African music, the music of the indigenous peoples of Africa. Sub-Saharan African music has as its distinguishing feature a rhythmic complexity common to no other region. Polyrhythmic counterpoint, wherein two or more locally independent attack patterns are superimposed, is realized by handclaps, xylophones, rattles, and a variety of tuned and nontuned drums. The remarkable aspect of African polyrhythm is the discernible coherence of the resultant rhythmic pattern. Pitch polyphony exists in the form of parallel intervals (generally thirds, fourths, and fifths), overlapping choral antiphony and solo-choral response, and occasional simultaneous independent melodies. In addition to voice, many wind and string instruments perform melodic functions. Common are bamboo flutes, ivory trumpets, and the one-string ground bow, which uses a hole in the ground as a resonator. During colonial times, European instruments such as saxophones, trumpets, and guitars were adopted by many African musicians; their sounds were integrated into the traditional patterns. Scale systems vary between regions but are generally diatonic. Music is highly functional in ethnic life, accompanying birth, marriage, hunting, and even political activities. Much music exists solely for entertainment, ranging from narrative songs to highly stylized musical theater. Similarities with other cultures, particularly Indian and Middle Eastern, can be ascribed primarily to the Islamic invasion (7th–11th cent.). See gospel music; jazz; spiritual.
See A. M. Jones, Studies in African Music (2 vol., 1959); R. Brandel, The Music of Central Africa (1961); F. Warren, The Music of Africa (1970); F. Bebey, African Music (1972); W. Bender, Sweet Mother: Modern African Music (1991).