Music Central Asia
Peter K. Marsh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0019


Central Asia, the core of the historic Silk Road, is commonly understood to consist of six nations: Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kirghizstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. But if we consider broader historic continuities between its peoples, we can expand this definition to include Azerbaijan, Tuva, the Uyghurs of Xinjiang (China), and Mongolia. Continuities that lend coherence to this expanded concept of Central Asia include the broad acceptance of Islam; the identification of a majority of the population with a Turkic ethnicity and language, and secondarily, with Persian culture and language; and the historically close relationship between sedentary and nomadic ways of life (i.e., between the populations of the cities and the steppe). The influence of Islam has been most pronounced on the music of urban areas, particularly in the region’s ancient cities. Islamic customs have shaped urban performance styles, contexts of performance, song lyrics, the gender of performers, and musical repertoires, among other aspects. The maqām, for instance, is an urban art song tradition long cultivated in the courts of the Islamic nobility. Though the names and content differs from one part of Central Asia to the next, this is an important transnational tradition of court music or classical music that links Central Asia, Iran, and the Middle East. Nomadic musical traditions, in contrast, tend to be rooted in the nomadic ways of life of the steppe. The bard (bakhshi or ashiq) accompanying him- or herself with a stringed instrument (typically a lute) dominates these traditions. Their repertoire often consists of songs based on oral poetry, such as epic songs and legends, and is more closely associated with animist and shamanic beliefs than with Islam. Prior to the 20th century, Central Asia was defined by broad cultural areas characterized by fluid borders and by the intermingling of its diverse social groups. In the early decades of the 20th century, the Soviet Union divided much of Central Asia into individual nation-states with political boundaries that rarely reflected the cultural identities and affiliations of the people on the ground. Policies aimed at “cleansing” these new nation-states of their so-called feudalist elements and promoting “progressive” elements helped in the broader effort of promoting states with distinct, clearly defined national identities. Such policies gave rise to ostensibly modern and national musical genres associated with state-run musical institutions. Even after many Central Asian nations achieved political independence in the 1990s, state-run institutions have remained important sites of musical production. In the same period, independent musical production, especially in the areas of popular music, expanded throughout Central Asia along with a renewed interest in rediscovering and reinterpreting older musical traditions.

General Overviews

Important studies of the music of Central Asia from the 1970s onward tend to approach the topic from a number of distinct perspectives. The musical survey in Beliaev 1975, from a leading ethnomusicologist of the Soviet Union, reflects the Soviet view that nation-states of this region have distinct musical cultures closely aligned with each nation’s unique cultural and social history. The ethnographic and historical approaches in Levin 1996 and During 2005, in contrast, emphasize the historical musical, cultural, and linguistic intermingling of the peoples of this region, a reality suppressed in the Soviet era, but that has survived to the present. Levin 2002 and Djumaev 2002 consider the influence of Islam in shaping musical practice and its meaning in this region.

  • Beliaev, Viktor M. Central Asian Music: Essays in the History of the Music of the Peoples of the U.S.S.R. Translated by Mark Slobin and Greta Slobin. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1975.

    An English translation of the last of three volumes by Beliaev on the music of the peoples of the USSR, this work surveys the musical cultures of Soviet Central Asia: Kirghizia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. For each, Beliaev examines folk and epic songs, professional music, instruments, and classical music.

  • Djumaev, Alexander. “Sacred Music and Chant in Islamic Central Asia.” In The Middle East. Vol. 6 of The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Edited by Virginia Danielson, Scott Marcus, and Dwight Reynolds, 935–947. New York: Routledge, 2002.

    Describes the various forms of Islam practiced in Central Asia and considers the place of music in their expression; highlights the ways Islam has been adapted to particular patterns of culture and forms of religious music and chant; and examines the ways in which Sufi women participate in musical-religious practices.

  • During, Jean. “Power, Authority and Music in the Cultures of Inner Asia.” Ethnomusicology Forum 14.2 (2005): 143–164.

    DOI: 10.1080/17411910500336273

    Argues that Soviet Central Asian states hastened the demise of traditionally shared repertoires of music through enforced secularization, adoption of Western musical theory, and the embrace of Western concepts of nationalism. The rhetoric of nationalism, in particular, gave rise to large-scale musical forms that speak to the power of the state.

  • Levin, Theodore. The Hundred Thousand Fools of God: Musical Travels in Central Asia (and Queens, New York). Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

    An excellent starting point for anyone interested in the music of Central Asia; presents a “living musical ethnographic map” of the region, constructed principally from stories of musicians and singers Levin encountered; emphasizes “the often fluid boundaries and identities” that have long characterized social groupings in the region (p. xv).

  • Levin, Theodore. “Central Asia: Overview.” In The Middle East. Vol. 6 of The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Edited by Virginia Danielson, Scott Marcus, and Dwight Reynolds, 895–908. New York: Routledge, 2002.

    A useful overview of the concept of Central Asia and its music and society; explores the influence of Islam in shaping gender roles and musical structure and aesthetics as well as the historical interplay between the rural and urban musical cultures of the region during the Soviet and post-Soviet eras.

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.