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Comparison of Western Music and African Music

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Comparison of Western Music and African Music

Comparison of Western Music and African Music is an article in the Creative Education. It was written by Givewell Munyaradzi and Webster Zimidzi who are professors of Great Zibabwe University, and was published in 2012. The author holds the view that “the major differences between African music and Western music is on what many scholars referred to as complicated rhythm which is a major feature of African rhythm.”[1] In order to understand the influence of Western music in detail, it is helpful to look at the differences between Western music and other music.


The fact that African music was not known until the middle of nineteenth century was the reason for why it is always difficult to compare the two musical systems in the nineteenth century.[2] For one thing, African music was not recorded in written form but passed on through oral tradition, so it is difficult to interpret it literarily. For another, European ethnomusicologists fail to realize traditional African music during the nineteenth century when music was interpreted from European viewpoints. Their misunderstanding further isolated African music.[3] As a result, African music is known by people until serious researches of African music which were carried out by ethnomusicologists and some scholars who were interested in African music, such as Waterman, Merriam and Kauffman.[4] The circumstance implies that the comparison between the two systems is few and insufficient, so there is a large space for descendants to explore.

African music is different from Western music in the following aspects: creation, form and rhythm.

First, Western music is created and owned by one, but African music, when it is created, can be used by all.[5] Western music is created along the lines of great composers such as Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart, but one can hardly know a famous African composer, because music is created by a group of people in Africa. Chernoff defined African music as, “a cultural activity which reveals a group of people organizing and involving themselves with their own communal relationships.”[6] 

Second, Western music makes an obvious distinction between artists and audiences while audiences are not separated from artists in Africa.[7] For example, handclapping is used as an instrument in making music in Africa, but it is of little or no use in the West. When music is performed on the stage, audiences do not applause until the end of one piece. On the contrary, African artists always call for audience involvement.[8]

Third, African music use complex rhythms when Western art music has only one rhythm in a piece.[9] The complex character originates from the fact that when the music is performed by different ethnic groups, each individual has a particular rhythm which brings out a variety of rhythms. Therefore, African music is a kind of combination, including drums, shakers, clapping, whistling and dancing. When Western music basically consists of rhythmic pattern and bar lines which are put on place when a strong accentual note occurs, it is not complex like the type of rhythms found in African music.[10]

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