Most music in southern Africa has historically been performed by people who do not sing or play from written scores (see African Music Scores: History), but since the later 19th century notated music has increasingly been used, alongside orally transmitted music. Notated music in staff notation is performed in all kinds of institutional and informal settings and performance is generally associated with concerts, while choral music in tonic solfa is performed within the various church and educational systems and performance is usually associated with competitions. (See Instruments and Languages).

Over the course of a year, prescribed and chosen pieces are rehearsed in three choral categories (Western, indigenous, traditional) for entry in local, regional, and provincial ‘knock-out’ rounds of these competitions, which culminate in national finals held in the major cities of Johannesburg, Cape Town, Bloemfontein, or Durban. Competitions have evolved from something organised on a fairly small scale by teacher-conductors themselves, initially in Gauteng, into ‘big business’ organised by the National Choir Festival (NCF).