World Map

What is world music?

World music is a simple term for “practically all the music of the world”1.

Yet world music has no generally accepted definition, the term arose when classification was needed for a variety of music recordings, records or cd’s, which did not fit into the known categories (such as classical, jazz, pop, metal, rock, hiphop, techno, R&B, blues, country and fusion)2. Record shops needed some place to put and sell these recordings, which in the 1960s would generally have been classified as coming from the field of ethnomusicology, a specializing field of anthropology.

KoraToday’s use of the term world music comprises recordings, genres and styles which could be considered to not be “ethnomusicologically pure” because more than one local traditional style has been used. It is easier to define what world music is not than to define what it is. Awareness about the vitality of traditions outside the West may have dawned on a few, such as Warren Allen, who wrote in 1939: “Oriental music and other exotic systems are anything but “primitive”. [They] should be treated as contemporary, living phases of art, having a long and worthy tradition of their own, not as dead relics of an early stage of development.”3 Yet to consider all the, sometimes age-old, somtimes newer, but above all: living, traditions of world music as contemporary music would almost condemn one to apostasy, as this latter term has been claimed by avant-garde composers for their (Western or westernized) works only. Strictly however, most world music styles are contemporary and hence can be considered to be contemporary music, so why not speak of contemporary world music to capture everything on an equal footing?

Pair of DafsJoep Bor has proposed alternative definitions on many occasions: “World music is music out of context”4, pointing at the “Westernness” of the concept itself, of importing music from abroad into a new Western context, and: “World music is all non-Western music that has successfully adapted itself to its new, Western environment.”5

The term world music is clearly a collection of many music styles and genres, especially when local to a certain geographical place, pertaining to a certain culture but not necessarily limited to the borders of a national state or country, sometimes shared by people sharing a language or language-group, at other times transcending all such borders, many times used for rites, at other times purely for the pleasure of creating music as an art.

For the purpose of presenting, a mixture of nomenclatures will be used here, often known, sometimes new, sometimes more geographical (but in principle seldom “national” or “political”), sometimes denoting a specific style, sometimes derived from certain instruments or rites.

Stringed musical instrument from AzerbaijanNot having been pinned down fully, there is a pleasant openness to the term world music, there is room for discovery, room for investigation and contemporary development, allowing for world music to thrive and inspire people around the world, without having to be too concerned about limitations or borders to their music.

Further study

Codarts Rotterdam offers professional studies for a Bachelor degree in the World Music genres of: Latin (specializations in Brazilian and Cuban music), Argentinian Tango, Flamenco, Turkish music and North Indian classical music. Next to the vocal and instrumental main subjects, a minor in World Music Composition is offered, to both Bachelor and Master students.

Search this website for further study: world music

Sources on world music

  • Garland Encyclopedia of World Music in 10 volumes – edited by Bruno Nettl, Ruth M Stone, James Porter and Timothy Rice, Alexander Street Press


  1. Joep Bor, Inaugural oratio at the University of Leiden, 2008 – page 25
  2. Richard Nidel, World music – Introduction, page 2
  3. Joep Bor, Inaugural oratio at the University of Leiden, 2008 – page 37
  4. Joep Bor, Inaugural oratio at the University of Leiden, 2008 – page 38
  5. Joep Bor, Inaugural oratio at the University of Leiden, 2008 – footnote 114, page 53