In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhism and Music

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Buddhist Texts on Music
  • Reference Works
  • Cross-Cultural Studies
  • Beyond Asia

Buddhism Buddhism and Music
Beth Szczepanski
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0136


The relationship between Buddhism and music is complicated. Association of music with earthly desires led early Buddhists to proscribe musical practice, and even observation of musical performance, for monks and nuns. In Pure Land Buddhism, though, Buddhist paradises are represented as profoundly musical places in which Buddhist law takes the form of gorgeous melodies. A remarkable variety of musical practices has developed for use in Buddhist ritual and practice by both lay and monastic adherents. Most Buddhist practices involve chant in some form, and some also make use of instrumental music, and even dance. Music can act as an offering to the Buddha, as a means of memorizing Buddhist texts, and as a form of personal cultivation or meditation. The late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen an upsurge in the quantity and quality of international research on these musical practices. The diversity of global Buddhist music and the multitude of scholarly approaches and languages used in writings about it make this a particularly rewarding and challenging field of study.

General Overviews

While it is difficult to generalize about the role of music in Buddhist practice through history and around the world, these sources provide basic introductions to music as it is used in some of the better-known Buddhist traditions of the world. Tarocco 2013 provides a brief historical overview of musical thought in Buddhism and compares liturgical and para-liturgical practices, while Mabbett 1993–1994 organizes its description of Buddhist music along broad sectarian lines, comparing musical practices in Theravada, Mahayana, and Tantric Buddhism. Williams 2006 provides a brief historical and philosophical examination of music and Buddhism and focuses specifically on Buddhist music practices in Japan and Tibet.

  • Mabbett, Ian W. “Buddhism and Music.” Asian Music 25.1–2 (1993–1994): 9–28.

    DOI: 10.2307/834188

    NNNCompares and contrasts the forms and functions of ritual music in Theravada, Mahayana, and Tantric Buddhism.

  • Tarocco, Francesca. “Buddhist Music.” In Grove Music Online. 2013.

    NNNA brief cross-cultural introduction to traditional and contemporary chant and instrumental practices related to both monastic and lay Buddhism. Article accessible by subscription only.

  • Williams, Sean. “Buddhism and Music.” In Sacred Sound: Experiencing Music in World Religions. Edited by Guy L. Beck, 169–189. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006.

    NNNHistorical overview of the development of Buddhism and Buddhist chant along with brief discussions of current Buddhist musical practices in Tibet and Japan. Includes an audio CD of examples.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.