Native American Music

Native American music: The music of Native North Americans is primarily a vocal art, usually choral, although some nations favor solo singing. Native American music is entirely melodic; there is no harmony or polyphony, although there is occasional antiphonal singing between soloist and chorus. The melody is, in general, characterized by a descending melodic figure; its rhythm is irregular. There is no conception of absolute pitch and intonation can appear uncertain, the result of the distinctive method of voice production, involving muscular tension in the vocal apparatus and making possible frequent strong accents and glissandos. Singing is nearly always accompanied, at least by drums. Various types of drums and rattles are the chief percussion instruments. Wind instruments are mainly flutes and whistles.

For the Native American, song is traditionally the chief means of communicating with the supernatural powers, and music is seldom performed for its own sake; definite results, such as the bringing of rain, success in battle, or the curing of the sick, are expected from music. There are three classes of songs—traditional songs, handed down from generation to generation; ceremonial and medicine songs, supposed to be received in dreams; and modern songs, showing the influence of European culture. Songs of heroes are often old, adapted to the occasion by the insertion of the new hero's name. Love songs often are influenced by the music of whites and are regarded as degenerate by many Native Americans.

See also North American Native art; Native American languages.

See F. Densmore, The American Indians and Their Music (rev. ed. 1936); C. Kaywood, A Bibliography of North American Folklore and Folksong (1951); C. Hofman, American Indians Sing (1967); and many books by F. Densmore on music of individual tribes (most repr. 1972).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Native American Music: Selected full-text books and articles

Indian Story and Song from North America By Alice C. Fletcher University of Nebraska Press, 1995
The Native American Oral Tradition: Voices of the Spirit and Soul By Lois J. Einhorn Praeger, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Prayers and Songs of Celebration and Purification"
Native American Folklore in Nineteenth-Century Periodicals By William M. Clements Swallow Press, 1986
Librarian’s tip: "The Scientific Importance of the Folk-Music of Our Aborigines" begins on p. 227
An Introduction to Folk Music in the United States By Bruno Nettl Wayne State University Press, 1962 (Revised edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. IV "Indian Music of the United States"
Music of Oppression, Music of Resistance By Hesch, Rick Canadian Dimension, Vol. 41, No. 1, January-February 2007
North American Indian Musical Styles By Bruno Nettl American Folklore Society, 1954
Song of the Sky: Versions of Native American Song-Poems By Brian Swann University of Massachusetts Press, 1993 (Revised edition)
Mandan and Hidatsa Music By Frances Densmore U. S. Govt. Print. Off., 1923
Menominee Music By Frances Densmore U. S. Govt. Print. Off., 1932
Nootka and Quileute Music By Frances Densmore Government Printing Office, 1939
Pawnee Music By Frances Densmore U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1929
Seminole Music By Frances Densmore United States Government Printing Office, 1956
A Study of Omaha Indian Music By Alice C. Fletcher; Francis La Flesche University of Nebraska Press, 1994
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Author Advanced search


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.