Characteristics Of African Music

Characteristics of African Music


  • In many parts of Africa a child’s first homemade toys include musical instruments. Among these, the banjo, the guitar and the snare and bass drums
  • The great proportion of African traditional music is music performed in passage rites (birth, puberty, marriage, succession and funeral ceremonies), worship, spirit possession rites, diving and therapy. Some of this music is also a product of associations (hunters, warriors, secret societies) or serves as an aid to work
  • Traditional African societies also view their music as entertainment
  • Traditional African music draws on a variety of source – there is a wide spectrum of musical instruments –
  • Idiophones  - include a wide assortment of rattles, bells, concussed shells, xylophones, and had piano’s
  • Hand pianos also known as “sansa”, “mbira”, “likembe”, “kilimba”, is believed to have originated in Africa.
  • Membranophones – most widely diffused instruments in sub-Saharan Africa. Found in conical, cylindrical, barrel, hour-glass, mortar, globular, and kettle shapes. They are played with sticks, hands, or a combination of both, to obtain a wide variety of sound.
  • Chordophones – also widespread. They are board, trough, raft and tube zithers.
  • Ensembles – instruments heard as solos and as ensembles. Ensembles feature homogenous and mixed instrumental groupings. You may find ensembles such as, drum ensembles, one string violin ensembles and ensembles of bells, trumpets and flutes. Ensembles can range from a two piece band to a large orchestra. Musical instruments are also used to accompany voices
  • Rhythm – African musical instruments and vocal resources are organised in sonic time pattern that distinguish their idioms from those of other world regions, through the various scales, melody patterns, transitions of pitch clustering, and concurrent pitch lines, and rhythm.  Rhythmic pulse and interplay is a frequent device in African music.
  • Clash of rhythms – in many traditions the concurrent rhythm lines result in a recurring main beat on which all the principal beats in the separate rhythm lines coincide. Between any of these main beats each instruments rhythmic line retains its independence and the effect of polyrhythm is stressed.
  • Timbre –Tonal colouring, interplay of pitch lines, and exploitation of sheer melodic beauty is an important element of African music. There is a great variety of tone colour in African drumming. Use of buzzer attachment to create different timbres. Different timbres created through hoe instruments are played, whether with sticks or hands etc.
  • African music does not feature harmony.
  • African melodies combine conjunct with disjunct movement.





  • Singing, playing instruments, dancing, masquerading and dramatizing are art of a conceptual package that many Africans think of as one and the same.
  • Performers
  • Most people in African communities are expected to perform music and dance at a basic level
  • In many areas social puberty is marked by singing and dancing, as young people display their accomplishments in token of their maturation
  • Solo performers may be trained to excel because they have an ability for an instrument, or because they come from a family whose occupation is to be musicians, as is frequently the case among the “griots” of West Africa
  • Soloists develop their skills most often with the aid of tutelary spirit or some form of supernatural assistance
  • At musical performances, spirits are sometimes present
  • Performance as an engine of national policy
  • Some ensembles have been formed to represent contemporary nation-states.
  • The ensembles may meld performers from various locations and teach them to adapt their performances to meet the requirements of the western stage
  • Some African countries have set up national training centers where musicians and dancers work together to create ensembles
  • They are often paid by the national government
  • They travel around the country or tour the world, representing a blend of musics from the particular region
  • Musical instruments as human extensions
  • The people of Africa make and use many musical instruments
  • Their instruments are more than material objects: they frequently take on human features and qualities
  • Solo instruments may have names, be kept in special houses, receive special sacrificial food or other offerings, and may be regarded as quasi-human
  • To the musicians the instruments provide power and sometimes special aid
  • Exchange among voices
  • People in Africa describe musical sounds not as pitches, but as voices. People, birds and instruments all employ voices, which, in performance, musicians imitate
  • One voice sings a part and another voice responds, in a kind of call-and-response type dialogue
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One Response to Characteristics Of African Music

  1. Suzel Reily says:

    A good mix of detailed features and general principles.

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