November 19, 2021

Music Deep Dive: Indigenous Music

A Brief History

During the month of November, we wanted to highlight some aspects of Indigenous Music. This is not by any means a full comprehensive overview of the many tribes of differences in music and to get that full scale, we recommend following Indigenous musicians and historians who can go more into the history and intricacies of their genres. This is a quick lesson on just a small portion of music that has been around for centuries.

photo of two native americans playing woodwind instruments
Photo by Gabriela Custódio da Silva on

What is Indigenous Music?

Indigenous music is music that is used, created or performed by Indigenous peoples of North America. According to the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, “Singing and percussion are the most important aspects… Vocalization takes many forms, ranging from solo and choral song to responsorial, unison and multipart singing. Percussion, especially drums and rattles, are common accompaniments to keep the rhythm steady for the singers.”

There are six general musical styles that exist in North America which depend on the region of where the Indigenous tribes reside. They are categorized as follows:

Differences in Regions

Eastern Woodlands

Some of the tribes included are the Iroquois, Huron and Ojibwa in the north and the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole in the south.

According to Britannica, “The most distinctive style element of Eastern Woodlands music is the use of call and response in many dance songs; the leader sings a short melody as a solo and is answered by the dancers in unison.”

The musical styles from this region includes instruments such as rattles, flutes and drums.

Music Source – YouTube: Ahwahneechee


The tribes that inhabit this region include the Blackfoot and Sioux in the northern plains, the Kiowa and Comanche of the southern plains and Ho-Chunk, Sauk and Fox of the prairie.

Even in this region, there are still differences between tribes. In terms of ranges, musicians from the north use a higher tone while musicians from the south emphasize a lower tone.

The music from this region is preformed for community ceremonies and gatherings such as warrior dances, sacred rituals and recreational events.

Music Source – YouTube: Comanche Chad

Great Basin

Tribes included in this region are the Shoshone, Paiute, Washoe and Ute.

The lyrics from this region generally include references to the local environment and nature that surrounds the area.

Some examples of when songs would be performed include big life events, seasonal harvest celebrations and storytelling.

Music Source – YouTube: The Unconquered Spirit


Tribes included in this region are the Pueblo tribes, Hopi and Zuni and Navajo and Apache.

In terms of Pueblo musicians the occasions in which songs are used would be for feast day dances, agricultural ceremonies and other community gatherings and celebrations.

For Navajo and Apache tribes, the occasions differ slightly in that music is used for life-cycle ceremonies and multi-day curing ceremonies.

Music Source – YouTube: Fernando Cellicion

Northwest Coast

Tribes that are included in this region are the Haida, Kwakiutl and Bella Coola.

Some songs in this region use poetic stanzas or have a storytelling outline.

During these songs, there are many unique instruments used. Many are carved and painted to represent mythical beings.

Occasions in which this music is performed include feasts, dance ceremonies and shamanic rituals.

Music Source – YouTube: Michelle Charles


Tribes to inhabit this region include Netsilik, Copper, Igloolik and Baffin Islanders.

Like in other regions, there are unique instruments that can be used in this music. One example is dance gloves, which are decorated with objects that act as a rattle while the dancer moves.

Times in which this music is performed includes events with storytelling, song contests, traditional games, and sacred dances.

Music Source – YouTube: Explore Documentary Films


We hoped you learned a bit more about music of various Indigenous peoples. There is such a vast history around the different styles of music. Even though we scratched the surface with different regions, there are so many more intricacies between tribes within the same region. Even in the same tribe, there are different types of songs used for different events. We highly recommend checking out Indigenous musicians and composers to fully understand the importance of each region’s music.

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