Music Exoticism
W. Anthony Sheppard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0123


In much of the extensive literature on the subject, exoticism is considered a form of representation in which peoples, places, and cultural practices are depicted as foreign from the perspective of the composer and/or intended audience. In earlier usage of the term, “exoticism” and “exotic” referred to an inherent quality or status of the non-Western other. More recently, exoticism has been understood to require an imaginative act of representing, perceiving, and classifying on the part of the beholder. In this sense, “exoticism” is most properly considered in its predicate form: to exoticize, both through acts of representation and perception. Postcolonial studies emphasize the political functions of exotic representation in the power dynamics between imperialist powers and the subaltern rather than detailing stylistic influence. Although cross-cultural influence and exoticism are not easily disentangled, the emphasis here will be on representation rather than on issues of contact and appropriation. Scholars differ on the relationship between the term exoticism and such other terms as Orientalism, primitivism, medievalism, and archaicism. For the purposes of this bibliographical article, and reflecting current scholarly usage, we will consider exoticism as a term encompassing the others and as roughly equivalent to Orientalism. Although clearly related, nationalism and folklorism are typically treated separately and will not be included here. The pervasive impact of racial perceptions and realities on the production and consumption of music clearly shapes musical exoticism. Examples of exoticism may be found throughout history and across the globe and in genres ranging from opera seria to ringtones. Though most scholarship on musical exoticism has been focused on Western art music, this article will include citations of work on exoticism in popular music and on alternative forms and sites of exotic representation.

General Overviews

General studies of exoticism tend to offer either a critical overview of the scholarly field and exploration of the term itself or a broad chronological survey of examples from Western music history. Locke 2009 offers both approaches in one volume, as does Taylor 2007, though in a less focused format. Born and Hesmondhalgh 2000 presents the most critically focused exploration of the term, engaging with postcolonial perspectives and the role of exoticism in political power relations, and Head 2003 is a pointed critique of the scholarly field, with Bellman 2011 serving as a rebuttal and critique of postcolonial approaches. Bellman 1998 is a collection that offers focused case studies of major examples of Western exoticism, and Scott 1998 briefly catalogs similar examples, as does Parker 1917, an essay of primarily historical interest. Although not a work of musical scholarship, Said 1978 must be noted here as a foundational text. Said’s argument that the European study and representation of exotic others supported imperialist political projects has been hugely influential in musical scholarship on exoticism.

  • Bellman, Jonathan, ed. The Exotic in Western Music. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998.

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    Multiauthored collection offering a solid introductory survey of musical exoticism. Case studies, including on alla turca, representations of Spain and Gypsies/Roma, Russian exoticism, the influence of gamelan music in the West, Indian influence on popular music, and jazz and exoticism. A brief introduction emphasizes cross-cultural influence and authorial intent as central to exoticism.

  • Bellman, Jonathan D. “Musical Voyages and Their Baggage: Orientalism in Music and Critical Musicology.” Musical Quarterly 94 (2011): 417–438.

    DOI: 10.1093/musqtl/gdr014E-mail Citation »

    Considers Edward Said’s political critique of Orientalism, the overlap of Orientalism and exoticism, and its application to music criticism in such examples as Said 1993, Richardson 1999 (cited under 1950–Present), and (particularly) Locke 2009. Criticizes “narrow” and reductivist approaches to musical exoticism allegedly found in postcolonial studies, with Head 2003 as the primary target.

  • Born, Georgina, and David Hesmondhalgh, eds. Western Music and Its Others: Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

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    Multiauthored volume opening with an extended introduction to fundamental questions relevant to exoticism generally, as well as discussion of postcolonial analysis and globalization. Essays explore a wide range of 20th-century examples and include historical and ethnomusicological approaches. This volume’s introduction (focusing on critical approaches) combined with Bellman 1998 (focusing on repertoire) offers a strong introduction to exoticism.

  • Head, Matthew. “Musicology on Safari: Orientalism and the Spectre of Postcolonial Theory.” Music Analysis 22 (2003): 211–230.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0262-5245.2003.00180.xE-mail Citation »

    An extended review of Bellman 1998. (Bellman 2011 is a rejoinder.) Discusses Locke 1991 (cited under Opera), McClary 1992 (cited under Opera), and Brett 2006 (cited under 1950–Present). Argues there has been a retreat from critical theory in recent writing on musical exoticism, taking Bellman 1998 to task for observing examples of musical Orientalism without evaluating them in political terms.

  • Locke, Ralph P. Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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    A culmination/compilation of Locke’s extensive work on exoticism. Offers a fundamental overview accessible to a general audience. Explores multiple applications of the terms “exoticism” and “Orientalism” and argues that music functions within exotic representation both with and without exotic stylistic markers. Numerous examples from the baroque period to the early 21st century.

  • Parker, D. C. “Exoticism in Music in Retrospect.” Musical Quarterly 3.1 (1917): 134–161.

    DOI: 10.1093/mq/III.1.134E-mail Citation »

    Very broad survey of exoticism organized by composers’ nationality, interweaving discussion of national styles, nationalism, and exoticism in music and literature. Of primary interest in comparison with those recent surveys likewise devoted to repertoire and categorization. Argues exoticism in compositions is an “accretion”—thus an ornament, or a distraction. Examples from 19th and early 20th centuries.

  • Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

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    Seminal text redefining “Orientalism.” Argued that European pursuit of knowledge about the “East” was not a politically neutral enterprise producing “truth,” but instead served imperialism. Noted that the “Near East” was routinely depicted as feminine, static, and decorative, and as dangerous, deceitful, and irrational. Orientalist conceptions and representations enabled the West to claim authority over the Orient.

  • Scott, Derek B. “Orientalism and Musical Style.” Musical Quarterly 82.2 (1998): 309–335.

    DOI: 10.1093/mq/82.2.309E-mail Citation »

    Offers a broad survey of Orientalist representation in Western music, noting changes in stylistic particularity over time in multiple examples. Structured by geographic areas commonly depicted in European music. Repeats the point that composers of musical Orientalism sought to represent rather than imitate the exotic other. Instructive to compare with Parker 1917.

  • Taylor, Timothy D. Beyond Exoticism: Western Music and the World. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822389972E-mail Citation »

    A renewed call for more ethnomusicological/contextual approaches to the study of music history. Argues for acknowledgment of the inherent multiplicity of exoticism and discusses globalization in music. Rather brief engagements with numerous examples ranging from early opera to pop to recent television commercials.

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