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What Does Tradition Mean in Music?


Have you ever heard of the genre ‘traditional music’ and wondered, what exactly does that mean? If there is such a thing as ‘traditional music’, then what is ‘non-traditional’ music?

We often ascribe the descriptor ‘tradition’ to musical cultures that sound foreign to us. If you grew up listening mostly to western popular music, a South Indian classical concert or a West African folk song might sound so unfamiliar to our culture that it must be some sort of ‘traditional music’.

However, the reality is that all music, regardless of the genre, has some sort of tradition attached to it. The difference then, is the nature of that tradition.

A simple way you can define tradition is the handing down of customs or beliefs from the past to the present. Immediately when we think of tradition we envision practices that are old, unchanging, and static. However, this is only one side of the coin of tradition. While we do have traditions that have remained static through long periods of time, we also have traditions in which their very nature is to change and adapt. The nature of constant flux is in itself a custom that can be handed down from past to present.


Let’s examine the genre of jazz music - a musical style that has evolved rapidly over the past century and is still evolving today. I love jazz because what characterizes the genre for me is the artistic impulse to challenge oneself musically and to innovate daringly. Jazz musicians improvise. That’s what they do. But not only do they improvise on-stage, but off-stage they are constantly experimenting with new ways to challenge what’s already been established. Jazz developed its harmonic complexity through a desire of its musicians to create the most technical forms of musical expression. This led to what is now called ‘hot jazz’, with blazingly fast melody lines decorating rapid and intricate harmonic changes.

However, some jazz musicians felt that there was more to the music than just pushing the boundaries of technical and musical dexterity. This led them to innovate musically, creating what is now called ‘cool jazz’. Suddenly harmonies are sparse, melodies are slow, notes are few and there is air to breathe.

Jazz constantly reinvents itself in response to what came before it. From bebop to modal jazz, modal jazz to free jazz, the genre is constantly changing. That is the very nature of jazz.

Therefore I would describe the jazz tradition as a ‘constant flux’ tradition.

Carnatic Music

On the other hand, a musical genre like carnatic music or South Indian classical music is much more of a ‘static’ tradition than a ‘constant flux’ tradition.

The age of the genre is less important than the fact that the methods of executing the music have been relatively unchanging over centuries. Melodic ragas are performed in very distinct ways, and these practices are concretised over centuries of artists performing them in this manner. An attempt to deviate from the established melodic pattern of a raga could at best be dismissed as a careless mistake, and at worst criticized for musical blasphemy.

Well I’m not going to go in-depth into carnatic music here, but you can see that each genre has a different conceptualisation of its tradition.

The nature of each musical genre can be placed along a spectrum of ‘static’ tradition to ‘constant flux’ tradition. No genre is completely on either side of the spectrum, but rather leans more toward one end to differing degrees.

What does it mean for us as musicians?

An understanding of the nature of specific musical tradition will enable us to be better poised to learn them. Using myself as an example, I’m learning both jazz and carnatic music, but my approaches to learning them are vastly different!

For jazz, knowing it is a ‘constant flux’ tradition, I approach it with a lot more freedom. I do lots of self-study, reading, and listening to absorb the musical material and mold it into my own distinct fusion fingerstyle genre. I’m less concerned with learning jazz ‘the way the masters have been doing it’ simply because the masters themselves were always experimenting with new ways of playing jazz!

For carnatic music on the other hand, knowing it as a ‘static’ tradition, I stick to learning it the way it’s been done for centuries, because that’s the very essence of carnatic music - established and unchanging. I also try to emulate the context in which it is normally learnt in its original cultural context by studying within a teacher - disciple relationship with my guru. This way I am learning carnatic music as accurately as I can, and I am then better poised to apply the knowledge and skills in my own fusion fingerstyle genre.

So no matter what genre of music you play, make an effort to understand what kind of musical tradition it is. Is it a ‘static’ tradition or one of ‘constant flux’? The process of learning becomes much smoother, and you will develop a better understanding and appreciation of the very music you are playing.

What genre of music do you play, and is it a ‘static’ or ‘constant flux’ tradition? Leave a note in the comments below and let’s share our musical journeys with each another!

By Neil Chan


The ideas and contents of this post are inspired by the book 'Facing The Music' by Huib Schippers.


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