Music of Eastern Europe: Mixed Meter, Modes, Instruments & Characteristics

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Latin Music: Rhythm, Dance, Instruments & Characteristics

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:01 Music of Eastern Europe
  • 1:24 Modes
  • 3:06 Meters
  • 4:21 Characteristics and…
  • 6:59 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed
Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the musical traditions of Eastern Europe, and discover common traits in the meters, modes, instruments, and other characteristics. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Music of Eastern Europe

The world is full of music. Seriously, music can be found absolutely everywhere, and every musical tradition is distinct. Take for example, the music of Eastern Europe. Music from this part of the world is different from, say the music of Northern Africa, Western Asia, or Western Europe, all nearby regions. So, where exactly is Eastern Europe? That's actually a difficult question.

Eastern Europe does not have strict political or geographic borders; it's more of a grouping of people with some shared cultural heritage. Generally, the term 'Eastern Europe' includes the Baltics, the Caucasus, the Slavic states, the Balkans, and the former Soviet States. However, defining what is and isn't Eastern Europe can be problematic. For example, Turkey borders, geographically and culturally, both Asia and Europe. Russia is an even more extreme example, with the Western border on the Black Sea and the Eastern border on the Pacific Ocean. Like I said, there is no strict definition of Eastern Europe, nor frankly does there need to be. What matters is that within this region are cultural similarities, which means that defining Eastern Europe by musical traditions is as good a method as any.


So, what defines Eastern European music, and why does it often sound different than Western European or Asian music? Most organized musical systems are based on modes, a series of related notes spaced with specific intervals. In Western European music, this idea is most often seen through scales. A D major scale, for example, has notes each related to the note D with small, consistent intervals between them. Eastern European modes, their hierarchies of notes, are not so consistent. The intervals tend to be wide and can change at different points.

For example, Hungarian Romani music has a wide gap between the second and third notes, but a smaller gap between the fourth and fifth note. These wider gaps that are common in Eastern European music are generally 1 1/2 times the distance between the notes in a Western European scale, which to us can make the music sound slightly off-key or just a bit strange. Here's an example of that D major scale, and here's an example of one with more Eastern European intervals. Hear the difference?


Just as Eastern European modes are irregularly spaced according to Western European standards, so are their meters, or the number of beats per measure. If you've ever seen a piece of sheet music, you've probably seen this: 4/4. That means that the measure is four beats, with a quarter note being one beat. Eastern European meters, when written like this, tend to read like 7/8, or even like 2/8 + 2/8 + 3/8. Without getting too deep into musical theory, what this means is that the meter is irregular. While a 4/4 meter consistently places the accent or emphasis on every other beat, Eastern European meters place strong emphasis on various beats, which makes those beats significantly longer. This common Eastern European meter is called aksak by many, which is a Turkish word that means limping or stumbling. So, just picture someone limping by. Rather than keeping a steady pace, some steps are quicker and more forceful than others. This pattern can also change throughout the song, with some measures having different meters than others, which we call mixed meter.

Characteristics and Instruments

These irregular meters and modes are amongst the most typical characteristics of Eastern European music, but they aren't the only ones. Traditional music of this region is also very commonly made for dancing or working, and so the meters and rhythms, while irregular, tend to be repetitive and propulsive, by which I mean they have an energy and strong sense of direction. This makes them especially good for lively dances and celebrations. Other similarities come from the sorts of instruments. Although again, there is a wide variety between various parts of Eastern Europe, most of this music is performed by a mixture of stringed instruments, flutes and simple percussion instruments. Voice is also very important, and many Eastern European songs do include lyrics, which often tell heroic tales of adventure and courage. Singers in this region tend to favor a bright and somewhat brassy vocal quality.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account