top of page

Comparative Analysis of Steve Reich and African Music

I will be doing a comparative analysis of Steve Reich's music to African music to reach the conclusion of whether or not the concept of Simultaneous Multidimensionality directly affected his music.

Steve Reich

Steve Reich is a New York City-born Minimalist composer, growing up studying jazz and further music at Cornell University, Juilliard, and Mills College in Oakland CA. During his studies of twelve-tone music, he discovered that his interest lied more in complex rhythms rather than the possible arrangement of twelve tones.  During his time in Mills College he heard West African drumming for the first time, and given his interest in general rhythmic properties, he decided to go to West Ghana to study music.

Simultaneous Multidimensionality

As we've studied in the past, Simultaneous Multidimensionality is the existence of multiple things in the same space that contrast each other whilst working together. Again, you can compare this to European Cubism to try to understand this concept better, in the way that Cubism will have multiple existing perspectives or dimensions while still being one cohesive item. The same is done in African music in the way of having 2 against 3 overlapping and lining up to create different melodies and different rhythmic feelings so to speak.

Ex. of Cubism

Pablo Picasso

'Factory, Horta de Ebbo', 1909

Ewe Music

As we've discussed before in class, the Ewe people are an ethnic group from Togo and Ghana, who use music as a tool to celebrate and express a life event or ceremony. One prevalent factor of their music is the use of cross-rhythms and the different melodies that can be made within that. As seen in the example to the right, rhythms are to be started and felt in phrases that are not the same as the phrases of others playing in the group. These constant but different rhythms give the listener the chance to focus on different melodies while listening to the same piece of music, so while some may find it monotonous, there is beauty in the constancy and individuality of music from the Ewe people. One that we have studied is Gahu, as did Reich use it as one of his influences before returning back to the states.

Reich's Transcription of Gahu


The music of the Ewe people, specifically Gahu that Reich studied displaces rhythms and everything that they start doing is in relation to each other. To find the pulse and melody, they must interact, listen, and play with each other. Clapping music is the same general concept. What you are supposed to do is understand the shifts of the music, listen to the other players to get your rhythm and pulse, while being able to understand and play your own, feeling the two interlock and weave in and out of each other. The two share the aspect of different rhythms existing in the same space at different times, creating unique sounds depending on their placement.

Steve Reich's Clapping Music

So WAS Steve Reich's music affected by simultaneous multidimensionality?

I would say yes, in a sense his music was indeed affected my simultaneous multidimensionality in the way that (at least in the case of clapping music) there can be two 'beat one's present if and only if the performers are not doing whats intended and are concentrating entirely on their part instead of the piece as a whole. Reich's music was indeed clearly influenced by Gahu and the Ewe people, and their use of putting differentiating rhythms in the same time span. However, simultaneous multidimensionality entails that multiple sorts of "perspectives" and "realities" be present. When I say this I mean that the interlocking rhythms should make you feel like there are at least two different feelings of time present. I would say that at it's core though, clapping music should lose it's sense of one and become just a melody in which the performers know where to shift, and once that truly occurs I'm not sure if I'd call that simultaneous multidimensionality, or just one general movement of music.

Works Cited

Locke, David. “Http://” The Metric Matrix: Simultaneous Multidimensionality in African Music, 2011, pp. 48–82.

Locke, David. “SIMULTANEOUS MULTIDIMENSIONALITY IN AFRICAN MUSIC: MUSICAL CUBISM.” African Music, vol. 8, no. 3, 1 Jan. 2009, pp. 8–37. JSTOR, JSTOR.

Magazine, FACT. “Watch Steve Reich Talk African Percussion, His Key Influences, Meeting Eno and More.” FACT Magazine: Music News, New Music., FACT Magazine, 28 May 2012,

Nyman, Michael. “Steve Reich.” The Musical Times, vol. 112, no. 1537, 1 Mar. 1971, pp. 229–231. JSTOR, JSTOR.

O'brien, Kerry. “Steve Reich at 80: Still Plugged In, Still Plugging Away.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 30 Sept. 2016,

bottom of page