The notation of music involves a lot of concentrated listening, by which the notation has to be done step by step by the listener or researcher, first by notating strands of the melody and rhythm probably by slowing down to get all that is needed, but omitting minute details while applying the Western notation system of music.

The African Instrumentalist, that is, the performer has no scale or key in mind as he performs. He plays the Music through the ear and in conformity with the tonal inflexion of his language. Indeed, the African instrumentalist talks ‘with his instrument. In notation, an ethno musicologist is concerned with the principal pitches and the general flow of melody (phonemic) and also the melodic-rhythmic detail (phonetic) that constitute African instrumental ensembles.

Notation varies from one linguistic area to another, and the various methods used also vary. For example, in China notation, the tabulature is used, which runs from right to left and up and down. The effects of this are two-fold. It is economical and efficient, though very difficult for non-Chinese to decipher. The Chinese notation consists of symbols which are part of the language.

These symbols can indicate which of the seven strings are to be plucked, how to pluck the string, which right: finger to do it, and where to stop the string with the left hand. The dynamics to be applied, that is, whether there is vibrato or pizzicato are also to be noted, though again, there is no rhythmic guide for the performer to follow. It is appropriate to agree with Hood(1940) who asserts that:

“all established systems of music notation have developed in response to the particular requirements of the tradition they serve.”

This in effect means that any change in music notation is a result of change in the musical tradition of the people and not an attempt to improve what has been widely established. There are a lot of qualities which are required of a good notation.

These include accuracy, universality, inclusion of new musical performance, and cross-cultural applicability which can be explained as follows:

  • clarity of representation in which each symbol stands for only one thing at a time;
  • capability to represent all the sounds of a given tradition. In other words, the notation should look and convey what the music sounds like since the notation follows the reading habits of the people.

Various scholars have invented a lot of systems for the notation, translation, and transcription of Music. For example, in France, Cheve was the first to develop the numerical notation which has not been widely used in Western music, though extensively used in Indonesian music. The advantage is that it is not culture-bound, and it has great flexibility because the numbers can be applied to any given set of pitches. It is easy to use and quite economical.

Another device invented is graph notation which has been used by several ethno-musicologists. This device allows greater refinement of pitch variation than Western notation, and it is flexible to meet the challenges of the music at hand.

Other devices include the melograph, an electronic analyzer invented by Charles Seeger. This is a three-part photographic display that consists of pitch, loudness, and timbre. Others are the Tonometre, devised by Hornbostel, the Monochord by Jaap Kunst, and the Cent System by Ellis. All these have been discovered by scholars and researchers to ease their work both in transcription and analysis.

Problem of Transcription

In transcribing African instrumental music, two major problems are likely to dominate the scene. The first problem is the one facing a Western scholar who attempts to understand African music, and the second is the one facing any researcher(African or non-African) trying to transcribe and measure African music.

For a non-African to understand African music, he has to understand the language of the music, which in other words, means that he has to learn the language prevalent in that society. African instruments are built by the Africans to ‘talk’ the way they (the makers) speak. The tonal inflexion of the African language dominates the total music of Africa, both vocal and instrumental. In most parts of Africa, three modes are used by all Africans when they speak. These are the iambic, trochaic, and spondee modes which are all combined in the bell rhythm of the gong used throughout Africa.

In African Instrumental Music, the performer does not play any written notes as may be expected by a Western scholar, but he interprets the notes as he hears them. The interpretation can rightly be slightly different from how the notes are written. To get everything in African Music transcribed will be meaningless if not impossible.

Also, to cleverly using symbols, notes, and meters will in the end express more than the indigenous African musician intends to do in his music. Similarly, the triple-time figures are very strong in African Music and they dominate most African Instrumental Music. All these can be easily felt in simple times in consonance with the percussive rhythms that the drums supply during performances.

Another problem is the bar lines which the African traditional musician does not conceive in his music especially when one attempts to transcribe the free improvisation of a master drummer playing within a strict rhythmic framework.

Going further is the other problem of transcribing the tones produced by various African musical instruments most of which are two-tone drums. Examples are the wooden gong, the two-tone drums, the pot drum, and the twin gong which are used as a combination in any African instrumental ensemble. The intervals these instruments produce are usually in major seconds, minor thirds, and perfect fifths as can be observed in libido music in which two wooden drums are used, and in Yoruba music in which drums–Gudugudu or Kudi –are used.

If a transcriber records the music played by the various musical instruments earlier mentioned spontaneously, and he now attempts to analyze the music as played by the different individual instruments, the notation will become different and the figuration will assume coloristic overtones. This is because while the pot drum may supply ‘muffled tones based on a single line, the twin gong will supply two tones a second apart, and the wooden drum will supply two tones a fifth apart.

Another difficulty that may be encountered by Western scholars in the transcription of African Instrumental Music is the scale. African musicians most often employ the pentatonic scale (a five-tone scale d r ms I), though it is not uncommon to see instances when instruments employ the tectonic (three-tone d r m) and heptatonic (six-tone amf) scales as easily found in the music of the Ga and Akan societies of Ghana.

All these scales depend on how the instruments are made and consequently tuned because it must be emphasized that the African Instrumentalist has no key or scale in mind when making or playing his instrument. What he(the African performer)is after is to see that his instrument ‘talks’ or ‘speaks’ the way he does and nothing more.Thus the African Instrumentalist expresses his feelings of joy, sorrow, and other emotional traits through the manipulation of his instrument.

Tonal or Key Centre: Another argument brings us to the concept of key center in African Music be it vocal or instrumental. The African traditional musician is assumed not to have any key in mind as he performs. What he does is to make sure that the instrument he plays sounds the way he wants it to ‘talk’ and the re-occurrence or constant repetitions of certain notes will enable the transcriber to determine which of the notes sounded are tonic (doh) or dominant (soh) because the two notes very significant in African Music and they compare favorably with what obtains in Western Music.

Intervals: The problem of scales leads us to that of intervals because scales are conceived with the existence of notes pitched at different spots. The argument for scales also applies to intervals, because the sounds produced are based on the indigenous tones of the people as mentioned in the preceding paragraph.

Scale comprises the intervals represented on the scale be they seconds, thirds, or fifths, and it is on these intervals that the African instruments are made and the melodies conceived. It is also important to note that in most African instrumental music, pitch, and intervals, are variables as the notes produced by individual instruments vary from tribe to tribe.

Other problems that the transcriber of African instrumental music may face include that of the disc being used to replay the music recorded. The disc may have a disturbing amount of surface noise after a series of replays. The African instrumental ensemble itself may produce very complicated textures in sound like that of about nine or more instrumentalists playing at a time, such as in Dundun and Sekere music, performing on a variety of vertically or horizontally suspended bronze, metal or wooden gongs of different sizes, some with different keys.

Others may be common through resonators, a set of hand drums, wood blocks, xylophones, one or two plucked zithers, a flute and a bowed lute, and gourd rattles. The number of instruments being played at a time will however depend on the function the music performs in the society.

The instrumental ensemble may include a male chorus of about three or more voices singing in unison (such as in Adamo musical groups of the ljesas and Ifes) but with deliberate individuality expressed through a variety of ornamentation and improvisation, and may also include one to three female soloists to complete the ensemble as found among entertainment bands mostly in West Africa.

The fact that African instrumental music is demanding melodically, rhythmically, and harmonically makes it more difficult to transcribe and notate using Western notation. It is thus very important that when a researcher transcribes, he should ‘hear’ what he writes down, because, in the social and cultural context, the additional instrumentalists(and singers) perform according to a principle of orchestration that can be termed polyphonic stratification, in which different melodic-rhythmic lines form distinct layers or strata of sound, each maintaining its character in melodic contour, rhythmic idioms and relative density.

All these interdependent melodic lines form a very complex harmonic texture when transcribing African music thus what has been an enjoyable and fluent skill in Western music may begin to look like a torturous exercise being applied to African traditional music.

Possible Several scholars have devised a series of solutions to solve the problems posed by notation and transcription in general but some of which, if applied to African traditional music rigidly, will render the music useless. These include the Hipkins solution and the popular Seeger Solution. Hipkins’ solution is intricate and complex. It seeks to make the transcriber learn the musical notational system of each tribe, learning how to play the music in process or ‘doctoring’ Western notation, though his is not accurate, perfect, or appropriate. The question then arises: How many musical notations will a transcriber learn if at all they exist? In African traditional music.

Transcribing African Instrumental Music

There is no standard musical notation, although there are standard rhythms that are popularly used throughout Africa such as the gong and rattle rhythms.

Transcribers’ experience with the use of the melograph, twists, and other minute details not necessarily required in transcription and notation. The Labanotation devised to describe, analyze, and compare dance systems cannot be applied to solve the African tradition because it cannot reveal the spirit of the dancers as they perform or as recorded during the performance.

This will allow one to compare indigenous or extra-cultural theories about the tradition with the precise happenings that occur in performance practice. This will also enable one to determine the precise intervallic structure involved in the various melodies being notated and transcribed


It is very evident that a lot of problems exist in the notation and transcription of African Instrumental music as discussed in the preceding paragraphs, and for the transcriber to succeed in getting the correct and appropriate structure and details of the music being notated and transcribed, one has to examine the music in its social and cultural context.

One also has to get the principal pitches or rhythms down making use of the quarter and eighth notes as applicable, neglecting if necessary ornamentations/extemporizations or improvisations which are very common in African instrumental music, because too many details will obscure the flow of the melody, and the notation may not look the way it sounds. The fact that the melodic details of ten reveal the character and distinctive identity of African Music should not however be eroded.

It must also be agreed that in any giver. African music performance, the various ornamental devices, vocal techniques, instrumental and tuning practices, rhythmic organization, musical form, vocal and instrumental quality, the relationship between the voice and instruments, total range of pitch, and range of loudness together can only be realized with the use of highly sophisticated recording devices.

Finally, for the transcriber to do justice to African instrumental music, he should get himself involved in all aspects of the music, examining the overall music in its cultural context because for the study of African music to succeed, it has to be studied not only in itself but also in its cultural context. By doing this, the scholar will be able not only to interpret the music, as it is played but also to ‘hear’ the various melodic and rhythmic figurations as they are performed by the African musicians in their original versions.