Native American Music

Music and Dance

In North America six distinctive musical styles or regions have been recognized: Inuit and Northwest Coast; California and nearby Arizona; the Great Basin; Athapaskan; Plains and Pueblo; and Eastern Woodland. The music of northern Mexico has much in common with that of western Arizona; farther south, however, in the regions of the Mesoamerican and Andean civilizations, complex musical cultures existed. Little information has been preserved about the music of these civilizations, and whatever remains of the original styles survived the Spanish conquest principally in the form of highly complex and varied blends of native and assimilated Spanish elements. Elsewhere in South America the music of the native peoples, like that of North America, was relatively insulated from nonnative influence; the South American music, however, has been less extensively studied than that of North America.

1. Instruments and Vocal Styles

Among the persisting native musical styles of the Americas, singing is the dominant form of musical expression, with instrumental music serving primarily as rhythmic accompaniment. Exceptions occur, notably the North American love songs played by men on flutes. The native peoples of South America tend to use a softer singing voice than those of North America, whereas a tense vocal production is characteristic east of the Rocky Mountains.

Throughout the Americas the principal instruments have been drums and rattles (shaken in the hand or worn on the body), as well as flutes and whistles. In Mesoamerica and the Andes, greater variety exists. Besides rattles and drums, the pre-Hispanic ensembles of the Aztecs are known to have included double and triple flutes; trumpets played in harmony in pairs; rasps; and the slit-drum (known as the teponaztli, a resonant, carved hollowed log struck with a stick). In Panama and the Andes, panpipes continue to be played in harmony. Instruments have often had ritual or religious significance; among some Brazilian tribes, for example, women must not view the men's flutes. In North America the tambourinelike frame drum, and in South America the maraca rattle, were frequently played by shamans.

2. Inuit and Northwest Pacific Coast

The Inuit and the peoples of the Northwest Pacific Coast use more complex rhythms than are common elsewhere in North America, and on the Northwest Pacific Coast, songs may have more complex musical forms and may use exceptionally small melodic intervals (a semitone or smaller). Northwest Pacific Coast dance dramas are lengthy, elaborate productions with magnificent costumes and tricky props, and the songs for these dramas are carefully taught and rehearsed. Inuit dance and costumes are simpler, possibly because their communities are smaller, and the dances often feature men using the forceful movements of harpooning while women sing accompaniment.

3. California and the Great Basin

The singing of the Native Americans of California and the Great Basin is produced by a more relaxed throat than that of other North American musical areas. The melodies and texts, however, are like those found elsewhere in North America in that the songs are short (although they may be repeated or combined into series) and the texts are often brief sentences. Such texts tend to refer to myths, events, or emotions, rather than telling stories, and sections of text may alternate with song sections sung to meaningless syllables. Listeners must know the background to appreciate the poetry and meaning of a song. Both social dances and costumed ritual dances are found in the Great Basin and in California, where they are more elaborate. Some California (and western Arizona, particularly Yuman) music is characterized by a rise in pitch in the middle section of a song. Songs of the Great Basin often have a structure consisting of paired phrases.

4. Athapaskan Music

The music of the Athapaskan peoples—those of northwestern Canada and Alaska as well as the Navajo and Apache of the Southwest—is characterized by melodies that have a wide range and an arc-shaped contour, and by frequent changes in meter; falsetto singing is prized. Costumed ritual dances are unusual except among the Apache, who, like the Navajo, have been influenced by the Pueblos. Much Navajo music belongs to healing rituals designed to restore patients to harmony by seating them in beautiful sand paintings while they listen to poetic songs.

5. Plains and Pueblo Music

The music of the Great Plains is the best known of the Native American styles of North America and is the source of the musical styles heard at present-day powwows (social gatherings, often intertribal, featuring Native American dancing). Singing is in a tense, pulsating, forceful style; men's voices are preferred, although a high range and falsetto are valued. Melodic ranges are wide, and the typical melodic contour is terrace-shaped—beginning high, and descending as the song progresses. Plains music is often produced by a group of men sitting around a large double-headed drum, singing in unison and drumming with drumsticks (at powwows, the group itself is called a drum). In Plains dancing, men usually dance solo with bent body (several may dance at once, independently), but there are also ritual dances with symbolic steps and social round dances for couples. The Pueblos add some lower-voiced music; they make more use of chorus, and they perform elaborate costumed ritual dances (often with clowns that entertain between serious dances).

6. Eastern Woodland Styles

Eastern Woodland music resembles Plains music, but it tends to have narrower melodic ranges, and Eastern singing makes use of polyphony (multipart music) as well as forms that are antiphonal (with alternating choruses) and responsorial (with alternating solo and chorus). Dances include men's solos, as well as ritual dances and social round dances. In the Stomp Dance of the Southeast, a snakelike line of dancers follows a leader who calls out in song and is answered by the followers.

7. Mexico and the Andes

Almost no archaeological evidence exists for prehistoric music in the Americas; all that is known from pre-Hispanic civilizations is a few preserved instruments (such as panpipes and ocarinas in Peru) and painted or carved scenes of musicians and dancers. In Mexico and Peru at the point of European contact, the nobles and the temple personnel maintained professional performers. In Mexico officials organized rituals for each month, with hundreds of richly costumed, carefully rehearsed dancers and musicians. Responsorial singing was practiced; sophisticated scales and chords were apparently used, and compositions seem to have been formally structured, with variety in melody and in combinations of meters. Secular dramas with professional actors were also produced, and bards composed epics. The harps, fiddles, and guitars found in the Native American music of present-day Mexico and Peru were adopted from the Spanish.

8. Other South American Areas

Elsewhere in South America, indigenous music was relatively unaffected by European music. The pentatonic (five-note) scale of the Incas spread to some other regions, but earlier scales of three or four notes also survived. Polyphonic singing, characterized by various voices and melodies, developed in some areas, notably in Patagonia. Flutes are still sometimes played in harmony, and the music of some Tropical Forest peoples is often a complex combination of voices, percussion, and flutes.



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