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In essence, the term "world music" refers to any form of music that is not part of modern mainstream Western commercial popular music or classical music traditions, and which typically originates from outside the cultural sphere of Western Europe and the English-speaking nations. The term became current in the 1980s as a marketing/classificatory device in the media and the music industry, and it is generally used to classify any kind of "foreign" (i.e. non-Western) music.

In musical terms, "world music" can be roughly defined as music which uses distinctive ethnic scales, modes and musical inflections, and which is usually (though not always) performed on or accompanied by distinctive traditional ethnic instruments, such as the kora (African lute), the steel drum, the sitar or the digeridoo.
Most typically, the term "world music" has now replaced "folk music" as a shorthand description for the very broad range of recordings of traditional indigenous music and song from the so-called Third World countries.

Although it primarily describes traditional music, the world music genre also includes popular music from non-Western urban communities (e.g. South African "township" music) and non-European music forms that have been influenced by other "third world" musics (e.g. Afro-Cuban music), although Western-style popular song sourced from non-English-speaking countries in Western Europe (e.g. French pop music) would not generally be considered world music.

Examples of popular forms of world music include the various forms of non-European classical music (e.g. Japanese koto music and Hindstani raga music), eastern European folk music (e.g. the village music of Bulgaria) and the many forms of folk and tribal music of the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Oceania and Central and South America.
World music is generally agreed to be traditional, folk or roots musics of any culture that is created and played by indigenous musicians or that is "closely informed or guided by indigenous music of the regions of their origin".

The broad category of "world music" includes isolated forms of ethnic music from diverse geographical regions. These dissimilar strains of ethnic music are commonly categorized together by virtue of their indigenous roots. Over the last century, the invention of sound recording, low-cost international air travel and common access to global communication among artists and the general public has given rise to a related phenomenon called "cross-over" music.

Folk music arose, and best survives, in societies not yet affected by mass communication and the commercialization of culture. It normally was shared by the entire community (and its performance not strictly limited to a special class of expert performers), and was transmitted by word of mouth.

During the 20th and 21st century, the term folk music took on a second meaning: it describes a particular kind of popular music which is culturally descended from or otherwise influenced by traditional folk music. Like other popular music, this kind of folk music is most often performed by experts and is transmitted in organized performances and commercially distributed recordings. However, popular music has filled some of the roles and purposes of the folk music it has replaced.

Folk music is somewhat synonymous with traditional music. Both terms are used semi-interchangeably amongst the general population; however, some musical communities that actively play living folkloric musics (see Irish traditional music for a specific example), have adopted the term traditional music as a means of distinguishing their music from the popular music called "folk music," especially the post-1960s "singer-songwriter" genre.


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