Styles & Forms | Africa | World of Music | Classical

Since classical antiquity, the varied cultures of Africa have fascinated Europeans, but it was only in the twentieth century that musicologists overcame the traditional concepts of ‘primitivism’ to discover the richness of the continent’s music.

African performing arts are intimately bound to life – the music is woven into the fabric of society and culture. It is inseparable from other performing arts such as dance, drama and pantomime, and is such an integral part of life that many African languages do not have a separate word for ‘music’.

Musical Styles

With few written treatises, African music is passed on by oral tradition. The typical form for African music is call-and-response, of which there are myriad variations. African melodies are often diatonic and so can sound less foreign to Western ears than do the pentatonic scales of East Asia or the modal forms of the Near East and India. Africans think of melodies as ‘voices’ and the typical call-and-response form as a ‘conversation’. Inner parts in complex polyphonic structures may also ‘converse’. Melodies follow the rhythm and stress of the local language. Because these have musical qualities, speech and song often overlap. More recent understanding of rhythm in African music suggests that Africans perceive the flow of simultaneous melodies not as ‘polyrhythmic’ but more as a maypole with many ribbons of flowing bright colours – uniting, crossing, twisting and reuniting.

Cultural Functions of Music

African music has always been – and remains to this day – an essential part of religious rituals, for work and life transitions such as marriage. Many musical events involve all members of a community singing, playing, acting and dancing. Music for civic occasions is performed on a grand scale, as is the large repertory in many African societies of music for warfare. Political song is also common throughout the continent and is a special preoccupation in West Africa, where the praise singers (jali) comment on the famous and infamous deeds of certain leaders, and recite the history and genealogy of their people. Most African societies boast vocal and instrumental virtuosos. Professional musicians were once sponsored by traditional ruler-patrons, whose modern equivalents are national cultural councils, broadcasters and record companies.


African peoples play a host of instruments in addition to the many drums which were often written of in older reports. (The portrayal of Africa as a continent of drums persisted well into the twentieth century). African instruments serve four roles: they may be played solo, in ensembles, or to accompany the voice; they are thought to mediate between humans and gods: they are used to transmit messages (e.g. the famous atumpan ‘talking drums’ of Ghana); and instruments such as trumpets and drums reinforce prestige and authority. Blown instruments include flutes, wooden, metal and animal-horn trumpets, and single- and double-reed pipes. Idiophones range from simple rattles and bells to the complex giant xylophones found in East Africa.

African chordophones include the full complement of harps, lutes,...

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