Introduction to North American Indian Music

by Willard Rhodes: Professor of Music Columbia University, 1954

The music lover who is listening to Indian music for the first time is apt to be perplexed by his novel experience. He may protest that "It all sounds alike," that "They only have one tune," and in all seriousness finally ask, "But is it music?" Such honest reactions are not uncommon among the uninitiated, They are normal human responses to the unfamiliar and are not peculiarly related to Indian music, Similar questions have been raised about the art work of our best contemporary composers, artists, writers, and architects by those who are unable to view the new art in its social setting and to see it in its historic relationship with the past. Persons who would know more about the "first Americans," with whom our past three and a half centuries of history is so intimately connected, will find in Indian musical traditions a full, expressive revelation of the inner life of these interesting people.

For the Indian, music is a medium of communication and contact with the supernatural, and since all the varied activities of life find their respective places in the Indian's cosmos, there are songs for every occasion. The hard and fast distinction between sacred and secular which we are accustomed to make loses its definiteness in the Indian's world. There are songs for the making of rain, Guardian Spirit songs for success in hunting, fishing, and gambling, songs for the protection of the home, the curing of the sick, lullabies, love songs, corn-grinding songs, social dance songs, and songs connected with legends. From this brief, functional listing, it will be noted that music was closely associated with the daily and seasonal activities of living. Though the Indian is not lacking in aesthetic enjoyment of his native music, he rarely regards it as something to listen to apart from its social and ceremonial function.

For the open-minded, open-eared listener, Indian music is neither inaccessible nor difficult to enjoy. Patient and repeated hearings of these songs will gradually reveal the subtle, haunting beauty that is enfolded in their carefully modeled forms. Here one will find the same artistic features-color, symmetry and balance of form, bold, striking designs, logical unity and coherence of thought-that distinguish Indian painting, pottery, weaving, and silversmithing, so widely admired and enjoyed. Like the music of the Greeks, and like folk music in its purest, primeval form, Indian music is basically monophonic, single-lined. There are occasional excursions into heterophony whereby one voice or group of voices temporarily deviates from the melodic line of the song while others adhere to the established pattern, Such examples of part singing, however, are relatively rare. The simplicity of this monophonic music may fall strangely on ears that have been conditioned by the thick harmonic and contrapuntal texture, rich orchestration, and massive volume of our Western European music. Just as it becomes necessary to adjust one's aural perspective in turning from symphonic music to the more modest and economical medium of chamber music, so must one adjust one's listening for Indian music.

Indian music is predominantly vocal music. Drums, rattles, bells, notched sticks, and other percussion instruments are frequently employed to supply a rhythmic accompaniment to the songs. Pitch-producing instruments are limited to the musical bow in its various forms, the single- or two-stringed violin, found among the Apache and the Yakutat (a Tlingit tribe on the Northwest Coast, bordering on the Eskimo), whistles, vertical open flutes, and flageolets. The Apache violin and the Indian flutes seem to have been used exclusively for the playing of love songs. Many of these instruments have become obsolete and are rarely found outside museums today.

The regularly recurring beat of the drum or other percussion instruments, which serves as a metric framework to so many Indian songs, has often obscured the subtle and complex rhythms of the vocal melodies they accompany. The listener's preoccupation with the most obvious element of Indian music has given rise to the popular belief that the music is principally rhythmic (referring, of course, to the drum rhythm, not that of the song) and monotonous. A concentration of attention on the melodic line of the songs will convince the listener that the rhythmic element is no more important than the tonal element, and that the songs, though repetitive, are not monotonous.

The question is often asked, "What scale do Indians use?" Benjamin Ives a pioneer student of Indian went so far as to deny the Indian even a "sense of scale." He wrote "What we have in these melodies is the musical growths out of which are elaborated, and not compositions undertaken in conformity to norms of, interval order already fixed in the consciousness of the singers. In this archaic stage of art, scales are not formed but forming." Later George Herzog gave further elucidation on this subject in the following statement: "The tones themselves are subject to more variation than ours, depending upon the musical, textual, and emotional context; especially since instruments with fixed pitches, which would standardize musical pitch and intonation, do not play an important role. Consequently, in musical transcriptions of such melodies a note does not stand for an objective unit, an ideally constant tone, but for a functional unit, a mere average value around the variations cluster." There is no single scale, such as our major or minor scale, to which Indian music can be related. A scale is nothing more than an orderly arrangement of the tonal material from which a melody is made. Different melodies employ different sets or arrangements of tones. An analysis of a few Indian songs will apprise the student of the great variety of scales which underlie music. Some simple melodies achieve a satisfying and completeness with no more than two or three tones, in which cases we would say that they are based on two- or three-tone scales. Pentatonic scales in their various forms are fairly common in Indian music, but they cannot be regarded as typically Indian since their distribution is worldwide. The Indian singer and maker of songs, like folk artists in other mediums and in other cultures, is not entirely unconscious of what he does, but he apparently feels and expresses himself "with instinctive more than with analytical mental processes."

Among Indians music making is generally the prerogative of the men. There are many instances in which the women join in the singing with the men, as in the Guardian Spirit songs and Bone Game songs of the Northwest, the Honoring songs of the Sioux, and the Sun Dance songs of the Plains. Corn-grinding songs, lullabies, and songs of a personal nature have furnished women with a repertoire for their musical expression. In the Christian-influenced Indian Shaker religion of the Northwest and the Christian religion as practiced by various Protestant sects in the Southern Plains, share with the men in the singing and "receiving" of songs. Some of file most beautiful hymns have been "dreamed" by women.

The music lover and student will be amazed at the variety of expression which the native singer has achieved within the limited framework of a monophonic music. Songs of similar social and ceremonial function tend to assume a type pattern, but there is considerable range of variation within the type pattern. Even more impressive are the differences of style that exist between the music of various tribes and culture groups. American Indians have been falsely represented and synthesized by movies, fiction, and folklore, into the American Indian, a composite type of human being that never lived. The average person is unaware of the fact that there are some fifty Indian language stocks which are subdivided into many dialectic groups. Nor is he apt to be informed of the cultural differences that give color and character not only to culture areas but to individual groups within an area. It is hoped that the music of this series of records will help the listener to a better understanding of the North American Indians as people and make him more appreciative of the wide range of cultural variation which is so beautifully reflected in their music.

Indian music is a living expression of a vital people, not it relic of the past of a dying race. The impact of the mechanized civilization of the white man has effected culture changes which are mirrored in Indian music. When old belief's and ceremonies cease to function in the life of a society, the songs associated with them tend to pass into oblivion. But they are replaced by new songs which give truer representation to current belief's and practices. The Shaker songs of the Northwest, the Peyote songs, so widely diffused throughout the Plains, and the contemporary love songs used for social dances are examples of the new music. These changes are lamented by purists, predisposed to regard Indian culture in static terms and to believe the old songs more beautiful than the new ones. Acculturation, that process of change resulting from the contact of one culture with another, is age old. It was operative among Indian groups in pre-Columbian times, and the old music, like the culture of which it was a part, gives evidence of such contacts. Today the process has been greatly accelerated by modern transportation and communication. Rodeos, fairs, expositions, government schools, and two world wars have brought into close contact for varying periods of time Indians of diverse cultural backgrounds, geographically remote from one another. In an attempt to give as true and complete an account of Indian music as time and space will allow, examples of both the old and the new music have been included in this series of records.