General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 22 Nov 2017/7 Movement
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Our In-House Team

Question for July 2007

Why did they put holes [gaps] in the [upright huehuetl] drums? Asked by Redriff Primary School. Chosen and answered by Our In-House Team.

Fine replica huehuetl drum from Malinalco; though beaters are sometimes used nowadays by musicians recreating the music, Aztec players used their hands
Fine replica huehuetl drum from Malinalco; though beaters are sometimes used nowadays by musicians recreating the music, Aztec players used their hands (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs were fine musicians, employing a wide range of instrument types, materials, pitches, tones, scales, rhythms and playing styles. Central to any Aztec musical performance was the vertical wooden drum (known as ‘huehuetl’) and the horizontal slit gong drum known as teponaztli. The huehuetl belongs to a class of musical instrument known as ‘membranophone’ because it has a skin or membrane surface to play on. The word ‘huehuetl’ means ‘venerable old [man]’ in Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs, and the huehuetl has been called ‘the most venerated of Mexican instruments’ (Robert Stevenson).

Aztec tlalpanhuehuetl player, Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford); notice the jaguar skin drumhead!
Aztec tlalpanhuehuetl player, Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford); notice the jaguar skin drumhead! (Click on image to enlarge)

Usually huehuetls were made of cylindrical wooden frames standing on three legs, with open spaces between the legs. Most Aztec huehuetls were covered in jaguar skin: playing with the hands on the evenly stretched skin, a good musician could get two different sounds from the drum - each tone a musical fifth apart from the other - by beating the drum either near the rim or near the centre.

Aztec huehuetl shapes became standardised, though the size could vary from small ‘huehuetl’, medium ‘panhuehuetl’ up to massive ‘tlalpanhuehuetl’ that had to be played standing up. The three legs with sawtooth edges were iconic [they became conventional] and some have suggested that they symbolised lightning. The design was elegant and also for a purpose: to allow firelighters to be introduced through the gaps to heat the skin.

All membranophone drums have to be ‘tuned’ - the skin (or ‘drumhead’) needs to be tightened ‘on the day’ to give the best sounding tone. Modern drums have metal tuning screws (or ‘tension rods’) to make adjustments easy; in the past many drums had ropes and pegs attached to the drumhead. But the Aztecs used a technology that is older still - heat. Many professional drummers nowadays will keep an electric hairdryer in the boot of their car as a back-up, and use it if necessary to tune the drumhead: the heat rises from underneath, quickly dries out the skin and in so doing causes it to shrink slightly. This drying and tightening of the skin has the same effect as stretching it, which in turn improves the tone of the drum no end. And the glowing sight of burning firelighters under the large Aztec war drums must have been particularly dramatic...!

See our ‘Aztec War Drum’ video!

Learn more about drums generally from Wikipedia

Our In-House Team has answered 20 questions altogether:

Did the Aztecs have different types of chewing gum to today’s?

Did the Aztecs have a god of snow?

Which parts of the Day of the Dead festival go back to the Aztecs?

Why did they put holes [gaps] in the [upright huehuetl] drums?

Was Snake Woman an Aztec empress?

How big was the Aztec army?

Did they have First Aid?

Which pet was the Aztecs’ favourite?

Why did they call them ‘chinampas’?

Did the Spanish have an interpreter when they conquered the Aztecs?

Which was the Aztecs’ most fearsome weapon?

Why was the Sun God called Tonatiuh?

Did they send post (mail)?

Did they have the same seasons as we do?

What did they do with the shells of armadillos after eating the meat?

Why didn’t Aztec houses have doors?

Which was the biggest group [job sector] in Aztec society?

Why is it better to support loads on the forehead and not on the shoulders?

When children were punished, how long were they held over smoking chillies for?

What was the Aztecs’ greatest fear?

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Many thanks, Michael, for this useful information. We would definitely second you on this...
Mexicolore replies: I’m afraid we’re very out of touch on this sort of question, Zoe, being based in England, UK. I’ll try and put out some feelers and let you know if I hear of a likely good source.