Thoughts on transcultural music theory

I recently came across the concept of transculturality and took this as an opportunity to reflect on its application to music theory and musicological research and teaching.

First, however, I would like to explain why it has been so quiet on this blog over the past 15 months. I was diagnosed with metastatic colorectal cancer in early August 2022. Since then it’s been a rollercoaster ride, including three operations, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, but also periods where I‘ve been able to return to relative normality for a bit. During this time I concentrated as much as possible on my teaching activities as substitute professor in Dresden, and of course on my recovery.

Transcultural music theory is an exciting and, as far as I know, rather new field of research, although Christensen 2018 already points in this direction. Especially at a time when attempts are increasingly being made to demarcate supposedly incompatible cultures, despite these attempts being more and more at odds with the reality of many people’s lives, understanding the complexity of individual socio-cultural practices and feelings of belonging is becoming increasingly important. Consider for example the 22.3 million “people with migration background” recorded in Germany in 2021, 49% of whom speak “both German and (at least) one other language at home” (Statistisches Bundesamt 12.04.2022). As a white cis man with German roots who grew up privileged and multilingual in conflict-ridden South Africa of late and post-apartheid, who also lived for several years in the United Kingdom and whose husband – a person of colour who grew up on three continents – significantly enriches him with his wealth of transcultural experience, I find myself in a daily process of learning and exchange with different cultural practices and perspectives. Ultimately, in teaching and in exchange with an increasingly diverse and diversity-conscious student body, I consider such lived horizons of experience to be just as important as theoretical knowledge about the specifics of transcultural experiences.

I would initially locate transcultural music theory on two axes: between the poles of music (heard, played, also notated) and theory on the one hand, and between the poles of “culture-specific” and “cross-cultural” on the other. While music-theoretical research and teaching until the late 20th century was usually based on an explicit or implicit universalist, i.e. cross-cultural, claim, in the last 30 to 40 years the focus has increasingly been on culture-specific and “historically informed” investigations – as in my dissertation, in which I largely avoided anachronistic terms for the music of the late 17th century, such as “major” and “minor” keys (Schönlau 2019, p. 35). Recently, however, more and more thoughts are being voiced about how one can profitably examine not only European art music from different centuries for commonalities and differences, but also music from geographically far-flung regions, ideally without pre-existing notions (see, for example, van den Toorn 2017). In my opinion, it is hardly avoidable to include music in the classroom or in one’s research that conflicts with one’s personal taste or value judgements. Accordingly, a basic premise of my dissertation was that I was not just interested in the music that is held in esteem today, as this can obscure what was held in esteem in late 17th century London, for example, and why this might have been the case.

To illustrate the two axes mentioned above, two teaching scenarios are briefly outlined that incorporate transcultural music theory into teaching at a German conservatoire in different ways: In a seminar on the history of music theory, the focus is on comparisons between different traditions of music theory, some of which had few verifiable points of contact. The focus here is clearly on theory, but moves fluidly along the culture-specific / cross-cultural axis. As an example, while the writings of Abū Nasr Muhammad al-Fārābī (ca. 870–950), in particular his reception of ancient music theory from Greece to India, allows connections to medieval European music theory (where the theories of “Alpharabius” were partly known through translations into Latin and Hebrew), this is much more difficult when including, for example, ancient Chinese music theory, not least because of translation difficulties, which seem much more pronounced here due to temporal and linguistic-cultural distance. Not least because of the often lacking translations of original sources into German or English, however, access to al-Fārābī’s writings is also difficult, which is why I consider myself particularly fortunate that, in my seminar “History of Music Theory” offered in the winter semester 2021/22 at the Hochschule für Künste Bremen, an Iranian student offered to take on the topic of al-Fārābī for a presentation. Such collaborative teaching formats, in which students take some responsibility for teaching content, can be quite profitable and motivate students to deal with the topic themselves beyond the classroom. In any case, it seems desirable to break away from an artificially stringent narrative of supposedly straightforward strands of tradition from Boethius to Schönberg that takes into account neither historical nor current issues, even though alternative approaches must seem comparatively chaotic and multidirectional (cf. Rehding 2020).

As a second scenario, a course in harmony and ear training will introduce the compositional technique of the basso ostinato or ground bass, which was central to the 17th and early 18th centuries and is perfectly suited to demonstrate the transition from the still-modal pitch organisation of the late 16th century to the tonality of Viennese Classicism. The technique in question was used not least as a construction principle to compose longer pieces of music without consistent imitative writing and / or vocal text, but was then largely abandoned when rigid repetition of the bass seemed increasingly at odds with the newly discovered possibilities of structuring music through tonal contrasts (Schönlau 2019, pp. 132–38; significantly, the technique experienced a certain renaissance towards the end of the 19th century, certainly linked to the movement of historicism and to the increasing expansion and weakening of common-practice tonality).

At the same time, connections to music from other regions of the world will be shown, which was influenced to varying degrees (directly or indirectly) by European art music. Thus, in the I-IV-V-I ostinati that dominate South African gospel music (see, for example, the album Mbulali Wami by Maria le Maria), one can see, among other things, the combination of the rhythmic-melodic ostinato, a compositional principle that is also very widespread in “traditional” music of various African musical cultures, with the strong influence (taking place under duress) of simple tonal church hymns of the European colonisers and missionaries (cf. Agawu 2006). The strong power imbalance in this process of cultural adaptation could be well described by the concept of “transculturation” widespread in colonial and postcolonial societies, distinct from the more positively valued “transculturality” of more recent globalisation (Benessaieh 2010, pp. 16–17). The example of György Ligeti, who from the 1980s onwards was inspired by ostinato structures in the music of various cultures of central and southern Africa, could be used to problematise the tendency that music from other regions of the world is often only addressed through the lens of European art music – for example, “we study Central African music not for its own sake, but because it was important to Ligeti” (see Martin Scherzinger 2006). This problem should be taken as an opportunity to analyse and compare repertoires with few or no (verifiable) points of contact. Although the focus of these teaching units would be more on the music, it could also include a study of theory. For example, one could investigate differences and similarities of various tonal systems (“tonal” in the broader sense), such as the Rāga system of Indian classical music, the pitch organisation of various West African musics (see Agawu 2006, pp. 342–345) or the traditional vocal polyphony of Georgia – in turn deepening our understanding of the development of common-practice tonality.


Agawu, Kofi (2006): "Tonality as a Colonizing Force in Africa", in Ronald Radano und Tejumola Olaniyan (ed.), Audible Emire: Music, Global Politics, Critique (Durham, NC), pp. 334–355.

Benessaieh, Afef (2010): "Multiculturalism, Interculturality, Transculturality", in idem. (ed.), Amériques transculturelles – Transcultural Americas (Ottawa), pp. 11–38.

Christensen, Thomas (2018): "Music Theory, Cultural Transfer, and Colonial Hybridity", Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Musiktheorie 15/2, pp. 15–21; (last accessed 24/08/2023).

Rehding, Alexander (2020): "Can the History of Music Theory be Decentered?", Blog of the History of Music Theory SMT Interest Group & AMS Study Group, 03/04/2020; (last accessed 08/06/2023).

Scherzinger, Martin (2006): "György Ligeti and the Aka Pygmies Project", Contemporary Music Review 25 (2006), pp. 227–262.

Schönlau, Stephan (2019): "Creative Approaches to Ground-Bass Composition in England, c.1675–c.1705", Dissertation, University of Manchester: (last accessed 24/08/2023).

Statistisches Bundesamt (12/04/2022): "Gut jede vierte Person in Deutschland hatte 2021 einen Migrationshintergrund", press release no. 162: (last accessed 14/06/2023).

van den Toorn, Pieter C. (2017): "The Rite of Spring Briefly Revisited: Thoughts on Stravinsky’s Stratifications, the Psychology of Meter, and African Polyrhythm," Music Theory Spectrum 39, pp. 158–181.


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