SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

Music of Central Asia

Module Code:
Unit value:
Taught in:
Term 1

A broad introduction to the music of the former Soviet Central Asian states plus Xinjiang and Afghanistan, situating musical sound in its social and political contexts. The course covers the major musical systems and musical instruments of the region, including:

  • nomadic-pastoral and sedentary traditions; 
  • music and Islam; 
  • musical change during the 20th century: 
    • ethnicity, 
    • politics 
    • pop.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

The course is taught through extensive use of video and sound recordings (both my own field recordings and commercial releases). Students are directed to specified readings each week. The course ties in to other activities of SOAS music department, drawing on resident musicians invited by the AHRB Performance centre, and touring groups hosted by Asian Music Circuit.

By the end of the course students should have acquired a basic knowledge of the more common musical instruments of the region, have some understanding of the construction and playing techniques of the instruments, and be able to recognise their sounds. They should also be able to relate sound recordings to different musical traditions, regions and peoples, and be able to comment on the use of melody and rhythm. They should have a basic understanding of the major musical systems of the region, and they should be able to relate musical sounds to their social and political context.


2 hours per week in Term 2

Scope and syllabus

The course looks at concepts of music, comparing nomadic-pastoral and sedentary traditions, and discusses the relation between music and Islam in the region, looking at definitions, prohibitions and questions of status and roles of musicians. We also look at music in the ritual context, from the shamanic roots of the bardic traditions of the nomadic peoples to Sufi zikr, festivals, weddings and ritual healers. The subject of musical change is an important and recurring theme throughout the course. We will consider the changing functions of music during the twentieth century: Soviet ideas about traditional music, and music used as a political tool; changes in musical sound brought about by professionalisation; the significance of the move from oral transmission to conservatory teaching based on notation; the impact of political policies and social changes on musical traditions. Ethnicity is another key issue; we look how musical traditions relate to ethnic boundaries, the impact of Stalin’s creation of the nation states, and trends in the post-Soviet era. We also consider the rise of recorded music, greater access to global sounds, and the political uses of pop.

  1. Orientations. Peoples and Musical Instruments
  2. Musicians. Roles, training, issues of gender
  3. Concepts of Maqam
  4. The Uyghurs of Xinjiang
  5. Nomadic-pastoral cultures. Bardic traditions
  6. Tajikistan. The Iranian Connection.
  7. Afghanistan. Problems of musical change
  8. Islam. Perceptions of music. Ritual music
  9. States. Nationalism, professionalisation and politics
  10. Modernisation. Pop music, recorded music

Method of assessment

Exam 40%, aural exam 20%, one piece of coursework 40%


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules