History of Indigenous music of North America

United Indians of All Tribes Foundation drummers at the Seafair Indian Days Pow Wow, Daybreak Star Cultural Center, Seattle, Washington

Indigenous music of North America, which includes Native American music, and American Indian music, is the music that is created, used, or performed by Indigenous tribes of North America, including Aboriginal peoples in Canada, Native Americans in the United States, Indigenous peoples of Mexico, and other North American nations—particularly traditional tribal music, such as Inuit music and Pueblo music. In addition to the folkloric music of the Native American tribes, there now exist intertribal and pan-Indianism genres as well as definite Native American subgenres of popular music including blues, rock, classical hip hop, reggae, film music, as well as unique popular styles like New Mexico music and chicken scratch.


Percussion and singing are the most critical aspects of traditional Native North American music. Vocalization takes various forms, ranging from choral and solo songs to unison, responsorial, and my favorite multipart singing. Percussion, especially rattles and drums, is a standard accessory to keep the singers’ beat steady, who generally use non-lexical vocables (nonsense syllables) or their native language. Traditional music normally starts with steady and slow beats that grow slowly, faster, and more powerful in 30 seconds to two minutes.

History of North American Indigenous music

History and music are tightly knitted in Native American culture. A tribe’s history is continually told and retold through the art of music, which keeps alive an oral account of history. These traditional narratives vary widely from tribe to tribe and region to region and integral to tribal identity. However, researchers cannot verify their historical authenticity; aside from speculation and some archaeological evidence, the earliest records of Native American music came with European explorers’ arrival.

Pictographs and Musical instruments depicting dance and music have been recorded as far back as the 7th century CE. However, archaeological records show that North America’s musical instruments record at least the Archaic period (8000 BCE–1000 BCE), including instruments such as the popular turtle shell rattles.

Bruno Nettl refers to the Great Basin area’s technique as the oldest style and popular throughout the entire North American continent before Mesoamerica but stayed in only the Great Basin and in the lullaby, gambling, and fiction genres around the land. A style featuring simple vocal technique and inflation may have started in Mesoamerican Mexico and expanded northward, especially into the California-Yuman and Eastern music regions. According to Nettl, these techniques also feature “relative” rhythmic simplicity in percussion and drumming, with pentatonic scales and isometric material in the singing and motives produced from shorter sections into longer unities.

While this process transpired, three Indo-Asian styles may have shaped North American music across the Bering Strait, all starring pulsating vocal technique and perhaps visible in contemporary Paleo-Siberian tribes such as Yukaghir, Chuckchee, and Koryak. Also, these may have impacted the Athabascan, Plains-Pueblo, and Inuit-Northwest Coast regions. According to Nettl, the border between these southward and the above northward influences are the areas of most significant musical complexity: the Pueblo music, Northwest Coast, and Navajo music. Evidence of influences between the Mexico and Northwest Coasts are indicated, for instance, by bird-shaped whistles.

The Plains-Pueblo area has impacted and continues to impact the neighboring cultures, with modern musicians of all tribes learning Plains-Pueblo-influenced pan-tribal musical styles such as Peyote songs and music.

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