Pre-Columbian Music of Mesoamerica

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Pre-Columbian Music of Mesoamerica

From the beginning of civilization on the American continent, music was linked to almost every human activity. Religion, war, ceremonies, births, feasts, games, love, and death had unique and unmistakable musical contexts. In ancient times, the character of music was more functional than aesthetic. For this reason, instruments were conceived in accordance with the spiritual requirements of each situation, and great attention was paid to the acoustical quality. The forms of animals, metaphysical entities, and people of the time were incorporated into many instruments. The oldest known musical instrument originated in the Olmec civilization (Veracruz and Tabasco, Mexico, 1500–100 bce).

Musician-artisans devoted their inventive efforts chiefly to wind and percussion instruments. The best-known instruments were flutes, whistles, and ocarinas of clay; the horizontal wooden drum called tunkul and the slit wooden drum called teponaztli; the three-legged, vertical wooden drum called huéhuetl; and the Mayan timbal, a small, U-shaped, clay drum. Some of these percussion instruments are still in use today. Musical instruments were decorated with symbolic figures, and for this reason they had specific purposes. During the colonial period any instrument whose use was thought to be linked to the ancient religions was banned as heretical by the Inquisition.

In pre-Columbian times, the voice was also an important musical element. In schools of music, dance, and poetry, vocal arts were also taught. Musicians were often singers, and poets frequently sang about their uncertainties and pleasures. And in the shamanistic singing of the priests and witch doctors, the initiate sought to reveal the words of the divine world through the spiritual trance.


The shapes of the wind instruments were extraordinarily varied. There are whistles and ocarinas representing crabs, iguanas, frogs, ocelots, chameleons, snakes, coyotes, dogs, crickets, turtles, pelicans, parrots, turkeys, and a great number of other birds. The form of the animal gave the instrument its shape and volume. Whistles and ocarinas were generally small and could be suspended from a cord around the neck.

Flutes had from two to five holes, and their ranges went from sweet and innocent to dark echoes of the pre-Columbian inner world. The majority of those between 4 and 8 inches long were cheerful and songlike, and could also be made to sound like birds. Those from 8 to 12 inches long had a medium sound, neither high-pitched nor deep. Those more than 12 inches long tended toward a mysterious sound. They were made of clay, and almost all were decorated with human or animal images. Flutes also could consist of two, three, or four parallel tubes connected to one mouthpiece. Reed flutes, which are still played today, were quite common.

Conch shells were used in the worship of the sun god, as well as to call the people together. Clay facsimiles of conch shells were made that replicated the sounds of the natural ones.

Small trumpets were made of clay, medium-sized ones were fashioned from large calabashes, and the largest, like those depicted in the Mayan mural at Bonampak, were of wood. These large trumpets had a very deep and muffled sound compared with the shrillness of the small clay trumpets.


The horizontal log drum, or teponaztli, is sometimes described as a two-keyed xylophone. It resembled a wooden log enclosed at each end and was often covered with carved designs. An I-shaped slit cut in the top allowed the tongues on each side to produce a different warm watery tone when struck by mallets with natural rubber tips called olmaitl. An "I" was also cut in the base to increase volume. A drummer usually stood upright to play the teponaztli, which was placed on a support.

The skins of deer, jaguars, and monkeys were combined with wood and clay in a great many shapes and sizes to make drums. An example notable for its expressive power and ritual use is the huéhuetl, or zakatán, a large, three-legged, vertical drum that the musician played with the hands while standing.

The teponazhuéhuetl was a combination instrument similar to the teponaztli but with a skin at each end of the cylindrical body. Small clay bongos with sharp, cheerful tones also were made.

An unusual percussion instrument was the water drum, so called because it consisted of a vessel containing water on which floated half of a hollowed-out calabash, its convex side facing the musician. This was beaten with a stick covered with corn leaves.

The turtle shell was played with a deer antler, a rubber stick, or a tree branch. Different shells produced different tones.

A stone became a percussion instrument when struck against a smaller one. The sound was crystalline and quite resonant, very similar to bottles containing water.

Probably the clay vessel was played as an instrument before the Conquest, since it is still heard today in the indigenous music of various regions and cultures with roots in the Mesoamerican past. However, no documented proof of this exists.


Whether or not string instruments existed is unknown, except for (probably) the musical bow. This was a type of hunting bow whose cord was beaten with two arrows, using a large calabash as a resonator. Today this is known as the tepehuano bow.


Robert Stevenson, Music in Aztec and Inca Territory (1968).

Norman Hammond, Classic Maya Music (1972).

Sibyl Marcuse, Musical Instruments: A Comprehensive Dictionary (1975).

Luis Antonio Escobar, La música precolombina (1985); Instrumentos musicales de América Latina y el Caribe (1988).

Additional Bibliography

Archaeology, Inc. Secrets of the Maya. New York: Hather-leigh Press, 2003.

Gómez, Luis Antonio. El libro de música Mexica a través de los cantares mexicanos. México: Colegio Nacional de Bibliotecarios: Información Científica Internacional, 2001.

                                            Antonio Zepeda

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Pre-Columbian Music of Mesoamerica

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