The earliest known inhabitants of
The music of the north American Indians is primarily vocal-monodic (single melodic line). Some songs are conceived during visionary or dreamlike states, while others are consciously created for special functions. Extemporization is rare. Musical notation is nonexistent in the traditional culture, although isolated instances of mnemonic music aids have been found. Although there is free use of microtones (intervals smaller than a semitone), melodies are based predominantly on the pentatonic (5-tone) and modal scales with intervals of the fourth and fifth being the most common. Indian music and dance range widely in character, from vigorously rhythmic to smooth and melodious. Dance is nearly always accompanied by vocal music and some kind of percussive instruments.
European forms of harmony and counterpoint are absent, although instances of incidental harmony do occur. Accompaniment is mainly percussive: drums with animal skin heads and rattles, shakers, and scrapers made of various materials such as deer hooves, seashells, bird breaks, animal horns, and so on. Flutes, whistles, and some stringed instruments are also used. All music is functional and accompanies specific activities such as dance, work, games, prayer, harvesting, healing, hunting, whaling, burial ceremonies, etc.
Musical forms are often related to function. For example, the war dance songs of the plains Indians generally have a descending contour with an introduction followed by variations of A - as in the formula AA' BA' CA - ending with a "tail-dance" section that reiterates part of the principal section.