Music and Cultural Belief Systems (Animism, Buddhism and Hinduism)

“In the Australian Curriculum, students develop intercultural understanding as they learn to value their own cultures, languages and beliefs, and those of others. They come to understand how personal, group and national identities are shaped, and the variable and changing nature of culture. Intercultural understanding involves students learning about and engaging with diverse cultures in ways that recognise commonalities and differences, create connections with others and cultivate mutual respect.” – Australian Curriculum Intercultural Understanding


Historically, music has always been an intrinsic part of all belief systems and religions. Even animism considered the earliest form of religion – particularly of pre-literate cultures – incorporates music as an essential part of their spiritual lives. Animism encompasses the belief that all material phenomena have a consciousness, that there exists no real distinction between the spiritual and physical (or material) world and that spirit or consciousness exists not only in humans but also in other animals, plants, rocks, geographic features such as mountains or rivers or other entities of the natural environment: water spritesvegetation deities, tree spirits etc.

As systematic religions spread (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity), many cultures merged their traditional beliefs of animism into the structured precepts of the imported religion. Examples of this are Tibetan Buddhism – which differs substantially from other forms of Buddhism, such as Theravada Buddhism found predominantly in South East Asia. When Buddhism arrived in Tibet from India in the 7th-9th century CE, it was absorbed into the animist Bon belief system, hence the continuing status of shamans and the place of nature spirits in Tibetan Buddhism.

This is evidenced in the concern the Sherpas have in people climbing Chomolungma (Mt Everest) as it offends the spirit of the mountain; hence the various Buddhist prayer flags and stone chortens (also called stupas) at the base of the mountain and found along paths throughout the Himalayas. In almost all animist cultures, mountains are sacred, have their distinct spirit, and should not be climbed. The displeasure of the spirit is expressed as extreme weather events, avalanches, and misadventure.

For Tibetan Buddhists, as in all animist cultures, music is an intrinsic part of their religious and meditative practices. Here are some examples:

Traditional Tibetan chants and music
Tibetan shamanic trance music
Demonstration of Tibetan Singing Bowls

The digital platform Sound Infusion recreates the sounds of these instruments and can be looped to compose unique and individual pieces, enhancing our knowledge of cultures through hands-on experience.

Balinese Hinduism is another merging of animism with an imported religion – in this case, Hinduism, which arrived in the Indonesian archipelago in 1st century CE. Again, the Balinese believe in nature spirits, the evocation of rice goddesses, house deities, plant, mountain and river spirits, all of whom need to be appeased; daily offerings are placed outside shops, on bridges, on corners of dangerous traffic intersections as well as on home and large village temples devoted to these spirits. For example, every residential compound has its own temple that is networked to every other temple on the island and connected to the Mother Temple, Pura Besakih on Mt Agung.

For the Balinese, Mt Agung is the centre of the universe, the abode of Ciwa (Shiva) and is the holy of holiest mountains. Mt Agung is an active volcano, and the two most recent major eruptions of 1963-64 and 2017-19 killing over 1,500 people, saw the lava flows completely missing the temple. In the 1963 eruption, the lava flowed around each side of Pura Besakih, which to the Balinese people is evidence of its holiness.

Essentially, the Balinese have developed a religion that is a merging of their original animism with Hinduism as it travelled across Asia from India to the Indonesian archipelago. Whereas Indonesia is now predominantly Islamic (again, Islam having travelled through to Asia to find purchase in the archipelago), the Hindus of Indonesia eventually took refuge on the island of Bali where they have lived now for centuries.

Gamelan Medley
Balinese Dance with Orchestra’

Sound Infusion has a suite of gamelan music constructs to create amazing and unique pieces of this beautiful instrument.

These pieces can accompany extended intercultural learning in not only the area of Music, but also Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS), and even Art and English through our comprehensive lesson plans from Year Levels 1-10 inclusive in the Sound Infusion. Sound Infusion is a part of a suite of digital platforms created by Cultural Infusion called Learning Lands. These lesson plans, including Project-Based Learning ideas as well as single lesson activities, are compliant with the Australian Curriculum (ACARA) codes and address one of ACARA’s mandatory General Capabilities of Intercultural Understanding as a main cross-disciplinary thread throughout the curriculum (per opening paragraph above).

One of the most powerful ways to learn about other cultures is through their music. Sound Infusion, as an intercultural composing platform, achieves this for students through cross-disciplinary learning. Learning differences and commonalities is a key part of Intercultural Understanding. An important aspect of any culture is their music … and music is universal. Students will engage in diverse cultures in a way that a mere textbook cannot do through Sound Infusion. In the next section, we look at mainstream religions, focusing on their festivals and the music of celebration!

Music and Cultural Belief Systems (Animism, Buddhism and Hinduism)

Music and Festivals of Mainstream Religions


Buddhism originated in India as a Sramana tradition (meaning to ‘work towards a higher spiritual purpose’) sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE and, over time, extending throughout Asia. There are two major branches of Buddhism that are generally recognized: Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, but there exist other sub-branches of Buddhism – such as Tibetan Buddhism (as described above as a merging with the animist Bon belief system), Ch’an Buddhism of China (the idea of instant enlightenment), which then became Zen Buddhism in Japan as Buddhism spread throughout Asia.

Buddhism was never originally conceived by the Buddha as a religion with a priest-caste, but rather a living philosophy for individuals to understand. At the core of Buddhist philosophy are the Four Nobel Truths. Stated simply:

  1. There is suffering as an innate part of existence
  2. Suffering is caused through attachment and desire
  3. Attachment is overcome by releasing and letting go of the object of desire
  4. This is achieved by following the Noble Eightfold Path (essentially, a guideline for a life lived with integrity)

In Buddhism, music is a means to meditate and connect spiritually with self and other. Throughout South East Asia, where Buddhism has had a very strong influence, traditional instruments of these cultures have been adopted for this purpose over the centuries.

Classical Indian Music – Sitar and Tabla’

The most important festival day in the Buddhist calendar is Vesak or Visakha Puja (“Buddha Day”), on the full moon in May. It is called Vesak, as that is the name of the month in the Indian calendar. This is a celebration of Buddha’s birth, death, and enlightenment on the one day.  


Hinduism began between 500 BCE and 300 CE, after the end of the Vedic Period (1500 to 500 BCE). There is no known source in the development of Hinduism, rather a confluence and fusion of lots of gods and demons as a Parthenon of deities with collective mythologies and evolving practices, which vary across India and in pockets of South East Asia. These mythologies are mostly extant in the Ramayana and spiritual practices and rituals are found in the Vedas.

There are many festivals of deities, but the most important, universal festival is Diwali. Diwali, celebrated between mid-October and mid-November, is a five day symbolizing the spiritual “victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance”. There are great preparations made in the lead up to Diwali; cleaning and decorating homes and workplaces and preparing food for the procession of guests who come for the feasting and community events. People wear their finest clothes, have family feasts, worship at temples, stage fireworks, and share gifts and sweets. Light is the focus of Diwali, and houses and temples are decked out in lamps called Diya

As with all cultural festivals, music is the key to Diwali celebrations. Traditional Indian instruments celebrate the coming of the Light in both private and community spaces.

Diwali Music
Sitar, Tabla, and Flute