Africa, home to 350 million people belonging to some 3000 tribes and speaking some 800 to 1000 distinct languages, is one of the most musically diversified regions of the world. The geographical variety of the continent - from the mountains and the vast desert of the north to the wide Savannah belt, the central rain forests and the fertile southern coast - is reflected in a multiplicity of musical styles.
In spite of this diversity, unifying features may be identified. African music is primarily percussive. Drums, rattles, bells and gongs predominate, and even important melodic instruments such as xylophones and plucked strings are played with percussive techniques. African melodies are based on short units, on which performers improvise. Though melodies are often simple, rhythms are complex by European standards, with much syncopation (accents on beats other than the main one), hemiola (juxtaposition of twos and threes) and polyrhythm (simultaneous performance of several rhythms). While Western rhythms are classified as 'additive' (time span divided into equal sections, e.g. 12 beats divided 4+ 4 + 4), African rhythms are usually 'divisive' (unequal sections, e.g. 12 beats divided 5 + 7 or 3 + 4 + 5). An unusual aspect of African rhythm is what has been called the 'metronome sense', the ability of many musicians to perform for long periods without deviating from the exact tempo. Group performances are most typical, and the 'call-and-response' style with a solo leader and responsorial group is used throughout the continent. Most African music is based on forms of diatonic scales, closely related to European scales; so the Western listener may find it more familiar, more accessible than the music of Asia.
These characteristics apply to the cultures south of the Sahara Desert, often referred to as 'Black Africa'. North African music is more closely allied to the music of other Arab countries of West Asia and is characterized by solo performance, monophonic rather than polyphonic forms, the predominance of melody over rhythm, a tense and nasal vocal style and non-percussive instruments including bowed rather than plucked strings. While the North as well as portions of West Africa and the east coast have been influenced by Islam, a distinctive sub-region is formed by Ethiopia, whose music has been influenced for centuries by Coptic Christianity, reflected in the ritual melodies, modes and liturgical chant (which is notated). Ethiopian instruments include the small krar lyre and the large, ten-string beganna lyre, claimed to be a descendant of David's harp.
In sub-Saharan Africa, music is an integral part of daily life. Songs accompany the rites of passage, work and entertainment. They were also important in the life of the traditional African courts, and are still used for political comment, especially in West Africa. Although the claims that all members of African communities participate in musical activities are now discredited, studies have shown that communal music-making is more common than in the West. And although musicians are generally accorded low social status, skilled professional musicians (called griots in some regions), employed by rich patrons, are common in many African societies. Musical notation is rare in Africa; skills and knowledge are passed from master to pupil in oral tradition.
The most celebrated African instruments are membrane drums The famous 'talking drums' of West Africa, such as the atumpan of Ghana, can imitate speech tones and are sometimes used to signal messages. Speech is also imitated by bells, gongs and wind instruments of the horn, trumpet and flute types. Harps are played mainly north of the Equator, in a broad band extending from Uganda to the western Savannah. Harp-lutes, such as the Gambian kora, are popular in West Africa. Other string instruments include fiddles in East Africa and the musical bow, fashioned like a hunting bow and played, with varying techniques and great sophistication, throughout the continent. Wind instruments of the trumpet and horn types are played in orchestras, in hocket fashion, with each instrument supplying its one note to the melodic whole. The algaita, an oboe-type instrument of West Africa, is probably of Islamic influence. Xylophones are common, particularly in the East where the Chopi xylophone orchestras of Mozambique perform polyphonic dance suites of uncommon beauty. An instrument unique to African and African-American music is the mbira or sanza (called thumb piano in earlier writings); it consists of a set of thumb-plucked metal tongues mounted on a board, often with a gourd resonator.
In recent decades, traditional African music has tended to be overshadowed by new hybrid urban forms such as highlife (Ghana), juju (Nigeria), Congolese (Zaire) and kwela (southern Africa) which blend elements from Western pop and disco idioms with local features.