual culture is the same. Pluralist thinking suggests that the fundamental elements of music should be analyzed from broader perspectives, like that of the scientist or the humanitarian, with an eye that appreciates cultural diversity and embraces a more comprehensive approach.

Here, I’ll illustrate some of the traces of Eurocentrism on music, and how we can reframe these issues with a pluralist approach:

Exportation and internationalization of the European twelve-tone equal temperament tuning system (12TET)

The 12TET system originated in the early 18th century as European polyphony morphed from horizontal polyphony (based on the movement of individual voices) to vertical polyphony (based on chord progressions). 12TET provides a framework that allows for easier chordal movement and transposition between musical keys. Except for the standard interval of the octave, none of the equally-spaced 12TET intervals quite correspond to those found in natural tuning systems, which are proportionally based on the harmonic frequencies of sound waves.

Many cultures based their music on the natural tuning system, including Asian cultures such as the Far East, India, Iran, the Middle East, and so on. During the last two centuries, however, 12TET has proliferated all over the world and is now being taught in most conservatories and music schools. 12TET is also the tuning base for the various genres of the global music industry, especially pop and rock music. These genres permeate almost all radio, television, and internet social networks.

Due to its prevalence in both academia and the global music industry, this over-reliance on 12TET has created an environment where people around the world are forgetting their own cultures’ tuning systems and musical intervals.

After World War II, especially in the United States, American composers like Harry Partch and Ben Johnston rebelled against 12TET, rejecting this system in favor of employing natural tuning systems in their compositions. In recent decades, there has been a surge in interest around the world in returning to natural tuning systems and building music based on these systems. This trend is occurring in popular music as well, with some commercial musicians adopting the intervals, rhythms, and instruments of different cultures. Turkish musicians like Aynur Doğan have begun to use asymmetrical rhythms, Turkish music intervals, and Turkish musical instruments in popular music. This process is continuing in Iran with artists such as Homayoun Shajarian and Sohrab & Tahmoures Pournazeri, and in other countries as well.

Exportation and internationalization of European-style music education, a.k.a. the conservatory system

Throughout Europe, the conservatory system is the primary method of teaching music. This system’s roots stretch back to the French Revolution and the establishment of the National Conservatory of Music in Paris. In this system, the best musicians and composers are selected through strict entrance exams and educated under a highly disciplined system that includes the teaching of solfège, music dictation, figured bass, harmony, counterpoint, etc. During the 19th century, the conservatory system evolved and spread to all European countries, and it has since continued to proliferate almost all over the world.

This has created several noteworthy problems. First, the cultures of the world, including those of China, India, Iran, East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, already have indigenous methods of teaching music that have evolved within those cultures and are pedagogically linked to the music of those cultures. Many of these music education systems are simply not compatible with the European conservatory system and are being erased.

Second, during the transfer of the European conservatory system to other countries, this highly disciplined system has been corrupted and many of its rules have been relaxed and “watered down.” In many countries, the entrance exam is no longer very difficult (or there are no entrance exams), and regular conservatory courses have either been changed or eliminated. The result is that every year a large group of music students graduate from conservatories in non-European countries without a deep understanding of European art music and not knowing the music of their own cultures.

In many countries, students attending conservatory learn European music by default due to a historically Eurocentric presupposition of the dominance of European music. A better, more pluralistic route would be to ask the student what sort of music they wish to study and to teach this in parallel with other musical languages. Of course, with the advancement of technology, students can now communicate with professors and experts in various styles and cultures of music via the internet. In this way, conservatory-style teaching could be used to teach European music, and the music of other cultures could be taught according to the musical traditions of those cultures.

In some respects, learning music is syntactically similar to learning a language. Suppose you decided to study English and Persian at the same time. You wouldn’t learn Persian using English grammar or vice versa; you’d learn Persian grammar for Persian and English grammar for English. Still, if you studied these languages together, you’d also notice a series of English and Persian words that are phonetically nearly identical. For example, the Persian word “pass” is “pass” in English, and the Persian word “dokhtar” is “daughter” in English. Where do these similarities come from? Persian and English are in the same lexiconic family and are both Indo-European languages. When the relationships between these languages are acknowledged, the process of learning them in parallel is better facilitated.

This learning process can hold true in music as well. I call this process Parallel Interconnected Education. In Parallel Interconnected Education, students learn two or more musical languages simultaneously, and similarities between the two musical “languages” can be used to facilitate learning. For example, suppose a student wanted to learn European music as well as Iranian music. They could learn European music using the European music tradition (the conservatory system) and Iranian music using the Iranian music tradition (the radif system) in parallel.

Division of music into European and non-European music

European art music is often referred to as “classical” music, and non-European music is called “indigenous” or “ethnic” music. Recently, the name of “Ethnic Music” has been changed to “World Music.” In other words, if a performer plays music of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, they are performing “classical music,” but if a performer plays the music of Ravi Shankar or Hossein Alizadeh, they’re performing ethnic music or “world music.” Aren’t European countries part of the world? Why is only the music of Asia, Africa, and Latin America called “world music?”

In pluralist thinking, music is not divided into European music and non-European music. “Classical” music refers not to a specific historical period or culture’s music, but to the art music of a country. The music of all countries could be divided into classical (art) music, folk music, religious music, popular music, and so on. For each country, we would have classical music — Iranian classical music, Indian classical music, Chinese classical music, Japanese classical music — and this division of music that separates European and non-European music would be eliminated.

Division of music research into “Musicology” and “Ethnomusicology”

If a researcher studies European art music, such as the music of Bach or Beethoven or Brahms, they are called a “musicologist.” But if a scholar researches Indian or Iranian music, they are called an “ethnomusicologist.” Aren’t Germans, French, and Italians ethnic groups? Of course they are, so a scholar who is researching the music of Bach is studying the music of ethnic Germans in the 18th century. Therefore, all musicologists are in fact ethnomusicologists because they study the music of different ethnic groups in different historical periods. Thus, separating “ethnomusicology” from “musicology” literally makes no sense. I think it likely that, in the future, the word “ethno” will be excised from musicology as a field of study, whether a researcher is exploring European or non-European music.

Almost a century after the end of colonialism, the dust of Eurocentric thinking still weighs heavily on the musical minds of the peoples of the world.

I’d like to add a few final thoughts on the progression of music from a Eurocentric field to a more pluralist perspective:

  • In the 21st century, the instruments of non-European cultures should be equally valued alongside European instruments.
  • International orchestras and ensembles that use European and non-European instruments alike should be established. This is already occurring with ensembles like the Silk Road Ensemble.
  • Composers should create new works for such orchestras and ensembles.
  • Through dialogue and cooperation, some of the basic elements of non-European musical cultures, such as intervals, rhythms and forms, should be taught to Europeans, Americans, Australians, and all musicians who are trained in the European conservatory system.

Almost a century after the end of colonialism, the dust of Eurocentric thinking still weighs heavily on the musical minds of the peoples of the world. Removing this dust requires directly and deliberately challenging Eurocentrism when it appears, without being hostile or anti-European. Rather, it should be done through friendly discussion and sincere dialogue. In this way, the European musical culture will find its true place among the other musical cultures of the world — not above them, but alongside them.


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