Musical Areas

Localized Native American (American Indian) music is classified by stylistic features characterizing geographical areas. The culture area concept, developed and used by American anthropologists in the early 20th century, was first and most successfully applied to the mapping of Native American cultures. Anthropologists found that although there were 1,000 to 2,000 tribal groups, each with its own culture and language, they could be grouped into six to eight major culture areas distinguished by types of housing, religion, political structure, etc. Scholars of Native American music found that musical style areas coincided generally with these culture areas.


Plains - Now the basis of the intertribal powwow style. Singing style emphasizes high pitch, rhythmic pulsations on long tones, and a tense vocal style. The song form is “incomplete repetition,” which typically follows a descending melodic contour (AA BCD BCD, where D is often an octave lower than A).

Example: Blackfoot “War or Grass Dance Song”


Eastern - Employs a more relaxed vocal style, with some call-and-response patterns (and occasional polyphony). Typical forms consist of several short phrases.

Example: “Creek Stomp Dance Song”


California-Yuman - Characterized by a very relaxed vocal style and a song form in which one 110section, a phrase or short group of phrases, is repeated several times but interrupted irregularly by another, slightly higher contrasting section, called the “rise.”

Example: Walapai “Funeral Song”


Athabascan - Includes Navajo and Apache peoples. Typical traits include a wide vocal range, a rather nasal vocal style, and even rhythms that can be transcribed using quarter or eighth notes.


Pueblo - Shares features with Athabascan and Plains styles, but has a low, harsh, pulsating vocal style and long, complex forms


Papago - Related to Plains and Pueblo styles


Great Basin - Found in Nevada, Utah, and northern California and characterized by a small range and a typical form in which phrases are repeated in pairs (e.g., AA BB CC, etc.)


Northwest Coast - Also includes some Inuit peoples. Distinguished by complex rhythms, a large number of wind instruments, and a polyphonic choral tradition.