Cultural Selection: The Exchange of Musical Instruments along the Silk Roads

© Javad Hassanpour / UNESCO Youth Eyes on the Silk Roads

Different forms of music and the various instruments used to create it, spread beyond its regions of origin accompanying people as they moved along the Silk Roads. In turn, those travelling along the Silk Roads absorbed the different musical influences of the regions in which they travelled. Indeed, many musical instruments that were common in Silk Roads regions were very flexible and could be used to play a variety of styles of music.

Much of the evidence for the transmission of different musical instruments across the Silk Roads comes from paintings, reliefs and statues and these can be used to trace the movement of different instruments along the Silk Roads. For example, there are representations of the lyre, an instrument characteristic of the Mediterranean region, in the Northern Indian Subcontinent, Bactria and in various other places along the Silk Roads.

In some cases, the adoption of different instruments was closely linked to the movement of specific religions along the Silk Roads. For example, long before Buddhism reached China in the 1st or 2nd century CE, several types of acoustically advanced instruments were developed in China. These included tuned bronze bells, drums and stone chimes. However, most of these loud and often immobile percussion instruments became less popular after Buddhism was introduced to the region via the Silk Roads. Around this time, wind and string instruments became more popular and we see many more representations of them in the archeological record. Over time, bells, chimes and drums were replaced with stringed instruments that could be more easily transported and as such, a typical 7th century CE relief depicts musicians playing angular harps, lutes, zithers, mouth organs and flutes. 

Harps reveal complex musical interactions between Central Asia, China, India and regions to the West. The distribution and use of different types of harp corresponds to a distinct geographic pattern of Persian and Indian musical influences. There were two types of harp that were commonly found along Silk Roads, the arched harp and the angular harp. The arched harp first appeared in Mesopotamia in the late 4th millennium BCE and was one of the principle string instruments of the Indian subcontinent between the first century BCE and 800 CE. 

The angular harp on the other hand appeared later in 1900 BCE where it was used in Ancient Greece and Egypt. Later harps reached many parts of the world before being incorporated into Buddhist musical traditions and brought to Eastern Asia where they were firmly established in China by the 5th century CE. There are over 500 different representations of harps from Central Asia during the time of the advent and spread of Buddhism and many are from sites along the Silk Roads.

Music is both portable and durable and imported instruments were often incorporated into existing musical traditions as they were exchanged along the Silk Roads. This exchange of musical instruments and traditions remains evident today as one of the enduring elements of shared cultural heritage of the Silk Roads. It is further evidenced by the widespread popularity of other sting and wind instruments such as the violin and flute. Today music, along with other performing arts, remains an important element of shared intangible cultural heritage along the Silk Roads that is transmitted from generation to generation, constantly recreated by communities and groups, providing a sense of continuity and identity.


See Also

Early Medieval Turkic Manuscripts along the Silk Roads

Chinese WuShu along the Silk Roads

Traditional Medieval Indian Sea-Charts

Intercultural Elements of the Silk Roads in Korean Buddhist Art

Indian and European Influences on Persian Miniatures

Coastal Ornamental Patterns in Java Island

Central Asian Influences in Korean Music


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