Native American music

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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).

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Craig Harris is the author of several books on roots music, American Indian music, and the Band.
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Pisani, "The Indian Music Debate and `American' Music in the Progressive Era," College Music Symposium 37 (1997): 74 paraphrasing Charles Sanford Skilton, "American Indian Music" in Oscar Thompson, ed., International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians, 1938.

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