Native american music


Basic Concepts:

The history and pre-history of musical cultures without written records; music as

mediator between human and supernatural worlds; intertribal unit in powwows and music to build consciousness of ethnic identity

There were between one and two thousand tribal groups in North America, almost all speaking distinct languages. The average population of a tribe was around a thousand, but some were much larger and others had only one hundred to two hundred persons. Each tribe had its own musical culture, repertory, musical style, uses of, and ideas about music. Each tribe, however, had a large number of songs and used them in many ceremonies, for curing, to accompany dances, and to draw boundaries between subdivisions of society such as age groups, clans, and genders.

Compared to many parts of the world, Native American music is fairly homogeneous. Closely tied to religion, it is seen as a way of communicating within and with the supernatural world. It is almost always monophonic, and with few exceptions it is vocal, often using vocables instead of text. While there are a number of distinct singing styles, they have in common a tense sound and the use of pulsations on longer notes. The concept of “song” in most Native American cultures is a relatively short unit, rather like a nursery rhyme or hymn. Songs are ordinarily presented, however, in large groups and sequences as parts of elaborate ceremonies and rituals.

Two or three types of forms predominate. There are strophic songs, rather like folk songs or hymns in that a stanza of several lines is repeated several or many times; there are very short songs that consist of one or a pair of lines repeated many times; and there are forms in which two contrasting sections of music, one usually higher than the other, alternate. Almost all of the singing is accompanied by percussion, usually drums or rattles. Flutes, the only important melodic instruments, are often associated with courting rituals. Thus, the many Native American musical cultures have a good deal in common.

Because Native American music is passed down only in an oral tradition, there is a limit to the complexity of materials to be remembered. The idea of technical complexity has never been a criterion of musical quality to Native American peoples. Rather, music is measured by such things as its ability to integrate society and to represent it to the outside, its ability to integrate ceremonial and social events, and its supernatural power. Because many songs have no words, the act of singing - producing a kind of sound that has no other function in life - embodies spiritual power.