A Composer Breaks Down The Music Theory Behind Toto’s “Africa”

A Composer Breaks Down The Music Theory Behind Toto’s “Africa”

In 1982, Los Angeles-based supergroup Toto released their 4th studio album, fittingly named Toto IV. This month marks the 40th anniversary of the US release of the second single off the album, and the band’s best-known song, “Africa.” It’s a tune widely loved for its smooth melody and indelible hooks, but also variously reviled—for factors usually having nothing to do with music. In recent years, this pop jam has managed to reach mega-meme status, and at present it is approaching 1.3 billion streams on Spotify (making it one of the most played songs of the 20th Century). In fact, today the song may be more popular than it was in 1983 when it hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. For all the cultural baggage it carries, “Africa” is a truly innovative, masterfully crafted piece of music (which is saying something given that it’s not even the best song on the album!). Yet we so often see the song reduced to droll memes, or dismissed simply as a superficially dramatic (albeit catchy) pop tune. As famous as the song has become, it seems most people really don’t appreciate the brilliance of its musical architecture. But make no mistake: It is brilliant. Let’s check it out.

The Groove

When principle songwriter and keyboardist David Paich sings “I hear the drums echoing tonight,” he means it figuratively. But the iconic opening groove, played in a loop by greatest-drummer-of-all-time Jeff Porcaro and percussionist-extraordinaire Lenny Castro, makes those metaphorical drums literal. There’s a natural fluidity to Porcaro’s deep-pocket feel, as the kick drum’s strong beats land exactly in the middle of each quarter note, while the 16th-note lead-in kicks and the snare drum backbeats fall slightly late (we’re talking around 10 milliseconds). Moreover, Castro’s syncopated conga pattern lands even further behind the 16th-note grid. This execution is not sloppy, but extraordinarily precise, resulting in a kind of organic push-pull effect that imparts a sense of both weightiness and excitement. (More on this later.) See Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Main Drum and Percussion Beats in Toto's "Africa"

All of this sets up the unmistakable synthesizer hook that enters after the four-bar percussion intro.

Whispers Of Some Quiet Conversation

In the Spring of 2012, I was at a party in Beverly Hills, noodling on the Steinway in the main room, when David Paich walked in. Upon recognizing him, I impudently launched into a rendition of “Africa.” Within seconds, he approached the piano and turned to me, as if to say, “Hurry boy, it’s waiting there for you.” OK, no—he didn’t say that… but he did whisper, “I can show you how it’s actually played, if you’re interested.” Paich then sat on the piano bench next to me for about 30 minutes as we played through jazz harmony ideas and discussed orchestral film music. During our conversation, he generously demonstrated how he created all the keyboard parts on the original recording of “Africa,” including the “call” and “response” phrases. The notation below, in Figure 2, captures some of what he showed me.

Figure 2: Recurring Synthesizer Riff in "Africa"

On the recording, Paich played the “call” figure using a Yamaha CS80 analog synthesizer — an instrument probably most associated with Vangelis (think of the music scores for Blade Runner and Chariots Of Fire.) The “response” figure comprises a C#-minor pentatonic-based melody using parallel 4th intervals that requires two hands to play. For this, he employed a Yamaha GS1 synth (a precursor to the mid-’80s ubiquitous DX7). There’s a common assumption that this distinctive instrumental section lives in the key of A — and it does, sort of. But it’s A “Lydian” mode: i.e., it uses the notes of the A-Major scale, except with a raised 4th scale degree (D#) — which is the only reason the G# minor chord is able to work so seamlessly. See Figure 3 below. The G# minor functions mostly as a passing chord here, but Paich uses it to plant a seed for a harmonic surprise soon to come in the verse section. (More on that later.)

Figure 3: A Lydian Chords Used in the Keyboard Riff in Africa

Fun With Math

As satisfying as it is to hear the keyboard riff described in Figure 2, we might observe that it possesses a kind of lopsided, asymmetrical feel. It emphasizes beat 4 of the first measure (the C# minor chord), while creating the impression of an empty “rest”-like gesture on the downbeat of the next measure—which is quite unusual. This makes it seem like the first bar should actually be in 3/4 time, with the C# minor naturally accentuating the downbeat of the following bar in 5/4. Do these time signatures invoke associations with anything else? The rhythmic structures in Toto’s “Africa” remind me of the Fibonacci series.

Fibonacci was a 13th-Century Italian mathematician who introduced Europe to a sequence of numbers that mathematicians in India had described in Sanskrit some 1500 years earlier. That sequence begins: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144…, and continues on. Each number in the series is the sum of the previous two numbers, and if you divide each number in the series by the one that came before it, you get: ∞, 1, 2, 1.5, 1.667, 1.6, 1.625, 1.615, 1.619, 1.618, etc. With each successive quotient, you move asymptotically closer to a famous irrational number called the Golden Ratio, or (1 + √5)/2. In decimal form, it’s 1.61803398874989…., and we denote this ratio using the Greek letter φ (“phi”).

If you take squares whose dimensions correspond to the Fibonacci numbers and arrange them into neatly stacked expanding adjacent rectangles, you can observe how the shapes give rise to a logarithmic spiral. For every 90-degree turn, we see a growth factor approximating φ, and the further along it gets, the more closely it converges on the Golden Ratio. See Figure 4 below.

Figure 4: Logarithmic Spiral from the Fibonacci Series

The Fibonacci series and resulting Golden Ratio appear in all aspects of life. You can observe them in nature, like in the arrangements of leaves on a plant stem, and in the spirals of pine cones. See Figure 5 below for a similar example. These mathematical structures are also abundant in architecture, like in the Pyramids of Giza, the Parthenon in Greece, the UN building in Manhattan, and in designs by Mies van der Rohe. The Golden Ratio also appears in famous paintings by Da Vinci and Dalí.

Figure 5: Fibonacci Series in a Sunflower

Debussy used the Fibonacci series in La Mer, as did Bartók in his Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. Composers from Bach to Mozart, from Chopin to John Coltrane all adopted the Fibonacci series and the Golden ratio in their musical architecture. How about Toto, with “Africa”? We can observe successive Fibonacci numbers in the recurring keyboard riff if we use the aforementioned time signatures corresponding to its rhythmic phrasing: 3, 5, and 8. See Figure 6 below.

Figure 6: "Africa" Keyboard Riff Metered to Reveal the Fibonacci Numbers 3, 5, 8

We can also find the Golden Ratio in Toto’s “Africa” the same way we find it in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: It’s the relationship of the total duration of the piece to the duration of the section leading to its climax. Count the total number of bars in “Africa” (accounting for meter shifts and the fade out) and divide that by the number of bars from the beginning of the song until the keyboard solo builds to the final climactic chorus. You get 115/71, or 1.6197183…, an irrational number that’s eerily close to φ (1.6180339…), the Golden Ratio.

So, does this mean David Paich was thinking about math when he wrote “Africa”? Of course not. But the song’s universal charm supports the notion that humans over the past several millennia have found the Golden Ratio to be aesthetically appealing. In fact, neuroscience researchers at the University of Minnesota and the University of Parma (Italy) have concluded that our brains are hardwired to prefer art that uses the Golden Ratio. In writing “Africa,” I think Paich instinctively used rhythmic structures and durations that — although asymmetrical and surprising — actually comport with humans’ innate sense of balance and aesthetic coherence. It’s as though he was doing math, but on a subconscious level. I’m reminded of a quote by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who in the 17th Century wrote, “Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.”

A Key Change By Any Other Name Would Sound As Sweet

Returning to the harmonic structure of “Africa”: After the initial iconic synth hook described above, the first verse enters. It begins, surprisingly, with a B-Major chord. This creates a kind of harmonic lift, given that we were previously in an A-Major mode. Keep in mind that we’re 30 seconds into the song, and this is the first moment we hear this chord. Also keep in mind that the B-Major chord does not fit comfortably within the A-Major diatonic structure we’ve been marinating in since the song began. Logically, this new intruder chord should feel uncomfortable and jarring to us. Yet, it doesn’t. Why? Remember that Paich has already acclimated our ears to accept the G#-minor chord using the opening keyboard riff, because the A-Major chord structure he used was in fact A Lydian. This is why the key change to B Major (the relative Major of G# minor) doesn’t feel forced. In fact, it feels completely natural — even inevitable.

At the close of each verse, Paich returns to the A-Major key center to reprise the recurring keyboard riff. But how does he do this without invoking the feeling of a descending harmonic motion? You would think that modulating downward from B Major to A Major might impart a drooping sensation. Paich avoids this by deftly exploiting central characters of “functional harmony” — a term we use to describe a set of assumptions about how specific chords should behave and what their respective jobs are within a given musical context. Paich performs a kind of musical sleight of hand by both exercising and subverting some of the chords’ predefined roles. See Figure 7 below.

Figure 7: Verse Melody and Chords

The first two bars of the verse use fairly standard pop chords: the I, iii7, vi7, and I/V. The third bar is where David Paich’s harmonic superpowers spring into action. The A/E is the 2nd inversion of a ♭VII chord in the key of B. In jazz harmony, we can use this chord as substitute for the V chord — so it’s not terribly unusual. But in this instance, Paich uses it to double as a pivot chord to a new key center.

There are generally three ways to change key centers in the middle of a song: You can transition using a note that works in both keys; you can pivot using a chord that both keys share; or you can do a direct transposition. A famous example of direct transposition is Beyoncé’s “Love On Top,” where the key center simply modulates upward, and all chord relationships move in parallel. The effect is not subtle; indeed, it’s a fun gimmick designed to call attention to itself. John Williams’ “Main Title” from Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi features the common-note transposition technique with chromatic median relationships. (For more background on this, check out my previous article on Nirvana’s “In Bloom.”) For the common-chord technique: We can hear a great example in the Beatles’ “Penny Lane,” where Paul McCartney’s use of the IV chord in the key of B (E Major) doubles as the V chord in A Major (the new key center), allowing him to pivot effortlessly from verse to chorus. David Paich performs this same transposition to go from verse to chorus in “Africa,” but his method is even more artful than McCartney’s.

When Paich deploys the A/E in bar 3 of the verse, he’s engaging in what we call “modal interchange.” Specifically, he’s borrowing the VII chord from the [parallel] B-natural-minor scale. This creates a slightly unstable feeling — in part because Paich doesn’t play the chord in root position, but also because the key center is ambiguous. Where’s home? Have we moved into B Mixolydian mode? Or is it E Major (Ionian)? Have we returned to A Lydian? I think the answer is that we’re simultaneously in all three modes (which isn’t particularly tricky, since they effectively share the same key signature). However, because the location of the tonic (I chord) is undefined, this harmonic multiverse could feel disorienting — but it doesn’t due to the way Paich constructed the bass line: It walks down stepwise from G# to F# to E, and then back up to F#, G#, and A, gluing the murky harmony into a cohesive movement. (See Figure 7 above). This technique is reminiscent of the kind of thing Elton John and Phil Collins/Tony Banks were doing in the 1970s, and maybe that’s where Paich drew some inspiration. Further, Paich composed the melody so that it works perfectly in the original key center (B Major), but also equally well with the new modal possibilities. At the end of each verse, when the chords complete their walk up from EMaj7/G# to A Major, the feeling is one of triumph, as well as relief (we’ve arrived home).

In “Africa” we’re hearing truly adventurous composition (with unexpected twists) that still manages to feel accessible. Paich has cloaked a lot of harmonic sophistication and clever voice leading behind a sweet façade of tuneful hooks. This is master-level songcraft.

What’s In A Pocket?

Returning to the drums: Jeff Porcaro, who died tragically in 1992, had an uncanny ability to create grooves that feel assertive, yet laid back. You could spend years studying the thousands of records he played on to try to crack the code — and I’ve tried. A crucial component of Jeff’s pocket groove involves the way he throttled the tempo from moment to moment within a given bar of music, while keeping a steady pulse across the bar line.

When a drummer “pushes,” it means they’re playing slightly ahead to drive the pulse forward. “Pulling” means they’re playing ever so slightly behind, or late, to build tension. (Note: This is not exactly the same as “rushing” and “dragging,” which relate to increasing or decreasing the overall tempo — usually in an undesirable way.) Famously, Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones tended to play his kick drum slightly ahead (pushing), while his snare backbeat was slightly behind (pulling), resulting in a confident groove with an incredibly slinky feel. Every drummer has a signature time feel — a tendency — that’s as distinctive to them as the shape of their face. There’s no mistaking John Bonham’s signature time feel for James Gadson’s, or Bernard Purdie’s time feel for Stewart Copeland’s. Josh Freese, Sheila E., Ringo Starr, Elvin Jones… they’re each instantly recognizable by their respective time feels — i.e., by where they choose to place beats, either slightly ahead, or slightly behind, or right on top.

One of Jeff Porcaro’s hallmarks was the time accuracy with which he chose to place notes during his fills. In Steely Dan’s “Night By Night” (off of Pretzel Logic) Jeff played 32nd notes in early parts of his fills slightly ahead of the beat (pushing), which infuses energy into the phrase, and then he slowed down slightly at the middle of each phrase (pulling), which instills a sense of weightiness (sometimes pushing again at the end). In Toto’s “Africa,” he used the inverse approach: In the early part of a given measure, he placed notes much later than you might expect, and then he made up time just before landing exactly on the downbeat. See Figure 8 below.

Figure 8: Drum Fill Going into the Second Chorus of "Africa"

The effect of Jeff’s push-pull feel on “Africa” was to create an enormous sense of drama going into each chorus. By decelerating (ritardando) at the early part of a fill into the middle of the bar, Jeff made the groove feel extra heavy. (Slowing down tends to add weight.) Then by accelerating just before the “drop,” he instilled the moment with the excitement and energy required to make the chorus sound huge. To execute flammed quarter-note triplets in this manner requires specific intention and immense precision. It’s a shame that the present-day pop-recording trend of chopping, quantizing, and splicing drum performances so that everything’s “on the grid” obliterates this kind of nuance and musicality in modern recordings.

Check out this clip from Toto performing “Africa” in Paris circa 1990. Jeff’s push-pull drum fill coming out of the bridge into the last chorus is breathtaking. Notice how the 16th-note triplets over the first half of the bar align metronomically with the beat, as he accents the first note of each sextuplet. Then he plays the first two quarter-note triplets on the back half of the measure way behind—infusing the moment with high drama before speeding ahead into the last quarter-note triplet in order to land directly on top of the following downbeat.

Harmonized Melody

The part of the song most people remember is the bit where David Paich blesses the rains down in Africa. Sure, the lyrics are a little goofy (more on that later), but the interweaving vocals make for a gorgeous hook. Paich enlisted main Toto vocalist Bobby Kimball (high vocal), Timothy B. Schmit (probably best known for playing bass with the Eagles), and Steve Lukather (Toto co-founder, legendary guitarist, and musician par excellence) to stack the vocals with him in the chorus.

In big-band jazz arranging, one of the central features is the “soli” (plural for “solo”). Most often, you’ll hear a soli in the saxophone section, with the 1st alto sax playing the melody and the four other saxes (2nd alto, 1st tenor, 2nd tenor, and baritone) filling out the chord underneath, all moving together in “block voicing.” It’s an unmistakable, magnificent sound. Here’s a short example.

When arranging the vocals for “Africa,” Toto took an approach similar to creating a soli — but with lines that move more independently than what you often find in that context. If you want to stack melodies to create a thick harmonic line, there are generally four different approaches to choose from:

  • Parallel motion: the voices move in the same direction with fixed intervals (e.g., in octaves)
  • Similar motion: the voices move in the same direction with changing intervals
  • Contrary motion: the voices move in opposite directions (i.e., one line moves up, another moves down)
  • Oblique motion: one voice sings notes on an unchanging pitch, while another changes pitch

Which of these methods did Toto use in the chorus of “Africa”? Surprise! They used all four. See Figure 9 below.

Figure 9: Vocal Harmonies in the Chorus of "Africa"

For me, the most thrilling part of the chorus (in fact, the whole song) is the harmony created by the superposition of Schmidt’s, Lukather’s, and Paich’s scooped notes on the word “rains” while Kimball sings the high “A” in the melody. The moving lines imply a DMaj9 chord there, and the following contrapuntal line works with the melody and harmony like the gears in a Swiss watch. My ear is more drawn to the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th voices in this figure than it is to the ostensible top melody, as the lower voices are singing the most captivating parts. It’s all beautifully constructed.

Shall We Address The Elephant In The Room?

Heretofore, this column has focused solely on the “music” part of pop music, and not on the words that go along with it. But I would be remiss not to acknowledge an aspect of the song that has sparked controversy: its lyrics, which describe a white American waxing poetic about the African continent (to which he has no real connection) in a rather awkward, reductive way. Writing a song using a topic you know little about shouldn’t intrinsically be a fraught proposition. But within the context of the US’ centuries-long brutal history with countries on the African continent, it’s not hard to view Toto’s “Africa” as an expression of a glib neo-colonial mentality. In his The Number Ones column, Tom Breihan described “Africa” as “a perfectly ridiculous act of hubris,” while also conceding that the song “slaps.” I think he’s right on both counts.

It is a coincidence that Toto’s “Africa” topped the Billboard Hot 100 on the 100-year anniversary of the decision to convene the Berlin Conference, where Western colonial powers assembled to work out how to carve up the African continent through invasion, annexation, and direct rule (resulting in Western control of Africa increasing from 10% in 1870 to 90% at the start of WWI). This also coincided with the US recognizing Belgian King Leopold II’s personal claim to the Congo River basin (the US was the first country to do so). Additionally, it’s noteworthy that Paich and Porcaro wrote “Africa” on the 20th anniversary of the CIA assassination of Patrice Lamumba (the first elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo), as the US was determined to subvert the African independence movement. American plundering of Africa continues to the present day, as the US-Africa Command (AFRICOM) expands its lethal footprint on the continent.

If we view Toto’s song “Africa” through this lens, it’s not difficult to understand why people might perceive it as a Rudyard Kipling “White Man’s Burden”-type narrative. Of course, David Paich wrote the lyrics to “Africa” from a benign (if naïve) standpoint — not a malicious or patronizing one. (Curiously, guitarist Steve Lukather has remarked that he always felt uncomfortable with the song’s lyrics and didn’t want to release the song as a single back in 1982.) Nevertheless, this does raise the question: What responsibilities do artists have to educate themselves about injustice in the world and to seek corrective solutions? It’s a fascinating question and perhaps a suitable topic for a different Stereogum column.

…What’s Deep Inside

Regardless of your feelings towards the song’s lyrical intentions, it’s hard to deny its musicality. Yes, “Africa” is an incredibly catchy pop tune, but behind its shiny veneer you’ll find expertly crafted musical composition, performance, and production. David Paich managed to thread the needle perfectly: The song’s indelible hooks grab our attention, but its sophisticated architecture keeps us listening. A catchy, easily accessible tune without that kind of creative depth would grow boring over time. Writing a complex song that sounds simple — and therefore, grabs people viscerally — is more difficult than writing a complex song that sounds… well, complex. This is why David Paich is a master at his craft — and it is this characteristic that you’ll find throughout Toto’s entire catalog. The year 2022 may be the 40th anniversary of the release of Toto IV and the single “Africa,” but it’s also the year David Paich released his debut solo album, Forgotten Toys. If you haven’t already, check it out.

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