Ethiopian music uses a distinct modal system that is pentatonic, with characteristically long intervals between some notes. As with many other aspects of Ethiopian culture and tradition, tastes in music and lyrics are strongly linked with those in neighboring Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti and Sudan.
The music of the highlands uses a fundamental modal system called qenet, of which there are four main modes: tezeta, bati, ambassel, and anchihoy. Three additional modes are variations on the above: tezeta minor, bati major, and bati minor. Some songs take the name of their qenet, such as tizita, a song of reminiscence. When played on traditional instruments, these modes are generally not tempered (that is, the pitches may deviate slightly from the Western-tempered tuning system), but when played on Western instruments such as pianos and guitars, they are played using the Western-tempered tuning system.
Music in the Ethiopian highlands is generally monophonic or heterophonic. In certain southern areas, some music is polyphonic. Dorze polyphonic singing (edho) may employ up to five parts; Majangir, four parts.
In the highlands, traditional string instruments include the masenqo (also known as masinko), a one-string bowed lute; the krar (also known as kirar), a six-string lyre; and the begena, a large ten-string lyre. The dita (a five-string lyre) and musical bows (including an unusual three-string variant) are among the chordophones found in the south.
The washint is a bamboo flute that is common in the highlands. Trumpet-like instruments include the ceremonial malakat used in some regions, and the holdudwa (animal horn; compare shofar) found mainly in the south. Embilta flutes have no finger holes, and produce only two tones, the fundamental and a fourth or fifth interval. These may be metal (generally found in the north) or bamboo (in the south). The Konso and other people in the south play fanta, or pan flutes.
In the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, liturgical music employs the senasel, a sistrum. Additionally, the clergy will use prayer staffs, or maqwamiya, to maintain rhythm. Rural churches historically used a dawal to call the faithful to prayer. They are made from stone slabs or pieces of wood. The Beta Israel use a small gong called a qachel as liturgical accompaniment, though qachel may also refer to a small bell. The toom, a lamellophone, is used among the Nuer, Anuak, Majangir, Surma, and other Nilotic groups. Metal leg rattles are common throughout the south.
The kebero is a large hand drum used in the Orthodox Christian liturgy. Smaller kebero drums may be used in secular celebrations. The nagarit, played with a curved stick, is usually found in a secular context such as royal functions or the announcement of proclamations, though it has a liturgical function among the Beta Israel. The Gurage and certain other populations in the lowlands commonly play the atamo, a small hand drum sometimes made of clay. In Gambela region in western Ethiopia, the Anuak specify three different kinds of drums: the anedo (small drum), the odola (medium drum), and the bul (big drum), with different rhythmic patterns attached to certain song genres.
Some Ethiopian religious music has an ancient Christian element, traced to Yared, who lived during the reign of Gabra Masqal. In northeastern Ethiopia, in Wollo, a Muslim musical form called manzuma developed. Sung in Amharic, manzuma has spread to Harar and Jimma, where it is now sung in the Oromo language. In the Ethiopian Highlands, traditional secular music is played by mostly itinerant musicians called azmaris, who are regarded with respect in Ethiopian society.
Ethiopia is a musically traditional country. Of course, popular music is played, recorded and listened to, but most musicians also sing traditional songs, and most audiences choose to listen to both popular and traditional styles. A long-standing popular musical tradition in Ethiopia was that of brass bands, imported from Jerusalem in the form of forty Armenian orphans (Arba Lijoch) during the reign of Haile Selassie. This band, which arrived in Addis Ababa on September 6, 1924, became the first official orchestra of Ethiopia. By the end of World War II, large orchestras accompanied singers; the most prominent orchestras were the Army Band, Police Band, and Imperial Bodyguard Band.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, Ethiopian popular musicians included Bizunesh_Bekele, Mahmoud Ahmed, Alemayehu Eshete, Hirut Bekele, Ali Birra, Ayalew Mesfin, Kiros Alemayehu, Muluken Melesse and Tilahun Gessesse, while popular folk musicians included Alemu Aga, Kassa Tessema, Ketema Makonnen, Asnaketch Worku, and Mary Armede. Perhaps the most influential musician of the period, however, was Ethio-jazz innovator Mulatu Astatke. Amha Records, Kaifa Records, and Philips-Ethiopia were prominent Ethiopian record labels during this era. Since 1997, Buda Musique's Éthiopiques series has compiled many of these singles and albums on compact disc.
During the 1980s, the Derg controlled Ethiopia, and emigration became almost impossible. Musicians during this period included Ethio Stars, Wallias Band and Roha Band, though the singer Neway Debebe was most popular. He helped to popularize the use of seminna-werq (wax and gold, a poetic form of double entendre) in music (previously only used in qiné, or poetry) that often enabled singers to criticize the government without upsetting the censors.
The most popular musicians from Ethiopia are Teddy Afro and the Los Angeles–area expatriate Aster Aweke.
One of the biggest new trends, however, has been the rise of bolel, a sort of blues-like music, played by sarcastic azmari playing in parts of Addis Ababa, especially Yohannès Sefer and Kazentchis. Bolel musicians include Tigist Assefa, Tedje and Admassou Abate.
Currently the most prominent Ethiopian singer internationally is Gigi. Through her performing with prominent jazz musicians such as Bill Laswell (who is also her husband) and Herbie Hancock, Gigi has brought Ethiopian music to popular attention, especially in the United States, where she now lives.
Another noteworthy singer is Neway Debebe, who was very popular among the youth of the 1980s and early 1990s with such songs as "Yetekemt Abeba," "Metekatun Ateye," "Safsaf," and "Gedam" - among others. Abatte Barihun has exemplified all four main qenets on his 2005 album Ras Deshen.
Éthiopiques producer Francis Falceto criticizes contemporary Ethiopian music for eschewing traditional instruments and ensemble playing in favor of one-man bands using synthesizers. Harvard University professor Kay Kaufman Shelemay, on the other hand, maintains that there is genuine creativity in the contemporary music scene. She further points out that Ethiopian music is not alone in shifting to electronically produced music, a point that Falceto acknowledges.
In the West, several bands were also created in recent years to play music inspired by the Éthiopiques series and other examples of Ethiopian music of the '60s and '70s. They include Boston's Either/Orchestra, Imperial Tiger Orchestra (Switzerland), and Le Tigre des platanes (France).
Ashenafi Kebede studied much in the area of Ethiopian music, history, instrumentation, and composition as a leading ethnomusicologist.