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Quora Answer : Why has pop music become less Eurocentric and more Afrocentric over the past 100 years?

Nov 17, 2015

Everyone is talking about the tradition of European music. But kind of miss that this tradition was at most a 400 year glitch. There was plenty of rhythmic, repetitive European music before the rise of "classical". Plenty of drums and tambourines lurking in the background. And in different corners of Europe right through to the 20th century :

This is Italian Tarantella.

Irish Reel



English Morris


Now, here's what I think happened. The rise of musical notation.

Musical notation was invented so that the Catholic church could control church choral music. Choral music definitely ISN'T rhythmic or dancable. And so the notation focused on capturing what singers cared about : melody and harmony. It doesn't do a good job of capturing rhythm. And complex rhythms and polyrhythms are hard to notate or read.

The church used this notation to standardize on and ensure its composers and musicians did what they were told. In doing so, it spread a kind of mind-ampifier for harmonic / melodic thinking, that did little to improve on, and in fact impoverished, rhythmic thinking. That doesn't meant rhythmic thinking didn't occur but that for hundreds of years it remained almost undocumented, uncommunicated and unstudied. While composers went off to explore ever more complex and sophisticated harmonic and melodic structures.

What happened in the 20th century was the rise of mechanical recording and reproduction. For the first time in 500 years, it became as easy to document and distribute rhythmic ideas as it was to document and distribute harmonic / melodic ones. Once this became widespread, we saw an explosion in rhythmic exploration. People could hear, not just the beats played by drummers, but the strumming and riffing and picking patterns of rhythmic guitar players. We could hear swing that had never been notated. We could hear improvised trills and gracenotes that were rarely documented. Wind instruments like saxaphones and trumpets could be made rhythmic too. Or combined in strange ways that score-based composers hadn't thought of.

We call this "afrocentric" because many great black musicians in America adopted this technology and produced awesome rhythmic 20th century music combining both African and European traditions. I don't want to take anything away from those musicians. But, perhaps heretically, I'm going to propose that even if there had been no slavery or significant African American population in the US, and no influence from African tradition, the rise of recording technology would STILL have led to a renewed interest in rhythmic, percussive dance music. Perhaps it would have grown more obviously from these European folk traditions : tarantellas and jigs, sarabandes and polkas etc. (After all, what is hard European techno but a faster, stripped down polka?)

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