Native American music

There are hundreds of tribes of Native Americans (called the First Nations in Canada), each with diverse musical practices, spread across the United States and Canada (excluding Hawaiian music). However, according to Bruno Nettl (1956, p.107, Music in Primitive Culture), "almost every trait occurs in every culture to some degree." These commonalities exist, however, and are part of a shared folk musical tradition. More recently, Native Americans have developed distinct rock, blues, hip hop and reggae scenes, as well as popular pan-tribal styles like waila (chicken scratch). Template:NativeAmericanmusic Traditional music is dominated by choral vocals, and more rarely solo singing, is common, and harmony and polyphony are non-existent. Vocables (rhythmic, nonsense words, repeated) are an integral part of vocal music. Descending melodic figures are common. Drums and other percussion instruments are the most commonly-used instruments, though flutes and others are in common practice.

There is antiphonal singing between the chorus and soloist and thus incipient polyphony. Rhythms are often irregular or heterometric and the pentatonic scale predominates. (ibid, p. 196-197)


Folk song

Native American folk is usually religious in nature, and is used to communicate spiritually with the heavens and to pray for good luck. Epic stories of heroes are also common.

Native American religious beliefs hold that music was given to humans by spirits as a method of communicating with the supernatural. Song composition, then, is a highly ritualistic act. Choctaw Social Dance, for example, is not composed, having been given to the people at creation. They can vary slightly from year to year, with leaders recombining and introducing slight variations. The Pueblo compose a number of new songs each year in a committee which uses dreams and visions to compose.

Traditional music cultures

The hundreds of tribes in North America can be divided into six areas: Eastern Woodlands, Southwest, Great Basin, Plains, Northwest Coast and Arctic. However, Nettl (1956, p.107-116) uses the following music areas which approximately coincide with Wissler, Kroeber, and Driver's cultural areas (population): Inuit-Northwest coast (275,000), Great Basin (30,000), California-Yuman (125,000), Plains-Pueblo (250,000), Athabascan (90,000), and Eastern (275,000). He associates greater geographic size and population with complexity .


The style of the Great Basin area is the oldest style and was common throughout the entire continent before Mesoamerica but continued only in the Great Basin and in the lullaby, gambling, and tale genres around the continent. A style featuring relaxed vocal technique and the rise probably originated in Mesoamerican Mexico and spread northward, particularly into the California-Yuman and Eastern music areas. These styles also feature "relative" rhythmic simplicity, ismetric material, penatonic scales, and forms created from short sections. (Nettl 1956, p.117-118)

While this process occurred three Asian styles influenced North American music, all featuring pulsating vocal technique, came across the Bering Strait, and is evident in recent Paleo-Siberian tribes such as Chuckchee, Yukaghir, Koryak. These influenced the Plains-Pueblo, Athabascan, and Inuit-Northwest Coast areas. According to Nettl (ibid) the boundary between these southward and the above northward influences are the areas of greatest musical complexity: the Northwest Coast, Peublo music, and Navajo music. Evidence of influences between the Northwest Coast and Mexico are indicated, for example, by bird-shaped whistles. The Plains-Pueblo area has influenced and continues to influence the surrounding cultures, with contemporary musicians of all tribes learning Plains-Pueblo influenced pantribal genres such as Peyote songs. (ibid)


Arid American Southwest is home to two broad groupings of closely-related cultures, the Pueblo and Athabaskan. The Southern Athabaskan Navajo and Apache tribes sing in Plains-style nasal vocals with unblended monophony, while the Pueblos emphasize a relaxed, low range and highly blended monophonic style. Athabaskan songs are swift and use drums or rattles, as well as an instrument unique to this area, the Apache fiddle. Pueblo songs are complex and meticulously detailed, usually with five sections divided into four or more phrases characterized by detailed introductory and cadential formulas. They are much slower in tempo than Athabaskan songs, and use various percussion instruments as accompaniment.

Nettl (ibid, p. 112-113) describes Pueblo music, including Hopi, Zuni, Taos Pueblo, San Ildefonso, Santo Domingo, and many others, as one of the most complex on the continent, featuring increased length and number of scale tones (hexatonic and heptatonic common), variety of form, melodic contour, and percussive accompaniment, ranges between an octave and a twelfth, with rhythmic complexity equal to the Plains sub-area. He sites the Katchina dance songs as the most complex songs and Hopi and Zuni material as the most complex of the Pueblo, while the Tanoans and Keresans musics are simpler and intermediary between the Plains and western Pueblos. The music of the Pima and Papago is intermediary between the Plains-Pueblo and the California-Yuman music areas, with melodic movement of the Yuman, though including the rise, and the form and rhythm of the Pueblo.

He (ibid, p. 113-114) describes Southern Athabascan music, that of the Apache and Navaho, as the simplest next to the Great Basin style, featuring strophic form, tense vocals using pulsation and falsetto, tritonic and tetratonic scales in triad formation, simple rhythms and limited durational values (usually only two per song), arc-type melodic contours, and large melodic intervals with a predominance of major and minor thirds and perfect fourths and fifths with octave leaps not rare. Peyote songs share characteristics of Apache music and Plains-Pueblo music having been promoted among the Plains by the Apache people.

He (ibid, p.109-110) describes California-Yuman music, including that of Pomo, Miwak, Luiseno, Catalineno, and Gabrielino, and the Yuman tribes, including, Mohave, Yuman, Havasupai, Maricopa, as using the rise in almost all songs, a relaxed nonpulsating vocal technique (like European classical music), a relatively large amount of isorhythmic material, some isorhythmic tendencies, simple rhythms, pentatonic scales without semitones, an average melodic range of an octave, sequence, and syncopated figures such as a sixteenth-note, eight-note, sixteenth-note figure. The form of rise used varies throughout the area, usually being rhythmically related to the preceding non-rise section but differing in melodic material or pitch. The rise may be no higher than the highest pitch of the original section, but will contain a much larger number of higher pitches. In California the non-rise is usually one reiterate phrase, the rise being the phrase transposed an octave higher, the Yumans use a non-rise of long repeated sections each consisting of several phrases, the rise being three to five phrases performed only once, and in southern California the previous two and progressive forms are found.

Eastern Woodlands

Inhabiting a wide swath of the United States and Canada, Eastern Woodlands natives can be distinguished by antiphony (call and response style singing), which does not occur in other areas. Their territory includes Maritime Canada, New England, U.S. Mid-Atlantic, Great Lakes and Southeast regions.

Songs are rhythmically complex, characterized by frequent metric changes and a close relationship to ritual dance. Flutes and whistles are solo instruments, and a wide variety of drums, rattles and striking sticks are played.

Nettl (p.114-115) describes the Eastern music area as the region between the Mississippi river and the Atlantic. The most complex styles being that of the Southeastern Creek, Yuchi, Cherokee, Choctaw, Iroquois and their language group, the simpler style bineg that of the Algonquian language group including Delaware and Penobscot. The Algonquian speaking Shawnee have a relatively complex style influenced by the nearby southeastern tribes.

The characteristics of this entire area include short iterative phrases, reverting relationships, shouts before, during, and after singing, anhematonic pentatonic scales, simple rhythms and meter, and much antiphonal or responsorial techniques including "rudimentary imitative polyphony". Melodic movement tends to be gradually descending throughout the area and vocals include a moderate amount of tension and pulsation. (ibid)


Extending across the American Midwest into Canada, Plains-area music is nasal, with high pitches and frequent falsettos, with a terraced descent (a step-by-step descent down an octave) in an unblended monophony. Strophes use incomplete repetition, meaning that songs are divided into two parts, the second of which is always repeated before returning to the beginning.

Bass drums are characteristic of the Plains tribes, and solo end-blown flutes (flageolet) are also common.

Nettl (ibid, p. 112) describes the central Plains tribes, from Canada to Texas: Blackfoot, Crow, Dakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanche, as the most typical and simple sub-area of the Plains-Peublo music area. This area's music is characterized by extreme vocal tension, pulsation, melodic preference for perfect fourths and a range averring a tenth, rhythmic complexity, and increased frequence of tetratonic scales. The musics of the Arapaho and Cheyenne intensify these characteristics, while the northern tribes, especially Blackfoot music, feature simpler material, smaller melodic ranges, and fewer scale tones.

Nettl (1965, p. 150) Arapaho music includes ceremonial and secular songs, such as the ritualistic Sun Dance, performed in the summer when the various bands of the Arapaho people would come tegether. Arapaho traditional songs consist of two sections exhibiting terraced descent, with a range grater than an octave and scales between four and six tones. Other ceremonial songs were received in visions, or taught as part of the men's initiations into a society for his age group. Secular songs include a number of social dances, such as the triple meter round dances and songs to inspire warriors or recent recent exploits. There are also songs said to be taught by a guardian spirit, and which should only be sung when the recipient is near death.

Great Basin

Music of the Great Basin is simple, discrete and ornate, characterized by short melodies with a range smaller than an octave, moderately-blended monophony, relaxed and open vocals and, most uniquely, paired-phrase structure, in which a melodic phrases, repeated twice, is alternated with one to two additional phrases.

Nettl (1956, p. 108-109) describes the music of the sparesly settled Great Basin, including most of desert Utah and Nevada (Paiute, Ute, Shoshoni) and some of southern Oregon (Modoc and Klamath), as "extremely simple," featuring melodic ranges averaging just over a perfect fifth, many tetratonic scales, and short forms. The majority of songs are iterative with each phrase repeated once, though occasional songs with multiple repetitions are found. Many Modoc and Klamath songs contain only one repeated phrase and many of their scales only two to three notes (ditonic or tritonic). This style was carried to the Great Plains by the Ghost Dance religion which originated among the Paiute, and very frequently features paired-phrase patterns and a relaxed nonpulsating vocal style. Herzog attributes the similarly simple lullabies, song-stories, and gambling songs found all over the continent historically to the music of the Great Basin which was preserved through relative cultural isolation and low-population.

Northwest Coast

Open vocals with monophony are common in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, though polyphony also occurs (this the only area of North American with native polyphony). Chromatic intervals accompanying long melodies are also characteristic, and rhythms are complex and declamatory, deriving from speech. Instrumentation is more diverse than in the rest of North America, and includes a wide variety of whistles, flutes, horns and percussion instruments.

Nettl (ibid, p. 107-8) describes the music of the Kwakiutl, Nootka, Tsimshian, Makah, and Quileute as some of the most complex on the continent, with the music of the Salish tribes (Thompson River Indians, Bella Coola, and Sliamon, and others directly east of the Northwest tribes) as being intermediary between these Northwest Coast tribes and Inuit music. The music of the Salish tribes, and even more so the Northwest coast, intensifies the significant features of Inuit music, see below, however their melodic movement is often pendulum-type ("leaping in broad intervals from one limit of the range to the other"). The Northwest coast music also "is among the most complicated on the continent, especially in regard to rhythmic structure," featuring intricate rhythmic patterns distinct from but related to the vocal melody and rigid percussion. He also reports unrecorded use of incipient polyphony in the form of drones or parallel intervals in addition to antiphonal and responorial forms. Vocals are extremely tense, producing dynamic contrast, ornamentation, and pulsation, and also often using multiple sudden accents in one held tone.


Main article: Inuit music

The Inuit of Alaska, Northwest Territories, Yukon Territory, Nunavut and Greenland are well-known for their throat-singing, an unusual method of vocalizing found only in a few cultures worldwide. Throat-singing is used as the basis for a game among the Inuit. Narrow-ranged melodies and declamatory effects are common, as in the Northwest. Repeated notes mark the ends of phrases. Box drums, which are found elsewhere, are common, as a tambourine-like hand drum. Nettl (ibid, p.107) describes "Eskimo" music as some of the simplest on the continent, listing characteristics including recitative-like singing, complex rhythmic organization, relatively small melodic range averaging about a sixth, prominance of major thirds and minor seconds melodically, with undulating melodic movement.


Pan-tribalism is the syncretic adoption of traditions from foreign communities. Since the rise of the United States and Canada, Native Americans have forged a common identity, and invented pan-tribal music, most famously including powwows, peyote songs and the Ghost Dance.

The Ghost Dance spread throughout the Plains tribes in the 1890s, and most still survive in use. They are characterized by relaxed vocals and a narrow range. Apache-derived peyote songs, sacred prayers in the Native American Church, use a descending melody and monophony. Rattles and water drums are used, in a swift tempo. The Sun Dance and Grass Dance of the plains are the roots of intertribal powwows, which feature music with terraced descent and nasal vocals, both Plains characteristic features.

John Trudell launched a new genre of spoken word poetry in the 1980s, beginning with Aka Graffiti Man (1986). The next decade saw further innovations in Native American popular music, including Robbie Robertson (of The Band) releasing a soundtrack for a documentary, Music for the Native Americans, that saw limited mainstream success, as well as Verdell Primeaux and Johnny Mike's modernized peyote songs, which they began experimenting with on Sacred Path: Healing Songs of the Native American Church. Waila (or the chicken scratch music of the Tohono O'odham) has gained performers like the Joaquin Brothers fame across Native American communities, while hip hop crews like WithOut Rezervation and Robby Bee & the Boyz From the Rez (Reservation of Education) have a distinctively Native American flourish to hip hop.

Native American flute

Main article: Native American Flute

The Native American flute has achieved some measure of fame for its distinctive sound, used in a variety of New Age and world music recordings. The instruments origins are unknown, but the theory that it was developed by the Ancient Pueblo Peoples based of Mesoamerican designs is the most common solution. Its music was used in courtship, healing, meditation and spiritual rituals.

The late 1960s saw a roots revival centered around the flute, with a new wave of flautists and artisans like Doc Nevaquaya and Carl Running Deer. Of special importance is R. Carlos Nakai (Changes, 1983), who has achieved some mainstream renown for his mixture of the flute with New Age and ambient sounds.

The Native American flute is the only flute in the world constructed with two air chambers - there is a wall inside the flute between the top (slow) air chamber and the bottom chamber which has the whistle and finger holes. The top chamber also serves as a secondary resonator, which gives the flute its distinctive sound. There is a hole at the bottom of the "slow" air chamber and a (generally) square hole at the top of the playing chamber. A block (or "bird") with a spacer is tied on top of the flute to form a thin, flat airstream for the whistle hole (or "window"). Some more modern flutes use an undercut either in the block or the flute to eliminate the need for a spacer.

The "traditional" Native American flute was constructed using measurements based on the body - the length of the flute would be the distance from armpit to wrist, the length of the top air chamber would be one fist-width, the distance from the whistle to the first hole also a fist-width, the distance between holes would be one thumb-width, and the distance from the last hole to the end would generally be one fist-width.

Modern Native American flutes are generally tuned to a variation of the minor pentatonic scale (such as you would get playing the black keys on a piano), which gives the instrument its distinctive plaintive sound. Recently some makers have begun experimenting with different scales, giving players new melodic options. Also, modern flutes are generally tuned in concert keys (such as A or D) so that they can be easily played with other instruments. The root keys of modern Native American flutes span a range of about three and a half octaves, from C2 to A5.

Native American flutes most commonly have either 5 or 6 holes, but instruments can have anything from no holes to seven (including a thumb hole). Various makers employ different scales and fingerings for their flutes.

Some modern Native American flutes are called "drone" flutes, and are two (or more) flutes built together. Generally, the drone chamber plays a fixed note which the other flute can play against in harmony.


  • Media:Bice'waan_Song.ogg is a recording from the Library of Congress, collected by Alice Cunningham Fletcher and Francis La Flesche and published in 1897. The singer is George Miller, who was probably born in about 1852. It was described as: "The true love-song, called by the Omaha Bethae waan, an old designation and not a descriptive name, is sung generally in the early morning, when the lover is keeping his tryst and watching for the maiden to emerge from the tent and go to the spring. They belong to the secret courtship and are sometimes called Me-the-g'thun wa-an - courting songs. . . . They were sung without drum, bell or rattle, to accent the rhythm, in which these songs is subordinated to tonality and is felt only in the musical phrases. . . . Vibrations for the purpose of giving greater expression were not only affected by the tremolo of the voice, but they were enhanced by waving the hand, or a spray of artemesia before the lips, while the body often swayed gently to the rhythm of the song (Fletcher, 1894, p. 156)."
  • Download recording Ghost Dance and gambling song from the Piute and Arapaho Native Americans from the Library of Congress' Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry Collection; performed by James Mooney (possibly along with Charles Mooney; neither are believed to be Native Americans) on July 5, 1894
  • Download recording - Kiowa mescal daylight song from the Library of Congress' Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry Collection; performed by James Mooney (possibly along with Charles Mooney; neither are believed to be Native Americans) on July 5, 1894
  • Download recording - "Steal Partner" Seminole song from the Library of Congress' Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections; performed by Richard Osceola, Naha Tiger, John Josh and Morgan Smith in July 1940 in Cow Creek, Florida


  • Nettl, Bruno (1956). Music in Primitive Culture. Harvard University Press.
  • Nettl, Bruno (1965). Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents. Prentice-Hall, Inc.

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