Traditional music games

There is a need for care when demarcating this area of "traditional" music games. What do we mean here?

The first factor will be age. There are many living traditions, including some heavily influenced by modern technology. Writing in this article, please refer to traditions existing already before the 20th century, in any corner of the world.

The thing to exclude though would be two specific traditions of: Western classical music, and jazz (and their genre intersection, including the avant-garde(s), where the term "game piece" originated). These will probably be covered enough elsewhere on this wiki.


Games by culture

The order of entries below will probably evolve. The overall structure is at the moment not present, the games are grouped by the culture of origin, and the only consideration was to find a link between one topic and the next.


An early ethnographic publication on Polish games has a title which translates to: Games and amusements of various classes in the whole country or only in some provinces: including a sleigh ride, i.e. szlichtada, hunting, masquerades, music, dances, redoubts, carnival, fireworks, nymphs, bonfires, etc. ). A reprint from 1983 is pictured aside.

Gry i zabawy has many playful activities based on music, but only two within our scope — i.e. where there is agency over the sound result exceeding the level of performance interpretation, and the soundmaking is connected to the rule-based aspect of the activity. Both of the in-scope activities are already described elsewhere on the wiki with some differences:

  • Corncrake — it is Rattlers , 77) i.e. catching someone by sound navigation, but this time the setting is not snakes but birds, sound sourcing from a curbed stick, and not "catching" but "hitting" … ("Derkacz" p. 69 — nice! at p. 4 there's an activity with the same name, but less nice: "a blindfolded soundmaker harassed at a field" basically),
  • Pin — which is Magic Music , 14) i.e. steering someone with the volume of music, but here not for performing an action but for finding a hidden needle-like object ("Szpilka", p. 83).

The fact that such activities are currently known for example in improvisational theatre results from a slow evolution of such customs, for example through "parlour games". It is to be expected that Western tradition of "art music" and European folk traditions could influence one another.


Music games of New Zealand-Aotearoa are more integral part of their culture that so far had less dissemination to contemporary music ecosystem. Our main source for this section ) shows that the connection is rich to the point of full list becoming unfeasible. Games repeatedly employ following music-adjacent mechanics:

  • rattling, in fact there is a "sound-navigation" game similar to versions mentioned above from Poland and America (Rattlers), this time it's called Kite and it is played with sound sources usually made from shells,
  • hitting sticks — korari lighter and rakau heavier — another source mentions also a shorter stick called tītī with the most musical usage,
  • playing in rhythm,
  • holding one's breath (and making sounds the longest, for verification), e.g. the game Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu (named after a place name).

Lummi (Native American)

As the article in Wikipedia mentions, there are similarities between Ti Rakau and Lummi sticks, and they happen to get conflated , 73). These sticks come from a native tribe of North America and are, faithfully to its origins or not, uptaken in U.S. and Canadian primary education. These new educational tools are activities fully belonging in our wiki's library scope, but more citation is needed on the details of truly traditional stick "games" mentioned by Wikipedia. It's not certain (for the purposes of this article) if the activities as performed by Lummi people have a musical result that is both open and rule-based.

For comparison, known detailed accounts ) present "gambling music" from broader Native American tradition, where connecting vocals, percussion, and game is important.


More to the North in America, we encounter activities that are undoubtedly within our scope. These are done traditionally by women in pairs and involve audible breathing in common rhythm and a type of throat singing. Playfulness comes from interaction by imitation, synchronization, and pitch resonance.

In the online source Bruno Deschênes writes:

Inuit throat-singing is done the following way: two women face each other; they may be standing or crouching down; one is leading, while the other responds; the leader produces a short rhythmic motif, that she repeats with a short silent gap in-between, while the other is rhythmically filling in the gaps. The game is such that both singers try to show their vocal abilities in competition, by exchanging these vocal motives. The first to run out of breath or be unable to maintain the pace of the other singer will start to laugh or simply stop and will thus loose the game. It generally last between one and three minutes. The winner is the singer who beats the largest number of people.

Originally, the lips of the two women were almost touching, each one using the other's mouth cavity as a resonator. […] Today, most singers stand straight, facing one another and holding each other's arms. Sometimes they will do some kind dance movements while singing (e.g., balancing from right to left). The sounds used include voiced sounds as well as unvoiced ones, both through inhalation or exhalation. […]

Words and meaningless syllables are used in the songs. When words are used, no particular poetical meaning or regular meaning are assigned to them. These words can simply be names of ancestors, a word or name meaningful at the time the games are taking place, or other common words.

UbuWeb shows how it may sound:


Ainu are the people in North Japan. In the source above (in the previous section), they are treated together with Inuit people, and others agree , 268):

The most unusual sound in Ainu music is a duet style called rekukkara, in which two women perform "throat games" that create tunes and percussive sounds by singing into each other's mouths. Similar performances are found in Siberia, Alaska, and Northern Canada.

An in-depth comparison between the traditions indicates ) that this activity has different level of playfulness between the regions, approaching a more serious ritual in Siberia (among the Chukchi).



Traditional Japanese Music and Musical Instruments quoted above spends more time with "mainstream" traditional Japanese music like gagaku (court music), or accompaniments for Noh or Kabuki spectacles. No direct music gaming activity is named, but smaller analogies between music games and Japanese traditional music are to be found:

  • generally, the organization of music is much more horizontal than vertical,
  • highly important theatre music will require some openness in performance,
  • frequent use of audio cues from the leader to follow by the ensemble.

One tradition to mention is not directly within music but related to leisure: a custom of playing instruments together with playing games, which is frequently visible in art. We may then expect some correlation between played music and the progress of the game. An intriguing thought is that this proximity might have lead to the invention of karaoke which works in the context of modern video games.


General remarks

A thing to consider is applying the perspective of "intersection of games and music" to practices described above. It's worth noticing that within the cultural context of origin, the customs may be a single thing — separating some kind of "game layer" and "musical layer" in the activities might in some cases be artificial and misleading (although understandable when writing in English).

Another matter, is to safely assume that the semi-anonymous/collective author writing about a specific traditional musical game is with high probability not a representative of a culture described. Providing references to sources where the first-person material backs up the remarks would be great and hopefully will be fulfilled sooner than later.

Assorted items

The above collection will in fact be incomplete for a long time. If you have knowledge about other traditions that are at the music/game intersection, please add below, at the very end of this article, anything like names, opinions, or links. Hitting the "Edit" button in the bottom menu is the first step to do it, and you don't need an account. Thanks!


A charming audition, unfortunately not much explained, but chasing and imitation is recognizable in games that are sung.


📜 Fleugelman, Andrew, ed. 1976. The New Games Book. San Francisco: The Headlands Press, Inc.

📜 Gołębiowski, Łukasz. 1831. Gry i zabawy różnych stanów w kraju całym, lub niektórych tylko prowincyach : umieszczony tu kulig czyli szlichtada, łowy, maszkary, muzyka, tańce, reduty, zapusty, ognie sztuczne, rusałki, sobótki i.t.p. Warszawa: N. Glücksberg.

📜 Malm, William P. 2000 [1959]. Traditional Japanese Music and Musical Instruments. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

📜 Nattiez, Jean-Jacques. 1999. “Inuit Throat-Games and Siberian Throat Singing: A Comparative, Historical, and Semiological Approach.” Ethnomusicology, Autumn, Vol. 43, No. 3: 399-418. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press on behalf of Society for Ethnomusicology.

📜 Stuart, Wendy Bross. 1974. "Coast Salish Gambling Music." Canadian Folk Music Journal, vol. 2: 3-12.

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