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Powwow Music: Definition, Songs & History

Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

If you go to a Native American powwow, what kind of music can you expect to hear? This lesson walks you through the history and characteristics of powwow music.

What is a Powwow?

A powwow is an event that celebrates Native American culture and heritage. Typically, a powwow features traditional clothing, food, games, music, and dance. Powwows may be organized by and geared toward a specific tribal group or be a more generalized celebration of Native American culture.

A powwow dancer.
Powwow dancer

History of Powwow Music

Under the contemporary understanding of the term, powwows have only existed for about a hundred years, but the music and dance traditions used in powwows are often much older. Historically, native groups passed down their cultural practices through an oral tradition, meaning that songs and dances were taught and learned by observation and imitation rather than from books or sheet music.

Native American powwow, circa 1900
Powwow 1900

Because the music does not exist in any single form, Native American musical traditions evolved and changed over time to reflect group preferences. Therefore, the music heard at powwows is both old and new. It is old because it grew out of a tradition that dates back long before Europeans set foot on the Americas, but it is also relatively new because it was only recently that these songs and dances were recorded and written down in a fixed form that could be precisely replicated.

Musical Characteristics

The music heard at a powwow varies based on the specific Native American cultural groups who attend each gathering, but most powwow music reflects the traditions of the Great Plains Tribes. This collective term refers to the dozens of Native American tribes who historically lived in the North American Great Plains region, including the Apache, Cheyenne, Pawnee, Blackfoot, and Lakota tribes.

Most powwow music is vocal. The melodies are sung by one or several singers in monophonic texture, with all singers singing the same notes at the same time without chords or harmony. The lyrics are mostly vocables, which are non-lexical words that do not have a generally understood meaning, just like the sounds used in the chorus of the David Seville song 'Witch Doctor.' Musical phrases often have a descending contour, starting on a relatively high pitch and ending on a relatively low pitch. Many Native American songs use a pentatonic scale, or five-note scale, like the melody of the hymn 'Amazing Grace.' In comparison, most western classical and popular music uses a seven-note scale.

The main musical instruments used at a powwow are drums. A frame drum is a membranophone that consists of an animal skin stretched over a wooden frame. Smaller frame drums are hand-held, while larger ones are supported on stands and played with long drumsticks by one or more drummers sitting in a circle.

Large frame drum, used for ceremonial music and played by several drummers.
Native American drums

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