Characteristics of West African Music

Updated July 20, 2017

West African music is characterised by complex rhythmic structures and pentatonic melodic materials. The slave trade in during the early years of the United States largely centred on West African countries, and as a result West African music had a large influence on African-American music, including jazz and blues. The music of West Africa varies by tribe and region, but has unifying rhythmic and melodic characteristics.


Drums and rhythms are central in West African music. The music of West Africa commonly relies on rhythmic figures called polyrhythms, rhythmic structures that are composed of multiple and sometimes opposing rhythmic patterns overlaid and played at the same time. Polyrhythms are often executed by multiple drummers playing separate parts that interlock and combine to create the larger rhythmic texture. West African drumming and rhythms are often closely linked to dancing and ceremony.


West African melodies are sung and played on instruments, and are often built on pentatonic scale materials. The pentatonic scale has five steps as opposed to the Western tempered scale. In fact, many West African scales, including those that are not pentatonic, precede the blues scale of African-African music. Call-and-response patterns are common, with an ensemble leader or religious authority calling out or singing a main phrase followed by a group with a response. Traditional music from West Africa does not use either harmony or multiple melodies at the same time like Western music, but instead builds complexity in its rhythms.


Instrumental traditions in West Africa often revolve around stringed instruments and drums. An example of a stringed instrument is the kora, a harp-lute that has 21 strings. Bolons are harps with either three or four strings that rally warriors into battle, and the donso ngoni, made of either six or seven strings, protects and gives good luck to hunters. West African music also has a large variety of drums such as the djembe, which has become a popular instrument around the world.

Cultural Practices

West African music is often a communal and participatory activity. Traditions and stories about the past are kept alive through music. In Gambia, for example, griots are storytellers that play drums or other instruments such as the kora. Similarly, the Mandinka jelis of the Malian and Guinean region are musicians, historians, singers and advisers. West African music is often passed on orally, with many younger musicians learning through older and more experienced players.

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About the Author

Matt Fullen is a writer, editor, composer and jazz pianist in Greeley, Colo. In addition to holding previous intern and freelance positions since 1999, Mr. Fullen was also a writer, section editor and editor for the "UNC Connection" from 2007 to 2010. Fullen is currently a transcript editor for 3Play Media. He holds a Bachelor of Music.