Song Structure

Native American music is comprised of many different types of songs. At a northern plains pow wow you will hear traditional songs, flag songs, veteran's songs, round dance, honor songs, and more. Each type of song has it's proper place to be sung, because they all have some meaning or purpose.

Dakota song structure is made up of two halves. In melody, the second half usually echoes the first half. A song typically starts out rather high as the lead singer sings out the lead phrase alone, then is echoed by the rest of the group. After the lead line, the music will often cascade to a lower pitch as the song goes on. At the end of the first half of the song, there is a short pause, then the second half is sung. During the course of the second half of the song usually there are honor beats placed at a specific time during the song. The style of honor beats varies some, but is usually four loud beats representing cannon fire in battle.

After a song is sung through a full time, the lead singer will bring out the lead line once again as the song will then be repeated. This can continue as long as the singers feel necessary. Commonly, a song will be sung through four times then ended. At that point, the lead singer may decide to add a tail to the song. The tail would then pick up at the beginning of the second half of the song. If the lead singer decides to end the song after that, it would be called a bob tail. The lead singer may then choose to continue the song many more times after that.

The use of words in these songs varies greatly. Many songs do not have any words and are comprised entirely of vocables. The vocables are sung in melody just as any popular song today is sung with words. The most common usage of words in Dakota songs, is with the native language sung during the second half of the song only. There are also many songs that are almost entirely words, (first and second half), with a few short vocables that help carry the melody. The most common types of songs that use words are Flag songs, veteran's songs, Sundance songs, round dance songs, or most honor songs of any variety. A majority of intertribal songs, including grass dance, fancy dance, jingle dress, and traditional songs do not have words. Round dance or 49er songs are the most common for having English words.

At a traditional drum, only men are aloud to sit at or strike the drum. Women stand behind the drum and sing one octave above the men. They do not sing the lead line or the first time through the song. The added dimension that the women bring to the music at the drum can't be equaled.

There are a few different styles of drum beats used in Dakota music. The most common is the regular beat with a very slight syncopation. This is what you will hear on any of the traditional or grass dance songs posted on this site. The next most common beat is the parade beat which is mostly used in honor songs. You will hear this style of beat used with the flag song. Another common type is a heavily syncopated beat that would be used in a round dance, or 49er song. A fourth type of beat is a combination of a rolling random beat followed by a fast regular beat. This is used in competition songs like the Winnebago's pipe and rattle, or a sneak up.

Several types of Dakota/Lakota/Nakota songs

and their purpose are listed below.

Traditional Song: Usually synonymous with Intertribal. This type of song is the most commonly heard at a pow wow. It usually is all vocables, but does not have to be. They generally are melodic and vary in style greatly. The drum beat is always of the regular beat.

Flag Song: To the Dakota people, this is the National Anthem. This song is sung at any such times that one would sing the National Anthem. The Flag song is always sung at the beginning of a pow wow or special event. This song should be given the same respect as your own flag. We do not dance to this song as it is for the flag to dance.

Veteran's Song: This type of song usually follows the Flag song in a pow wow. There are many different Veteran's songs, all of which are sung to honor our veterans. Some are sung to honor a specific branch of service or specific conflict. To the Dakota people, a veteran is a warrior that should always be honored. In this way, those that served this country may dance and be honored.

Sneak Up: This is a scout's dance. It is often sung after the veteran's song in a pow wow. The dance is a story of how a warrior would go ahead of the party to scout out the area for the enemy or game. Four times the song is sung through, starting with a rolling beat while the dancers attempt to sneak up on their target. The song then goes into a fast steady beat that stops instantly. The dancers must stop on the beat or retreat to try again. After the fourth stop of the song, the singers will continue two more times through the song until the end.

Round Dance: This is sometimes also called a two step. These songs are sung with a heavily syncopated beat. These are often considered couple's songs.

Honor Song: This type of song carries special meanings. Every song is different, but all has a similar purpose. When an individual or group has done something noteworthy, or even has had hard times, they may honored by another. In this case, a special honoring song would be sung for those people, much like a veteran's song is sung to honor veterans.

Sundance Song: These are very sacred songs. The only place that these songs should be sung is in ceremony. Most commonly in the sundance. There are entrance songs, pipe songs, and others. They are usually sung in groups of four, typically seven times through only during the dance.

Inipi Song: These songs are also very sacred. These too, are special songs usually sung just in the sweat lodge. There are pipe filling songs used just for that, filling the pipe, which is always used with the sweat. Inipi songs have special powers that can call the spirits. Because of this power, they must be used carefully by those that understand what they are doing.

Because of the diversity of this music and its purpose, certain songs are meant only to be sung in specific places or ceremonies and not recorded. For this reason,we will post only songs that are appropriate to be sung in public.