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Inuit music

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Title: Inuit music  
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Subject: Music of Greenland, Music of Canada, Inuit music, Native American music, Kwakwaka'wakw music
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Inuit music

Traditional Inuit music, the music of the Inuit, has been based around drums used in dance music as far back as can be known, and a vocal style called katajjaq[1] (Inuit throat singing) has become of interest in Canada and abroad.

Characteristics of Inuit music include: recitative-like singing, complex rhythmic organization, relatively small melodic range averaging about a sixth, prominence of major thirds and minor seconds melodically, with undulating melodic movement.[2]

The Copper Inuit living around Coppermine River flowing North to Coronation Gulf have generally two categories of music. A song is called pisik if the performer also plays drums and aton if he only dances.[3]

Cultural role

Traditionally Inuktitut did not have a word for what a European-influenced listener or ethnomusicologist's understanding of music, "and ethnographic investigation seems to suggest that the concept of music as such is also absent from their culture." The closest word, nipi,[4] includes music, the sound of speech, and noise. (Nattiez 1990:56)

Until the advent of commercial recording technology, Inuit music was usually used in spiritual ceremonies to ask the spirits (see Inuit mythology) for good luck in hunting or gambling, as well as simple lullabies. Inuit music has long been noted for a stoic lack of work or love songs. These musical beginnings were modified with the arrival of European sailors, especially from Scotland and Ireland. Instruments like the accordion were popularized, and dances like the jig or reel became common. Scots-Irish derived American country music has been especially popular among Inuit in the 20th century.


Katajjaq (also pirkusirtuk and nipaquhiit) is a type of traditional competitive song, considered a game, usually held between two women. It is one of the world's few examples of overtone singing, a unique method of producing sounds that is otherwise best known in Tuvan throat-singing. When competing, two women stand face-to-face and sing using a complex method of following each other, thus that one voice hits a strong accent while the other hits a weak, melding the two voices into a nearly indistinguishable single sound. They repeat brief motifs at staggered intervals, often imitating natural sounds, like those of geese, caribou or other wildlife, until one runs out of breath, trips over her own tongue, or begins laughing, and the contest is then over. "The old woman who teaches the children corrects sloppy intonation of contours, poorly meshed phrase displacements, and vague rhythms exactly like a Western vocal coach."[5]

Vocal Games

Inuit vocal games are usually played by two women facing each other in close proximity. They use the other participant's oral cavity as resonators but may also play under a kitchen pot for the resonances to be more pronounced. The game consists of repeating meaningless words in tight rhythmic canon. The strong accent of one participant coincides with the weak of the other. The breathing of the players are thus also alternated. Vocal techniques include voiced and voiceless articulations and different articulations, and different placement of sound in the chest, throat and nose areas.

Vocal games are unique to the Inuit.

Musical instruments


Drummer at an Inupiat dance near Nome in 1900.
  • The main percussion instrument is the wooden frame drum called the qilaut. It is made from boiling and bending stripes of wood about two to three inches wide into a circular frame with a handle protruding out. Dehaired animal skin, usually caribou, is stretched across the frame and fastened down with a string. The drum can reach one meter in diameter but are usually smaller, around one yard in length. It is struck on the edge of the rim by a qatuk, or a wooden beater. The resulting sound is a combination of the percussive attack from striking the wood and the resulting vibrations from the stretched membrane.[6] Some groups such as the Inuit living around the McKenzie Delta use wands to beat the drums instead of thick wooden beaters.[7]
  • Other percussion instruments include smaller drums and rattles
  • The Jew's harp has also been introduced to the Inuit and are played by certain groups such as the Inuit in Eskimo Point (now Arviat) in Canada

String instruments

  • The tautirut is an Inuit bowed zither, similar to the Icelandic fiðla. It is not clear as to whether the instrument is purely indigenous, or introduced by Nordic sailors either pre or post-Columbus. Inuit culture is one of the few New World cultures to have a chordophone tradition.
  • The kelutviaq is a one-string fiddle or lute played by the Yup'ik of Nelson Island and southwest Alaska

Performance and broadcast

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been broadcasting music in Inuit communities since 1961, when CFFB was opened in Frobisher Bay, Northwest Territories. Charlie Panigoniak was the best-known of the early Inuit recording stars, and he remains a popular guitarist. The most famous Inuit performers, however, are Susan Aglukark, Lucie Idlout and Tanya Tagaq. In Greenland, there is an Inuit hip hop crew called Nuuk Posse, which formed in 1985 and raps in the Kalaallisut language.


  • Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1987). Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music (Musicologie générale et sémiologue, 1987). Translated by Carolyn Abbate (1990). ISBN 0-691-02714-5.
  • Nettl, Bruno (1956). Music in Primitive Culture. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-59000-7.


  1. ^ Interviewing Inuit Elders - Glossary from Nunavut Arctic College
  2. ^ Nettl (1956, p. 107)
  3. ^ ARIMA, E.. The Eskimo Drum Dance. ARCTIC, North America, 27, jan. 1974. Available at: . Date accessed: 01 Nov. 2011.
  4. ^ "nipi". Asuilaak Living Dictionary. Retrieved 2007-11-17. 
  5. ^ Nattiez 1990:57
  6. ^ ARIMA, E.. The Eskimo Drum Dance. ARCTIC, North America, 27, jan. 1974. Available at: . Date accessed: 01 Nov. 2011.
  7. ^
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