Melodiously Impressive: Native American Musical Instruments


Music forms an integral part in the lives of the native Americans. The wealth of native American music is adorned by a wide variety of musical instruments like the drums, flutes, rattles and other instruments like fiddles, whistles and clappers. These instruments often accompany the regional songs that play a vital role in the oral transmission of history and customs. They also provide assistance in the education of these tribes. However, the types and purpose of music are different for each tribe. This is reflected in musical instruments they use, that vary in the construction and the material which is used to make them, among the different tribes.

♪ Musical Instruments of Native Americans ♪
Songs and the drums are the most important part of the American music. Music is often accompanied with dance for most of the celebrations. The music traditionally starts on a slow note and then catches up to a faster beat. The music also becomes louder and more emphatic. The musical instruments, shouts of the players, and whistles are a signal to the singers and dancers to change the performance. The description below will give you a detailed knowledge about the various instruments.

*Click on the images for a better view.

The DrumsDrum
The drums occupy an important place in the music of the native Americans. Though there are various drums that are according to the tribe and region, native American drum music formed the centerpiece for both sacred and secular music. Traditionally, these drums are large and unlike the native American flutes, they are communal musical instrument played by a group of individuals.

Simple skin drum: This is also known as powwow drums. The basic construction of the powwow drums include a wooden frame or a hollow log of wood with an animal skin stretched over the opening and fastened using sinew thongs. These are the two-sided drums. They are played in central areas and Northern Plains.

Frame drum: These are small, single-sided or two-sided drums. They are made out of thin frames or shells with animal hides of deer and cow stretched across a single or the double side.

Water drum: The native American drums also include the water drums. Their body is made of different materials, iron kettle being one of them. In this, a moist, tanned animal skin is stretched across a small wooden vessel containing water. The other common type of water drum that is popular among the Yaqui, a native American tribe, consists of a large, dried hard shell and a gourd floating in water. When the gourd is struck, the shell sends out vibrations into the surrounding water that amplifies the vibrations and produces the beats.

Square drum: Apart from the two basic types, there are square drums which are played by the native Americans of the Pacific Coast. These are made from wooden boxes or frames. They are large enough that men can sit on the drum and play with the thongs or feet.

The FlutesFlute
Native American flutes are the only flutes in the world that have just two chambers with a wall dividing the top chamber and the bottom chamber. A traditional flute is made according to the body measurements of the flutist.

Structure: The length of the flute is equal to the distance between the armpit and the wrist, and the length of the top air chamber is equal to the width of the player’s fist. The distance between the whistle and the first hole and that, between the last hole and the end of the flute is equal to the width of a single fist of the flutist. The other holes are one-thumb width apart.

Material Used: The material used for making these flutes range from hardwoods of the walnut and cherry to the softwoods of cedar, redwood and juniper. The softwoods were more preferred as these provide a softer tone to the melody of the flute. Clay, bamboo and bones of birds were also used to make these flutes. However, the construction of these flutes, for example: the length and the number of holes, varied according to the tribes they belonged to.

The native American flutes have a distinct plaintive sound due to the fact that they are played on a variation of the minor pentatonic scale. However, with new innovations, these can be played on other scales as well. Traditionally, native American flute music has a personal connotation as it was used in courtship, healing and meditation without any other musical instrument accompanying it.

The RattlesRattles
Gourd rattles: These are also known as container rattles. These rattles are made from gourd, raw hide, turtle shell and horn. Gourd rattles that are typical to the southwestern parts of the United States are made by drying the vegetable, scooping out the pulp and filling it with the dried seeds. The opening is then blocked by inserting a handle into it. Turtle rattles are made by filling a turtle shell with pebbles. Even the raw hide rattles have pebbles inside the animal skin, which is stitched and dried to shape. For horn rattles, buffalo horns are mostly used by the people in the plains. These are scraped, dried and filled with pebbles.

Deer hoof rattles: Some tribes also use deer hoof rattles. These are made by attaching a number of deer hooves or holes to a stick or other material which rattle when the stick is shaken.
Other Musical Instruments
Fiddle: The idea of making this instrument is believed to be derived from the violin carried by those who settled in Europe. It was created by the natives of Arctic region.

Whistles: This instrument when played produces a sound similar to that of a sound made by bear and hence, given a name called “bear growler”. In this, a toothed stick is scraped by another stick, which when rubbed by a bone, makes a rattling sound.

Clapper: In this, a half-split stick is struck against an object to produce a sound.

Did You Know?
» The songs played by the Native Americans are actually used to communicate with the supernatural powers or to bring rain or win battles.
» The rhythm of the drum is totally different from the rhythm of the song.
» The rhythm played by the flute is serene and reposes our souls.

There are three classes of songs: traditional; ceremonial and modern songs, that’re inspired by the European culture. Love songs are inspired by the whites and the Native Americans don’t take much of a liking to it.