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Common features of African music

Songs include accompanied and unaccompanied solos, duets and choruses. Unaccompanied choruses are an example of a cappella singing. Songs are usually either strophic (split up into verses) or are in call-and-response form.


In call-and-response form the leader sings a line (the call) and is answered by a chorus (the response). The chorus usually stays the same while the soloist improvises. There is often overlapping between the leader and the chorus. The chorus part is usually homophonic (in block chords).


African singing often includes glissandos (slides which are sometimes known as portamento) and slurs, whistles, yodels and swoops and types of sound such as a raspy or buzzy quality.


Melodies are usually organised within a scale of four, five, six, or seven notes. They tend to use small melodic intervals (lots of 2nds and 3rds) and often use recurring patterns and descending phrases.


Common Features of African Songs

  • Basic form of all songs is 'call and response'.
  • Melodies are usually short and simple and repeated over and over. This is known as an ostinato.
  • Melodies can be changed at will by other singers so that we end up with a theme and then variations on that theme.
  • Performers often improvise new melodies while others continue the original melody creating a polyphonic texture.

Instruments of Africa

There are many different instruments in African music and they vary from region to region. The many different types of drum are called membranophones (because they have a skin). The other main types of instruments can be categorises as shown below:


Idiophones (resonant/solid)

  • Rattlers (shakers) 
  • Bells
  • Mbira (thumb piano)
  • Xylophones or balaphones.
  • Clap sticks
  • Slit gongs
  • Stamping tubes

Aerophones (wind)

  • Flutes (bamboo, horn)
  • Ocarinas
  • Panpipes
  • Horns from animal tusks
  • Trumpets wood or metal
  • Pipes being single or double reeds
  • Whistle

Chordophones (strings) 

  • Zithers 
  • Lutes (kora)
  • Lyres
  • Musical bows

In Yiri, the instruments used are the balaphone which is similar to a xylophone and is made up of wooden bars, the djembe which is a drum shaped like a goblet and played with the hands and the talking drum that is played with a hooked stick and can be used to imitate speech by creating different pitches and slides.

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