Elizabeth May: Musics of Many Cultures

As Mantle Hood noted in his forward to Musics of Many Cultures, “Late in the 20th century, no serious musician of whatever professional commitment can any longer afford to remain ignorant of the music [of the world].” To address this issue Elizabeth May compiled a series of introductory essays on the musical traditions of various cultures. May’s intent was to be both as broad and as thorough as possible, which is why she solicited contributions from multiple authors, most specialists in their fields. These authors ranged from musicologists to anthropologists to performers, but all brought a sense of what was “most important to know” about their particular region.

List of Chapters:
1. Ethnomusicology: Definitions, Directions, and Problems (Bruno Nettl)
2. Evolution and Revolution in Chinese Music (Kuo-huang Han/Lindi Li Mark)
3. Certain Experiences in Korean Music (Kang-sook Lee)
4. Some of Japan’s Musics and Musical Principles (William P. Malm)
5. The Music of Thailand (David Morton)
6. Some Principles of Indian Classical Music (Bonnie C. Wade)
7. Musical Strata in Sumatra, Java, and Bali (Margaret J. Kartomi)
8. Polynesian Music and Dance (Adrienne L. Kaeppler)
9. The Traditional Music of the Australian Aborigines (Trevor A. Hones)
10. Music South of the Sahara (Atta Annan Mensah)
11. Trends in the Black Music of South Africa, 1959-1969 (John Blacking)
12. Anlo Ewe Music in Anyako, Volta Region, Ghana (Alfred & Kobla Ladzekpo)
13. The Music of Ethiopia (Cynthia Tse Kimberlin)
14. Secular Classical Music in the Arabic Near East (Jozef M. Pacholczyk)
15. Classical Iranian Music (Ella Zonis)
16. On Jewish Music (Abraham A. Schwadron)
17. North American Native Music (David P. McAllester)
18. Music of the Alaskan Eskimos (Lorraine D. Koranda)
19. Symbol and Function in South American Indian Music (Dale A. Olsen)
20. Folk Music of South America – A Musical Mosaic (Dale A. Olsen)

East Asia (4), India (1), Oceania (3), Sub-Saharan Africa (4), North Africa/Middle East (3), North America (2), South America (2)


  • The front material provides good introductions, a glossary of Western terms, and an extensive annotated bibliography.
  • Each chapter closes with its own glossary/bibliography/discography/videography.
  • There are maps at the beginning of each chapter, as well as photographs of people and sketches of instruments scattered throughout (however, these are all in black and white).
  • The text has decidedly musicological (and organological) leanings.
  • In most chapters the musical examples are interesting and help define what the writer feels is important about the ethnographic region.
  • The chapters discussing Principles of Indian Classical Music, and Egyptian Classical Music are both in-depth.


  • The book comes with two 33 RPM records!
  • Chapters include transcriptions of traditional music into Western notation.
    • This is a double-edged sword in that non-musicians will have trouble understanding the material, but an intrepid instructor can either record the examples using the instruments (if possible), or can program it into some form of sampling device. It's not perfect, but solves the problem of the 33RPM floppy vinyl records.
    • Questions of cultural imperialism continue to nag in the back of the mind…
  • Chapters are organized by continent, but May neglects to include Europe and most of North America (save Native Americans) since “a vast amount” has already been written.
  • The overall focus is more on traditional music rather than popular music.


  • The text is just a bit dated, which comes through in the language used and in the maps (see: Central African Empire, Zaire, French Territory, etc.).
  • The chapters lack pronunciation guides for all the foreign vocabulary.
  • Probably over the heads for non-music students.

This is not a book to use for a class text. That said, it can be a useful reference/supplemental tool, especially because of the many musical examples. As an artifact of what musicology used to be like back in the '80s it might also be of interest to certain inclined individuals.