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That’s Not Music to My Ears!

My in-laws have lived in the middle east for well over 10 years and have grown accustomed to the middle eastern musical scales and sounds – or so I had thought.  While they were back visiting us over the summer we attended the local folk music festival together. As with most festivals I have attended the music is as diverse as the people who attend.  After a morning full of such diversity I wanted to expose my children to an example of the music my in-laws (their pappa and momma) would regularly hear in their second homeland.  I don’t remember if anyone said anything so I must have assumed that this would be okay.

Later that afternoon we found a place on the right side of the stage, laid out our  blankets and lawn chairs and waited for the performance.  It was at this time I noticed that my mother in law had become quiet – perhaps in excited anticipation of hearing the music.  Four men came on stage carrying instruments specific to their region.  We commented on the different shapes and the materials the instruments were made of. The men formed themselves in a small semi circle on stage – all sitting on the floor.  They began to play.

Unlike much western music,  Arabic music includes quarter tones. These small changes, in what is to the Westerner’s ear a single note,  is often uncommon to our ear and may even seem out of tune. The rhythmic structures are generally very complex and carry a tension uncommon to western music culture.  More traditional Middle Eastern music can last from one to three hours in length. Luckily this wasn’t a traditional context because when I looked over at my sweet mother in law after only 3 minutes into the performance, she was trying hard to not noticeably cringe.  After the first piece she turned to us and said, “so that is similar to what I hear anytime I want to back in Abu Dhabi – how about we go try another stage and listen to some music I don’t get to hear as often any more.”  It was subtle but we all got the point…this music was not resonating positively with her.

As we walked away I asked her what she thought of the music and she said something very interesting to me, “I have not learned to understand it.”  Then with a serious note to her voice she asked me if that was common. She said to her it didn’t sound like music.  She asked me if I thought it sounded like music.  I told her that although it was not my preferred style of music listening I definitely would call it music.   This lead into a wonderful discussion around “what is music?”

To her, middle eastern music, even after several exposure attempts, did not sound like music. She would always gravitate back to the music that made the most sense to her, that made her feel comfortable, that held some meaning to her.  I am sure she is not the only one.  I know that many parents out there feel the same way when their teenagers are playing music in the basement…music that they don’t understand.  And if not your teenager’s music, there is probably some style of music that does not make a lot of sense to you.

So what is music to each of us?  Does our brain need to understand it?  Do we need to like it?  Does the performer have to have skill?  Do the notes need to be in all the right places?  What is music?  I suggest that MUSIC THAT IS INTENDED TO BE MUSIC IS MUSIC. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it.  I would love your thoughts…


  • Hi Jen

    Well I think it goes both ways. As you know I regularly play oud (Middle-Eastern), and Sitar (Indian) in my music therapy sessions. I do this mostly with people who are not from the cultures that those instruments and their associated music comes from. I find that much of the time people are pleased to hear the “exotic” sounds and often find it very soothing. I also play oud in the world music group Jaffa Road. ( This group is an intentional fusion of Eastern and Western musical ideas, but it is pretty heavy on the Eastern. We generally get very positive responses from the audiences that we perform to (mostly Western ears), partly because the like the exotic and unfamiliar flavors that are in the music.

    At the same time it is not for all and some people are just more comfortable with the musical language that they are familiar with. We often hear the cliche that music if the universal language. Music is universal meaning it exists everywhere, but each culture has its own musical language with different vocabulary, syntax, elements, and structures. What is universal is that there is always the potential that music from an very different music culture can have a strong emotional impact on a person. Yet sometimes in some situations, the familiar is more of what the doctor ordered.

    I love Middle-Eastern music and I am an active student and performer of it, still I suspect that if I was at a Canadian music festival after 10 years of living in the Middle-East, I too would be looking for the nearest, funk, reggae, or blues band.


    • so glad you responded Aaron as I thought about you right away. Great words and insight. You are some of the best we have out there and I too LOVE your music. Perhaps this particular group was also not the best representation of all middle eastern music has to offer – too bad you were not with us at the time. Jen

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  • I think all music will be understood by the brain even though we don’t understand it consciously. I suspect that music that grates on us does so for a deep-seated reason. thanks for the article.

    • thanks Dorise.

  • I find my students gravitate towards anything in 4/4 time. As they progress musically, they move from quarter notes, to eights, and occasionally try to show off by throwing in 16ths. But they never leave the gravity of 4/4 time.

    As well, our use of the Chromatic and Pentatonic Scales is so prevalent, that it only takes a slight variation from this standard to make us sit up and take notice. If that variation is too great, like you’ve mentioned, we have a difficult time processing the dissonance.

    I dont think you can jump from “Shave and a haircut – two bits” (perhaps the shortest piece of recognizible ‘music’) directly to John Cage’s “As Slow As Possible” (expected to run for 639 years).

    When the changes are gradual, and expected, we enjoy them and are more apt to call them music to our own ears.

    • Graham – thanks so much for your comments. So good.

  • Today I had a man in mine therapy room. I work for more than a year with him.
    He has psychotic periods and in those periods he uses drugs en steel things to buy the drugs and he had attack people. Now he’s in this institutions a specially for people with his problems.

    He is always busy how to learn to play the drum or the guitar. But he is also a fine painter and he can make beautiful things. He is always disappointed about the way he plays the drums or the guitar. And it’s true, the technique is not quite right. I always say to him that the pleasure is more important than the technique. But he keeps his high standards and it will never succeed.
    Today I had a break true. I said to him: You play the guitar and the drums as a painter. You don’t know exactly what to do but you know the colors en the stripes in the music like on a painting. You don’t play the guitar as you should do but you take the right rhythm or the right note, you are painting while you playing. If you learn how the play those instruments… “then the fun will be gone” he replied by himself. Yes there will be no musical picture.

    That’s mine story. I had to think about it when I read yours.

    Arjan Herstel

    The Netherlands

    • Dear Arjan, that is a wonderful as you paint – thank you.

  • Thank you Jen for this article. During the seven years I was working in Texas I had become very good friends with a man who had completed his degree in music in India. The sitar is his principal instrument. I came to love this music which is so foreign to our western ears. On a number of occasions I asked his group comprised of sitar, tabla (phenomenal!) and wooden flute to perform concerts where I worked AND at the Church where I was Director of Music. I was so surprised by how well they were received and how enthusiastically they were applauded – even calling for encores – in Texas. I now miss that group.

  • I can also see it from both sides. I grew up in Japan hearing and singing traditional folk music in pentatonic scales while having learned how to play Mozart and Beethoven on piano, an European instrument. Both kinds of music was natural to my ear but the first time I heard Mexican folk and East Indian/Middle Eastern tunes, I do remember feeling strange about it. It did jump to my ears.

    The same principal applies to language. When we are not used to hearing a certain accent or dialect, it sounds strange but after a while, our senses get used to picking it. Whether we will like the sound or not is a different story though. For me, through the wonderful opportunity to get to know interesting people from different cultures, I have shared their accent, music, and food. I do not always understand the different concept but I have learned to accept them.

    So back to the question: What is music then? I think that music is when we perceive something as musical–including the sound of spoken language, humming, the restling sounds of leaves, chants and liturgy. I find the sound of postal workers stamping in Africa highly musical whether they intend it or not. They sound as though they are drumming. Even the sound of steam in a double boiling pan also sounds like ostinato to my ear. At the same time, such sound mean nothing to some people or that it will bother them. Life is beautiful when perceived so.

    • Thanks Tomoka…again it comes to intent then? If it is intended to be music it is….but perhaps if the listener also intends to hear music then it is (even if the performer – postal workers – are not intending it to be so).

  • Interesting question – could it be like the saying “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” perhaps “Music is in the ear of the receiver”?? – often we need to make sense, find a reference. And different sounds have different effect on us depending on our individual preferences and the vibration, intensity, frequency – when we listen to music or when someone speaks to us we are literally being touched. And sometimes that touch is uncomfortable to some yet lovely to others.

    I believe that today there is often a sort of sound and sensory overload,many forget that the tv is on and music playing etc. Older generations never had this, there was more silence. So music can become like noise, invasive and painful.Instead of inspirational and soothing.


    • ahhhh silence – also important to our ears.

  • Thank you so much, Jennifer, for this article! My students (who are all on the Autism Spectrum, severely cognitively delayed and “non-verbal”) seem to be very open to differing musical traditions. Each day we have a half hour period of “relaxation” where I turn off the lights and the students recline in bean bag chairs and we listen to music. I have some wonderful recordings of lullabies from around the world, “western” lullabies, Baroque music (the heartbeat concept) and “relaxation” music (similar to what one might hear in a spa). Interestingly, I find that the African lullabies resonate most with my students and that they are able to relax completely when I have this CD on. I have one student who is very “musical” and sings almost all the time. He gets extremely agitated when I put the spa music on – so I use it very infrequently now. Your article helps me reflect on the way that music reaches parts of the brain that words alone cannot and that even those that our society considers “disabled” have sophisticated responses to music.

    • thanks Laureen. It is always so good to hear from you and your experiences. I love how you use music with intention with your students.

  • I think this was an awesome article as were the comments. the one comment that resonates to me most strongly is that music is a language, and when we are immersed in language that doesn’t make sense to us, we often have an emotional response to that lack of understanding; of the sounds with no meaning. Music to me is no different in that sense, it is a language that can communicate, move or worst case irritate and over whelm if it’s unintelligible to the listener.

    • Thanks Brad. Fantastic point of view.

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