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Discover the Fascinating World of Traditional African Musical Instruments

Have you ever been fascinated by traditional African music and the unique sounds that come from the instruments? From the drumbeats that make your heart race to the soothing melodies of the harp, African musical instruments are a treasure trove of sounds and rhythms. In this blog post, we will take you on a journey through the fascinating world of traditional African musical instruments. 

We will delve into the history of African music and explore how traditional instruments play an integral role in African culture. We will also discuss how these instruments are classified and explore some of the different types within each category, such as membranophones, chordophones, aerophones, and idiophones. So sit back, relax, and get ready to discover a whole new world of music!


Traditional African music is an integral part of the continent’s cultural heritage. With a rich history spanning several centuries, African musical instruments have been used for various purposes, ranging from entertainment to communication and storytelling. These musical instruments are often crafted from natural materials found in the local environment, such as animal hides, gourds, and wood. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of traditional African musical instruments is their classification into four categories: percussion, stringed, wind, and vocal. Learning about these classifications can help promote appreciation for diversity and cultural heritage while providing insight into the fascinating world of African traditional music.

What is traditional African music?

Traditional African music encompasses a diverse range of styles and rhythms rooted in the history, culture, and geography of the African continent. From the rhythmic drumming of West Africa to the call-and-response singing of Southern Africa, traditional African music is steeped in tradition and rich in meaning. It is often characterized by complex polyrhythms, vocal harmonies, and the use of indigenous instruments such as the kora, mbira, and djembe. 

Many African cultures view music as a key component of social and spiritual life, with music accompanying rituals, celebrations, and daily activities. Traditional African music has also influenced contemporary music genres such as jazz, blues, and hip-hop. While modern technology has brought certain changes to African music, it continues to thrive and evolve, serving as an important cultural expression for generations to come.

History of African Music

The history of African music is as diverse as the continent itself, with a rich tapestry of traditions spanning thousands of years. For many African cultures, traditional music plays a significant role in cultural and religious practices, providing a way to connect with the spirit world or tell stories of their ancestors. 

Traditional African musical instruments are often made from materials found in the local environment, such as wood, animal hides, and gourds. From percussion instruments like the djembe to stringed instruments like the kora, African rhythms, and melodies have had a profound impact on modern music genres like jazz, blues, and hip-hop. Understanding the deep roots of traditional African music can help promote appreciation for diversity and cultural heritage.

Role of Traditional Musical Instruments in African Culture

Traditional African musical instruments play a crucial role in the continent’s rich cultural heritage. They are an essential part of religious ceremonies, social gatherings, and storytelling. The instruments reflect the diversity of African cultures and their close relationship with nature. Many traditional African musical instruments are made from locally sourced materials such as wood, animal hide, and gourds. 

The use of these instruments is still widespread today and has influenced modern music globally. By understanding the significance of traditional African musical instruments, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the diverse cultural heritage of Africa and preserve this unique aspect of human history.

What makes traditional African music unique?

Traditional African music is unique due to several reasons. Firstly, it is deeply rooted in the culture and traditions of each African community. The music reflects and portrays their values, beliefs, and historical events, making it a powerful tool for storytelling and preserving history. 

Secondly, African music is characterized by complex rhythms, percussive sounds, and the use of various musical instruments such as drums, xylophones, and flutes. These instruments are often handmade and are unique to each community. 

Thirdly, African music has a strong focus on call-and-response vocals, where a lead singer is accompanied by a chorus that responds to the lead’s verses. This creates a sense of community and participation, as everyone can contribute to the music. 

Lastly, the improvisational nature of African music allows for individual and collective expression, making each performance unique and dynamic. Overall, traditional African music is a complex and diverse art form that is deeply connected to the people, history, and culture of Africa.

Musical Instruments of Southern Africa

Southern Africa is home to a variety of unique musical instruments, each offering an array of distinct sounds. Many in the region have used the trumpet and flute to create melodic tunes. Ghana, a type of drum, is a popular choice among musicians, as it can be used to create powerful rhythms. Beads, often used as decorations, can also be used to create various musical sounds.

The Kalimba is a popular instrument in Southern Africa, typically made from a wooden board and steel tines. Gongs are also popular in this region and can be used to create a variety of sounds, from mellow to powerful.

No matter the instruments used, music from Southern Africa is sure to provide a unique and powerful experience.

The Significance of Classifying Traditional African Musical Instruments

The classification of traditional African musical instruments is an important aspect of preserving the continent’s cultural heritage. By grouping instruments based on their origin, function, and materials used in construction, we can better understand the significance of these instruments and their role in communication, storytelling, and celebration. 

Different regions of Africa have unique musical traditions with their own set of instruments, and classifying them helps us to appreciate the diversity of African music. Through this process, we can also identify which instruments are at risk of disappearing and take steps to ensure their preservation for future generations to enjoy.


The membranophones are a significant subset of traditional African musical instruments that create sound through the vibration of a stretched membrane. These instruments, such as drums, tambourines, and rattles, have been used in African music for centuries, and each region has its unique type with distinct sounds and playing styles. 

For example, tubular drums are prevalent in West Africa, while conical drums are popular in East Africa. Footed drums are common across the entire continent and are played during religious ceremonies or social gatherings. The versatility of these instruments makes them an integral part of traditional African music and culture that continues to influence modern music worldwide.

Types of Tubular Drums

Tubular drums are a popular type of membranophone found in many regions of Africa. These drums produce sound through the vibration of a stretched membrane and are played by hand. Djembes, ashikos, and talking drums are some examples of tubular drums. Djembes originated in West Africa and have a unique hourglass shape that produces a wide range of tonalities. 

Ashikos, on the other hand, have a more conical shape and produce a deeper sound compared to djembes. Talking drums have strings attached to their body that can be squeezed or released to change the pitch of the drum. Different types of tubular drums can be found across various regions of Africa, each with its own distinct sound and playing style.

Types of Cylindrical Drums

Cylindrical drums are an essential part of traditional African music, with various types found across different regions. These membranophones come in different shapes and sizes, made from a wide range of materials. One of the most popular cylindrical drums is the Djembe, which originated from West Africa and is played with bare hands. 

The Talking Drum is another unique cylindrical drum that can produce an impressive range of tones and rhythms, mimicking the cadence of human speech. Other examples of cylindrical drums include the Bougarabou, Ashiko, and Ngoma, each with their own distinct sound and playing style.

Types of Conical Drums

Conical drums are an essential component of African traditional music. These membranophones produce sound by the stretched membrane’s vibration, creating a unique and distinct tone. Djembes are the most well-known types of conical drums, originating from West Africa and commonly used in dance performances. 

Talking drums are another type of conical drum that can mimic human speech patterns to communicate messages across long distances. On the other hand, ashiko drums are solo instruments with a deeply resonant tone and are often used in spiritual ceremonies. The versatility of conical drums’ design has made them popular in various musical genres worldwide.

Types of Barrel Drums

Barrel drums are essential to traditional African music, contributing their distinct sound to the overall rhythm and melody. These membranophones produce sound by striking or vibrating a membrane stretched over a barrel-shaped body. Djembe, ashiko, and dunun are the types of barrel drums commonly used in African music. 

Djembe originated in West Africa, while ashiko drums have a tapered shape with an animal skin head. Dunun drums, also known as talking drums, vary in size and produce different tones depending on how they are played. Each drum has its unique sound, making it significant in African culture and music.

Types of Long Drums

Long drums are a fascinating category of traditional African musical instruments that are often made from wood or animal hide. With different regions of Africa having their own unique styles, these drums can produce a range of sounds and rhythms. Ensembles often use long drums together with other percussion instruments to create complex and engaging music. 

Learning how to play the long drum can be an excellent way to connect with African culture and music, not to mention have fun while doing so. Whether you’re interested in understanding different drumming techniques or want to experiment with new rhythms, long drums offer endless possibilities for exploration and creativity.

Types of Footed Drums

Footed drums are a type of membranophone that produce sound by striking the drumhead with a stick or hand. Footed drums are prevalent in African music and an integral part of traditional African percussion ensembles. Some common types of footed drums include djembe, ashiko, and talking drums. The djembe, originally from West Africa, is a popular drum made from hollowed-out wood and covered with animal hide. 

The ashiko, on the other hand, produces a deep bass tone due to its taller structure and narrow base. Lastly, the talking drum is unique in producing different tones that imitate human speech. Footed drums are versatile instruments that add depth and character to any performance or celebration, making them an essential part of African music culture.


Chordophones, a type of traditional African musical instrument, produce sound by vibrating strings. The kora, ngoni, and xalam are just a few examples of chordophones played during cultural ceremonies and celebrations. Learning to play a chordophone provides insight into African culture and history as it has been an integral part of musical traditions for centuries. 

These instruments require skillful finger placement and hand movements, providing an enriching playing experience. Mastery of a chordophone can be challenging but rewarding, making it an excellent way to learn more about the importance of music in Africa’s vibrant culture.

Types of Zithers

Zithers are an essential type of chordophone in traditional African music, characterized by their stringed instruments’ vibration-producing sound. They have been a part of the continent’s musical tradition for centuries and continue to be so today. The kora, mbira, and ngoni are some of the most popular types of zithers played in Africa. 

The kora is a 21-stringed harp extensively used in West Africa, particularly during social events or ceremonies. Meanwhile, the mbira, commonly known as the thumb piano due to its size and shape, produces sound when metal keys are plucked. 

Finally, the ngoni is a lute-like instrument with either three or four strings that has gained immense popularity among musicians worldwide. By exploring these different types of zithers and understanding their cultural significance, we can gain insights into African culture and history through music.

Types of Harps

Harps are an essential component of traditional African music, producing sounds through the vibration of strings. Many different types of harps are used in African music, each with a distinct sound and construction. For instance, the Kora is a 21-stringed instrument made from a calabash gourd and covered with cowhide. 

On the other hand, the Ngoni is a stringed instrument that resembles a lute and is popular in Mali and other parts of West Africa. The Harp-Lute is another example of a harp that has a unique sound and construction.

The use of harps in African traditional music is significant as they often play an important role during cultural ceremonies and social events. Learning to play these instruments can provide insight into the history and culture of various African communities. Each type of harp has its own unique features and characteristics, making it an exciting prospect for musicians to explore their capabilities.

Types of Lutes

In traditional African music, lutes are a type of chordophone that produce sound when strings are vibrated. These instruments are popular throughout the continent and have been used for centuries. The West African kora and ngoni are two types of lutes that have gained widespread popularity in African music. 

The kora, with its 21-stringed instrument made from a calabash gourd and cowhide, stretched over its face, is known for its unique sound. Similarly, the ngoni is a smaller instrument with fewer strings traditionally made from wood or animal hide that produces its distinct sound.

Types of the Musical Bow

The musical bow is a fascinating type of chordophone found in traditional African music. They produce sound by vibrating a stretched string and are classified into three types: the mouth bow, the plucked bow, and the friction bow. 

The mouth bow is played by vibrating the string with the player’s mouth, while the plucked bow is played by plucking the string with a finger or plectrum. The friction bow produces sound when a stick is rubbed against the string. Despite being simple instruments, they have been used to create intricate melodies and rhythms that are unique to African music.

Types of Lyres

Lyres are an intriguing type of chordophone that have been used in African music for centuries. These instruments produce sound by vibrating strings, and several types of lyres are played in Africa, such as the Kora, Ngoni, and Krar. 

Each lyre has its unique characteristics and is often associated with a particular region or culture. For instance, the Kora is a 21-string instrument that is widely played in West Africa and is known for its unique sound. On the other hand, the Ngoni has a long history in Mali and Burkina Faso and is often used in traditional music. Lastly, the Krar is a six-stringed lyre that is popular in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Aerophones and Idiophones

Traditional African musical instruments have a rich history and cultural significance, with many of them used in religious rituals and ceremonies. Aerophones and idiophones are two categories of traditional African musical instruments that have unique features. 

Aerophones produce sound by causing air to vibrate within a tube or chamber, while idiophones are percussion instruments that produce sound by vibrating the entire instrument itself. Examples of aerophones include the kudu horn, the mbira, and the ocarina. 

On the other hand, examples of idiophones include the shekere, xylophone, and maracas. These instruments add to the diversity of African music and enhance its beauty.

Classification of Idiophones

Idiophones, also known as self-sounding instruments, are essential to traditional African music. These instruments produce sound by vibrating their own body, creating a unique and distinctive musical experience. 

The four main categories of idiophones are concussion, friction, shaken, and stamped. Concussion idiophones produce sound by striking two objects together, while friction idiophones create sound through rubbing or scraping. Shaken idiophones produce sound by shaking or striking them against another object. 

Stamped idiophones create sound by stamping them on the ground or hitting them with a stick. Understanding the classification of these instruments is significant in comprehending the unique sounds they produce and how they contribute to African culture’s musical heritage.


Frequently Asked Questions

What was the first African instrument?

The exact first African musical instrument is not known as it predates written history. However, some of the oldest known instruments from Africa include the sistrum, a percussion instrument made from metal and used in ancient Egyptian religious ceremonies, and the mbira, a thumb piano believed to have originated in Zimbabwe around 1,300 years ago.

What is the most famous African instrument?

The most famous African instrument is likely the djembe, a type of drum originating from West Africa. Its unique sound and versatility have made it popular not only in Africa but also around the world. Other notable African instruments include the kora, balafon, mbira, and talking drum.

How do these instruments differ from Western musical instruments?

Traditional African musical instruments differ from Western musical instruments in several ways. They often have a different design and construction, with many African instruments made from natural materials such as wood, gourds, and animal skins.


In terms of sound, African instruments tend to have a more percussive sound and rely on rhythms and beats rather than melody. Additionally, African music is often culturally significant and used in traditional ceremonies and celebrations.

What role do music and musical instruments play in African culture and traditions?

Music and musical instruments play an essential role in African culture and traditions. African music is often used for communication, storytelling, and religious ceremonies. The traditional musical instruments of Africa are diverse and include drums, percussion, stringed instruments, and wind instruments. 

The variety of traditional African musical instruments reflects the continent’s rich cultural heritage. Overall, music serves as a powerful medium for expression and connection within African communities.

Are there any modern adaptations or evolutions of traditional African musical instruments?

Yes, there are modern adaptations of traditional African musical instruments. For example, the electric mbira and the electronic talking drum are both newer versions of traditional instruments that allow for a fusion of traditional and modern music styles. 

While some argue that these adaptations may dilute the authenticity of the original instruments, others see them as a way to keep traditional African music alive and relevant in today’s world. Overall, these adaptations represent an evolution of African music and showcase the creativity and adaptability of African musicians.

What are some cultural and historical significances behind these instruments?

Traditional African musical instruments hold deep cultural and historical significance. Some were used for communication, ritual ceremonies, or storytelling. Many African cultures believe that music has healing powers and can connect the living with the spiritual world. 

These instruments also symbolize unity and community, bringing people together in celebration and commemoration. The use of these instruments demonstrates the rich history and diverse culture of the African continent.

How do these instruments differ from Western musical instruments?

Traditional African musical instruments often have a distinct sound and tone compared to Western instruments. Many African instruments, such as the djembe or talking drum, are played by hand and made from natural materials like wood or animal skins.


In addition, playing traditional African instruments often involves more physical movement and dancing than playing Western instruments. Overall, these differences make for a unique and vibrant musical experience that is deeply rooted in African culture.

What are the elements and style of music?

Music is a form of art that combines sounds and rhythm to create an emotional experience for the listener. There are several elements that make up music, including melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, and texture.

Melody refers to the main tune or theme of a piece of music, while harmony refers to the combination of different sounds played simultaneously to support the melody. Rhythm refers to the beat or pulse of the music, which gives it a sense of movement and structure.

What are 4 features of African music?

African music is known for its rich and diverse cultural heritage, with many unique features that set it apart from other musical styles across the world. Here are four key features of African music:

  1. Rhythm: African music is famous for its complex and intricate rhythms, which often involve multiple layers of percussion instruments playing together in a synchronized manner.
  2. Call-and-response vocals: Many African musical traditions feature call-and-response vocals, where one singer or group of singers will sing a phrase, and another singer or group will respond with a complimentary phrase.

3.Use of traditional instruments: African music often utilizes traditional instruments such as the djembe, kora, and mbira, which have been passed down through generations and are deeply rooted in African culture.

  1. Improvisation: In many African musical traditions, improvisation is a key aspect of performance. Musicians are encouraged to follow their instincts and express themselves creatively during live performances.

Overall, African music is a vibrant and dynamic art form that continues to evolve and inspire people around the globe.

What is the most famous rhythm in Africa

The most famous rhythm in Africa is arguably the West African djembe drumming. Originating from the Mandinka people of Guinea, Mali, and Senegal, this lively and energetic percussion style has gained international recognition for its dynamic beats and deep cultural significance. 

The djembe drum is known as the “healing drum” because of its ability to bring people together and create a unifying sense of community. Today, it is played all over the world by both professional musicians and enthusiasts alike.

What are the characteristics of African rhythm

African rhythm is characterized by its polyrhythmic nature, where multiple rhythms are played simultaneously. The rhythms are typically based on complex patterns of beats and often use syncopation. African music also commonly incorporates call-and-response vocals, percussion instruments, and repetitive melodic phrases. The use of improvisation and the incorporation of traditional instruments such as djembes, talking drums, and balafons are also key features of African rhythm.


Traditional African musical instruments are more than just tools for creating music. They represent a rich cultural heritage that has been passed down from generation to generation. The history of African music and the role of traditional musical instruments in African culture are fascinating topics that have captured the world’s attention.

By understanding the significance of classifying traditional African musical instruments, you can gain a deeper appreciation for the art form and discover new sounds that will enrich your life. We’ve covered everything from membranophones to chordophones to aerophones to idiophones. Explore our comprehensive guide on traditional African musical instruments for a detailed overview of each type and its unique characteristics.

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