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Afro-American Influence on Western Music Development Essay

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Although music is considered to be a universal language that can be understood by people of all nations and cultures, there are still unique features that characterize and distinguish different musical styles. However, these styles do not exist in isolation: Practically every style of music bears the influence of numerous cultures with which the country came into contact before. Therefore, the historical interactions of a nation largely determine the extent to which other cultural patterns and motifs penetrate it (Knights 13).

Because Western civilization expanded rapidly, its music was significantly affected by populations of all continents; however, none can surpass the contributions made by the thousands of cultures across Africa. The spread of African influence happened primarily due to Western colonization, but for a long time, the existence of African motifs in European music was not acknowledged and had no written record. This absence can be explained by the fact that African music itself was officially absent, with no clear-cut definition or description whatsoever until the middle of the 19th century (Lewis 95). Today African music is studied under the discipline of ethnomusicology, within a separate branch of study called African musicology (Stone 13).

Although there is a great deal of controversy among researchers who try to draw clear parallels between Western and African music, they all agree that these musical traditions can be compared through some factors including rhythm, meter, and beat. This paper will analyze Western and African musical styles and track the influence that African music exerted on the formation of several Western musical genres. Finally, Afro-Peruvian music will be investigated in detail to highlight its unique position among the many borrowers of African musical traditions.

Western Music vs. African Music: Key Differences

Before passing on to a discussion of the results of the fusion of these two cultures, it is important to understand how African music is distinguished as a separate phenomenon. For this purpose, then, it must be clear what exactly encompasses traditional Western music. First and foremost, Western music is one of the few musical styles that began its history as art and practically immediately developed into a fundamental genre with a documented record. European giants of classical music such as Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven laid the foundation for modern music and are often regarded as the peak of its development (which allows for the consideration that Western music is currently in a state of decline). For a considerable period, Western music implied only the European tradition, as the Americas developed their musical practices that were not connected with those of Europe. These discrepancies were later forgotten, even though they explain a lot about the penetration of African influences into the Americas (Agawu 55).

Defining music along the lines of great composers alone, Europeans tended to regard African music as a kind of unpleasant noise and never included any of the African instruments in their performances. Furthermore, music in Africa accompanied the entire life of a person, marking important events and following every member of society day and night; in Europe, on the contrary, classical music was the privilege of the wealthy and was meant for festive events. This distinction indicates how different the understanding of music was for these two cultures, making it even more surprising that these traditions would one day mix (Nettl et al. 240).

The key differences between Western and African music can be summed up as follows.

Table 1. Key Differences between Western and African Music. (Nettl et al. 241-243).

Points of Comparison Western Music African Music
Written record Music is documented through the use of notes and is passed on as a major part of the nation’s cultural heritage. Music is not documented and is passed on exclusively through oral tradition.
Activity character Music is perceived as a kind of art for the chosen ones, who are very restricted in number and separated from the audience acting as mere recipients of this art. Music is understood as a communal action that accompanies all processes of the community. Everyone is an artist and a listener at the same time. No uniqueness is implied.
Ownership Music is a product and is considered to be the intellectual property of the person who created it. Music is created and owned collectively, regardless of the original author.
Status Music stands apart from earthly occupations. Music is considered to be one of a great number of other daily activities.
Instruments The major groups of instruments include strings, percussion, and woodwind. Instruments are numerous and diverse, including chordophones, membranophones, aerophones, and idiophones.
Handclapping No handclapping can accompany a melody. Handclapping is an important component of the melody.
Rhythm Only one rhythm can be in command to make the music unified; modulation to other keys is possible. Music should use complex poly-rhythms, with up to four rhythms present at a time.

African Influences in Western Music

There are two main reasons that elements of African music, which was initially perceived as unpleasant by Europeans, produced such an enormous impact on the development of Western music in both Americas with their arrival on these continents. First, Africans remained homogeneous in their tribes and could preserve their cultures. Second, musical syncretism and deviation from norms were quite popular at that time (Burkholder and Grout 772).

The first substantial influence of African music relates to the use of traditional instruments, which interested the musicians of America and Europe who had been previously limited in choice. The banjo, marimba, and bongo each contributed to the evolution of Western music. However, the influence was not limited to the use of new instruments: African-American musicians who were forced to use Western instruments changed their principles of melody organization and created a blend of the features mentioned above. This is how the first “blue notes” (referring to flatted third and seventh degrees) appeared alongside pitches that were quite foreign to Western scale structures, giving the music a new turn. Music was suddenly enriched with some new rhythms, notations, styles, and musical trends, some of which united African and Western instruments (Agawu 56).

The musical style most typically described as borrowed from Africa is jazz, which emerged as a result of combining African rhythms with Western instruments (though different forms of jazz developed for different reasons). One of the first forms of jazz was ragtime, which was performed on pianos in segregated bars. Blues was another great genre developed by former slaves and, perhaps, the most famous one. However, it would be a mistake to claim that these were the only directions of African influence. Practically all styles of Western music can trace their roots back to jazz, blues, gospel, or other African musical inventions. The impact of African traditions on various musical genres can be summed up as follows.

Table 2. Impact of African Music on Western Music Genres. (Burkholder and Grout 774).

Genres Impact
Rap and Hip-Hop Dates back to early African tribal chanting with poly-rhythmic beats and energetic dance accompaniment
House Borrows elements from African blues, funk, and soul, mixing them with disco and electronic music
Techno Was created by African-American musicians and unites Western forms of composition with African drum samples
Trance Copied from African cultures playing music to achieve a trance-like state
Tribal House Built on the melodies and chanting of African tribal music with an altered rhythm
Jazz and Blues Created by African Americans as a combination of African rhythms and Western instruments

Afro-Peruvian Music

Among all other Western music impacted by African traditions, Peruvian music deserves a separate discussion. The key difference that makes it stand apart is the fact that it originated as a mix of African and Spanish music. While the development of African music in other countries generally resulted in the adoption of some motifs and rhythms, in Peru, it gave birth to three styles known as festejo, landó, and panalivio. Moreover, Peru was the only place where Africans did not make use of classical Western instruments and instead could experiment with new ones: the cajón, one of the classical percussive instruments of all styles of Afro-Peruvian music; the quijada de burro, a donkey’s jaw with rattling teeth; the cajita, a wooden box and stick; the cencerro or cowbell; and the palitos or clave sticks—all instruments exclusively used in this region (Nettl et al. 276).

The styles of Afro-Peruvian music include the following (Nettl et al. 277):

  1. Festejo (meaning “celebration” in Spanish) is the most popular mixture of African motifs with Peruvian music. It is usually notated in 12/8 and contains several various golpes (a term signifying a specific cajón pattern).
  2. Landó style originated from the borrowed African lundú rhythm, which was brought to the country by slaves from Angola and quickly gained popularity. It is not similar to festejo, which is lively and cheerful and usually written in a major key; on the contrary, it is very pensive, slow, and generally in a minor key (notated 6/8 or 6/4).
  3. Panalivio was also initially performed and sung by slaves who worked in fields. This style resembles the Spanish habanera brought by colonizers. At those times, it was usually used to express suffering and pain; nowadays, it is mostly performed by street vendors who sing about their merchandise. It is the simplest of all Afro-Peruvian music mixtures and does not involve complex orchestration.

Given the wide variety of instruments and new musical styles, the influence of African music in this region was particularly significant and extended beyond the simple borrowing of motifs or performance techniques, as occurred in most other countries where this influence spread. What appeared as a result of the blend is a unique tradition featuring its genres that can be identified as an independent cultural phenomenon.


The Western world in general and the United States in particular should re-estimate their perception of music as an exclusively Western art form. Western music no longer sticks to its classical roots. On the contrary, it has merged with musical traditions brought by Africans over different historical periods. Despite evident dissimilarities, African culture produced a huge impact on the development of all Western genres of music. This influence is especially evident in Peru, where African rhythms and styles blended with local music and gave rise to an unprecedented cultural phenomenon.

Works Cited

Agawu, Kofi. Representing African music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions. Routledge, 2014.

Burkholder, J. Peter, and Donald Jay Grout. A History of Western Music: Ninth International Student Edition. WW Norton & Company, 2014.

Knights, Vanessa. Music, National Identity and the Politics of Location: Between the Global and the Local. Routledge, 2016.

Lewis, Tony. “Ethnomusicology, World Music and Analysis in African music.” Australasian Review of African Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, 2016, pp. 95-117.

Nettl, Bruno, et al. Excursions in world music (6th ed.). Routledge, 2015.

Stone, Ruth M. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: Africa. Garland Publishing, 1998.

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