The Power of Native American Instruments in Music Therapy

By Tia Mae Frostrom, MusicWorx Intern

Happy Native American Heritage Month! To celebrate, let’s take a dive into learning about Native instruments, their cultural significance, and how we can apply these in music therapy. Native American culture and music has greatly enriched the field of music therapy. MusicWorx would like to respectfully acknowledge that its offices were built upon Kumeyaay Nation territory and thanks them for their contributions in our community.

Music In Native Indigenous Culture

Music has always been a central part of Indigenous American culture, with first instruments dating as far back as the Archaic (8000–1000 BC) and Mississippian (AD 800–1500) time periods. Music is used in ceremonies, celebrations, healing/medicine, recreation, storytelling, gratitude, and daily life. Dr. Richard Vedan, a Secwepmec, provides insight on the function of music in Native American culture:

“Music can be calming. It’s also energizing and invigorating. Whether it’s Romping’ Ronny Hawkins and his Rock-a-Billy or the Pow Wow dancing or the Sun Dance music and how it carries you… It can be powerful at the individual level and also at the collective level – ultimately layers upon layers,” (Kenny, 2015).

Traditional Native American instruments include drums, voice/vocables, flute, and rattles. With greater knowledge of these instruments and their history, we can approach our music therapy practices with a more informed perspective surrounding the use of these instruments.  When working with music as culturally sensitive music therapists, invite yourself to recognize your own privilege and identity in relationship with the people you have the pleasure of working with.

Instruments in Indigenous American Culture

Cochiti Pueblo Drum

Place: Cochiti Pueblo, Cochiti Reservation; Sandoval Co.; NM
Date created: 1958-1959
Materials: Wood, hide, canvas, paint, unknown stuffing

Mistassini Cree Hand Drum

Place: Lac Mistassini (Lake Mistassini); Nord du Québec Region (Jamésie); Québec
Date created: Prior to 1954
Materials: Wood, hide

K'apovi Drum

Artist: John D. Garcia, K’apovi (Santa Clara Pueblo), b. 1942
Date created: 2003
Media/Materials: Wood, rawhide, commercially tanned leather, paint


The drum is the center of Native music making. Drums can symbolize the circle of life, the heartbeat of the Earth, and have their own spirit. Types of drums include the powwow drum, frame drum, sweat lodge drum, water drum, ocean drum, and foot drum.

In the setting of a powwow ceremony, drumming groups (known as Drums) may perform multiple songs to support singing and dancing. The drummers sit around the powwow drum to create the beat together, played with beaters (also known as mallets). Traditionally, drum groups were composed of male singers, though these gender roles are beginning to open up. The Drums lead particular songs during Powwow activities, specific to nation and region. Other drums, such as the frame drum or hoop drum, can be played by hand or with a mallet, and support the powwow drumming during a ceremony (Hoefnagels, 2016). This overarching description comes from First Nation practices; keep in mind each nation will have their own specific practicing customs.

Both the gathering drums and hand drums are appropriate for music therapy purposes, primarily during group activities. Group drumming and rhythmic entrainment promote wellness, social awareness/socialization, motor planning, verbal and non-verbal communication, sensory processing and regulation, individual expression, cognitive rehabilitation, relaxation, belonging, improved mood, and more. Drumming supports people of any age, any background, and at any level of ability/disability. Group music-making can address clinical goal areas, such as general wellness, stress relief, motor movement, socialization, and relaxation. One-on-one drumming still provides similar benefits. Examples of music therapy drumming activities include creating the basic beat, solos, call and response, leading & following, expressing emotions, and motor planning (such as grasping and aiming).



The voice is vital to Indigenous tradition and is used in song, prayers, and chanting. Almost all Native American music centers around the voice, as seen in songs for ceremony, celebration, healing, lullabies, songs from guardian spirits, and other songs in daily life; instrumental music is rare. Dr. Richard Vedan, a Secwepmec, describes how chanting is used in all Indigenous cultures in support of storytelling, rhythm, movement, and spirituality (Kenny, 2015). Traditionally, singing included many vocables; which are sounds that do not correlate to words, for example, in Plains songs: “yo-he-yo” or “we-yo hey-ye” may be heard (Isaacs, 1990). Vocables enhance the emotion expressed through song and many vocable-only songs exist. Vocables can also provide structure to songs, sometimes used to show the end of a phrase or song, (Isaacs, 1990).  

Mi’kmaq Spirit provides written and recorded examples of First Nations Mi’kmaq songs including vocables such as “way-yo-way-hi-yay” and “way-ha.”

As music therapists, we use our voices daily in almost all settings and often facilitate clients to use their voices. Being more culturally informed of the uses of the voice as a powerful aspect of music making, we can incorporate chanting, the use of syllables or vowels, music with movement, and repetition into our music making and songwriting processes. 


Voice and Drums

Drums accompany the human voice and drummers can be referred to as ‘singers’ (Suing, 2008). Although the drum beat will sometimes musically precede the vocal beat, the two are so interconnected that they are still seen as one. The singing group leads both the vocal melodic song and drumming for dancers in a ceremony, and the group is able to make musical decisions throughout the song. An example is dropping out the melody for a period of time to hear only the drumming. The group must also be knowledgeable about various songs for different occasions and dance styles. 

The Young Spirit Singers is a singing/drumming group founded in 2001 with the goal of sharing Indigenous culture & empowering Indigenous youth through music, language, and culture. Young Spirit is “noted for extensive use of the Plains Cree language in their Round Dance and Pow-wow,” (Sakamoto Agency). Their website presents videos of powwow circles, where the singers lead both the song and group drumming together. 

Lenape Flute

Artist: Thomas J. Dorsey (Tom Two Arrows), Lenape (Delaware)/Onondaga, 1920-1993
Date created: 1969
Materials: Cedar, birchbark, commercial leather thong

Oklahoma Cherokee Rattle

Artist: Bill Glass (Bill Glass, Jr.), Cherokee Nation, b. 1950
Date created: 1990-2000
Materials: Pottery, paint, glaze


Flute is a traditional Indigenous instrument used for healing, meditation, courtship, spiritual rituals, and entertainment; traditionally made of wood, bone, or plant (reed, bamboo, grass, cane), with two air chambers and tuned to a pentatonic scale.

Flute playing can support a variety of goals through music therapy including breath support, wellness, relaxation, emotional expression, etc. Flute playing can benefit those with “asthma, COPD, PTSD, recurrent abdominal pain, hypertension, anxiety, fibromyalgia, and major depressive disorder,” (Miller & Goss, p. 14). Flute-specific interventions include breath focus, improvisation, relaxation, and meditation. 



Rattles and shakers are a symbol of Native music and culture throughout history, used even when drums were omitted from music (Kachina House 2017). Ceremonies, gatherings, spiritual prayer, and healing use rattles. Rattles are crafted from a variety of materials, such as a shell made from gourd, animal/turtle shell, rawhide, or buffalo horns with pebbles, beans, seeds, or corn on the inside to create the sound. 

Rattles are simple and accessible; great for basic motor movement, connection, communication, and social awareness through keeping the basic beat, wellness, sensory stimulation, cognitive rehabilitation, and more. Being accessible for many people music therapists work with supports many music therapy interventions. Some examples include group shaking on the basic beat, rhythmic entrainment, shaking for greater range of motion, or improvisation.


Gillreath-Brown, A., & Peres, T. M. (2018). An experimental study of Turtle Shell Rattle Production and the implications for Archaeofaunal assemblages. PLOS ONE, 13(8). 

Hoefnagels, A. (2016, July 21). Powwow Music. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved November 11, 2021, from 

Isaacs, T. (1990, May). A brief introduction to Plains Indian singing. Indian House. Traditional Native American Indian Music Recordings. Retrieved November 11, 2021, from

Kachina House. (2017, May 15). History of Rattles in Native American Culture. Kachina House’s Blog. Retrieved November 11, 2021, from 

Kenny, C. B. (2015). Balance Between the Worlds: A Conversation with Dr. Richard Vedan. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy, 15(3). 

McManus, M. R. (2011, July 25). 10 Native American music traditions. HowStuffWorks. Retrieved November 11, 2021, from 

Michel, M. (2020, August 20). Motor uses of the Buffalo Drum, Ocean Drum, and Tambourine in Music Therapy. Heart and Harmony Music Therapy. Retrieved November 11, 2021, from 

Miller, Eric B. and Goss, Clinton F. An exploration of physiological responses to the Native American flute. ISQRMM 2013, Athens, GA. ArXiv:1401.6004, January 24, 2014. 17 pages. Retrieved November 9, 2021.

Muin’iskw, J., & Crowfeather, D. (2016, March 26). Mi’Kmaw Culture – Mi’Kmaw Songs. Mikmaw Spirit. Retrieved November 25, 2021, from 

Northern College. (n.d.). The Drum. Northern College Indigenous Council on Education. Retrieved November 11, 2021, from Hoefnagels. 

Online Education For Kids. (2019, November 27). Definitely Not Nonsense. All Around The World. Retrieved November 11, 2021, from 

Riley, J. E., Pinder, E., & Sherrod, B. (n.d.). Drumming. Music Therapy Activities Wiki. Retrieved November 11, 2021, from 

Sakamoto Agency. (2019). Young Spirit Singers. Sakamoto Agency. Retrieved November 25, 2021, from 

Suing, M. (2008, July). Great Plains Indians Musical Instruments. Retrieved November 11, 2021, from (n.d.). Native American flute. The importance of the Native American flute. Retrieved November 11, 2021, from


CEO / Founder
P: 858.457.2201

11300 Sorrento Valley Rd., Ste. 104,
San Diego, CA