Western Contemporary Music: A Musical Melting Pot

contemporary music

By Kaitlin Pennington

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact time when instruments from other cultures were first used in Western contemporary music. It is better thought of as a period, rather than an exact moment. The period was the 1960s, which marked a spirit of ethnic curiosity unlike previous decades.

John Barham, music director for Inscribe, an organization of composers, arrangers, and producers, and long-time musical assistant to the sitar player and composer, Ravi Shankar, attributes this musical melting pot to the hippie movement. “There was a fascination with Eastern philosophy at the time,” Barham says. “The music naturally came along with it.”

The ’60s also introduced the technology of the cassette tape. This new technology became a commercially viable way to market and consume music. As cultural awareness grew, musicians on tour listened to tapes of ethnic music from different countries they visited.

Eventually, Western bands started incorporating new instruments into their music. This added exotic sounds that could not be achieved in other ways. It was about presenting unfamiliar instruments into a familiar context.

Here are some ethnic instruments that have been popular in contemporary music:


Glockenspiel is German for “set of bells.” It is a percussion instrument similar to a xylophone in that its tuned bars are laid out like a piano keyboard. The glockenspiel’s bars are metal, and due to its small size, the instrument gives off a high pitch.

contemporary music

Covering about two and a half to three octaves, the glockenspiel’s range is limited to the upper register. Known as a transposing instrument, parts for glockenspiel are written two octaves below concert pitch, and when struck, the bars give a pure, bell-like sound.

The glockenspiel can be heard in Jimi Hendrix’s 1967 song “Little Wing.”  In Steve Reich’s 1974 composition, “Drumming,” the glockenspiel becomes a major instrument in the 3rd and 4th movements. U2 also used the glockenspiel in their song “I Will Follow.”


A member of the lute family, the mandolin first developed in Italy during the 17th and 18th centuries. As it spread through Europe, it took on varying names and structural characteristics.

contemporary musicMandolin popularity in the US was spurred in 1880 by the success of a group of young European touring musicians, known as the Spanish Students, who spawned similar musical ensembles. Italian-born Americans who had brought mandolins from their native land generated public interest. It continued to grow in popularity in Europe and the Americas as an easy string instrument.

Today, the mandolin used in popular music is often a single-stringed electric model, rather than a double-stringed acoustic mandolin. Rod Stewart’s 1971 hit “Maggie May” features a significant mandolin riff in its motif. Nancy Wilson, rhythm guitarist of Heart, plays a mandolin in Heart’s song “Dream of the Archer.” Levon Helm of The Band occasionally played mandolin, most notably on the tracks “Evangeline” and “Rockin’ Chair.” Peter Buck, guitarist for R.E.M., played the mandolin in the 1991 hit “Losing My Religion.”


The sitar is an instrument used throughout the Indian subcontinent, particularly in Northern India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. It is derived from the long-necked lutes of Western Asia and the veena family of Indian musical instruments.

contemporary music

The sitar is a plucked stringed instrument that uses resonance strings and has a long, hollow neck and gourd resonated chamber. It produces a rich sound with complex harmonic resonance.

The Yardbirds use of the sitar in the 1965 single, “Heart Full of Soul,” is the instrument’s first known use in a Western pop song. The Rolling Stones also used the sitar during the 1960s. Stones’ guitarist, Brian Jones, played sitar in “Paint It, Black.”

The Beatles’ guitarist George Harrison was the main force behind the Fab Four’s use of ethnic instruments. John Barham, who worked closely with Harrison on his first solo album, Wonderwall, says Harrison approached Ravi Shankar to learn more about ethnic instruments and later became Shankar’s student. The influence of the sitar can be heard in other Beatles’ songs including “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” “Love You To,” and “Across the Universe.”


The djembe is a skin-covered hand drum. The origin of the djembe is African Mandinka/Susu blacksmiths known as Numu. The wide dispersion of the djembe drums throughout West Africa may be due to Numu migrations dating from the first millennium A.D.

contemporary musicProper sound on the djembe is achieved with minimum effort—the key is to either focus or disperse the hand’s energy. Striking the skin with the palm and fingers toward the drum’s centre produces a bass note. Striking the skin near the rim produces the tone and slap.

The djembe plays a key role in the rhythm of modern music. African drums such as the djembe were used in Paul Simon’s controversial album, Graceland. Released in 1986, much of the album was recorded in South Africa and featured many South African musicians and groups during the cultural boycott against the apartheid regime. The djembe is found in music from a wide range of contemporary music artists including the Grateful Dead, Ben Harper, Guster, and Dispatch.


contemporary musicBagpipes have historically been found throughout Europe and into Northern Africa, the Persian Gulf, and the Caucasus. Traditionally, bagpipes provided music for dancing.

Various types of bagpipes are played by contemporary music artists across Europe and the Middle East. Bagpipes can be heard in the hard rock band AC/DC’s 1975 song “It’s a Long Way to the Top.” Paul McCartney used pipes in his 1977 song “Mull of Kintyre,” and Peter Gabriel’s 1992 song “Come Talk to Me,” features an opening passage played on bagpipes.


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