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 (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 (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’ (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...’ (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)? (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
• 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...!
• 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 (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/.
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’...
13 At 8.39am on Sunday September 14 2014, K T Ong wrote:
One wonders to what extent the piece ‘Montezuma’ by the contemporary group CUSCO actually draws upon mesoamerican musical traditions. :) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H71-1VDePuM
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!
12 At 2.28pm on Friday January 3 2014, Christopher Garcia wrote:
• Why do huehuetls have 3 legs? What is the significance of 3 or the number 3 in Mexica times? • I understand that according to Stevenson the huehuetl and the teponaztli are dieties banished to earth - do we know what deity they are supposed to be from? • Why are the legs (usually) in the shape of thunderbolts? What is the significance? • Why do instruments have different names - e.g. ‘zacatan’ for the Maya, ‘huehuetl’ for the Mexica: a guitar is a guitar no matter what part of the world it is in - considering the ‘pochteca’ (traders) travelled widely throughout the Americas and must have shared and learned different languages it is interesting that these names were never codified. I have my own theories on all of the above from oral/aural sources from the tamboristas, but I am interested to see what the experts think... Finally, • Does anyone have any info on SAHAGUN’S PSALMODIA CHRISTIANA?
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
11 At 10.30am on Monday September 9 2013, Julia wrote:
i have only one question...was there a “separation” between men and women regarding the playing of musical instruments? Was there a gender equality? Did women also play musical instruments or only men?
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...”
10 At 10.21pm on Wednesday April 11 2012, Aurora wrote:
I’ve been looking for aztec dance music all over and cannot find any! where can i find cds to purchase or download?
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!
9 At 9.51am on Thursday February 2 2012, laww wrote:
I recently visited chi chen itza and it was a wonderful experience. Upon visiting they had whistles for sale- jaguars, skulls, turtles. Unfortunately, I was unable to purchase a whistle. Is there any way to find the jaguar whistle online? Please help!
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...
8 At 10.45am on Monday March 14 2011, Guenevere wrote:
I teach music at a small school in Pennsylvania, USA. My 3rd graders are studying Pre-Columbian cultures and I would like to make instruments with them that are representative Aztec instruments. Do you have any plans for projects like this or do you know where I can find any? Thank you for your fabulous website!!
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...!
7 At 4.58pm on Saturday February 12 2011, Tomas Filsinger wrote:
For a very interesting site that has many original and reconstructions of precolumbian instruments visit www.ixoneztli.com
6 At 7.42am on Tuesday May 11 2010, dakiota wrote:
5 At 4.37pm on Monday November 9 2009, Missy Stevens wrote:
I’m trying to learn more about making clay whistles, esp. ones like the double chamber Peruvian whistles in which one chamber has water, and when it is tipped the water flows into the other chamber and sounds the whistle. Can you direct me to any good sources of instructions? Thanks, I’m enjoying all the info on your site.
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!)
4 At 11.27am on Wednesday October 14 2009, guadalupe wrote:
Gracias por esta pagina y por el contenido. Yo pertenezco a una danza azteca localizada en san jose, Ca y estoy tratando de aprender nahuatl por mi propia cuenta y vaya que es dificil encontrar paginas que contengan buena informacion como esta. La voy a recomendar a mis amistades.
Mexicolore replies: ¡Muchas gracias por este apoyo, Guadalupe! Buena suerte con tu grupo de danza azteca - y con el náhuatl...
3 At 5.32pm on Friday February 27 2009, Blanca wrote:
grasias por tener esta pagina grasias a toda esta informasion boy a poder aser mi projecto sinior project en la high school basado en los aztecas..muchas grasias por tener esta informaion esper y aiga mas para aki demostrarles u poko de nuestra cultura bella de mexico... grasias sinsera mente blanca
Mexicolore replies: ¡De nada, Blanca! Para eso estamos aquí. Buena suerte para tu proyecto...
2 At 3.37am on Sunday January 25 2009, jean wrote:
I bought what I believe to be a clay vessel flute in the shape of a turtle with only front legs,15 holes and magnificent sounds of music. Could this be the type cured underground in fire and ancient? I saw one very similiar on "Antique Road show" and mine has same sound when you hit the outside with your fingernails to prove it is not a modern item?
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!).
1 At 9.26am on Saturday March 1 2008, steve jones wrote:
I found this article very interesting. I love chaconnes, sarabandes, and fandangoes. This makes me curious about Aztec music. Thank you.
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!