Music Buddhist Music
Gavin Douglas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0158


Buddhist music constitutes a huge array of traditions, styles, and philosophical approaches to sound. Buddhism is not one single religious tradition, but rather a loose array of countless practices. Similarly, the function, purpose, and understandings of music within Buddhist practice does not adhere to standard uniform patterns across the Buddhist world. Common threads found throughout all Buddhisms include an appeal to the philosophies of Gautama Buddha and his teachings on attachment, suffering, and escape from samsara (the cycle of rebirths) to enlightenment. The position of music within Buddhism is somewhat controversial, as some traditions embrace sound as a facilitator of meditation and ritual (Mahayana), while others are more suspicious of its power to cultivate attachment (Theravada). Regardless, the use of sculpted, organized, and intentional vocal and instrumental sounds serve important roles in all Buddhist societies. Sound or music often defines the architecture of ceremonies and rituals, and the symbolism of sound and instruments highlights aspect of the Buddha’s teachings (dharma/dhamma). Music serves a multitude of social and ritual objectives, and it also cultivates particular psychological states of mind that are the means and the goal of meditation practice. Musical sound is an intrinsic part of lay and monastic Buddhist practice and liturgy, yet it is often neglected by religious scholars or treated as peripheral to other aspects of Buddhism. The scholarly literature on Buddhism is similarly diverse. Early studies focused on instruments, ensembles, and rituals, while more recent scholarship engages a number of interdisciplinary fields, including ethnography, critical theory, and politics. Recent work also questions how contemporary practices coexist with or reflect long-held traditions.

General Overviews

There are very few examples in the literature of any attempt to comprehensively present an overview of music and Buddhism. The small quantity of general summations that are available take a wide variety of approaches to the subject. Overviews of particular schools and regions of Buddhism include Trân Van Khê 1984 for Mahayana traditions, Carter 1983 for Theravada, Helffer 1992 for Tibetan, and Lee 1987 for Korean. Qing and Tan 1994 provides a regional overview of Chinese Buddhism, while Greene, et al. 2002 provides the most comprehensive overview of Buddhist music available. Mabbett 1993 approaches Buddhist music conceptually rather than regionally, and thus draws philosophical parallels across traditions and reveals pan-Buddhist issues that are not found in regional or tradition-bounded summaries.

  • Carter, John Ross. “Music in the Theravada Buddhist Heritage: In Chant, in Song, in Sri Lanka.” In Sacred Sound: Music in Religious Thought and Practice. Edited by Joyce L. Irwin, 127–148. Journal of the American Academy of Religion Thematic Studies 50.1. Chico, CA: Scholars, 1983.

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    A broad discussion of the relationship between religious text and context and the differences between lay and monastic approaches to music in the Theravada (specifically Sri Lankan) context.

  • Greene, Paul D., Keith Howard, Terry E. Miller, Phong T. Nguyen, and Hwee-San Tan. “Buddhism and the Musical Cultures of Asia: A Critical Literature Survey.” In Special Issue: Body and Ritual in Buddhist Musical Cultures. Edited by Paul D. Greene. The World of Music 44.2 (2002): 135–175.

    DOI: 10.2307/41699430Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This article surveys over three hundred scholarly works that examine music and Buddhism, published in twelve different languages.

  • Helffer, Mireille. “An Overview of Western Work on Ritual Music of Tibetan Buddhism (1960–1990).” In European Studies in Ethnomusicology: Historical Developments and Recent Trends: Selected Papers Presented at the VIIth European Seminar in Ethnomusicology, Berlin, October 1–6, 1990. Edited by Max Peter Baumann, Artur Simon, and Ulrich Wegner, 87–101. Wilhelmshaven, Germany: F. Noetzel, 1992.

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    A broad overview of the scholarship available on ritual music in Tibet. One of the first English-language compilations of Tibetan musical materials.

  • Lee, Byong Won. Buddhist Music of Korea. Seoul, South Korea: Jungeumsa, 1987.

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    One of the few comprehensive surveys of Buddhist music on the Korean peninsula. The work contains a brief history of Buddhist ritual in Korea, followed by detailed musical analysis of the two styles of Buddhist ritual chant (pomp’ae): hossori and chissori.

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

    DOI: 10.2307/834188Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    One of the first attempts in the ethnomusicological literature to address Buddhism in general. Emphasis is on the concept of impermanence and its relationship to music and sound. Mabbett provides a conceptual overview of the relationship of music to notation, evangelism, cosmological symbolism, ritual, and offerings.

  • Qing, Tian, and Hwee San Tan. “Recent Trends in Buddhist Music Research in China.” British Journal of Ethnomusicology 3 (1994): 63–72.

    DOI: 10.2307/3060806Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Comprehensive report by two of the leading scholars in Chinese Buddhist studies.

  • Trân Van Khê. “Buddhist Music in Eastern Asia.” The World of Music 26.3 (1984): 22–32.

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    An overview of the terminology and styles of music employed in Mahayana Buddhism.

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

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    A short, easily accessible introduction to Buddhism and music for a general university-level audience. Article is accompanied by six recordings of works discussed in the text.

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