Amerindians undoubtedly had a strong musical culture long before the arrival of colonists. Specifics, however, are hard to trace. The only indications come from oral traditions, many of which have been lost over years of colonization, and the (very biased) recorded interpretations of newcomers.
The Meaning of the Music
In Amerindian tradition, music played a major role in ceremonial and social life. Songs existed for purpose; As Frances Densmore once wrote, “Indians used song as a means of accomplishing definite results.” Songs were concrete and purposeful, and it is very likely that the abstract concept of “music” as we know it would have been a foreign concept for pre-contact Amerindians. Songs as individual units had power. Many songs were seen as a means of connecting with to the supernatural, so many performances or knowledge of songs were restricted to only certain individuals like medicine men or women. Most rites and social events had songs attached to them: marriages, going to or returning from war, healing, or births for example. Other songs, such as “game songs” brought luck to gamblers during traditional games.
While European musical notation failed to capture the distinctly different sound of Amerindian music, journals and writings from early explorers and settlers do describe the instruments they used quite vividly. Some instruments mentioned in records include:
Vocals were also critical in most Amerindian music, though some of the vocal sounds used were not in the language of speech as it was known. The meaning of words could have been lost, or the ritual of the sound just simply was more important than the content of the words.
Amerindian culture seems to have had very little influence on the music that emerged in colonial settlements, or even the music that exists popularly in America today outside of Amerindian communities. This suggests that Amerindian music was exceedingly different, in both purpose and sound, than European music–so much so that the traditions never really overlapped. Europeans also regarded Amerindians with contempt, which significantly limited the influence that Native American culture could have on new arrivals.
Traditional music is one way that Amerindians in America today try to connect to their pre-contact culture. The role that song plays in ceremonies, celebrations, and social events is retained in many communities as a way to connect to their heritage and traditional beliefs.