African Roots

The lost history of African tonal systems in western Music

In early Africa along with other parts of the world, music wasn’t confined to 12 notes. Many cultures used microtonal and other tonal systems in their music. In countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, there were many different tonal systems that aren’t heard in western music. With the European colonization, the west as well as many parts of the world lost many of these musical influences

In western music, octaves (the interval between and including two notes, one having twice or half the frequency of vibration of the other) are divided into 12 notes with around an equal tonal value (around 100 cents) between each. This is what we call 12 tone equal temperament. During the times of Bach, Mozart, Chopin, music was very structural, strictly following part-writing rules made for western music systems. The boom in music composition in the European world based their music composition on this system of 12 tone equal temperament. Now, American music is still largely based on the part writing and compositional rules of 17th century Europe. 

Equi-pentatonic temperament in Uganda and equi-heptatonic temperament in Zambezi and Angola varied from the normalized tonal systems we have in the west. These systems having 5 or 7 notes per octave can be attributed to the instruments they had. One example would be the pentatonic Kalimba The Kalimba is a percussive melodic instrument, using a thumb to pluck each metal bar. This instrument was originally pentatonic, meaning it only had 5 notes.

A Pentatonic 11 note Kalimba

Along with Equi-pentatonic and equi-heptatonic tonal systems, a very popular tonal system in non-western and African cultures is a microtonal system. Microtonal means that there are more divisions in between the 12 notes of western music scales. Aside from sounds originating in African countries, a more well-known example of this would be Middle Eastern music and vocal styles. 

Due to European colonization, western culture overpowers media consumption, leaving out a lot of the smaller unique cultural customs of other regions. With western culture being so dominant in the world, it is easy for westerners to reject the sounds of other cultures. For westerners, it is easy to hear microtones as “out of tune”; although it is intentional, to the western ear trained to hear notes in the equal division of 12 TET, it can sound “wrong”. 

In this video, Kofi Agawu talks about how the colonization of music, with western and European culture taking over and forcing other cultures to conform, music is strong evidence of the shift in cultural norms.

We can see some remnants of microtones in African American Jazz and blues music. The most common use of microtonal notes in modern music are glides and bends, or blue notes. These tend to just be passing through a microtone en route to the next note. With these exceptions, microtonality is very rare in popularized music. Artists throughout time have been trying to repopularize or just plainly utilize different tonal structures, but many remain widely unheard of. The most significant impacts to repopularize these styles of music in western music have been through mainly white artists, popular examples being Jacob Collier with his arrangement of “Moon River” and band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard with their album “Flying Microtonal Banana”.

Although efforts are acknowledged and appreciated, it is still a drop in the bucket for opening the ears of westerners to more foreign concepts like varying tonal structures along with many other valuable but lost music customs in other parts of the world.

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