Creative Education
2012. Vol.3, No.2, 193-195
Published Online April 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 193
Comparison of Western Music and African Music
Givewell Munyarad z i1, Webster Zimidzi2*
1Faculty of Education, Department of Curriculum Zimb abwe, Great Z imbabwe University, Masvingo, Zimbabwe
2Great Zimbabwe University, Masvingo, Zimbabwe
Email:, *
Received November 15 th, 2011; revised December 10th, 2011; accepted December 28th, 2011
This article provides a review of Western and African music. The study made a comparison of Western
and African music against a biased background towards Western music especially during the nineteenth
century when music was interpreted from a Euro-centric perspective. It is important to investigate Af-
rica’s contributions to the music industry. Different interpretations were informed by lack of literature on
African music prior to colonization because African music was not recorded in written form. It was en-
tirely based on oral tradition. Failure by early European ethnomusicologists to appreciate traditional Afri-
can music further isolated African music. Areas of differences are seen in the way Africans treat their
rhythm. African rhythms are complicated as compared to Western rhythm. Data for the study were col-
lected using review of related literature on both Western and African music. Major recommendations
from this study are as follows, a cross cultural paradigm is needed to enable researchers related stake
holders to understand the significance of both Western and African music.
Keywords: Western Music; African Music; African Rhythms; European Ethnomusicologists; Western
A comparative study of Western music and African music
was always a difficult subject matter to handle in the nineteenth
century. One of the major reasons why it was difficult to come
up with such a comparison was the fact that African music was
not known until the middle of the nineteenth century. In the
light of these views, the Western definition of music did not
match with African music. However, in the middle of the nine-
teenth century serious researches which were carried by eth-
nomusicologists such as Waterman, Merriam and Kauffman led
to the understanding of African music. Although their re-
searches triggered disagreements especially when it comes to
comparing Western rhythm and Africa rhythm. Therefore, a
comparison of Western music and African music can be written
through time, beat, rhythm and meter. Also popular marimba
songs like Nancy of Western music and Singonki of African
music can bring more light in the comparative study of Western
music and African music.
Definition of Terms
Aiello and Slobada (1994) define music as, “The art form
that expresses feelings and meanings through the qualities of
sounds and the relationship between sounds (p. 54). In this
view the expression of feelings and meanings is realized th-
rough the quality of sound production. A combination of musi-
cal elements such as rhythm, tonality, dynamics, and so forth
are also involved in an effort of understanding musical sounds.
In other words this view can be summarized and defined as
organized sound and noise. Davies (1994) stated that, “Music is
said to be the language of emotions (p. 5). Following this view,
music is regarded as an art that is difficult to understand as it is
usually influenced by many attributes. For example, definition
of music can depend on the culture or society an individual
belongs. Therefore, music can be defined as the agreement of
the people of a culture as to the sounds and the ways of using
these sounds that are pleasant or effective.
Western Music
It is regarded as a type of music that emanated from Europe-
ans and their former colonies. This type of music encompasses
most of Western classical music, American jazz, country and
pop music and rock and roll.
African Music
Chernoff (1979) defined African music as, “A cultural activ-
ity which reveals a group of people organizing and involving
themselves with their own communal relationships” (p. 36).
Here, music is viewed in terms of communal gathering, where
people share the cultural activities of a particular society. The
music expresses the day to day activities of life. Barz (2004)
defined music “as a social event” (p. 5). On the other hand,
Nkentia (1974), seem to concur with Chernoff when he defines
African music as, “A public performance that take place on
social occasions when members of a group or a community
come together for the enjoyment of leisure, for recreational
activities” (p. 21). In this case, many scholars agree on the
definition of African music as it is viewed as that kind of music
that celebrates culture and group gathering.
Importance of Understanding Definitions
Defining, Music, Western music and African music high-
lighted some interesting issues on comparing Western music
*Corresponding author.
and African music. It appears that the relevancy of sounds is
echoed in all the definitions. This is interesting in the sense that,
it is a similarity that can be found when defining any type of
music despite cultural differences or background. Sound domi-
nates any type of music as it is the focal point of music in gen-
eral. The issue of cultural aspects brings in many differences as
cultural beliefs changes the view of many people when it comes
to defining music. For example, most Europeans and Ameri-
cans believed that music can only be defined along the lines of
great composers such as Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. How-
ever, as there was no mentioning of African Mozart, Bach and
Beethoven, African music was considered noise and most of the
instruments which were used did not exist in the western or-
chestras. This means that understanding the context and defini-
tion of one’s music is important as it leads to a fruitful com-
parison (Warren & Warren, 1970).
Function of music in a society is another area of importance
that brings misunderstandings as some people fail to understand
the functions of music in another culture. Warren and Warren
(1970) also pointed out that, “Music follows the African th-
rough his entire day from early in the morning till late at night,
and through all the changes of his life, from time to came into
this world until after he has left it” (p. 3). This entails that com-
paring Western music and African music requires some point of
focus, guide such as looking at the comparison of rhythm, me-
ter, time and beat.
Rhythm in Western Music and African Music
Bebery (1975) views rhythm as the reflection of the constant
presence of music. This means that rhythm cannot exist without
music and it is part and parcel of a combination of sounds that
existed in music. In this case, rhythm will be then viewed as the
regulating and ordering of tune. A further outgrowth of this
view is the fact that rhythm can also be viewed in terms of its
relation of tones using patterns of short and long notes. And the
relevancy of rhythm in both Western and African music is that,
it has meter, tempo, duration and time. It is through these views
that some people from western cultures failed to understand
African rhythm. Cheronff (1979) stated that, “People from
Western cultures historically have had a difficult time under-
standing anything African, some say that they are bored, that
the music is monotonously repetitive…” (p. 27). This confusion
led to many conflicting views among scholars, but the main
factor was on understanding the issue that African rhythm is
controlled by social events and specific situations. Chernoff
gave an example of Ashanti children who sings to cure a bed
wetter, in Benin they have special songs of children who cuts
their first teeth, court music for lovers sung by Hausas in Nige-
ria, work songs which are common in almost every country in
Africa and the rhythm of the Hutu men who puddle a canoe
against the current are governed by the situation and social
context. Therefore, this brings in the idea of complex rhythm
which is the basic characteristic of African music.
Complex rhythms are the major feature of Variation III of the
marimba song Singonki. The song started with the basic chords
then suddenly changes to some kind of short notes, dotted notes
(represented by points in time) mixed by the same chord found
in Variations I and II. However, in Variation III the complex
rhythm disappears towards the middle and is substituted by the
same basic chords which opened the song. It should be noted
that the first parts of the Basic pattern, Variation I and II are
also characterized by these complex rhythms but they only
appear once. Therefore, this means that rhythm is the founda-
tion of African music as it is indicated in the song Singonki.
Senghor in Chernoff (1979) says that, “Rhythm is the basis of
all African art” while A. M Jones also pointed out that,
“Rhythm is to the African what harmony is to the Europeans”
(p. 40). Therefore, what it means here is that, although there are
some similarities in rhythm, Western music is basically more
about harmonic potential of tones. However, a closer look at
Nancy the Western marimba solo, rhythm is simple and it is not
complex like the type of rhythms we find in Singonki. More
active rhythm, shorter note values are only realized in bar 7
where the beat is steady and regular at the same time, there is
change of meter to five beats. Also the irregular rhythm of
Variation II put some kind of pressure on the first notes. This
unfamiliar characteristic of rhythm makes it feel like it is one
rhythm and yet the marimba is exerting two rhythms which
might be viewed as poly-rhythm. In Nancy there is interlocking
of the rhythm in bar 10 where the interlocking occurs between
In most cases complicated rhythms are found in ensembles
such as the drum ensembles and marimba ensembles where
there is a combination of drums, shakers, clapping, whistling,
ululation and dancing. Singonki a Lozi traditional marimba
song involves a lot of dancing and that is the reason why the
song is characterized by some kind of complicated rhythms.
Singonki unlike Nancy encompasses a lot of percussion in-
struments and always calls for audience involvement. Barz
(2004) stated that, “East African rhythms (as is true elsewhere
in Africa) are in Balikoowa’s understanding more “complex”
because they are performed by different ethnic groups who play
assorted types of traditional music…” (p. 24). The complex
nature of their rhythms emanates from the fact that each indi-
vidual maintain a certain rhythm which brings out a variety of
rhythms. This is typical of Eastern African societies which do
not confine themselves to a single rhythm. Another unique
aspect of African rhythm especially of Sikuma people of East
Africa is that bystanders are given their own repetitive rhythmic
pattern of clapping. Normally during such ensembles the leader
controls the ensemble through rhythmic changes that signal
change of tempo and that is the reason why we do not have
tempo making in the marimba song Singonki. Another reason is
that the rhythmic change, tempo, time, beat are all guided by
the dancers, their intensity will determine the flow of the song.
The issue of African rhythm has often been a point of discus-
sion by many Westerners some refers to these complicated
rhythms as poly-rhythm and others confuse it with cross
rhythms. Warren and Warren (1970) define poly-rhythm as,
“Two or more basic rhythmic patterns going on at the same
time” (p. 31). However, cross rhythm is also viewed by Warren
and Warren (1970) as a situation, “When the accents of a song
follow shortly after the accents of an accompanying rhythm of
instruments of handclapping…” (p. 31). The way the notes of
Singonki are arranged typically portray a kind of cross rhythm
because the way the drum, shakers and clapping will try to
accompany the marimba will result in cross rhythm. This is also
a significant difference between African music and Western
music because Western music is basically comprised of regular
rhythmic pattern and bar lines which are put in place when a
strong accentual note occurs. Nancy is characterized by a basic
rhythmic pattern where we also have a regular beat especially
the first three measures. African music does not include the
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 195
“three-quarter time” which is common in Western music.
Western musicians clap and beat the basic rhythm for example
a Beethoven symphony but this does not occur when clapping
an African rhythm because of the issue of poly-rhythms and
cross rhythms mentioned above. What it basically means is that
African rhythm is independently expressed and that is the rea-
son why sometimes it appear to be clapped in the wrong way
which many Western musicians view as an “off-beat” but the
independent expression maintains the music. Therefore, African
music because of the nature of its rhythmic structure it does not
involve bar lines but make use of scales and in this respect
syncopation does not exist in African music.
A Summary of Major Differences between
Western Music and African Music
Agordoh (2005) highlighted quite a number of issues about
both Western music and African music. Some of the major
differences are summarized below (Table 1); Adapted from;
African Music, Tradition and Contemporary, Agordoh, A.A
(2005; p. 26)
Time, Beat, and Meter
When talking of time, African Music and Western music
seem to differ because music in Africa is written in pentatonic
scale where there is sliding of notes. For example 2 2 3 2 3
because the language is very tonal especially in Ghana and
most of West African countries. The words have a specific
tonality and this poise a major difference with Western music
when it comes to time, beat and meter. The music is so much
concerned about pulsation instead of beats. There is a feeling of
pulsation, strong relation to movements and basically the use of
a time line is the basis of major differences (Jones, 1954). A
time line is often referred to as, repeated grouping of pulses
which is what is reflected in the song Singonki, where the notes
we find in Western music are represented by points in time. In
Nancy time is spacious and sometimes, especially in measures
10 to 16 time stays very regular and steady. However, the time
line used in Singonki is mostly used in idiophones and mem-
branophones because they do not have long sounds.
The beat in African music is in most cases given by the
dancers as they are part and parcel of the music, and clapping,
whistling, and ululating is a way of involving the audiences and
that is the reason why they sometimes supply the musicians
with the beat. In Western music the beat is in most cases spe-
cifically for musicians, they have their main beat. However, in
African music, the musicians on the other hand have an addi-
tional beat and they keep this beat through their body move-
ments and one Fante drummer was quoted saying that they are
guided by what they call a “hidden rhythm”. This rhythm often
influences the beat as the musician tries to put in some im-
provisations (Chernoff, 1979).
The major differences between African music and Western
music in the nineteenth century were on what really constitute
the definition of music. It only emerged in the middle of the
nineteenth century that a comparison of African music and
Western music was conducted because there was a better un-
erstanding of African music. This understanding came as a d
Table 1.
Differences between western music and African music.
Music is noted. It is not notate d but passed on
through oral t r adition.
Distinction is made in terms of “arts”
and audience, first gr o up tending to
be limited in number.
It is communal, audience are not
separated f r o m artists. Music is a
part of life, not separate d from it.
Music is created and owned by one. Traditional African music, when
created can be used by all.
Music is divorced from aspects of
everyday life.
Stress is placed upon activity as an
integral functioning part of the
There are orchestral instruments
which are gr ouped under the strings,
the woodwi nd, the brass wind and
the percussion.
There is an enormous variety of
instrume nts g rouped under
chordophones (strings),
membranophones (drums),
aerophones (winds), and
idiophones (self-sounding).
There is little or no use of
handclapping. Handclappin g is used as an
idiophonic device in making music.
Western art music has one rhyt hm in
command. There is unified
performance. Western art music
sometimes modulates to ot her keys.
Use of complex rhythms,
poly-rhythms. A piece of African
music has always 2, 3, or four
different rhythms at a time.
result of serious researches of African music which was carried
out by ethnomusicologists and some scholars who were inter-
ested in carrying out studies of African music. In this discus-
sion it was noted that the major difference between African
music and Western music is on what many scholars referred to
as complicated rhythm which is a major feature of African
rhythm. This difference was also noted in the song Singonki
which is characterized by poly-rhythms and cross rhythms. In
Nancy, interlocking of the rhythm was also noted and this is
also not seen in the song Singonki. However, the only major
similarity between the two songs was on the use of time signa-
ture which appeared in the two songs.
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