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The Silk Road and Music: Trade, Connections, and Change

Public Historian and co-author of "Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).

Map of the Silk Road routes

Map of the Silk Road routes

An Important Trade Route, But a Perilous Journey

"It is hot. So dreadfully, unbearably hot. Nothing I dreamed of could have prepared me for this; the far off lands of my youth seemed so much more hospitable than this. We see shrubs every so often, but never enough to suggest an oasis has been found. More often, it is the sandstorms that we see approaching. Ready to engulf us, they impede our progress to a painstakingly slow point, often claiming a few of our party throughout the journey. Each time I see one, I am terrified that it will be me. It is the Land of Death, and it is the bulk of our journey."

The Silk Road was one of the most important trade routes known to man, traveling from Xi'an to Rome. Through it, the eastern and western hemispheres of civilization were connected, enabling successive eras of cultural transformation as the cultures along the route—and those indirectly linked to it—responded to and borrowed from each other in intellectual, religious, and worldly ways.

Yet the Silk Road was also one of the most dangerous journeys. Caravans were forced to skirt the edges of the Taklimakan desert in their quest to trade between East and West. In the summer, temperatures reached over 120°F; in the winter, they dropped to the negatives. The same stark contrast was true of night and day: unbearably hot in the day, freezing at night. Additionally, travelers braved harsh sandstorms, strong winds, and a limited number of oasis in which to find shelter and water.

The borders of the Taklimakan were no different. To the north lies the Gobi desert, almost as harsh as the Taklimakan. To the south lie the Himalaya, Karakorum, and Kunlun mountain ranges that separate Central Asia from the Indian sub-continent. To traverse them, one must brave the icy mountain passes, some of the most difficult in the world and all of which are over 5,000 meters in altitude with precipitous drops into deep ravines. To the northwest lie the Tianshan and Pamir mountain ranges, slightly less dangerous and more green, but still treacherous. To the east is the Gansu Corridor, a fertile strip that spans the base of the Qilian mountains.

Yet despite this terrain and the dangers it held, travelers found a few paths between it, paving the way for caravans that would transform the world by linking Europe and Western Asia with China and the East.


The Silk Road was originally established as a direct result of the campaigns of Alexander the Great (of Macedon), who sought to create the first world empire around 336 B.C.E. His travels brought him through the region of Persia and ended with a retreat from India (following defeat in battle).

This "first contact" created the initial links for the Silk Road. Alexander brought with him the Greek language and mythology, both of which merged with ideas from the Indian kingdoms to form new schools of thought. Today, it is believed that Alexander's army did even more: it created a new ethnic group. The residents of the modern Hunza valley, located in Karakorum, are believed to be the direct descendants of Alexander's soldiers.

Others followed Alexander's army, especially as stories of the East began to reach the ancient world. Tribes from Palmyra (Syria) and Parthia took over the region, adopting the Greek language and coin system and introducing their own cultural influences. Then came the Yuezhi, from the northern borders of the Taklimakan, who had been driven from their homeland by the Xiongnu tribe (ancestors of the Huns). The Yuezhi eventually became the Kushan people, brining Buddhism to the region yet adopting many Greek systems.

Additionally, China was interested in the lands to the West. China had recently become unified under the Qin Dynasty. The Qin continued campaigns against the Xiongu, a tribe to the north of China, which were also continued by the Western Han Dynasty that rose to power only 15 years later. Emperor Wudi received word that potential allies against the Xiongu resided in the west, and he sent the first intelligence operation westward in 138 B.C. The operation did not return to China until 125 B.C., failing to gain an alliance but having encountered Indian cultures and bringing news of "heavenly horses" that would transform the Han cavalry.

The Chinese continued to send expeditions westward in hopes of securing these horses and forming alliances. They also brought back many objects, opening the Chinese side of the route and leading many to claim that Zhang Qian (who led the first intelligence operation) is the father of the Silk Road.

Within a few hundred years, products were being exchanged from both sides—silk, plants, dance, music, and acrobatics as well as intellectual and religious ideas. The overall effect of the Silk Road, over time, was an integration of Chinese, Indian, Persian, Arabian, and European (primarily Greek and Roman) cultures that mutually influenced and borrowed from each other.

Silk Road, a band whose music reflects the cultural exchanges of the road they are named after.

Silk Road, a band whose music reflects the cultural exchanges of the road they are named after.


In relation to musical exchanges, one of the most important exchanges was in instruments. The sharing of instruments and playing techniques gave rise to the development of many instruments as we know them today. Examples include the cymbals, introduced to China from India, and the Chinese gongs, which made their way to Europe.

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This exchange probably happened due to the fact that music is so integral to virtually all human cultures—to the point that traveling without it, in some form, would have been almost unthinkable. It is easy to imagine that, during the long ride or walk of the Silk Road, groups would sing songs or play instruments as entertainment and a way to keep spirits up. Similar to the marching chants of armies, music would have served to keep the pace of the group as well as to enjoy one another's company rather than focusing on the length and hazards of the journey.

Upon arriving at cities along the way, travelers would encounter local musicians as entertainment in the taverns and officials' homes where they rested and traded goods. When caravans arrived in Xi'an, China, they most likely encountered the grand orchestras at the palaces and houses of officials. Some of the instruments known to have been experienced in Xi'an and later taken along the road are the drum, lute, and ehru (a Chinese string instrument).

The Silk Road Laid the Foundation for Cultural Exchanges

While a comprehensive history of the Silk Road—or the trades in music which occurred through it—is too vast for a Hub, it is easy to see that the trade in music along the Silk Road must have been as influential in creating "world music" as any other factor.

The Silk Road, independent of any category, laid the foundation for cultural exchanges necessary for further development and study in all areas of human life. Whether it be the trade in paper or the sharing or drum-playing techniques, every trade along the Silk Road was important, and every piece of music or sound heard along the road contributed to World Music as we know it today.

Sources and Further Information

  • Michael Bakan
    I am forever grateful to the class I attended by Dr. Bakan, which introduced me to the music of various cultures and the beauty within music itself. His writings and textbook are informative, enjoyable, interactive, and altogether informative!
  • Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World |
    The Silk Road ... The name conjures mystery, intrigue and untold treasures, camel caravans winding across sun-scorched deserts, the intoxicating aromas of jasmine, cardamom, cinnamon and more. In a major new exhibit opening tomorrow at the American M


MATTAM SAI MEDHANSH on March 17, 2019:

Music Information Should Be Presented More Detailedly

Gerald on December 17, 2018:

interesting. I am quite fasinated.

Tabla Radio on October 10, 2018:

This is really a useful Article. I am also a classical musician (Tabla) from North India.

Douche on May 30, 2012:

I agree with Bob & Al.

al on May 22, 2012:

I agree with bob

bob on May 22, 2012:

great article!

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