Styles & Forms | Americas | World of Music | Classical

The ancestors of the indigenous peoples of North and South America migrated from Asia across the frozen Bering Strait over 20,000 years ago. Even after millennia, some characteristics are shared between Oriental and Amerindian music: monophonic forms, large intervals, a tense vocal style, rattles and frame drums, and the importance of music in healing rituals.

In the present day, as in centuries past, music is central to Amerindian culture, accompanying life rites, social and ritual gatherings, dances, hunting and story telling. Music is rarely performed for itself, as it is in Western concert settings.

The word ‘Amerindian’ is used to refer to the indigenous peoples of the Americas rather than the term ‘Indian’ (mistakenly coined by Columbus in 1492). More particularly, native groups from Canada choose to be called ‘First Nations’; from the United States ‘Native Americans’; and from Central and South America ‘Amerindian’.

Central and South America

Sixteenth-century Spanish records provide a glimpse of the spectacular musical cultures of the Aztec, Maya and Inca empires. The Maya civilization of the Mexican Yucatán peninsula reached its pinnacle around ad 300–900. Mayan instruments included clay and wooden trumpets, clay flutes, vertical flutes with six fingerholes and panpipes. Manuscripts show that the kayum drum was played barehanded. The only metal instrument in the group was the pellet-bell rattle (tzitzmoc), associated with Ah-Puch, the god of death. Important dances included the ‘ribbon dance’ (ix tolil), performed as recently as 1941.

Music in the Aztec Empire (crushed by the Spaniards in 1521) embraced ensemble performance, song and dance; it was played in ritual, courtly and peasant settings. We know that certain instruments were thought to have supernatural powers and the slit-drum (teponaztle) and cylindrical drum (huehuetl) were believed to be gods in earthly exile.

The Inca Empire dominated the Pacific coast until its demise in 1534. Early Inca panpipes (c. ad 500), trumpets, and  flutes were made of clay and bone. One-hundred-strong flute orchestras and smaller ensembles of panpipes were documented by the Spaniards. Trumpeters were said to enjoy high social status in the Inca Empire, as they did in Renaissance Europe.

North America

Many Native Americans maintain that music has been handed down since the beginning of time. New songs are thought to come to people in dreams or visions, and very few songs actually have named composers. Sung epics, origin myths and healing chants are passed on orally by shamans, medicine men and priests. The repertory of women is rich with lullabies, puberty songs, and social dance songs with their sometimes religious, sometimes teasing lyrics.

The best-known style of North American song comes from the tribes of the Great Plains, including Blackfoot, Comanche, Crow, Pawnee, Sioux and other peoples. Plains songs have descending melodies and pentatonic scales, sung with an unmistakable tense, hard vocal sound, in a high (even falsetto) range. Songs are often accompanied by the drum and rattle. The Pueblo peoples of the south-west...

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