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Native American music

African-American music
 This article is part of the 
Music of the United States series.
 before 1940
 1940s and 50s
 1960s and 70s
 1980 to the present'''
 Native American music
 Latin, Tejano, Hawaiian,
Cajun, Puerto Rican and other immigrants
There are hundreds of tribes of Native Americans, each with diverse musical practices, spread across the United States and Canada (excluding Hawaiian music). Some commonalities exist, however, and are part of a shared folk musical tradition. More recently, Native Americans have developed distinct rock, blues, hip hop and reggae scenes.

Traditional music is dominated by choral vocals, and more rarely solo singing, is common, and harmony and polyphony are non-existent, although there is antiphonal singing between the chorus and soloist. Vocables (rhythmic, nonsense words, repeated) are an integral part of vocal music. Rhythms are often irregular, and a descending melodic figure is common. Drums and other percussion instruments are the most commonly-used instruments, though flutes and others are in common practice.

Native American folk is usually religious in nature, and is used to communicate spiritually with the heavens and to pray for good luck. Epic stories of heroes are also common.

Table of contents
1 Folk song
2 Cultures
3 Pan-tribalism
4 Native American flute
5 Samples

Folk song

Native American religious beliefs hold that music was given to humans by spirits as a method of communicating with the supernatural. Song composition, then, is a highly ritualistic act. Choctaw Social Dance, for example, is not composed, having been given to the people at creation. They can vary slightly from year to year, with leaders recombining and introducing slight variations. The Pueblo compose a number of new songs each year in a committee which uses dreams and visions to compose.


The hundreds of tribes in North America can be divided into six areas: Eastern Woodlands, Southwest, Great Basin, Plains, Northwest Coast and Arctic.


Arid American Southwest is home to two broad groupings of closely-related cultures, the Pueblo and Athabaskan. The Athabaskan Navajo and Apache tribes sing in in Plains-style nasal vocals with unblended monophony, while the Pueblos emphasize a relaxed, low range and highly blended monophonic style. Athabaskan songs are swift and use drums or rattles, as well as an instrument unique to this area, the Apache fiddle. Pueblo songs are complex and meticulously detailed, usually with five sections divided into four or more phrases characterized by detailed introductory and cadential formulas. They are much slower in tempo than Athabaskan songs, and use various percussion instruments as accompaniment.

Eastern Woodlands

Inhabiting a wide swath of the United States and Canada, Eastern Woodlands natives can be distinguished by antiphony (call-and-response style singing), which does not occur in other areas. Their territory includes Maritime Canada, New England, US Mid-Atlantic, Great Lakes and Southeast regions.

Songs are rhythmically complex, characterized by frequent metric changes and a close relationship to ritual dance. Flutes and whistles are solo instruments, and a wide variety of drums, rattles and striking sticks are played.


Extending across the American Midwest into Canada, Plains-area music is nasal, with high pitches and frequent falsettos, with a terraced descent (a step-by-step descent down an octave) in an unblended monophony. Strophes use incomplete repetition, meaning that songs are divided into two parts, the second of which is always repeated before returning to the beginning.

Bass drums are characteristic of the Plains tribes, and solo end-blown flutes (flageolet) are also common.

Great Basin

Music of the Great Basin is simple, discrete and ornate, characterized by short melodies with a range smaller than an octave, moderately-blended monophony, relaxed and open vocals and, most uniquely, paired-phrase structure, in which a melodic phrases, repeated twice, is alternated with one to two additional phrases.

Northwest Coast

Open vocals with monophony are common in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, though polyphony also occurs (this the only area of North American with native polyphony). Chromatic intervals accompanying long melodies are also characteristic, and rhythms are complex and declamatory, deriving from speech. Instrumentation is more diverse than in the rest of North America, and includes a wide variety of whistles, flutes, horns and percussion instruments.


The Inuit of Alaska, Northwest Territories, Yukon Territory, Nunavat and Greenland are well-known for their throat-singing, an unusual method of vocalizing found only in a few cultures worldwide. Throat-singing is used as the basis for a game among the Inuit. Narrow-ranged melodies and declamatory effects are common, as in the Northwest. Repeated notes mark the ends of phrases. Box drums, which are found elsewhere, are common, as a tambourine-like hand drum.


Pan-tribalism is the syncretic adoption of traditions from foreign communities. Since the rise of the United States and Canada, Native Americans have forged a common identity, and invented pan-tribal music, most famously including powwows, peyote songs and the Ghost Dance.

The Ghost Dance spread throughout the Plains tribes in the 1890s, and most still survive in use. They are characterized by relaxed vocals and a narrow range. Apache-derived peyote songs, sacred prayers in the Native American Church, use a descending melody and monophony. Rattles and water drums are used, in a swift tempo. The Sun Dance and Grass Dance of the plains are the roots of intertribal powwows, which feature music with terraced descent and nasal vocals, both Plains characteristic features.

Native American flute

The Native American flute has achieved some measure of fame for its distinctive sound, used in a variety of New Age and world music recordings. The instruments origins are unknown, but the theory that it was developed by the Anasazi based of Mesoamerican designs is the most common solution. Its music was used in courtship, healing, meditation and spiritual rituals.

The late 1960s saw a roots revival centered around the flute, with a new wave of flautists and artisans like Doc Nevaquaya and Carl Running Deer. Of special importance is R. Carlos Nakai, who has achieved some mainstream renown.


is a recording from the Library of Congress, collected by Alice Cunningham Fletcher and Francis La Flesche and published in 1897. The singer is George Miller, who was probably born in about 1852. It was described as: "The true love-song, called by the Omaha Bethae waan, an old designation and not a descriptive name, is sung generally in the early morning, when the lover is keeping his tryst and watching for the maiden to emerge from the tent and go to the spring. They belong to the secret courtship and are sometimes called Me-the-g'thun wa-an - courting songs. . . . They were sung without drum, bell or rattle, to accent the rhythm, in which these songs is subordinated to tonality and is felt only in the musical phrases. . . . Vibrations for the purpose of giving greater expression were not only affected by the tremolo of the voice, but they were enhanced by waving the hand, or a spray of artemesia before the lips, while the body often swayed gently to the rhythm of the song (Fletcher, 1894, p. 156)."