A vibration’s amplitude controls the volume.  Decibels measure the loudness or softness of the sound.


This refers to the number of vibrations or waves that occur in a given unit of time.  We measure vibrations per second or wavelength using hertz (Hz).  The smaller the hertz number, the lower the pitch the ear hears, while a higher pitch will have a bigger hertz number.  Typically, the widest human range is between 20 and 20,000 hertz.


Harmonics are musical pitches whose frequencies are multiples of the fundamental, the lowest tone that a complex sound has.  If the fundamental pitch is 100 Hz, then the first harmonic is the same 100 Hz.  The second harmonic is 200 Hz, the third harmonic is 300 Hz and so forth.  We call each harmonic a partial of the fundamental.

Resonator or Sound Box

Resonant vibrations sound louder than the source.  For example, the vocal cords are small, but the size of a person’s throat and body resonate with those sounds and make part of them louder.  This is also what makes musical instruments louder.  The air inside a violin resonates with its transversely vibrating strings and body.  The drum’s empty frame does the same with its vibrating skin.  Within a certain tonal range, the hollow air cavities control how loud the sounds will be.


Sound is energy the ears can hear.  Sound happens when air, water or solids vibrate.

Sound Wave

Sound begins when a source vibrates and passes its energy to the air.  The vibrating object pushes and pulls the air next to it.  The nearby air molecules crash into other air molecules which, in turn, crash into other air molecules further out and so forth.  This makes a vibrating wave that pushes the air molecules closer together, then rapidly pulls them further apart.  This vibrating wave repeatedly changes the air pressure thousands of times per second.  We hear those air pressure changes as sound.  Faster vibrations create higher sounds.  Slower vibrations create lower ones.

Vocal Cords

Every person who speaks or sings does so when air vibrates two strands of muscle on either side of the throat

Indigenous Musical Instruments

Traditional Canadian indigenous cultures developed four different families of instruments: drums, rattles, winds and strings.


This instrument comes in many different shapes and sizes but all use either one or two membranes stretched across a resonator.  Drums might be just a piece of rawhide over a hole dug in the ground.  Many smaller, personal drums usually have a skin just on one side.  One of the biggest drums is the large powwow drum that usually uses two membranes, one on the top of a large, round wooden frame, and the other on the bottom.  A drum group sits around the powwow drum and everyone plays it at the same time.  This makes both membranes vibrate.  Because the resonator is large, the pitch will be low and strong.

Indigenous musicians want a sound that is clear and present.  If the rawhide head is not taut enough, the sound will be thumpy.

To get the ideal sound, an Indigenous drummer often will heat the drumhead near a fire or heater to make the drumhead tighter, so the pitch will be higher and more resonant.  However, if the rawhide head is too tight, the sound will be tinny.  The drummer will then brush in drops of water to loosen and condition the drum.  Indigenous drummers must show great respect.  Powwow drummers and listeners treat the drum as a sacred object.

Water Drums

Certain cultures in North America also use a water drum.  In Canada, this includes the Haudenosaunee and Ojibwe peoples.  Drummers place about 2½ centimetres of water in the vessel that is about 20 centimetres high.  This reduces the resonating air space and produces a higher pitched sound.

Snare Drums

These have one or more snares fastened on top of the drum’s skin or below it.  When the drummer plays the membrane, it produces a complex fundamental pitch, with a wide variety of partials.  The snares emphasize certain partials, which adds to the sound’s complexity.

Canadian First Peoples who use snare drums include the Innu in Labrador and Quebec, the Nehiyaw Cree in Ontario and elsewhere plus various Northern Athapaskan groups in northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Yukon, and Northwest Territories.


Unlike drums, a rattle does not produce a fixed pitch.  Instead, each one has its own specific sounds.  A series of objects outside or inside the rattle produce these sounds when they hit one another and the rattle itself.  The objects attached outside can include shells, cocoons, leaves, hooves of animals.  The objects inside a rattle are usually seeds or pebbles.  Rattle bodies often use hides, wood or gourds.


Long ago, Indigenous people discovered that blowing across a blade of grass placed between the thumb and index finger produced a musical sound.  They also learned to use conch shells as wind instruments after cutting off the shells’ short ends.  Later, people developed whistles from bird bones, springtime willow branches and carved wooden tubes.  Most of these will only produce one or two different pitches unless players blow into several different length tubes at once.  Indigenous South American crafters make multi-tube wind instruments like this.  The English name is pan flute, but cultures in the Andes Mountains know this flute as a siku, ankara, rondador, zampona and other names.

Native Flute

Among Canada’s southern Indigenous groups the Native flute has become the most sophisticated wind instrument.  Its windway is a narrow passage that directs the airstream above a block and onto the edge of a wooden lip.  A musician blows into the tube, which usually is cedar.

The column of air hits the uniquely designed outer block that throws the air back into the pressure chamber to continue its way down the tube.  Musicians create different pitches when they cover any of the four to six finger holes.  When all the holes are open, the pitch is highest.  When the musician’s fingers cover all the holes, the pitch is lowest.  In a well-crafted Indigenous flute, the lowest pitch should produce the most prized sound: a strong warbling tone.


Like many Indigenous groups around the worlds, the North American hunter’s bow and arrow led to the mouth bow.  Crafters use fibre or sinew as the string.  A sinew commonly is the stringy long tendon that stretches down the leg of a deer or other animal.

Three principles create the mouth bow’s unique sounds.  1) The musician pushes the string close to the mouth and strums it with a finger or another object. 2) The player can change the shape of the mouth while strumming to produce different harmonics of the fundamental pitch.  3) Bending the bow changes the string’s tension.  This alters the fundamental pitch as well as the harmonics.

The Nehiyaw Cree create a fiddle using caribou shoulder blade across which they string a sinew string.  They play this using a sinew-strung bow.

The eastern Canadian Inuit’s tautirut  is similar.  The crafter strings the bow with sinew or a piece of hide.  The musician can use this bow or a stick to play the strings.  Most crafters fit this instrument with three strings over a trapezoid-shaped wooden resonator.  The instrument is similar to the fidla of the Orkney Islands as well as the zithers of Iceland and Finland.

Europeans first brought violin-type instruments to Canada in 1645.  The Métis centre their music on the fiddle, which came down through their families in the late 1600s.  Native musicians soon became expert on the violin and another European-type string instrument called the viol.

©2019 This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through Canadian Culture Online
Native Drum