Term 2 Perspective Lessons & Assignments

3 Elements of Music

Writing as a Ethnomusicologist

A ethnomusicologist is a person who studies and researches different types of music from all around the world. The music of West Africa is complex and unique. Across this part of the continent, the music of different countries and cultures shares a lot of similar elements, but you should always be careful when you write about it. It would be incorrect to say that, "West African music never ..." or "West African music always ..." There will be exceptions to the rule and some music just doesn't fit the mould. Try to use words like "most" or "generally" or "usually" because this shows that you know there might be music that does not fit in with what you are trying to say, but you are just making a general statement about what you have heard. Ethnomusicologists are interested in learning more about the music of our world and they want to try and present their research in a fair and positive way.


Durations or patterns of rhythm in West African music are often complex and busy. There is not a lot of resting or held notes. There are lots of syncopated patterns. Polyrhythms are commonly used. This is when multiple rhythms are played together at the same time. Sometimes these rhythms have conflicting beats, but they meld together to produce one complex sound.

Rhythmic stresses are often asymmetrical. They can't be divided into even beats like we do in 2/4 or 4/4. Meters in this music are unusual like 5/4 or 7/8, or they have mixed meters that change throughout the song. Simple meters and compound rhythms are sometimes performed together, like 4/4 and 12/8. The mixing of the 2 beat feel from the 4/4 and the 3 beat feel from the 12/8 creates an effect called hemiola. Sometimes there is so much mixing and multiple meters happening at once that it is difficult to determine what the meter actually is.

Click to listen to an example of polyrhythm and try to follow the sheet music below.


Melodic singing is mostly chant-like with limited pitches that are repeated. The shape of the melody is smooth, with motion between the notes going up and down like a scale with not too many jumps. The melodies are usually shorter in length and there are breaks between them.

Call and response is the most popular musical form. It consists of a call (made by the leader) and a response (by the follower). Sometimes the response is exactly the same as the call, and sometimes it is a different repeated phrase. It can be used as a learning tool to teach a group of followers a melody or to send a message that the leader wants the group to remember. This is the form that made the greatest impact on African American music. It had a big influence on the development of spirituals, gospel music, blues, and jazz.

Harmony, Texture, and Timbre

Different musical scales are used that are not common in Western Music. This might give it an unusual sound to your ear because it does not use the same major and minor modes that we are familiar with. The sound of the voice, called timbre, is often brighter and more nasal than the vocal quality in Western music.

West Africa has a strong tradition of choral singing. This goes back to before the arrival of Europeans in the 13th century. Just like the rhythms, this choral singing is also polyphonic with multiple vocal melodies being sung at the same time. Since Europeans have been observing music in West Africa, the main change over time has been the harmonies. African choral music that we hear today is a fusion of ancient African melodies that are harmonized using the Western music system. It has a familiar harmonic sound, even though the main melody might be something you've never heard before.


The musical form used for a piece depends on what the purpose of the music is. A common element is the use of ostinato or repeated rhythmic patterns. These rhythmic and melodic patterns set up a certain feel or groove and it is very good for dancing to. As was mentioned above, call and response is used to break up the melodic line of the song into segments. Improvision is also frequently present. When a singer or instrumentalist improvises, they create their own musical line right on the spot. They make it up as they go along. These improvised sections can be short or very long.

There are not really any specific musical forms, like symphony or rondo or sonata form, like we have in Western music. Most music is in a form called binary form. This is when you have two contrasting musical themes, A and B, and you alternate them. It can be AABB, or ABAB, or ABA. Strophic form is also used. This is when each musical section has the same melodic line and it's just repeated over and over (A, A, A, A, A). We also see this form in Western music. A lot of folk songs and songs for children have this kind of form, like "Amazing Grace" or "Mary had a Little Lamb." The melody is the same for each verse, but there are new lyrics each time.


A lot of West African music has a purpose, message, or story behind it. We call this an extra-musical meaning, which means that the song has a special meaning outside just the notes written on the page. This can be seen in ceremonies and dances that accompany certain music. Musical elements in the song can indicate a certain dance move or part of the ceremony. The music could also tell a story or a legend, with different musical sound effects symbolizing animals or people.

Music can also be used as a replacement for spoken language. It can be used to pass on signals or codes.  During the Atlantic slave trade, captured slaves would sing songs to pass secret information. Within the lyrics of the song were special instructions on how the slaves could escape to freedom. For example, there are several code songs that talk about the slaves going to Heaven if they follow the River Jordan, which is a river mentioned in the Bible. Anyone listening would think that the song was just about religion. However, we now know this is a secret code telling slaves that they could escape to freedom by running along the river, since it would be difficult for slave hunters to follow or track them with hunting dogs. If these slaves would have been caught talking to each other, they would have been punished or even killed. But, if they sang a song that contained a coded message, then the slave owners would probably not find out. It was a very powerful communication system and many popular African American spirituals were based on these code songs.