Timeline of African American Music
Thelonius Monk

African Origins and Adaptations in African American Music

By Portia K. Maultsby, Ph.D. / Earl Stewart, Ph.D.
“In Africa, music is central to all aspects of social life in multifarious ways. From lullabies to life-cycle events; from storytelling and games to social criticism; from agricultural pursuits, fishing, hunting, to kingship; from harvest to annual festivals, musical performances express a wide range of emotions, embodied experience, and social values.”
Kwasi AmpenePerformer & Ethnomusicologist

Africans brought their own cultures and way of life to the Americas. As enslaved Africans they participated in African rituals and music-making events. They told stories, sang, danced, played African and African-derived instruments, and more broadly, celebrated life as they had done in Africa. In North America their introduction to European culture and music came from participating in or witnessing the religious and social activities of slaveholders, which they reinterpreted to conform to their own cultural practices and musical values through processes of adaption and resistance. As freed people, Blacks and their descendants continued to create new and distinctive styles of Black music in the tradition of African music-making that defined their unique African American identity.

Historically, music in West and Central Africa, the homeland of the enslaved, is performed by individuals and groups. Serving many functions, it records the people’s history, including responses to their social, political, and economic realities. It also accompanies all essential recreational, occupational, and ritualized activities. When organized as a social event, music-making involves the participation of the entire community to which dance is central. Without making distinctions between “performers” and “audience,” community members engage in singing, dancing, clapping hands, and playing percussive instruments. The improvisatory singing and community participation produce call and response and repetitive chorus structures. It also encourages individual expression, where singers freely inject utterances, and vary vocal timbres to produce groans, shrills, moans, wails, and screams that convey emotions and sounds of everyday life. Additionally, this approach produces heterophony (verses harmony), the simultaneous rendering of slightly different versions of the same melody by two or more performers. The centrality of dance in music-making activities establishes the hierarchy of rhythm over melody and the dominance of polyrhythmic structures, i.e. the layering of contrasting rhythms. As illustrated in the video from Guinea, West Africa, the rhythms of the lead drummer support the movements of dancers and provide cues for accents and changes in drum patterns.

During the voyage from Africa, known as the Middle Passage, ship captains unshackled their captives and forced them to exercise by singing and dancing to the accompaniment of African instruments—drums and the banjar/banjer/banjor/banjoe (related to the halam and the kora, early forms of the banjo) that they had brought aboard the ships. The preservation of African culture in the United States, especially in the South, remained largely intact among the enslaved masses until the early 1800s. Music accompanied events of everyday life, from work to social, recreational, and ritualized activities. The level of engagement with African culture varied according to the conditions of enslavement.

Explore Related Genres

Specific attributes: Timbre, Call and Response, Voice, Slavery

Africans situated on small farms in the South and North, for example, were in constant contact with slaveholders, unlike those residing on large farms and plantations. The former lived in their homes or nearby and worked beside them on farms, in kitchens, and in stores, and whites expected them to conform to their culture. Away from whites in their private spaces, especially on the weekends and holidays, however, Blacks continued to participate in African ritual and recreational activities. They worshiped their African gods, commemorated their ancestors and the dead, conjured rain in dry seasons, and celebrated holidays as they had done in their homeland. The most noticeable feature common to these activities was dance, to which the white clergy objected. They interpreted the African style of dancing and other cultural expressions as being incompatible to the teachings of Christianity as well as Euro-American standards of decorum. Determined to eradicate this African way of life and to create an alternative, the clergy in the New England colonies suggested or required by law that slaveholders provide the enslaved with religious instruction. Christian education included psalm and hymn singing, in the belief that the enslaved would substitute this repertoire for their own.

Such instruction did little to change the cultural orientation of the enslaved masses. In addition to persisting in traditions of African origin, they transformed festive activities of the Europeans into African-styled celebrations. Blacks, for example, Africanized the Colonial Election Day held in New England from around 1750–1850—the day when white communities elected their governors and community leaders. Reformulated as “Lection Day,” they elected their own kings and governors. Dressed in elaborate outfits, Blacks mocked the celebration that featured a parade, singing, dancing, and playing African and European instruments but in a distinctly African style. Similarly, their observance of the 19th-century Pinkster Day, a holiday of Dutch origin, centered on dancing, drumming, and singing. An observer identified an eel-pot drum as the principal instrument that accompanied the dancing. Over the rhythms the drummer repeated “hi-a-bomba, bomba, bomba.”

From African to an African American Culture

“They [negroes] sing at their work, at their homes, on the highway, and in the streets.”
Reverend C.F. Sturgis

Early in the 19th century, three major events led to modifications in the cultural practices of the enslaved Africans, eventually giving rise to a recognizably African American culture. The (1) passage of legislation in 1808 banned the importation of Africans to North America. Over time, the greatly reduced numbers of Africans coming into the United States dramatically curtailed the reinforcement of indigenous African practices; (2) legislation enacted in the 1700s, but largely enforced in the 1800s, barred Blacks from playing drums and other “loud” instruments such as horns. This ban on African instruments led to substitutions with homemade and European instruments played in an African style; and (3) the 19th-century revival movement, known as the Second Great Awakening (1800–1840), influenced the religious conversion of a significant number of freed and enslaved Africans.

Revival services, organized as large camp meetings, appealed to both free and enslaved Africans. The loosely structured service and the emotional delivery style of white evangelists generated a kind of fervor and unrestrained expression that resonated with Blacks. Although thousands eventually converted to Christianity, they did so on their own terms by reinterpreting Christian principles and practices through the lens of African belief and cultural systems, and through their experiences as enslaved people.

This African approach to religious expression became more pronounced when Blacks conducted their own services. Whereas some religious activities were sanctioned by whites, others were held in secret places in the woods known as “brush arbors” or “hush arbors.” Changing the character of the Christian service, Blacks engaged in a dialogue with the preacher by interjecting utterances of “Oh, Lawd!” “Hallelujah,” “de Lord, my God,” etc.; physical responses of tossing heads, waving and clapping hands, stomping feet, and other gestures affirmed the sacredness of the occasion. Interspersed throughout this ritual was spontaneous singing that accompanied a religious dance, later known as the “ring shout.” The songs created from the improvised singing became known as Negro Spirituals.

This African approach to music-making also defined the character of the leisure activities of the enslaved. Charles Ball, former enslaved African in South Carolina, recalls: “[On Saturday night] our quarter knew but little quiet . . . singing, playing on the banjoe, and dancing, occupied nearly the whole community, until the break of day. Those who were too old to take any part in our active pleasures, beat time with their hands, or recited stories of former times. . . in Africa.”

The Old Plantation: Slave Dance and Music,ca. 1785-1795. Watercolor on paper, attributed to John Rose, Beaufort County, SC.Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, VA

Representing Rhythm and Performance on the Musical Score

“Music has always been integral to the African American struggle for Freedom.”
Bernice Johnson ReagonSinger & Civil Rights activist

The emancipation of the enslaved in 1865 brought about many changes in their lives and music. Their improvised expressions became accessible in written form when white song collectors began transcribing their songs for study. The editors of the first published collection of spirituals and secular songs, Slave Songs of the United States (1867), however, acknowledged their inability to capture the improvised character of these songs on the score. Three decades later, the transcribers of ragtime, the first genre of post-emancipation Black popular music to appear in print, encountered similar challenges.

Slave Songs of the United States, 1867Francis Allen, Lucy McKim Garrison, Charles Pickard Ware (editors), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ragtime emerged in the 1880s as an improvised form of piano music and became widely popular in the mainstream. The music’s danceable rhythms, familiar harmonies and the ABA form caught the attention of whites, especially the middle class. Printed versions became in demand in the 1890s, prompting transcribers to simplify its complex rhythms. As a commodity for mass dissemination, the printed version represented a superficial rendition of ragtime’s syncopated improvisational style, which changed the organic character of the music.

Retaining the improvisatory style of ragtime, Tom Turpin was the first African American to publish his composition “Harlem Rag” (1897). Similarly, and two years later, African American Scott Joplin published his “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899) that he recorded on a piano roll in 1916.

Comparing the rhythmic component of Black and European music, theorist Earl Stewart explains that nearly every traditional Western classical style employs syncopation; in African American music, it virtually defines (italics mine) style as illustrated in ragtime. Syncopation is the shifting of accent from standard European stressed beats to atypical stress points in the measure. Like African music, syncopation results from the stratification or layering of rhythms. Stewart explains that in ragtime, the bass played by the left hand, occurs on the beat and is generally a non-syncopated layer. The harmony is introduced on the second part of each beat, and is, therefore, a syncopated layer. The melody is highly syncopated and moves at twice the speed of the harmony. This layering of different rhythmic structures and the resulting syncopation also characterizes early jazz, swing in Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump,” gospel in Aretha Franklin’s “Old Landmark,” and funk in Tom Browne’s “Funkin’ for Jamaica.”

Intersections with European Genres

“Once, when I performed an arrangement of a spiritual for a folk singer from whom I had learned the spiritual in question, he told me that he did not like my arrangement because it was too ‘pretty’.”
John W. WorkCollector & Arranger of Negro Spirituals

After emancipation, some African Americans took advantage of opportunities for formal training in European classical music. They then began transforming Black vernacular or folk idioms into concert and urban performance styles. These changes reveal the ways in which Blacks retained a perspective on an African past, negotiated their dual African and American identities, and engaged with social and cultural change over five centuries.

The Negro Spiritual was the first African genre to be arranged for the concert stage. The printed score reveals the intersection of African American and Western classical music and how Black composers-arrangers dealt with their opposing musical values and aesthetic practices. The European influence is apparent in the vocal aesthetic and formal stage presentation. Reconciling musical difference is achieved in the juxtaposition of European four-part harmony and the African-derived call and response structure, syncopation, polyrhythms, melodic and textural repetition, and linguistic dialect of the Black vernacular styles.

“I have real passion for Stravinsky, Beethoven, and at the same time Ellington and Nina Simone, and at the same time Jay-Z and Pyro. I am not unusual. I think there are a lot of composers my age, older and younger who have very eclectic tastes. Our job as composers, artists, classical musicians is to offer a different path and direction.”
Daniel Bernard RoumainComposer

The generation of African American composers born after emancipation and formally trained etched their racial identity onto Western classical music. Inspired by the movement towards an American school of composition, they tapped into the spiritual, work songs, blues, and other Black vernacular genres for source material—melodies, rhythms, call and response structures, and timbral devices—for their orchestral works, chamber works, and compositions for solo instruments as well as oratorio and opera. Composers born between the Harlem Renaissance and World War II further Africanized European forms by adding jazz to the list of source materials as did David Baker in his Jazz Suite for Clarinet and Symphony Orchestra: Three Ethnic Dances. Those born during and after the Civil Rights and the Black power eras, turned to jazz, gospel, rock, funk, hip hop, and other contemporary forms as illustrated in William Banfield’s Symphony No. 6: “Four Songs for Five American Voices” and Haitian American Daniel Bernard Roumain’s (DBR) Symphony for The Dance Floor.

Musical Creativity and Movement/Communal Approach to Music-Making

“Well, you know, Negro music is often misunderstood. It is a tradition, a community experience, and not an individual’s experience.”
Archie SheppJazz Musician

Similar to the interactive relationship between musicians and dancers in African music-making, musicians of African American popular music often create in conjunction with the movements of social dancers. Songwriter-arranger Jesse Stone, African American resident songwriter-arranger at Atlantic Records (1950s through early 1960s), developed an R&B combo style based on the Cuban rumba dance rhythms of Black teenagers he witnessed in Louisiana. Stone assigned this rhythm to the bass (sometimes doubled on horns). The resulting African-based musical style became so recognizable in the 1950s that it became known as the “Atlantic Sound” heard in Ruth Brown’s “5-10-15 Hours” (1952). Similarly, the movements of a dancer in a rural Tennessee club inspired the rhythms and lyrics for Rufus Thomas’s R&B hit song “Walking the Dog” (1963). The song’s widespread popularity led to Thomas recording similar dance songs—“Do the Funky Chicken” (1969) and “Do the Funky Penguin” (1971). Marshall Jones, bass player for the Ohio Players created the bass line for “Skin Tight” (1974) by getting in sync with the flowing hips and other movements of dancers as was the case for Zapp’s “Dance Floor” (1982). This informal collaboration in all genres of Black music attests to the centrality of dance to African American music and music throughout the African diaspora.

The African communal approach to music-making is heard in the call and response and repetitive chorus structures that prevail in all genres of African American music. Call and response facilitates a musical dialogue between soloists and the choir (gospel); instrumentalists and instrumentalists (different sections in big bands and jazz and R&B combos); singers and instrumentalists (funk bands and vocal groups); and singers and guitar or harmonica (blues). The call and response structure provides freedom for lead vocalists to personalize their interpretation of songs.

Personalizing Performances

“If I am going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.”
Billie HolidayJazz & R&B Vocalist

As mentioned earlier, the Western notation system proved insufficient in capturing the performance aesthetic of Black music. In the Preface of Slave Songs of the United States the compilers wrote: “The odd turns made in the throat, and the curious rhythmic effect produced by single voices chiming in at different irregular intervals, seem almost impossible to place on the score...” As in Africa and unlike standard European musical practice, vocalists personalize their performance by weaving a range of improvisatory devices (melismas, varying vocal timbres to produce “groans,” “slides,” “moans,” “shouts,” and “screams”) into the melody; manipulating the pitch and rhythm; and making extensive use of repetition. This improvisatory aesthetic contrasts with that associated with the European vocal aesthetic that values a straightforward melody with limited embellishment. This aesthetic difference is illustrated in the interpretation of the recording “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon & Garfunkel and Aretha Franklin. Imitating the sounds of vocalists, instrumentalists “make their instruments talk” by alternating traditional embouchures and playing techniques associated with European instruments. Instrumentalists also use sound-alternating devices such as mutes, bottle necks, Leslie speakers (associated with organs), synthesizers, talk boxes, and auto-tune to produce vocal effects.

Experienced both as collective and individual expression, African American music-making displays a shared set of African-derived cultural values and aesthetic practices that distinguish African American music from that of European cultures.


  1. Allen, William Francis, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison, eds. Slave Songs of the United States. 1867. Reprint, Mineola, NY: Dover, 1995. E-text available at http://www.docsouth.unc.edu/church/allen/allen.html.
  2. Epstein, Dena. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977 (Paperback ed. 2003).
  3. Maultsby, Portia K. Co-editor [with Mellonee Burnim]. African American Music: An Introduction. 2nd edition. New York: Routledge Press (2015).
  4. Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 1971. 3rd ed., New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.
  5. Stone, Ruth. Music in West Africa: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  6. Floyd Jr., Samuel A. The Power of Black MusicInterpreting Its History from Africa to the United States, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.


  1. Jones, Marshall. Interview by author. Dayton, Ohio, 19 August 1991.
  2. Troutman Roger and Larry. Interview with Karen Shearer Productions. Los Angeles, California, 8 August 1982.
  3. Stone, Jesse. Interview by author. Jamaica, New York, November 30, 1982.
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The Timeline of African American Music by Portia K. Maultsby, Ph.D. presents the remarkable diversity of African American music, revealing the unique characteristics of each genre and style, from the earliest folk traditions to present-day popular music.

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Carnegie Hall’s interactive Timeline of African American Music is dedicated to the loving memory of the late soprano and recitalist Jessye Norman.

© 2008 Richard Termine

Special thanks to Dr. Portia K. Maultsby and to the Advisory Scholars for their commitment and thought-provoking contributions to this resource.

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The Timeline of African American Music has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom. The project is also supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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