Characteristics of West African Music, Dance, and Culture

The characteristics of West African music are identifiable through their fast-paced, complex, unusual methods of interpreting rhythm. Listening to the music of West Africa is a powerful experience that saturates the senses in sound. Since song and dance are used as an expression, these art forms have been integrated into the culture. Music and dance rely on each other to function as a whole in African culture.


West African music uses specialized, culture-specific instruments to create a characteristic sound. It uses several types of three to four string harps to play pentatonic five-note scales. Mande guitars enhance melody and provide melodic and harmonic support. West African music uses a drum called the djembe to play multiple simultaneous rhythms. African drumming serves as a form of communication as participants listen and respond to each other within the musical framework.

Language and Culture

West Africa has a language that lends itself well to melodic inflections with tones. The West African language is a prime influence of their music by following the natural inflections of their speech to create musical ideas. Short, melodic fragments are sung above the rhythmic drumming creates dynamic rhythm and melody. The main elements of their music are percussive with a minor emphasis on melody.

Oral Traditions

An interesting characteristic of West African music is the fact that none of their ideas are written down. It is entirely an oral tradition passed down and taught from elders to apprentices. Music does not exist simply for entertainment but to unify and communicate with other members of the community. By western standards, their rhythmic ideas have a complexity that largely prevents the use of written notation.


In West African music, dance helps to create the music. The tempo kept by the dancing and the movements of the dance dictate the percussive elements. Since the music of West Africa is largely participatory, dance and music combine to create one unified art form. Both elements are created simultaneously in an improvisatory manner. In contrast to the western music, where the music is created ahead of time and then choreographed.


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