In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Musical Tradition in Latin America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Primary Sources and Guides to Musical Sources
  • Pre-Columbian
  • Iberian Musical Tradition
  • European Contact
  • Latin American and Latino Music in the United States

Latin American Studies The Musical Tradition in Latin America
Kristin Mann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0179


Music is an important part of understanding the history and people of Latin America. The musical diversity and complexity of Latin America is extraordinary, having developed over centuries as the product of cultural exchange. Prior to European contact, native groups incorporated music and dance as integral parts of daily life, in education, work, and leisure activities. Song and dance, accompanied by percussion instruments and aerophones made from bones and shells, comprised a large part of religious rituals, ceremonies for rites of passage and harvest, and leisure and work activities throughout the Americas. It functioned as a medium of communication within and between groups and with the spiritual world. Music was part of European expeditions to claim territory in the Americas, and it was quickly incorporated into missionary evangelization efforts. Dance and musical practice provided opportunities for indigenous cultural maintenance and reinvention within the context of colonialism. Europeans brought musical instruments that were adapted to use in new contexts: these included stringed instruments, such as the guitar, violin, and harp; wind instruments such as flutes and chirimías; and the organ. The music and liturgy of the mass, devotional songs, liturgical theater, and secular song and dance all gained important places in colonial culture throughout American colonies. Africans, enslaved and free, brought new rhythms, dances, songs, and musical practices with them to the Americas as well, creating unique syncretic blends of song, dance, and performance. In the 19th century, art music was composed and performed in the urban centers of Latin America, and music was incorporated into newly independent states as part of efforts to define national identity. Modern music in Latin America continues to reflect the diversity of the history and population of the region. Ethnic groups define themselves through music and dance. Religious music remains an important part of ritual celebrations, particularly processions and festivals of the Catholic Church. Secular song and dance genres, from son, to salsa, merengue, rumba, and samba gained popularity not only in Latin America but also in the United States and worldwide in the second half of the 20th century. Music became linked with mass media—first radio, then movies and television, audio recordings, and performances for tourists—reshaping its meaning. This article will consider work by scholars in the fields of music, anthropology, sociology, history, and cultural studies, which looks not only at the musical genres and performers but also at the cultural, political, and economic contexts and meanings.

General Overviews

Overviews of music in Latin America are largely authored by musicologists and ethnomusicologists. These works focus on tracing the development of unique musical genres that have resulted from interethnic contact, and defining the types of music performed in Latin America today. Succinct introductions to the major genres and themes appear in Seeger 1998 and the first chapter of Schechter 1999 (cited under Textbooks). Other good, frequently updated starting points for understanding Latin American music are the online encyclopedia entries Stevenson and Webber 2012 and Robertson and Béhague 2012. The former is a concise entry, arranged geographically, while the latter is more extensive and is arranged chronologically. The first major overview of music in Latin America, arranged by historic period and by country in the national period was Chase 1972. Gerard Béhague, Chase’s student, authored the standard overview (Béhague 1979). Multiple authors contributed to the encyclopedic treatments of Latin American music, Kuss 2004 and Olsen and Sheehy 1998.

  • Béhague, Gerard. Music in Latin America: An Introduction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979.

    A historical overview of art music in Latin America from the colonial period through the 20th century. Major genres and composers are discussed, and musical examples are included.

  • Chase, Gilbert. A Guide to the Music of Latin America. 2d rev. ed. New York: AMS, 1972.

    A reprint of the second expanded edition (1962) of the classic overview of Latin American music, published in 1945 by the Pan American Union’s Division of Music and Visual Arts and the Library of Congress.

  • Kuss, Malena, ed. Music in Latin America and the Caribbean: An Encyclopedic History. 2 vols. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.

    This encyclopedia set currently includes two volumes with audio examples on compact discs. Volume 1 covers the music and performance of indigenous groups. The second volume contains essays on music of the Caribbean. Two future volumes are planned; volume three will be a historical overview of major genres, and Volume 4 will include essays on urban popular music.

  • Olsen, Dale A., and Daniel E. Sheehy. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: South America, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Vol. 2. New York: Garland, 1998.

    Thorough, illustrated treatment of Latin American music, arranged by country with a historical overview of major periods.

  • Robertson, Carolina, and Gerard Béhague. “Latin America.” In Grove Music Online. 2012.

    Current entry from the electronic version of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Printed version widely available in library reference sections, while online version requires a subscription. Sections on indigenous music, past and present, historical patterns, and contemporary musical practices.

  • Seeger, Anthony. “Musical Genres and Contexts.” In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: South America, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Vol. 2. Edited by Dale A. Olsen and Daniel E. Sheehy, 43–53. New York: Garland, 1998.

    This brief essay provides an excellent introduction to the contexts in which music has been performed throughout Latin America and defines the most important musical genres.

  • Stevenson, Robert, and Christopher Webber. “Latin America.” In The Oxford Companion to Music. Edited by Alison Latham. 2012.

    Current entry from the electronic version of the Oxford Companion to Music, the briefest introduction to Latin American music arranged by region: Mexico and Central America, Spanish-speaking South America, Brazil, and the Caribbean. Online version requires a subscription.

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