What Are the Characteristics in Each Classification of African Music

African music is as diverse as the continent itself. It’s a rich tapestry of rhythms, melodies, and traditions that have evolved over centuries. The music of Africa is not a monolithic entity; instead, it’s a collection of various styles and genres, each with its unique characteristics. In this blog, we’ll explore the what are the characteristics in each classification of african music and delve into the distinct features that define them. From traditional folk music to contemporary genres, we’ll take you on a journey through the diverse world of African music.

What Are the Characteristics in Each Classification of African Music

Traditional African Music

Traditional African music is the heart and soul of the continent’s musical heritage. It’s deeply rooted in the culture, history, and daily life of African communities. The following are some key characteristics of traditional African music:

a. Percussion Dominance:

Drums are the heartbeat of African music. They come in various shapes and sizes, producing a wide range of rhythms and sounds. Traditional African music often relies on complex drum patterns, creating a sense of unity and celebration within the community.

b. Call and Response:

Call and response is a common feature of African music. It involves a leader (the caller) singing a phrase or melody, which is then echoed by the rest of the group (the responders). This dynamic interaction adds depth and vibrancy to the music.

c. Polyrhythms:

African music is known for its intricate polyrhythms, where multiple rhythms are played simultaneously. This layering of rhythms is a hallmark of the genre and showcases the technical skill of African musicians.

d. Use of Traditional Instruments:

Beyond drums, traditional African music incorporates a wide array of instruments like xylophones, balafons, talking drums, and mbira. These instruments are often made from natural materials and have a unique, earthy sound.

e. Storytelling:

Many traditional African songs are a form of oral storytelling. They convey the history, legends, and wisdom of the community through lyrics and melodies. This aspect makes African music a cultural treasure trove.

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North African Music

North African music is heavily influenced by Arab, Berber, and Mediterranean traditions. It has a unique blend of sounds, creating a distinct musical identity. Here are some characteristics of North African music:

a. Oud and Percussion:

The oud, a traditional Arabic string instrument, is a central element in North African music. Along with various percussion instruments like the darbuka and bendir, they create a mesmerizing rhythmic backdrop.

b. Maqamat Scales:

North African music often uses the maqamat scales, which are distinct from Western scales. These scales evoke emotions and are a key feature in the improvisational aspect of the music.

c. Arabic and Berber Influences:

North African music draws from both Arabic and Berber influences, resulting in a unique fusion of musical styles and languages.

d. Traditional Chants:

Traditional chants and vocal styles are an integral part of North African music. These chants often have poetic or religious significance and add depth to the music.

West African Music

West Africa is known for its vibrant and diverse musical landscape. From the highlife of Ghana to the Afrobeat of Nigeria, West African music has made a significant impact on global music. Here are some key characteristics of West African music:

a. Highlife Guitar:

Highlife music, a genre from Ghana, is characterized by its rhythmic guitar playing. It often features a melodic blend of traditional African and Western instruments, resulting in a harmonious and danceable sound.

b. Talking Drums:

Talking drums are a crucial part of West African music. These drums can mimic the tonal patterns of speech, allowing for communication through drumming. They add a unique layer to the music.

c. Kora and Balafon:

The kora, a harp-like instrument, and the balafon, a wooden xylophone, are staples in West African music. They produce enchanting melodies and are often played by griots, who are storytellers and oral historians.

d. Afrobeat:

Nigeria’s Afrobeat, popularized by Fela Kuti, is known for its fusion of traditional African rhythms, jazz, funk, and highlife. It features powerful horn sections, complex rhythms, and socially conscious lyrics.

East African Music

East African music encompasses a wide range of styles influenced by Swahili, Arabic, and Indian cultures. Here are some characteristics of East African music:

a. Swahili Influence:

Swahili is widely spoken in East Africa and has a significant influence on the region’s music. Swahili lyrics often convey stories of love, life, and culture.

b. Percussion and Dance:

Rhythmic percussion instruments, such as the djembe and ngoma drums, are prevalent in East African music. The combination of lively rhythms and traditional dance is a defining feature.

c. Coastal Melodies:

East African music often features melodies and scales that reflect the influence of coastal cultures. It can be soothing, with a focus on vocal harmonies and traditional instruments like the oud and qanun.

Southern African Music

Southern Africa is a melting pot of diverse cultures, and its music reflects this rich tapestry. Here are some characteristics of Southern African music:

a. Vocal Harmonies:

Southern African music is known for its exquisite vocal harmonies. Groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo from South Africa showcase the beauty of a cappella singing, blending voices in intricate ways.

b. Marimba and Mbira:

The marimba, a xylophone-like instrument, and the mbira, a thumb piano, are significant in Southern African music. They create infectious melodies and rhythms.

c. Township Jive and Kwela:

These South African genres are characterized by their lively and danceable rhythms, often featuring brass instruments. They emerged from the townships and reflect the resilience and creativity of the communities.

Contemporary African Music

Contemporary African music is a dynamic and evolving genre, often infused with global influences. Here are some characteristics of contemporary African music:

a. Fusion of Styles:

Contemporary African music draws inspiration from various global genres, resulting in fusions like Afro-pop, Afrobeat, and Afro-fusion. These styles blend traditional African elements with modern sounds.

b. Digital Production:

With the advent of technology, contemporary African music often incorporates electronic production techniques, giving it a modern and global appeal.

c. Global Collaboration:

African artists collaborate with musicians from around the world, leading to cross-cultural and innovative music. These collaborations expose African music to wider audiences.


African music is a treasure trove of diversity and cultural richness. Each classification of African music has its unique characteristics, reflecting the history, traditions, and identities of its people. From the captivating rhythms of traditional African music to the global influences of contemporary African music, this continent’s music is a testament to the power of creativity and expression. It’s a celebration of life, love, and the resilience of a people, making it a vital part of the world’s musical heritage.

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