Different types of songs are sung for different pow wow events—Grand Entries, dance contests and honoring ceremonies. Songs are made for all reasons. Although they differ in tempo, words and emotion, pow wow songs all follow a similar structure.
The lead singer selects the songs to be sung for a contest.
They may hit the drums once to let the dancers and other singers know the song is about to start.
The lead singer, the first the people hear, will sing alone a phrase or a tune called lead or push-up. The rest of the group repeats the lead, this is called second. Then all the singers sing the melody (first part) and a repetition of the melody (second part) together. One rendition of the song can also be called push-up, so if the announcer asks a drum for four push-ups they will sing the grouping of the lead, second, fourth part and second part four times.
There are three kinds of songs:
• all words;
• all melody (these songs are sung with vocables, syllables without meaning used to carry the melody); and
• those with vocables for the lead, second and first part and words for the second part.
Many times, at the end of the second push-up, four or five honor beats or accent beats are heard from the drum. Some say they represent gun shots. Others say each of the four beats is for the four directions, and the fifth is for Mother Earth and the Great Spirit. The honor or accent beats are a signal to the dancers and singers that another push-up is about to begin or the song is about to end.
There are songs for all occasions: honor songs, veterans’ songs, and war party songs
There are songs for all occasions: honor songs, veterans’ songs, and war party songs, but many of the pre-reservation songs have been put aside in favor of the flood of new songs being composed. Some singing groups sing nothing but their own songs. Others borrow songs in addition to performing their own. The songs aren’t written down, but tape recorded and learned from the recordings by singers and dancers, too.
Contest singers, unlike pop stars, aren’t judged by the sweetness of their voice.
In the Northern Plains, the higher parts of the song are sung in falsetto and the melody gains energy and rhythm as the voice descends. The sound is produced in the back part of an open mouth and throat with the volume and quality of the voice depending largely on well-developed abdominal muscles.
Singers are judged on the range, volume, strength and expressive quality of their voices and the way they blend with the rest of the group.
Women singing an octave higher than the men may sometimes join in the latter part of each rendition. Women may also trill (a high-pitched sound made with the tongue) in special places in the song to indicate deep feelings such as joy, or appreciation of the song, or in honor of a specific person or event.