African and African American Music

By Keris Lewis

Table of Contents

The Purpose of Music in African and African American Communities

In African communities, music plays a significant role in ceremonies and in general communication. Music is very present in spiritual ceremonies and religious ceremonies; many groups come together and participate in large gatherings to create and share music with each other. Many times music plays a role in storytelling, where the lyrics, tone, and tempo is significant to the people performing. This communicative nature is what greatly contributed to negro spirituals in the Americas and how enslaved Africans would communicate escape routes. 

Historically, negro spirituals are important when addressing the purpose of African American music styles, as they were used between enslaved Africans while working to boost morale and communicate community as they established their own culture in the Americas. It also continued as a form of communication to those who wished to escape. Today, music has been used to protest against inequalities and injustice in African American communities. Storytelling is prevalent in many modern-day musical styles, especially in genres like Rap or R&B. 

Many songs in African and African American communities stemmed from spirituality and ceremony. Many songs come from a place of tradition or worship, which heavily influences where the performance and experience differs later down the line.


Many African performances are accompanied by dancers, which add to the communal and interactive nature of African music. The experience as a result is elevated to be both visual and auditory experiences.

Creation Performance Experience

The complexity of many African and African American performances stem from the wide range of musical genre and structures. Many musical pieces are interactive and improvitized. Therefore, the experiences are heavily impacted by both performers and the audience, who become part of the performance through the interaction. 


This includes the audience in the experience, making the music an encompassing experience for all those involved.

Timbre in African and African American Music

Timbre is the quality and character of any sound that can be defined through the pitch and intensity of the sound when heard. African and African American music is known to be filled with a variety of sounds and a broad range. African music baffled the Europeans who heard it; it was described as being to gaudy or chaotic for their ears. However, the variety in African and African American music is to express the liveliness and resilience of African people and those of the African Diaspora. The timbre of African and African American music is a distinct stylistic choice that separates it from other cultures.

Musical Structures


Polyrhythm is the use of two or more rhythms at a time during a musical performance. This is a reoccurring part of African and African American music, where the use of multiple beats overlapping creates a more complex and rich musical piece

Call and Response

Call and response is an interactive structure that in common in many African and African American songs. Call and response style requires a phrase or sound to be said by one person or group and has another phrase or sound to be responded back. T

How Do the Structures Reflect the Communal and Interactive Approach to Music Making?

Both of these structures require more than one person to participate in the creation of the music. A polyrhythm requires more than one person to create the many complex layers and the call and response styles require someone on both sides of the exchange. Both structures require heavy interaction with a group, alluding to the community and interaction between the community. It is also important to recognize how many times, portions of the songs are improvised, demonstration how even as a collective there is still creative expression in this communal and interactive style.