My Problem With the Term “World Music”

“World music” is a generalized term used to describe music influenced by traditional cultures, usually those from outside of Europe and North America. It is a catch-all term that was coined by the music industry and record labels in the Western world during the 80s to describe non-English recordings.

The term was initially a marketing exercise to help categorize music releases, but it expanded way beyond its initial scope. By the 1990s, the idea of “world music” started to change the mindset of both music makers and listeners. It further marginalized music from other cultures and made it culturally acceptable in the Western world to ignore the vast differences between artists classified within this genre.

Would “North American music” be an acceptable genre? Of course not. Would it be acceptable to categorize rap, country, pop, and dubstep all in one genre? The same logic applies to the misnomer “world music.”

The Problem With the Term “World Music”

The term “world music” is a complete misnomer and outright racist. It effectively categorizes most non-Western music into an outcast group destined for the fringes of music festivals and the lonely corners of music stores. The term has also added stereotypes of the music being less developed and more primitive.

The term “world music” is used as a catch-all genre for a wide variety of non-Western folk, tribal, and classical music from Africa, South America, Asia, and everything in between! Even many Western folk artists are grouped into the world music “genre.” For example, Irish artists such as Clannad/Enya are even thrown into the mix!

Despite plenty of exceptions, this term effectively keeps most of the less popular genres in obscurity, giving them very little chance to get a listenership in the masses.

The vast majority of people are simply not interested in listening to world music. This is further driven by popular stereotypes of the “world music style,” which is often imagined as simple and rhythmic “African music.”

Evolving Music Genres

Each well-categorized genre in western music contains a vast amount of subgenres. For example, rock contains rock-and-roll, indie rock, folk-rock, and a vast array of others. Electronic music has an extremely vast and diverse group of sub-genres such as house, trance, techno, drum and bass, and much more.

These all work relatively well because they generally share something in common with the main genre. This does not apply when it comes to world music, which is categorized based on the fact that it sounds “nonwestern.” Therefore, when we are talking about world music, we really should be replacing the term with something a lot more descriptive about what the music actually sounds like.

Why the Term “World Music” Is Bad for Musicians

The term “world music” is bad for practically all musicians that create music outside of mainstream music genres. The vast majority of somewhat successful musicians that play within the world music genre tend to be destined for the fringes of listenership and the quiet stages at music festivals.

The common indifference towards world music as a genre in Western cultures also means that musicians within these countries may be far less likely to incorporate or be influenced by styles of the non-Western musical traditions.

At a time when there is an overwhelming velocity of music releases on a day-to-day basis, we seem to be having a decreasing number of acceptable music styles to be influenced by.

Therefore, when we have such an insular and regressive view of music, it’s no wonder that mainstream music is lacking such diversity. If music from outside of the popular western genres got at least a little bit of airtime, it might give people a chance to expand their musical horizons a bit!

Is the Term “World Music” Racist?

The term “world music” can be construed as racist because it mainly marginalizes music inspired by non-Western cultures. Music within this stereotype is often faced with indifference and impressions of it being primitive.

If we want a more inclusive musical world, then Westerners need to start being a little bit more objective about how they classify music.


It’s time to start leveling the playing field when it comes to music around the world. Shoving a large portion of the world’s creative musical output into a genre that’s going to get almost no listenership stands completely against what music should be about.

What can you do about it? The next time you hear a piece of folk, tribal, or classical music from outside of mainstream music genres, just give it a bit of a chance!

Try to listen to it and think about it without resorting to the lazy term of “world music.” What kinds of elements and instruments are used? How does the music flow? How does it make you feel? If you like the music, then follow the artist and add their tracks to your streaming playlists.

By putting a bit more effort into listening, we might be able to actually classify these genres and styles a little bit better. It’s not necessarily a selfless effort either, listening to other styles of music is a great way for us to expand our horizons and approach our understanding of music differently.

Brian Clark

Brian Clark

I’ve been a writer with Musician Wave for six years, turning my 17-year journey as a multi-instrumentalist and music producer into insightful news, tutorials, reviews, and features.

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