Music of the First Nations

Canadian Northwest Coast Native Cultures, Art, History

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

22 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents

1. Foreword

2. Introduction

3. Research
3.1 History of Research
3.2 Research challenges

4. Characterisation of First Nation music
4.1 Musical Analysis
4.2 Different fields of application / function
4.2.1 Contact with the spiritual world
4.2.2 Shamanism
4.2.3 Feasts
4.3 Types of songs
4.4 Song and writing tradition
4.5 Musical/Cultural Contact

5. Reception / Ethnocentrism

6. Discussion




tamgam'neyuwel kenal




(I am going to Quesnel, and will try to make love to you, my sweetheart.)[1]

1. Foreword

“My cousin wrote this one”, said Ed Byrant, referring to a song he performed in front of a seminar class at university. I was astonished, because I have always thought that all songs Native cultures have in their repertoire are “traditional” and the fact that someone today can write an “authentic” Native song somehow did not fit in. So I asked Ed Byrant, what criteria a song should meet, to be “Native”. He was (today I would say – of course) not able to answer this question, and so I started researching on the topic. Research was not easy, and thus I was not able to find a satisfying amount of studies on what music and musical culture today are like at the Northwest Coast.

2. Introduction

The Northwest Coast area includes the coast of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia until the panhandle of Alaska and reaches about 100 km inland, just until the Cascade Range or coastal mountains of Canada. Several cultures developed here, that are, despite some analogies, also vary widely. But what they all have in common is a rich ceremonial and spiritual life, with enormous potential for artistic expression in music, legends and art. There are several different languages and due to the fact that there is no higher political order above the village hierarchy, the different cultures are divided into language groups. As for music, areas “may be defined as a geographic area whose inhabitants share in a generally homogeneous musical style.” (Nettl p. 4)

3. Research

3.1 History of Research

Although there had been descriptions and transcriptions before[2], the first scientific studies were published after 1880. Among the most important researchers and transcribers are Frances Densmore, Franz Boas & Carl Stumpf, Marius Barbeau and George Herzog. In comparison with other musical studies of aboriginal Nations, fairly little had been done in analysing the music of North America in general. It was only during the first half of the twentieth century that this subject changed and North American Indian music became one of the best studied musical areas. But still there are many gaps to fill. Luckily enough, numerous recordings were made, many of them are still waiting to be discussed and analysed.

3.2 Research challenges

Researchers face several difficulties when working with the music of the Northwest Coast. For a start, it is challenging to differentiate between the tribes and to identify certain styles as belonging to a certain area or tribe. Researchers tend to set musical areas to distinguish between different styles.

Newer research is more or less based on old recordings and analyses, which were mostly made in the first half of the twentieth century[3]. Many of the recordings[4] are not functional any more, because of their age and quality.

Another issue is that of putting the music into a system, which was not intended for the work itself. The European musical system does not apply to the music of the Northwest Coast. Densmore’s studies, which play an important role in the history of Northwest Coast research, clearly measure Native American music by European standards. “Her transcriptions are generally good, although not as detailed as they should be for maximum usefulness. Her rhythmic divisions are often questionable as they appear to have been made under too much influence of traditional European music theory which favors isometric construction, and the Indian melodies have been forced into this framework.” (Nettl p. VI)

4. Characterisation of First Nation music

The music of the Northwest Coast is different from those of other Native American tribes, but it also varies among the tribes of the area. Nettl states that in contrast to other indigenous tribes of North America, “the Northwest Coast tribes have one of the most complex [styles].” (p. 13) He uses different levels of complexity for his distinction, following the classifications of Hornbostel[5] and Herzog[6], mainly in scale, form and rhythm.

4.1 Musical Analysis

It is impossible to present a definite characterisation of Northwest Coast music. In the following I will present an attempt based mainly on descriptions of Nettl (pp. 8-14).

The music of the First Nation people is mostly vocal, only accompanied by the use of drums or rattles and sometimes the flute.

The melodies of songs are generally within the range of a major sixth, a perfect fifth and a perfect octave, using mostly pentatonic scales. Other scales are the tetratonic, and next in frequency the hexatonic and tritonic scales. Common intervals are minor seconds and major thirds, melodies mostly undulate. Songs are predominantly based on pure melody, sometimes we find harmonies, mostly consisting of long tones that are sung above or below the melody.

Rhythm is one of the most interesting aspects of Northwest Coast music. In many songs there are two or more different rhythmic structures (e.g. melody and accompaniment) running simultaneously, which create a complex polyphonic arrangement. Melodies are characterized by the use of two to four different durational values.


[1] Barbeau, p.110, the translation is free and only suggesting the literary and poetic quality of the song See Appendix for song sheet.

[2] e.g. Rousseau, Jean Jasques, Dictionnaire de Musique (Paris, 1768), one Canadian Indian song can be found in the appendix Swan, James, The Indians of Cape Flattery : at the entrance to the Strait of Fuca, Washington Territory. (1860)

[3] Except Ellen Moses (she made some sixty hours of interviews and songs in 1977 at the Skeena River) and Ida Halpern (she collected about 350 songs among the Kwakwaka'wakw, the Nuuchahnulth and the Haida in 1967, 1974 and 1986)

[4] e.g. the wax cylinder recordings of Barbeau

[5] von Hornbostel, E. M.. "Melodie und Skala", Jahrbuch der Musikbibliothek Peters, 19. 1913. pp. 11-23.

[6] Herzog, George. "Musical Styles in North America", Proceedings of the 23rd International Congress of Americanists. 1928. pp. 455-458.

Excerpt out of 22 pages


Music of the First Nations
Canadian Northwest Coast Native Cultures, Art, History
Saarland University  (Anglistik)
Canadian Northwest Coast Native Cultures, Art, History
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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1467 KB
music, first, nations, canadian, northwest, coast, native, cultures, history
Quote paper
Jakob Timm (Author), 2009, Music of the First Nations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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