Native American music first appeared thousands of years ago. As a result, it differs greatly from the European music styles. Besides, there are many music types that can be traced back to the geographical locations of the American tribes. The main purpose of the Native American music was to serve the rituals. For instance, many rhythms and songs were created for a particular reason, such as to apprise about the influence of the spirits or accompaniment of the rituals. Sometimes, music was used to sing about everyday life. This paper investigates distinct features of Native American music with an aim to provide a better understanding of the Native American culture.
The music instruments of the Native Americans included percussive types, such as drums with animal skinheads and rattles, shakers, and scrapers made from animal horns or bird beaks (Schulman, 2002).
Drums were the most widespread instrument. They were used to provide a rhythm and were often joined by rattles and rasps to enrich the background for chants. In general, the drums were large and had 60 to 90 centimeters in diameter. The drums had a wooden frame with an animal skin stretched across the instrument. Sometimes, the drums were decorated with painted symbols that gave the instruments additional religious or protective meaning (Hoven, 1990).
There are four main types of drums used by Native Americans (Hoven, 1990). The first type is small drums that could be carried by the tribes into the battlefield. The second group is represented by large drums, which were usually made from a hollowed log. The third type of the instrument was the water drums, used by the Apache tribes. The water drums can also be divided into two groups. The first group included the drums that had the shape of a small cup filled with water and moistened skin on top. The second type of water drums was represented by big drums placed in a tube of water, which was used as a resonator. Finally, the last type of drums was the basket drums used by the tribes of California and Southwest.
At the same time, the types of drums varied in different Native American tribes. For instance, the drums of the Eskimos tribes were bigger and had 61 to 152 centimeters in diameter (Keillor, Archambault, & Kelly, 2013). The circular rim was made from bent spruce. Sometimes, people could choose to combine several different-sized drums while playing music to achieve a better tonal variety of a composition (Keillor, Archambault & Kelly, 2013). A wooden, ivory, or bone handle was attached to the rim in one place.
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In Alaska, tribes also used other instruments. For example, there were two types of rattles (Hoven, 1990). The first one included puffin bills or barnacle shells. The other type was a sub-spherical or bird-shaped container with a short handle and a few pebbles inside. During performances, people used pairs of rattles.
Another music instrument of the Native Americans was the flute. Due to its uncommon sound, the Native American flutes are used in modern music recordings. The distinctive peculiarity of the flute was the two air chambers construction of the instrument. In particular, there was a wall inside the instrument that separated the top and bottom parts of it. The block formed a thin airstream. Traditionally, there were five or six air holes in the flutes. However, there were different variations, from no holes to seven. While constructing a flute, Native Americans took into account the measurements of a person’s body (Hoven, 1990). Unlike Western music, the Native American one did not have a standardized pitch. In general, flutes had a minor pentatonic scale, similar to the sound of the black keys of the piano.
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Besides this, Native Americans used idiophones, which are the instruments that can vibrate without strings or membranes. These instruments included sticks beaten against a piece of bark, or a fist struck on the ground. Idiophones represent the first musical instruments used in any culture (Keillor, Archambault, & Kelly, 2013). Many Native American tribes also used the rasps, represented by notching sticks (Hoven, 1990). By using different variations of notching sticks, the tribes were able to create new sounds for the accompaniment of the ceremonies and dances.
The population of North America was not large; however, people spread all over the continent. As a result, music differs significantly in various geographic locations. In particular, there were the Eskimos and the tribes of the Pacific Northwest, tribes of California and Southwest, tribes of Utah and Nevada, Navajo and Apache tribes, tribes of Pueblo and Plains lands, tribes of the eastern and southern parts of the United States (Hoffer, 2008). Each tribe represents a different type of Native American music. For instance, the Eskimos and the population of the Pacific Northwest had nonstrophic songs. The music had complex rhythms and small melodic intervals. The music of the tribes of California and the Southwest included harsh vocal sounds. The tribes of Utah and Nevada had a more relaxed style of music. The songs mainly consisted of paired phrases that were repeated several times. The repetition of particular parts of melodies or lyrics were especially appreciated by Native Americans, as they represented the important social value of balance. The music of the Navajo and Apache tribes consisted of melodies with a wide range, including male singers performing high falsetto voices. The Pueblo and Plains tribes’ music mainly included two-part songs. The Native Americans in the eastern and southern parts of the USA are characterized by responsive singing, based on the division of shouts between the leader and the rest of the group.
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However, Native American music did not have a significant impact on the development of other types of American music (Hoffer, 2008). It is determined by the fact that Native Americans did not have a chance to live close to non-Americans. In general, they were kept in the reservations and the music was confined to the tribes. Besides, Native American music differs greatly from the Western-style. It has hints of Asian motives. The incorporation of music from one culture to another usually takes place when these cultures are similar. Thus, due to the differences in the music styles and genres, only a few aspects could be borrowed by the Western music style.
In general, the scale of Native American music can be characterized by a number of used pitches and intervals. Some scholars mention that the music of Native Americans cannot be characterized by the application of a certain scale pattern (Keeling, 2013). In particular, they underline that the concept of the musical scale was unknown for the Native Americans (Keeling, 2013). It is determined by the fact that at the early stage of development of the Native American music, the scales were not formed yet, but had just begun to form.
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However, other scholars conclude that the music of the American tribes was harmonic. In particular, Native American music is considered to be mostly pentatonic or a five-note scale (Bowman, 2002). Pentatonic tunes can be found in other cultures across the world and have a traditional folk-like quality (Bowman, 2002). Some Native American music systems also had two pitches per octave or more than five pitches (Patel, 2008). The music scales vary among different tribes of America. For instance, scales of the eastern and southern tribes, as well as Navajo and Apache tribes, included four, five, or six tones with equal intervals between them. At the same time, the music is characterized by a frequent change of meter. The tribes of Pueblo and Plains had a four- or five-note scale with equal intervals. Often the songs and music had cascading melodies, which started at high pitches and ended at lower ones. The music of Pueblo tribes is considered to be the most complex one. Apart from cascading melodies, the tribes used pauses, changing meters, a variety of forms, and percussive accompaniment (Rossa & Neciosup, 2014). Nevada and Utah tribes also used four- or five-note pitches. However, the durational values of the music changed with the application of beating techniques. California and Southwest music scales vary from four to six tones. Additionally, the melodies could sometimes include half-step intervals that represent a distinctive characteristic of the tribes of the region. The complexity of the music structure was also achieved by the changes of meter and variations of the duration values. Finally, the tribes of the Pacific Northwest and Eskimos used four- or five-tone scales. This type of Native American music is also characterized by the application of cross-rhythms, as well as frequent changes of meters.
The size distribution of the intervals in the scale varied from 1 to 3 semitones (Patel, 2008). Despite the fact that Native Americans could choose a single large pause in the construction of the melodies, they mainly had two semitones. According to the scholars, large scales were associated with the melodies that were harder to sing due to big pitch laps (Patel, 2008). Thus, the music was adjusted to the performance capabilities of the artists.
Native American music used less complex harmony than later American folk music (Lornell, 2012). The texture of music was generally monophonic with male and female voices singing together in unison without harmonic accompaniment. If there were more than one vocalist, they sang together in unison or octaves.
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Native American music was mainly vocal-monodic and consisted of a single melodic line (Schulman, 2002). The songs, both melody and words, were composed of individuals and head singers. Some of the songs were created during visionary or dreamlike states, while others were written for a specific function. At the same time, some types of Native American music had a strong rhythm and other types were mainly melodic (Schulman, 2002). The chants could include many vocals or non-translatable vocal sounds. The songs could also have a simple language or narrative content.
Besides this, Native American music included mainly choral vocals and, rarely, solo singing (Hartong, 2006). Repeated rhythmic nonsense words, known as vocables, often represented an important part of the music performance. For instance, the women in Eskimos tribes used a distinctive vocal style that was based on the application of vocables exceptionally. As a result, the singers could create a complex rhythmic structure. Vocables referred to the nonlexical syllables, which were used at a particular moment in a song to arrange the lines of the music composition. The vocables consisted of short syllables, such as “he,” “wi,” and “yo”, that were usually pronounced in a nasal voice. At the same time, the vocables represented a part of the communication that helped solidify the sense of social unity. Despite the fact that voice was a predominant part of most Native American music, there was also a selection of music instruments.
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However, some of the Native American tribes developed more complex textures (Schulman, 2002). For instance, the tribes of the eastern part of the United States are characterized by the usage of the antiphonal texture, which foresees the combination of two singers or choirs.
Music played an important part in the life of Native Americans. Since the time people were born until death, life was marked by dancing and ceremonies. Thus, all music of the Native Americans had a functional purpose (Schulman, 2002). For instance, it accompanied particular events, such as dancing, working, harvesting, praying, healing, hunting, or burial ceremonies.
The styles and purpose of the music varied across Native American tribes. For example, the music of the Eskimos tribes accompanied the everyday activities of the people, such as paddling, hunting, entertaining children, and requesting gifts. The music was also used to promote socially acceptable behaviors, including a peaceful way of life and nonviolent resolution of conflicts. The eastern and southern tribes used music mainly to accompany ceremonial dances and treatment processes. However, in the majority of the tribes, the music was tightly connected with the ceremonial rituals (Schulman, 2002). Thus, the main role of the songs and melodies was an accompaniment of rituals, such as dances, rites, and ceremonies. At the same time, each musical performance had its genre and style. Despite the fact that the ceremonies might look informal, it usually took a lot of time for the tribes to prepare for the performance.
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Often, lead singers were important political or religious figures, who had an important role in a particular community. In general, the singers did not expect the audience to appreciate their performance. Their role was to serve the community during the event or ceremony (Vincent, 2011). The Native American tribes also developed the concept of property applicable to songs and melodies. For instance, the tribes of the Pacific Northwest considered the performance of ancestral songs to be an inherited right. At the same time, this right could be given to another person (Vincent, 2011). Some tribes did not allow representatives of other communities to borrow their music.
At the same time, the music of the Native American tribes played an important educational role. In particular, music enabled the passing of traditions and beliefs to the new generations. The music originated from the appreciation of spirits and respected people. Every aspect of the melody or song of the Native American tribes disclosed symbols important to the people. Furthermore, Native American songs represented stories about heroes and became an important part of local culture. The music also represented the connection with the Creator and the higher powers of the universe. In particular, some of the tribes considered that musical talent was given by gods.
Despite the fact that some scholars consider the music of the Native Americans to be simple and primitive, it has distinguishing texture. The musical concepts of the Native American tribes developed under the influence of various social and cultural processes. Thus, music has become an integral part of the life of Native Americans and was used during ritual ceremonies and everyday activities. At the same time, music in general was considered to represent a gift given by the gods. It was also a means of passing the cultural heritage from one generation to another and preserving social integrity and history.