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

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Indigenous Peoples in Chile
  • Composition: The Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries
  • Composition: Mid- to Late Twentieth Century
  • Historiographical Reflections
  • New Trends in Chilean Musicology

Music Music in Chile
Víctor Rondón
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0323


In 1520, the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan sighted the southern coast of Chile; in 1538, the Spaniard Diego de Almagro reached the northern desert after crossing the Andean mountains; and in 1540, Pedro de Valdivia (b. 1497–d. 1553), the first governor of Chile, settled in the Mapocho River Valley, where the capital city of Santiago stands today. Exploration and Conquest prefigured some of Chile’s geographic trademarks: seas and southern islands, northern deserts, central valleys and rivers, and the majestic Andes towering over the long strip’s spine. Three centuries of colonial history configured a stratified agrarian society whose inhabitants settled mostly in the central region. Among the most dynamic sectors of the population were the criollos and mestizos, bred from a mixture of Spaniards, Native Americans, and African descendants now lumped under Chilean citizenry. During struggles for Independence (1810–1818), the population barely reached a half a million souls. The Republican period encouraged immigration from Europe: the British, working mostly on commerce, settled around the port city of Valparaíso from the 1820s onward; the Germans, who settled on the southern stretch between Valdivia and Puerto Montt, arrived between 1840 and 1879; and the French, forging commerce and urban culture, arrived in the late nineteenth century. These migrations never surpassed 100,000 persons but had a considerable impact on local developments. Institutions founded during this period include the Universidad de Chile (1842), the Conservatorio Nacional de Música (1850), and the Teatro Municipal (1857), where Italian opera reigned supreme after reaching Chilean cities in earlier decades. Political and military history, however, was turbulent: between 1836 and 1839, Chile entered into a war with the Peru-Bolivian Confederation; this conflict surfaced again between 1879 and 1884 in the so-called War of the Pacific, which ended with Chile’s annexation of territory in the North. The period between 1885 and 1952 was marked by significant migrations from rural to urban areas, especially to cities such as Concepción, Valparaíso, and the capital city of Santiago. Around 1950, with the population estimated at five million, urban dwellers finally surpassed rural inhabitancy. By then the teaching of music had become institutionalized at the Universidad de Chile and was operating at a national level in the areas of training, outreach, and research. In literary circles, and poetry in particular, Gabriela Mistral (Lucía Godoy Alcayaga, b. 1889–d. 1957) was awarded the 1945 Nobel Prize in Literature, and, during Allende’s Unidad Popular régime, the renowned Pablo Neruda (Neftalí Reyes, b. 1904–d. 1973) received the same recognition. The right-wing military dictatorship (1973–1990) dismantled Chile’s cultural, artistic, and educational infrastructure through the free-market-oriented 1980 Constitution that restricted government support for education and cultural institutions. With the return to democracy in 1990, social inequality carried over into the post-dictatorship period of social reconstruction by the legacy of market-oriented monetarism; its ferment for social unrest led to popular insurrections in the twenty-first century, which resulted in a revision of the Constitution that is still in progress as Chile’s population reaches a total of nearly twenty million inhabitants. This article was translated by Malena Kuss.

Reference Works

Coverage of Chile in reference works of international scope reverts to archetypical tropes that, although constructed from different histories and demographic components in the case of each Latin American nation, nonetheless represent a historiographical approach shared across the continent. From a “prehistory” marked by the unfettered presence of First Peoples, Conquest and colonization in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw cataclismic cultural changes driven by the imposition of social and religious practices. After Independence, which ranged from 1810 (Argentina, 1810/1816; Chile, 1810/1818; Colombia, 1810/1819; and Mexico, 1810/1821) to 1902 (Cuba, 1898/1902), differences in secular practices stemming from each nation’s demographic and cultural tributaries shaped national identities in socially stratified folk, urban popular, and art music traditions. The twentieth century, which introduced modernity, also shaped its own configurations of identity in the construction of narratives driven mostly by tensions between the autochthonous and the mostly European received traditions. In Chile, accounts of indigenous rituals and ceremonies turn to the foundational role of native cultures by highlighting uses of sound as material manifestation of cosmovision, symbiotic identifications with nature, and reenactments of beliefs and historical memory, as documented in Orrego-Salas and Grebe 1980 and Orrego-Salas and Grebe 2023. The colonial heritage, as summarized in Claro-Valdés, et al. 2019, necessarily foregrounds the legacy of Spain and the massive transmission of sacred and secular repertoires whose viability survives in accounts of liturgical, theatrical, and domestic practices preserved in collections of Masses, villancicos, comedias, and operas; pieces for keyboard and guitar; and expressions of popular religiosity, such as canto a lo divino and devotional songs and dances. Contributions by indigenous peoples, African descendants, and Arab-Andalusian groups converge on the iconic cueca, a 19th-century dance from the Republican period addressed in Grebe Vicuña, et al. 1999. Challenging the omnipresence of Italian opera, the French, German, and British who reached Chile in the nineteenth century transmitted art music genres and encouraged the institutionalization of music training. Noteworthy are González 1998, a map of urban popular traditions that probes interactions among genres, trends, performance styles, and lines of transmission in Chilean groups playing such classics as Argentinian tango, Mexican corrido and ranchera, and Cuban bolero, rumba, and chachachá; and González and Fairley 2003, which treats song as embodiment of the Chilean experience, from the cueca and tonada to urban rock, through personal voices and collective events associated with the political Nueva Canción Chilena.

  • Claro-Valdés, Samuel, Alejandro Vera Aguilera, Juan Pablo González Rodríguez, et al. “Chile.” In MGG Online. Edited by Laurenz Lütteken. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter Verlag, 2019.

    The most comprehensive coverage of Chile updated by a third-generation of musicologists engaged in historical revisionism. The cultural density that cueca (the national dance) and bailes chinos carry within the domain of acculturated oral traditions expands Grebe’s subdivision of “folk” music into indigenous and Spanish-derived practices (in NG/2, 2001) into a third major category labeled Musik im Volksglauben to highlight the structural complexity of Chile’s national dance and the deeply rooted levels of popular religiosity displayed in the bailes chinos.

  • González, Juan Pablo. “Chile.” In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Vol. 2, South America, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Edited by Dale A. Olsen and Daniel E. Sheehy, 356–375. New York: Garland, 1998.

    A remarkable synthesis of cultural traditions and instruments ranging from Native Americans (Atacameño, Aymara, Mapuche, and Fueguinos) to enduring forms of popular religiosity, such as Catholic patron-saint festivals and Virgin Mary worship (such as the Virgen de la Tirana) that defined syncretic practices (bailes de chinos). González also contributes an anthropologically informed emic perspective on characteristically regional culture in central, south, and northern continental Chile, and Chiloé Island. Consistent with Garland’s editorial policy, coverage of art music is excluded.

  • González, Juan Pablo, and Jan Fairley. “Chile.” In Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World. Edited by John Shepherd and David Horn, 286–295. London: Continuum International, 2003.

    Elevating the Chilean Nueva canción as symbol of social protest and Latin American unity, this panorama of urban popular music traces genres from 19th-century printed editions of songs and dances to zarzuelas and the salon. Focusing on the legendary composer Violeta Parra (b. 1917–d. 1967) and folklorist Margot Loyola (b. 1918–d. 2015) as models of performance styles and pedagogy, González and Fairley probe the impact of radio and recordings in forging Chile’s sonic image through cueca and tonada, Nueva canción, and rock.

  • Grebe Vicuña, María Ester, Samuel Claro Valdés, Luis Merino, Manuel Dannemann, and Rodrigo Torres Alvarado. “Chile.” In Diccionario de la música española e hispanoamericana. Vol. 3. Edited by Emilio Casares Rodicio, with Victoria Eli Rodríguez and Benjamín Yépez Chamorro, 622–646. Madrid: Sociedad de Autores y Editores/SGAE, 1999.

    Historiographical tour-de-force centered on Merino’s account of compositional history from the perspective of institutional policies. Grebe contributes an overview of myths and rituals of indigenous groups, four of which are assigned separate entries; Claro weaves an exquisitely crafted portrayal of music in colonial life based on Claro Valdés and Urrutia Blondel 1973 (cited under Comprehensive Music Histories); Dannemann documents the regional distribution of folk genres, and Torres traces interactions between local and appropriated genres that shaped a Chilean identity worldwide.

  • Orrego-Salas, Juan, and María Ester Grebe. “Chile.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol. 4. Edited by Stanley Sadie, 230–240. London: Macmillan, 1980.

    Composer Juan Orrego-Salas and anthropologist María Ester Grebe, both preeminent scholars from the first generation of outstanding Chilean musicologists, cover art and folk music, respectively. Orrego-Salas sketches 16th- through 18th-century religious practices and incipient social gatherings with masterful concision and maps composers according to generations associated with European aesthetic movements. Grebe produces an iconic systematic classification of folk music based on “old” (traditional) and “new” (acculturated) categories, themselves subdivided into indigenous groups (traditional) and hybrid genres (new) of Hispanic roots.

  • Orrego-Salas, Juan, and María Ester Grebe. “Chile.” In Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root. New York: Oxford University Press, accessed 17 July 2023.

    Grebe’s substantive expansion of traditional music reflects research on contemporary indigenous groups she conducted between the 1970s and 1990s (Aymara, Atacameño, Rapa-Nui in Easter Island, Mapuche, and Kawéskar), as well as on acculturated folk genres of Spanish roots. Both retain emic subdivisions between “old” and “new” repertoires. By comparison with coverage in MGG Online (2019), coverage of Chilean art music in this source and its online reincarnations is in serious need of updating. Forty-six additional entries complement coverage of Chile.

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