Musical Instruments in the Native American Culture: A Guide

Musical Instruments in the Native America


Music has always been an integral part of Native American culture. It is not uncommon to see the natives make any of the indigenous instruments in just an hour from materials that are sourced readily from nature. However, some other musical instruments can take months by experienced craftsmen using various items. 

Several musical instruments of the Native American tribes typically carry symbolic importance and that explains the pattern of decorations used. Decorations are also often sacred, and these instruments are handled with respect. The most common musical instruments in the Native American cultures can be classified thus: 

  • Drums

The drums come in various sizes and can be big like the powwow drums or can be relatively small as the water drums. Some of these drums are made using wood alongside skinheads while some others can be more complicated in construction. There are extremely strict rules regarding the use of a drum in Native American circles. 

The drums are generally categorized as membranophones, meaning they are instruments that have a membrane or skin that has been stretched over a frame. For the membranophones, the production of sound is via the rubbing or striking of the membrane. 

  • Rattles

Rattles alongside drums are some of the most well-used musical instruments. They can be made from several materials, but the most frequently used ones are bones or gourd. The gourd rattles are made using gourds that have been decorated, prepared, and dried properly based on individual designs or even ethnic preferences. Then there are the bone rattles made mainly from sections of horns that have been cut to the desired size. 

It is also possible to have the bone rattle made using a bone that has been left uncut only for just one hole at the end so that a stick can be put in place like a handle. Bone and gourd rattles also contain seeds or other substances that produce the needed sound. 

There are also turtle rattles which are made using the shells of turtles and other objects like cherry pits or turtle bones are also placed inside the rattles. This kind of rattle highlights the significance of the turtle which is hailed as being a significant part of the creation of the world in Native American folklore. It is also possible to have other rattles made using cans, carved wood, and even plastic bottles. Some even make use of aluminum salt or a pepper shaker that has been linked to the handles. 

  • Flutes and Whistles

These are mainly made as block flutes and are like recorders. The user blows air in from one end with minimal force, the air is now squeezed through the fipple and then back to the body of the flute. The user changes the pitches by blocking and unblocking the holes present on the body of the flute. 

The number of the finger holes can range from three to six, it all depends on the preferences of the user and the tribes. There was a time when the flute was an exclusive preserve of the Native American tribes, but it is now extremely popular among even the non-Natives. 

Flutes are typically made using wood (cedar is specifically popular in the production of these flutes because of its significance) but it is possible to make use of cane too. There have also been instances in which metal and ceramic were used in the manufacture of the flutes. However, this is not a common practice. 

Then there are the whistles which are normally made from bone. Eagle bone happens to be a favorite among the whistle makers but that does not stop them from making whistles using other materials. These can be wood, antlers, and other animal bones. 

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