The Volga Tatars are to be distinguished from their namesakes of the Crimea, of Astrakhan and of western Siberia. They are usually subdivided into two large groups, the Kazan' Tatars and Mishar Tatars. Within these subdivisions one must also differentiate between Muslim and Christian Tatars (the main groups of the latter are the Tatar-Kryashens of the Kama river and the Nagaybaks of the southern Urals), located as they are at the juncture of Islam and Christianity. Though the Christian Tatars have had closer cultural ties with nearby co-religionists (Mordvins, Chuvashes, Maris and Russians), they have nevertheless preserved a significant portion of the common Tatar heritage.
Among the Tatars, as among the Bashkirs, there is an important division of song types which is more closely related to practice in the Altai region and Mongolia than to traditions to the west. The two basic genres are the ‘long-song’ (özen küi) and the ‘short-song’. The long-song is marked by highly ornamented, melismatic melody, free rhythm, free use of text (including fragmentation of words), extreme lengthening of final syllables and slow tempo, in contrast to the quick, syllabic, sparsely ornamented style of the short-song. Its style is analogous to that of the Russian protyazhnaya pesnya or the Turkish uzun hava. The fully developed özen küi is used less among the Mishar and Christian Tatars. shows the opening of an özen küi. As among the Bashkirs, Tatars also sing songs in styles somewhere between those of the long- and short-song, for example the takmak, bait and khushavaz.
Though pentatonic scales play an important role in Tatar music, other scalar structures abound. Melodic contour is similarly varied. Tunes with a two-part structure in which the tune is transposed up or down a fixed distance, like those noted for the Maris and Chuvashes, occur frequently in Tatar music, but there are also many songs with a gradual descent to the tonic or in arch form. A tendency in Turkic folk poetry to insert great numbers of non-text syllables in a text is often observed in Tatar folksong texts.
Here, for example, are two lines of a song text in which the non-text syllables are given in parentheses: zhe (ie) ge (e)t cha(ia) klar(i) da (di le) bar (la)da(la) j (ie) de
Ki (e)ng u(iu)ram(i) nar da be(ie) ege (le) ai tar i (ie) de
(When we were young broad streets seemed narrow.)
Like the Bashkirs, the Tatars play the kuray (an end-blown flute) and the dumbra (a lute, related to the Kazakh dömbra), although the latter is now rare.
Because Kazan' has long been a key city for both Tatars and Russians, the Tatars have been in close contact with Russian culture since Ivan the Terrible’s conquest of the city in 1552. Russian and European music were introduced early, well before Soviet times. Clearly one of the earliest borrowings from Europe was the accordion which, after being modified to suit local taste, became the chief accompanying instrument from the late 19th century. After the Revolution professional music in the European sense developed among the Tatars, leading to the establishment of the Kazan' State Conservatory in 1945. Sultan Gabyashi (1891–1942) is usually cited as the first Tatar musicologist and composer.