General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
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Article suitable for Top Juniors and above

Dr. Arnd Adje Both

Question for October 2014

How did they decide what to make their musical instruments out of? Asked by Hobletts Manor Junior School. Chosen and answered by Dr. Arnd Adje Both.

Replica Maya ceramic whistle in the shape of a frog (carrying her baby on the back)
Replica Maya ceramic whistle in the shape of a frog (carrying her baby on the back) (Click on image to enlarge)

First and foremost, a material must be suitable for a specific instrument type - wood for a drum, for instance; but not just any old wood: a hard wood for the teponaztli, a soft wood for the huehuetls, metal for a bell, rattle pellets and gourds for a rattle, and so on. Materials also had different symbolic meanings. a gold bell, for example, is different to a copper bell (gold was related to the gods).

Our In-House team adds: since many instruments of the Mexica (Aztecs) and of the Maya were used to imitate (and call on) familiar creatures in their environment, it was important to choose a material that would produce the right sort of sounds: the ancient Maya, for example, would probably have played these ceramic whistles (see picture) in large groups of musicians to mimic an assembly of frogs croaking at the same time - when frogs croak it’s often a sign that rain is coming. A clay resonator produces the most authentic sound for this. Soon we’ll add a link to a video where you can hear just what this sounds like...!

Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

Learn more about the teponaztli drum...

Learn more about the huehuetl drum...

Dr. Arnd Adje Both has answered 2 questions altogether:

Why did many Aztec musical instruments have animal designs on them?

How did they decide what to make their musical instruments out of?

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