A Brief History of African Music

  • Home
  • News
  • A Brief History of African Music
A Brief History of African Music


From the first time a baby recognizes the first hums and rhythm in the world, he begins to enjoy music. As innocent as he is, he would later gyrate to the beat. The same way the history of music sprung from the innate love of the ancient people for the sound of music. Songs sung in acapella traced its beginnings to the most ancient people. Today music is in its most diverse and expansive forms. African music is as diverse as the huge territories of Africa. We can also conclude that to know the history of African music it would also be as diverse.

Why is African music important?

African music is essential because it is an essential part of their religious services. Rituals use songs and music. People make music and sing songs in rituals as a form of prayer. They make music to accompany their songs and dances. African music is a heritage that they played in social events and gatherings. Stories are handed down to the next generation orally in the form of music and songs. Music continues to live as people sing them to the younger generations and become traditional music. Considering the vastness of the African regions, the collection of traditional African music is extensive and rich. Their traditional music and songs made up a significant part of African and the world’s history.

How has African music influenced the world?

According to archaeologists, the oldest bones of the human species were discovered in Africa. It is a general assumption that with those ancient African people, the most ancient forms of songs and music also began. It can also be said that where the ancient Africans migrated, they take with them their traditional songs and music. As ancient as the human species, African music is known to be one of the world’s forerunners of world history.

The General Characteristics of African music

Africa has six regions, 55 states, and extends to 30.4 million kilometers. It is three times bigger than the U.S. The vastness of this continent makes it difficult for scholars to simplify the characteristics of African music. It is not also simple to trace the actual history of African music. It would be safe to conclude that Africans made thousands of different forms of music. The most distinct characteristic is its emphasis on rhythm and the use of percussive instruments. Music scholars and investigators narrowed down these characteristics to simplify the study. It would make the reading of African music history a little less complicated.

Sources of African Music History


Discovered in the Saharan deserts are visual representations in the form of rock paintings that clearly portrayed the most ancient sources of African music. They were discovered in the Tassil-n-Ajjer plateau of Algeria. They were attributed to the lands of the Neolithic hunters in the Saharan period (c. 6000-4000 BC) and estimated to be the most ancient evidences of African dance and music.

Written sources

Accounts from 14th-century Arab travelers Ibn Battutah and IBN Khaldun and European navigators and explorers Vasco da Gama, Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, Joao dos Santos, Francois Froger, and Peter Kolbe accounted the African music history in this century.

The single and double iron bells made of forged iron are far-flung across Africa and called by some other names like Agogo. They are used by the Nigerian and Yoruba people. These bells are used to convey messages, announce events, and perform divinations. This history is known because of the existence of these musical instruments up to these present days.

Traveler’s Accounts -Lamellaphones with iron keys are widespread in the 17th and 18th-century. They are a class of musical instruments that generate sound by plucking with thumbs and fingers. They spread to neighboring kingdoms of Zambezi Valley, Lunda, Kasembi, and Zimbabwe. They were used in traveling, and the migration caused some models to become smaller in size.

Categories and History of African Music

African songs had been sung mostly with the accompaniment of a percussive instrument. Little has been kept of ancient African music and songs. There were no sound recordings in ancient times. Songs were handed down orally.

Types of songs:

  • Solo with/ without accompaniment
  • Duets and choruses
  • Strophic (or split into verses)
  • Glissandos – slurs, whistles, and other types of sounds
  • Melody – organized with a scale of 4,5,6, or 7 notes

Musical Instruments of Ancient Africa

To make it simple, investigators narrow down the classification of African music according to the places where musical instruments can be found. It would be secure to assume that where musical instruments are, there lived the roots and ancestors of modern-day instruments.

We may not know the evolution, but surely these existing instruments saw the long history of African music played to their tunes. Musical instruments form a concrete form of African music history.

Musical instruments from North Africa

These musical instruments were found in the North Regions of Africa

Antique Egyptian musical instruments

Kanun – a stringed musical instrument found in Turkey that can be played by one person or as a part of an ensemble

Pandura – a 3-stringed instrument found in ancient Greece belonging to the family of lutes and guitars

Arghul – a double piped, single-reed woodwind instrument

Ancient Moroccan Musical Instruments

Sintir – a three-stringed instrument from the Gnawa tribe. It has a camel skinhead thumped by the index fingernail to create a percussive instrument
⦁ Sahrawi Musical Instruments
⦁ Xalam – an ancient form of the modern banjo with 1 to eight strings
⦁ Ancient musical instruments from Sudan
⦁ Riq – an ancient form of the modern tambourine
⦁ Wazzah – an ancient form of horn

⦁ Musical instruments from Black Africa
⦁ Ancient instruments from South Africa
⦁ Imifece – an ancient type of rattle
⦁ Isiginci – an ancient form of 6 stringed guitar
⦁ Musical instruments from West Africa
⦁ Djembe – an ancient dum made from a single piece of wood
⦁ Musical instruments from Central Africa
⦁ Slit drum
Scholars studying the history of African music found it difficult to cover all the extensive fields due to the huge expanse of Africa and the rich diversity of the African culture. Studies made are not specific to any region or any people. They were randomly collected for their significance to African music history.


Leave A Comment