Library and Archives Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Institutional links

ARCHIVED - Aboriginal Sound Recordings: Music and Song

Archived Content

This archived Web page remains online for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. This page will not be altered or updated. Web pages that are archived on the Internet are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards. As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, you can request alternate formats of this page on the Contact Us page.

The First Nations

Traditional Music

Traditional Singing

Traditional First Nations music is singing, usually in groups, although some nations favour a solo voice. Most music has only a melody without harmony, although groups may take turns singing parts of a song back and forth. Melodies generally start high and run downward in tone and have an irregular rhythm.

The starting pitch of a song depends on the singer, not on an outside "right" note. The voice may sound uncertain for this reason. Singing involves frequent strong accents and sliding from one note to another (glissando). Singing is usually accompanied by drumming and, sometimes, by rattles.

Compared with powwow singing, spiritual songs are more hymn-like and reverent. They may or may not be accompanied by drumming or a rattle. They are usually part of a formal ceremony.

Traditional Instruments

Wind instruments include whistles and flutes. Traditional stringed instruments are rare, although the mouth bow, the Inuit fiddle (a one-stringed instrument of bark and caribou gut) and the Apache fiddle (a single stringed instrument made from the tubular century plant) appear in documentation.


The drum represents the voice of the Creator. It speaks of a balance with the natural world, often told in song. The drum and songs are used for prayer in every element of the ceremony, from opening to closing.

Large drums are sacred, representing the Earth. Traditionally, only men may play them, although recently some women's groups have been forming drumming circles with the big drum.

Large drums are made of a hide membrane stretched across a circular wooden frame. The drum is usually a little less than a metre across and about two-thirds of a metre high.

Small hand drums, played by both men and women, have a hide membrane stretched across an eight-sided or round frame. The drums range from 15 to 45 centimetres in diameter and are about 10 centimetres high. They are held by a leather handle at the back and are struck with a stick.

The drum sound varies with local traditions. For example, in the western round dance tradition, the drummer drags his middle finger across the inside head of the drum as the head is struck to produce a unique resonance. Drummers in the Anishnabe tradition string specially designed sticks or bones across the drum head to produce a buzzing sound.

Water drums are cup-shaped vessels, originally of wood or clay, with a hide membrane stretched across them. They are partly filled with water. Anishnabe people use larger barrel-shaped water drums in ceremonies. The hand-held Iroquois water drum is played with a thin drum stick; songs are also accompanied by a cowhorn rattle. The cast iron water drum of the Native American Church is a relatively new addition to the ensemble of Aboriginal instruments, but is derived from traditional clay water drums of northern Mexico. Because of the need to keep the hide wet while playing a cast iron drum, the wet hide changes in pitch over the duration of the songs as it dries.

The Large Powwow Drum

The big drum is a central element in both ceremonies and powwows. Some ceremonial elements carry over into the powwow form, in the opening, honouring and closing songs. The large drum plays another role in powwows: it keeps the people dancing. Its ceremonial role in powwows is evolving.

Today's large powwow drums originated in the early 1800s, inspired by dreams and visions. Sometimes, large military parade bass drums were captured in battle and became known as trophy drums.

Traditionally, the women form a circle surrounding the large drum and the singers. The circle is a symbol of protection and shows respect for women as life-givers. Their position around the drum is regarded as a place of honour and recognition.

The Purpose of Song

Song is traditionally the chief way of communicating with supernatural powers. Music is seldom performed for its own sake. It has a definite purpose -- bringing rain, providing victory in battle or healing the sick.

Songs and dances come from nature or from dreams, and often express appreciation for life and sustenance.

There are three classes of songs. Traditional songs, handed down from generation to generation, are owned by individuals, families, clans or nations. Ceremonial and medicine songs are supposed to be received in dreams and are used for healing and purification. Modern songs show the influence of European culture.

Traditional music expresses a social order. It spells out territorial identity, the community's organizational structure, gender roles -- the nation's whole culture.

There is a song for each activity of daily life: hunting, planting and gathering. Prayers and ceremonies range from the simplest gesture to large and highly complex gatherings, carefully organized and highly evolved.

Preserving or Intruding?

Because song and ceremony were sacred, they had to be protected from exploitation and intrusion. Commercializing them would violate their spiritual integrity.

Many traditionalists held the view that the recording of songs and ceremonies could bring harm to those who allowed that activity and to the culture itself. In addition, misinterpretation of ceremonies could reinforce stereotypes and racism, and lead to further persecution. Others held the view that preservation was necessary for future generations to hear and learn the old songs.

Starting in the late 1800s, anthropologists and government officials thought that Aboriginal peoples and cultures were "vanishing." They set out to research and record their music, creating a new invasion of Aboriginal cultures.

The first documented use of mechanical recording equipment for ethnological research occurred in 1890. Jesse Walter Fewkes [] (accessed June 1, 2007), an anthropologist with the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, made recordings on wax cylinder phonograph records.

Aboriginal cultures are working to preserve and regain their musical traditions. Aboriginal people have preserved traditional songs and ceremonies. They continue to keep these elements safe from outside intrusion.