8 unique European musical traditions protected by UNESCO


Italy has announced that it is seeking recognition of opera singing on UNESCO’s prestigious Intangible World Heritage List, a formal acknowledgment of the role Italian opera has played over the past six centuries.

Classical music fan or not, you’ve probably heard the work of composers like Antonio Vivaldi and Gioacchino Rossini, but have you ever heard folk music by Kaustinen, the Uillean flute or the Chant de la Sybille?

These are just a few of the unique European musical traditions you may not know about that are already on UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage List.

Inuit drum dance, Greenland

In 2021, UNESCO recognized as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity the dancing and singing of the Greenland Inuit drum, a form of indigenous music practiced among the Inuit communities of Greenland.

The drum dance typical of the tradition can be performed by a dancer alone or accompanied by a choir singing songs about love, humor and the hunt.

For the Inuit of Greenland, drum dancing and music embody a sense of community and continuity between past and present.

Byzantine Chant, Cyprus & Greece

Cyprus and Greece share the practice of Byzantine chant, which was inscribed on the UNESCO list in 2019.

Byzantine chant, which blends tradition and religion, is a living art that has existed for over 2,000 years and was originally developed in the Byzantine Empire.

Chanting is closely related to the Orthodox Church of Cyprus and Greece, as chanting was used for religious worship.

The chant refers to ecclesiastical texts and it is essentially monophonic, vocal music, with no instrument accompanying the chant.

Folk music from Kaustinen, Finland

In 2019, UNESCO added to its list the Finnish folk music Kaustinen, a tradition where the violin, with or without accompanying instruments, is played by ear. The style is characterized by out of place rhythms or accents that facilitate dancing.

This 250-year-old tradition is performed at wedding parties, public concerts and at the annual Kaustinen Folk Music Festival in the small village of Kaustinen.

Rebetiko, Greece

In 2019, Rebetiko, a century-old beloved Greek musical tradition, was added by UNESCO to its heritage list.

Rebetiko, often referred to as “the blues of Greece” or “the blues of the outlaws”, is an umbrella term covering a musical genre that emerged among the poorer population of Athens in the early 20th century. It was music influenced by Byzantine, Turkish, Roma and Jewish music, originally created by Greek refugees from Asia Minor.

Rebetiko – with its passionate songs about rebellion, love, war, exile, unemployment and crime – has been exported around the world and in 2020 even became the subject of a music lesson at New York University.

The genre moved from the fringes of Greek society into the mainstream and is still very popular in Greece.

Canto a tenore, Sardinia

In 2008, the “Canto a tenore” of Sardinia, a style of pastoral singing developed on the island, was recognized by UNESCO.

Its main characteristic is its deep and guttural sound, obtained by the polyphonic singing of a group of four men. It takes place in a tight circle.

The tradition, still alive, is deeply rooted in the Sardinian identity. It often takes place spontaneously in local bars and is also performed at weddings and festivals.

Uilleann Piping, Ireland

Uillean piping was inscribed on the UNESCO list in 2017. It involves playing Irish music on a particular type of bagpipe known as the “uilleann”,

It is a highly developed and complex instrument, with some features not found anywhere else.

It often accompanies the music played at weddings and parties, and it has been passed down through several generations of Irish musicians.

In 1968, there were about 100 players of this instrument left in the world, today the practice is flourishing.

Fado, Portugal

Fado music, which originated in Portugal in the early 19th century, is today a symbol of Portuguese culture and tradition.

It incorporates poetry and music to create a sometimes painful, melancholic and always passionate melody, usually performed by a solo singer accompanied by acoustic guitar and the Portuguese guitarra. It was inscribed on the UNESCO list in 2011.

Song of the Sibyl, Majorca

The Song of the Sibyl, inscribed on the UNESCO list in 2010, is a religious song performed on Christmas Eve in the churches of Majorca.

Singing is traditionally performed by a boy or girl accompanied by two or more choir boys or girls, with the lead singer walking through the church carrying a sword in hand. At the end of the song, the singer uses the sword to draw a cross in the air.


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