Fillmore’s Study on “Out of Tune” Indian singers

     The text I am sharing today is a paper published in The Journal of American Folklore  in 1895, written by music educator and studier of Indian music John Comfort Fillmore, entitled “What Do Indians Mean to Do When They Sing, and How Far Do They Succeed?”. John Comfort Fillmore was originally a teacher and textbook writer, though was asked by Harvard’s Peabody Museum in 1888 to examine a collection of Omaha Indian songs, which lead to a long exploration of Indian music of various tribes. This extensive ethnographic research informed many articles he published after 1888, many containing theories about universal harmonic sense and placing Western music tradition onto unrelated cultures’ musics. (McNutt, 62)

    This particular article similarly seems to work under an assumption that Western music theory and harmony have a certain objective truth. The title itself shows a certain amount of cultural superiority as it seems to assume that American Indian singing has to follow Western music rules and if it doesn’t, then it must not be successful music. There seems to be a lack of understanding that the way the American Indians’ music is sung could possibly be correct within its own standards, or that there is no conscious intention to be correct at all. He makes the claim that “the Indian always intends to sing precisely the same harmonic intervals which are a staple of our own music, and that all aberrations from harmonic pitch are mere accidents” (Fillmore, 138), again showing an attempt to extend Western music theory onto a musical tradition that evolved independently from it. He further makes the point that these “accidents” are due to “imperfect training, or rather to the total lack of it” (Fillmore, 138). This claim seems to function under the belief that only those trained in Western practice are “correct” and that an American Indian training within their own cultural practice still is not viewed as having training.

    In this article, Fillmore does not appear to be a very trustworthy author. Though he makes frequent mention to having worked with Indian singers and transcribed and studied Indian music, he spends mostly all of his focus on his perception that Indian singers are not able to sing consistently in tune within the Western scale. Instead of leaving his own cultural background to the side in order to focus on Indian music and singing in its own respective context, he attempts to apply his understanding of Western practice onto it, which leads to his focus upon pitch accuracy. A possibly more open-minded conclusion that could be reached from his findings of inconsistency in pitch value would be that perhaps precise pitch accuracy is not much of a focus in certain Indian singing. These biases shown by Fillmore perhaps represent much of the academic world’s view on Indian music during the 19th century, one not jaded enough to ignore the importance of studying and preserving Indian music, but still bearing the belief that it is culturally inferior, primitive, or unevolved in comparison to Western practice.

Link to the article


Fillmore, John Comfort. “What Do Indians Mean to Do When They Sing, and How Far Do They Succeed?” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 8 no. 29, pp. 138-142. April 1895. Web.

McNutt, James C. “John Comfort Fillmore: A Student of Indian Music Reconsidered.” American Music, vol. 2 no. 1, pp. 61-70. Spring 1984. Web.

One thought on “Fillmore’s Study on “Out of Tune” Indian singers

  1. Thanks for this insightful discussion of Fillmore’s methods, motivations, and biases. You’re right to critique his attempts to make Native American music fit a Western box, and you’re also right that Fillmore was merely representative in this attempt. I appreciate your effort to contextualize the primary source using some secondary literature – the McNutt article looks interesting, particularly the “reconsidered” part of the title. You could certainly give the secondary source a bit of attention in your post, especially since it’s so relevant to your primary source. For instance, does McNutt show that scholars have wised up since the days of Fillmore?

    In your next post I’d like to see more media, more connections to course materials (you could have cited Blim, Densmore, Nettle, and Crawford, depending on what you wanted to focus on) and some tags at the end of the post. Keep up the good work!

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