In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Music, Dance, and the Study of Africa

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works and Musical Resources
  • Bibliographies, Discographies, and Catalogues
  • Journals
  • Methodology and State of the Field

African Studies Music, Dance, and the Study of Africa
Nate Plageman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0153


African societies have long created and performed a variety of forms of music and dance; so much so, in fact, that many people in and outside of the continent often proclaim that music is a vital component of the continent’s social and cultural life. And while such assertions risk reducing a wide and diverse range of musical practices into a single clearly identifiable phenomenon (i.e., “African music”) or purpose, scholars, journalists, and musical enthusiasts have done much to examine the creative domain of musical performance among different African peoples. In the process, they have demonstrated that studying African music and dance enables an appreciation of much more than artistic expression. More specifically, they have established such forms as valuable means of appreciating such communities’ agency and creativity; cosmology and worldview; sociopolitical composition; understandings of the past, present, and future; and ongoing engagement with local, regional, and international actors, materials, and ideas. In short, studies of music and dance have greatly enriched our understanding and appreciation of how African people organize, conceptualize, and experience various aspects of their daily lives. This article introduces the ever-expanding literature that has grown out of their efforts. Focusing overwhelmingly on sub-Saharan Africa, it orients readers to the historical development of engagement by scholars with forms of African music and dance, major themes and topics of analysis, and recent developments. And while it seeks to provide readers with a selection of significant works that represent the diverse geographical, thematic, and ideological perspectives that underpin recent examinations, it does not provide an exhaustive or comprehensive treatment of this enormous subject. Given the vast geographical scope of the African continent as well as the interdisciplinary nature of the study of African music and dance, this article features a number of limitations that warrant remedy in future, and more specific, studies. First, it focuses overwhelmingly on English-language publications—a choice that reflects both an effort to provide an introduction to a huge topic of widely accessible sources as well as the author’s linguistic constraints. Second, the effort to attend to the topic’s interdisciplinary nature limits coverage of formal music theory or technical elements of African musical forms. Finally, while this article aims to treat a diversity of peoples and places, it remains slanted slightly toward West Africa, which has received more attention than other regions of sub-Saharan Africa to date. Sections in this bibliography include Foundational Works, General Overviews, Reference Works and Musical Resources, Bibliographies, Discographies, and Catalogues, and Journals as well as Methodology and State of the Field and a number of important thematic topics. The author would like to thank Paul Schauert and Gavin Webb, as well as two anonymous reviewers, for their valuable advice.

Foundational Works

The first seventy-five years of the 20th century laid important foundations for the study of music and dance in Africa, particularly in regard to its interdisciplinary nature and concern for the sociocultural fabric of communities. While information about music and dance appeared in the writings of travelers, missionaries, colonial officials, and anthropologists in the 19th and 20th centuries, most accounts, as Nketia 1974 notes, tended to belittle African forms. Such patterns also characterized comparative musicology’s early scholarship, including Hornbostel 1928, which appeared in the inaugural issue of the important journal Africa. While the piece increased scholarly interest in the study of African musical styles, the author also insisted that they were fundamentally “different” (and therefore inferior) to their European counterparts. In the 1950s and 1960s, comparative musicology came under criticism from a new set of ethnomusicologists concerned about the lack of knowledge of African societies by outside scholars and by the penchant for misrepresenting their musical styles and wider domain of cultural practice. To obtain a more objective understanding, this new wave of ethnomusicologists advocated the need for detailed fieldwork, embrace of anthropological theory, and appreciation of the wider social context of musical production and performance. Their efforts created a number of “classic” publications, which, along with those annotated in Regional and Ethnic Analyses before 1975, developed arguments and analytical methods central to the field’s progression. Merriam 1964 and Nketia 1974 emphasize a heightened ethnographic consciousness, Jones 1971 stresses structural and technical aspects, Bebey 1975 deals with the function that music and musicians play in various African societies. Tracey 1954, Merriam 1964, and Blacking 1973 treat the need to appreciate how music shaped and reflected political and social life, and Wachsmann 1971 considers the possibilities of using music as a means of reconstructing historical events.

  • Bebey, Francis. African Music: A People’s Art. New York: Lawrence Hill, 1975.

    Originally published in French in 1969 as Musique de l’Afrique: Expressions (Paris: Horizons de France), this book by a Cameroonian author offers a sensitive and illustrative treatment of African musicians, instruments, and musical styles. While overwhelmingly focused on West Africa, it remains a fitting introductory text.

  • Blacking, John. How Musical Is Man? Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973.

    This work by this prodigious scholar is his best known. In this collection of four essays he explores the nature of musicality, the social role of music, and musical discourse in order to dismantle distinctions between Western and non-Western musical cultures. Draws largely from Blacking 1995 (cited under Regional and Ethnic Analyses before 1975).

  • Hornbostel, Erich M. von. “African Negro Music.” Africa 1 (1928): 30–62.

    DOI: 10.2307/1155862

    This early examination of African music explores how it is fundamentally different from that of Europe. The author’s argument that because the latter is based upon harmony and the former revolves around melody and rhythm, the two could never be fused or used together “without compromise” essentially promulgates ideas of European superiority.

  • Jones, A. M. Studies in African Music. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.

    This two-volume work, including a collection of written essays as well as a collection of musical scores, intimately documents the structure of dance music, particularly from the Ewe people of Ghana. Though important, its technical nature makes it suitable for trained musicians and ethnomusicologists.

  • Merriam, Alan P. The Anthropology of Music. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

    A classic work that did much to cement the emergence of modern ethnomusicology. While not focused on Africa per se, it employs examples from several African contexts and explores various topics important to the field, including social and symbolic behavior.

  • Nketia, J. H. Kwabena. The Music of Africa. New York: W. W. Norton, 1974.

    While it gained notoriety as an introduction to the study of African music, particularly for college undergraduates, this book offers remarkable insights, many of which were gleaned from decades of experience. Divided into four sections on social and cultural context, musical instruments, structure, and music and related arts.

  • Tracey, Hugh. “The Social Role of African Music.” African Affairs 53.212 (1954): 234–241.

    This brief article, drawn from a lecture Tracey delivered in London, argues for the end of romanticized and even racist portrayals of African music. Asserts that musical forms are central components of African social life, fluid rather than static, and that they warrant serious study and preservation.

  • Wachsmann, Klaus P., ed., Essays on Music and History in Africa. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1971.

    This collection of chapters, which stems largely from a 1962 symposium, carefully inquires into music’s relation to historical events as well as its status as a source of reliable historical information. Features the work of numerous renowned scholars from several disciplines.

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