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General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 16 Jan 2017/9 Deer
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Aztec musical instruments

Aztec Music

Aztec music is an art form waiting to be discovered. Very little research has gone into the study of Aztec musical instruments, rhythms and practise, largely because there is next to nothing ‘written down’ from the days before the Spanish. A few original Aztec (percussion) instruments are still used in local community festivals even today (see our feature on the teponaztli drum), many more are in museums, there are a good number of illustrations of instruments in codices and carved in stone sculptures, a few ‘Aztec’ melodies heard in remote Mexican villages have been recorded and transcribed – though no-one knows for sure if they’re genuinely pre-Hispanic in origin - and then we have the descriptions handed down to us from the Spanish soldiers and friars after the conquest. But much remains ‘inspired guesswork’... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

See our first light-hearted attempt at a video on Aztec music!

Pic 1: Group of Mixtec percussion and wind players, from the Codex Becker
Pic 1: Group of Mixtec percussion and wind players, from the Codex Becker (Click on image to enlarge)

Here (choose an instrument from the right-hand menu) we offer images and sounds of a small group of COPIES of clay wind instruments; taken together they give a hint of how Aztec flutes, whistles and ocarinas may have sounded – but note the caution above, and also bear in mind that these recordings were made by our good - English! - friend Will Summers of Tunkul... To hear the sounds of some ORIGINAL pre-Columbian instruments follow some of the links below. You can hear some of Tunkul’s music accompanying Tec in our Kids Aztecs microsite (click on Kids at the very top of the page); and you can hear the sound of the teponaztli drum in our fully illustrated feature article (follow link below).

Pic 2: Ian demonstrating Aztec instruments at Copthorne Primary School, Sussex
Pic 2: Ian demonstrating Aztec instruments at Copthorne Primary School, Sussex (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec music is a key element in all our programmes in schools and museums (pic 2): it’s obviously an element that captivates the children we work with: Zoe - a Year 5 pupil at Emmer Green Primary School, Reading - says it all (pic 4)...

Pic 3: ‘Tec playing the drum’
Pic 3: ‘Tec playing the drum’ (Click on image to enlarge)

• Would you have got it right? Have a look at the codex picture below (pic 5) and guess: is this Aztec musician playing at a funeral ceremony or to wake up a priest? For the answer, click on ‘Occasionally even experts make mistakes!’ in the right hand menu.

Pic 4: ‘I could feel my fingers tingling...’
Pic 4: ‘I could feel my fingers tingling...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

• A US music teacher has created a very useful, simply illustrated, introductory webpage on Aztec drum rhythms, based on making connections between language, maths and music (pic 6). He incorporates notation based on the famous 16th. century ‘Cantares Mexicanos’ manuscript - referred to in our teponaztli feature.

Pic 5: What’s going on (scene from the Florentine Codex)?
Pic 5: What’s going on (scene from the Florentine Codex)? (Click on image to enlarge)

• There’s been a lot of debate as to whether the high civilisations of Latin America played stringed instruments - the established ‘line’ is that they only used wind and percussion. If you visit the site of the US Princeton Art Museum’s ‘Music from the Land of the Jaguar’ exhibition (link below) you can listen to recordings made on several original pre-Columbian instruments, including a remarkable string-rasp-and-resonator Maya instrument (depicted on an ancient Maya ceramic vessel) that produces an extraordinarily lifelike imitation of a jaguar’s growl.

Pic 6: Part of Phil Tulga’s Aztec Drum Rhythms webpage
Pic 6: Part of Phil Tulga’s Aztec Drum Rhythms webpage

• If you’re seriously interested in researching developments in music archaeology, you should make contact with ISGMA in Berlin - a link is provided below. Thanks to the dedicated work of our friend Adje Both - whose research website mixcoalli.com is also given below (’Music Archaeology of the Americas’) - there is a strong focus on discoveries of musical instruments at the Templo Mayor in Mexico City. You should find on their website a larger image of the oldest musical instrument yet discovered in the world...!

Pic 7: the oldest (c.35,000 BCE) musical instrument yet found in the world: a mammoth tusk flute from Germany. (Photo: Juraj Liptak, © Intitut für Ur- und Frühgeschichte, Universität Tübingen)
Pic 7: the oldest (c.35,000 BCE) musical instrument yet found in the world: a mammoth tusk flute from Germany. (Photo: Juraj Liptak, © Intitut für Ur- und Frühgeschichte, Universität Tübingen)

• To hear some truly intriguing sounds of Aztec wind instruments, researched, reconstructed and played by Mexican Roberto Velázquez Cabrera, a mechanical engineer by profession, follow the links below. Roberto’s collection of replica pre-Columbian instruments, built up over many years, now numbers over 1,000. On his own website (Virtual Research Institute Tlapitzcalzin), you can even find photo-instruction guides for making ancient Mexican wind instruments...

Pic 8: Roberto Velázquez at work
Pic 8: Roberto Velázquez at work (Click on image to enlarge)

• The Aztec-style music from our website has been put to super use by Mexican postgraduate student in animation, Lucía Morgan, in her delightful film short ‘The Legend of the Bat’ (follow link below). Enjoy!

• For a visual feast in terms of reconstructions/recreations of pre-Hispanic instruments, there’s nothing better we feel than the work of pioneer practitioner Luis Pérez Ixoneztli, whose website is www.ixoneztli.com/.

emoticon Aztec musicians enjoyed special privileges, but at a price: get one drum beat out of place in a public performance and you could be very severely punished - even put to death. Hence the expression ‘His heart missed a beat’...

Our teponaztli feature

Two Aztec flutes

Aztec music news

Learn how the Aztecs tuned their big war drums...

‘The Legend of the Bat’

Phil Tulga’s Aztec Drum Rhythm webpage

‘Music from the Land of the Jaguar’

International Study Group on Music Archaeology

Reconstructing the sound of Aztec ‘death whistles’...

Virtual Research Institute Tlapitzcalzin

Watch a demonstration of an unusual Maya jaguar roar instrument

A useful short glossary of Mexica instruments

Hear a recently excavated bird whistle from Calixtlahuaca

Learn about the ‘chirped echo’ effect at Chichen Itzá

The newly discovered ‘Bell Stone’ at Xolotl Hill (in Spanish)

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Very little! It uses Andean instruments (panpipes) and rhythm (huayño) rather than anything Mesoamerican. Pleasant and fun, but miles away from the Mexica!
Mexicolore replies: Many thanks for these great questions, Chris. We hope others will contribute, but meanwhile, we can offer a few pointers:-
• On the ‘three legs’, question, see -
http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/ask-experts/why-always-three-hearth-stones
• On the divine origin of sacred drums see -
http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/stories/how-music-came-to-the-world
• On the shape of the drum legs, we raised some of the same points a few years ago, here -
http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/ask-experts/why-did-they-put-gaps-in-the-upright-drums
Mexicolore replies: Julia Flood writes: “The participation of females in the ritual delivery of music is well documented. For example, women playing the parts of goddesses in religious festivals might play an instrument. In one example, the impersonator of the goddess Xilonen played a snake rattle before she was sacrificed. In another, priestesses played gourd drums during the festivity of Huey Tecuilhuitl. Women musicians also performed in courts. Jacques Soustelle tells us of richly dressed women performing ‘mimed songs’, which were dramatic events of dance and song that were acted in front of great leaders...”
Mexicolore replies: We’ve just added some new ‘Aztec’-style music that’s downloadable from the ‘Tec ANIMATES A PAGE from the Codex Mendoza!’ microsite, and we’ve repaired a faulty download button for the music on Tec’s original Challenges and Puzzles microsite: try our Kids section!
Mexicolore replies: Not that we know of, I’m afraid! However we ourselves do from time to time source these whistles from Mexico for our schools workshops on the Aztecs here in England. If you write to us directly (and if you’re not in a great hurry!) we may be able to help...
Mexicolore replies: We’re working on this excellent idea, but slowly! Try the link given in comment 5 below. Mexican engineer/musician/researcher Roberto Velazquez and we are collaborating in this field, but have nothing prepared yet that we can pass on. But we’ll get there...!
Mexicolore replies: Making whistling jugs is pretty complex and you need prior experience in working with ceramics. A useful contact is a German by the name of Friedemann Schmidt, who researches, makes and sells replicas of pre-Columbian wind instruments from Mesoamerica and South America. His website is -
http://www.terraton.info/workshops.html
Write to him in simple English only (or better in German!)
Mexicolore replies: ¡Muchas gracias por este apoyo, Guadalupe! Buena suerte con tu grupo de danza azteca - y con el náhuatl...
Mexicolore replies: ¡De nada, Blanca! Para eso estamos aquí. Buena suerte para tu proyecto...
Mexicolore replies: Thanks for sharing this with us, Jean. We need to see a picture of this to shed any more light on it. The ‘15 holes’ seems to hint that it isn’t a Mesoamerican instrument... If you’re in the London area we could meet and share ideas (and sounds!).
Mexicolore replies: Thanks for writing in, Steve. Glad you enjoyed visiting the site. More and more people are discovering the wealth of musical output from Mexico both before the Spanish Conquest and after it!