Style Sheets

African Music


Music in traditional African societies functions as an integral part of everyday life. There is no concept, as there is in the west, of so-called "art" music. Similarly, there is no concept of music which is solely for listening; music is a participatory activity.

Various ways in which music functions in traditional African cultures:
  1. Political
  2. Social
  3. Economic
  4. Religious
  5. Historical
  6. Communication/Language
Musical Considerations
  1. Instruments - All of the following types are found in Africa:
    1. Idiophones (the sound is produced by the instrument itself by being beaten, shaken, or plucked.
    2. Membranophones (the sound is produced by a stretched skin)
    3. Chordophones (the sound is produced by a vibrating string or strings)
    4. Aerophones (the sound is produced by a vibrating column of air)
  2. Instruments are generally used in a percussive manner. Often there is more concern for timbre (tone color) than there is for tonality (actual pitches).

    There are a number of form types common in African music, but the most important is call and response (sometimes called antiphonal song form). Two other forms are the litany (one or two phrases repeated over and over) and additive form (new sections of material are added one after the other with no reference to the previous material. There is also no attempt to develop the previous material, as opposed to developmental forms so common in Western art music).


    Rhythm is the focal point of African music and is its most highly developed musical component. Often there is the simultaneous use of two or more meters, resulting in what A.M. Jones called a "constant conflict of rhythms" and described as "many levels of rhythm happening simultaneously." Richard Waterman wrote about what he called the "metronome sense," describing the knowledge of the basic beat in the minds of the participants, whether it is articulated or not. Rhythm is the most important component of all African and African-derived music.

    Melody and Harmony

    Melody and harmony are less highly developed in African music. They are, however, the highly developed focal points of western art music. This caused many scholars to label African music "primitive" because their point of reference was different, not taking into account the primacy of rhythm in African music as an alternative focus to melody and harmony.

    Scale and Pitch Material

    There is no peculiarly African scale. The music is diatonic (the sounds you can get from playing just the white notes on a piano keyboard). The so-called "blue notes" (the b3rd and b7th) can also be observed as well as the pentatonic (five tone) scale. In areas in East Africa there is a strong Arabic influence on the musical style and pitch material used.

    Vocal Style, Tone Quality, and Ornamentation

    The voice quality is usually open and resonant (although it is slightly tenser in areas of East Africa and in other areas where there is strong Arabic influence). There is a variety of tone qualities in both vocal and instrumental music. Often a percussive quality of sound is used. There are many common types of vocal ornamentation, including glissando, falling release, rhythmic grunting, bends, dips, shouting/singing, and the upward break.

    Important Characteristics
    1. Primacy of rhythm
    2. Call and Response as the most important form
    3. Tone color and flexibility of pitch
    4. Personalization and the wide latitude of personal expression
    5. Percussiveness of sound, both in vocal and instrumental music
    6. Emphasis on improvisation
    7. Heterophony as a commonly occurring practice (two or more performers playing the same line, each in their own way, producing simultaneously sounding variations in the line)
    8. Music as an integral part of daily life

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