General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 25 May 2018/9 Alligator
Text Size:

Link to page about the Maya Calendar
Today's Maya date is: 13.0.5.9.1 - 1982 days into the new cycle!
Link to page of interest to teachers
Click to find out how we can help you!
Search the Site (type in white box):

Guess emoticon Guess...

what the Aztecs called music and dance?
Guess correctly button

Article suitable for all

Mexica/Aztec musicians and dancers, Florentine Codex

Basic Aztec Facts: AZTEC MUSIC

Music, song, poetry and dance were all at the HEART of Mexica (Aztec) life. Music was a gift from the gods. So playing music was giving a gift back TO the gods. Each instrument was a precious object and looked after very carefully*. In fact, two Aztec gods had come down to earth in the form of sacred drums... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The two most sacred Aztec drums
Pic 1: The two most sacred Aztec drums (Click on image to enlarge)

The two most important sacred drums were the vertical huehuetl, a large war drum, and the horizontal teponaztli or tongue/slit/gong drum (pic 1). Both wooden, they were often finely decorated with carvings linked to gods and war (see pic 2).

Pic 2: Fine carving of sacred and war symbols in the famous vertical war drum from Malinalco
Pic 2: Fine carving of sacred and war symbols in the famous vertical war drum from Malinalco (Click on image to enlarge)

The materials used to make these instruments were often special, rare, expensive, fine woods from distant lowland forests, and jaguar skins to top them. The drums were stored in temple sanctuaries...

Pic 3: A conch blower in a water ritual; from the ‘Tovar Manuscript’
Pic 3: A conch blower in a water ritual; from the ‘Tovar Manuscript’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Music was part of Mexica ritual and religion - at the centre of daily life. In pic 3 a musician blows a conch shell trumpet during a ritual for channelling fresh water to the city. Nature gods, farming and music were all closely related.

Pic 4: A collection of copies of Aztec instruments: all wind and percussion!
Pic 4: A collection of copies of Aztec instruments: all wind and percussion! (Click on image to enlarge)

The Mexica only played two types of instruments: wind and percussion. So people call the Aztecs ‘blowers and beaters’! In pic 4 you can see drums, shakers, nut shell rattles, bells, flutes, whistles, rain sticks, conch trumpets, ocarinas, whistling jugs...**

Pic 5: Copies of ceramic Aztec whistles
Pic 5: Copies of ceramic Aztec whistles  (Click on image to enlarge)

Most instruments had their own special use. Whistles (pic 5), for example, could be blown to give signals in battle, to imitate and attract birds, in funerals to accompany mourning, to direct the movement of dancers...

Pic 6: Copy of an Aztec ‘death whistle’, blown to imitate wind at its most powerful
Pic 6: Copy of an Aztec ‘death whistle’, blown to imitate wind at its most powerful (Click on image to enlarge)

In the special case of the so-called death whistle (pic 6), this instrument was buried with you to remind you of the scary and powerful sound of wind (think hurricane!). The Mexica believed your soul would face razor-sharp winds as a challenge on your way down to the underworld...

Pic 7: Pure theatre: Aztec musicians and dancers performing beneath the main temple
Pic 7: Pure theatre: Aztec musicians and dancers performing beneath the main temple (Click on image to enlarge)

Music was usually a group thing: a performance for the gods, for the royal court, for the local community, for hundreds of people taking part in ceremonies - often acting out historical events. Temple musicians had privileges (no taxes to pay, nice houses...) but rules were strict: one drum beat out of place and... uh uh! (You’d offended the gods...)

Pic 8: The ‘House of Song’, where youngsters learned to play, sing, chant and dance
Pic 8: The ‘House of Song’, where youngsters learned to play, sing, chant and dance (Click on image to enlarge)

All Mexica children went to (different) schools for boys and girls, but every afternoon they met up at the House of Song (pic 8), where they learned games, music, dance and especially to chant (the Aztecs LOVED to chant).

Pic 9: Aztec dancers move anti-clockwise round the musicians
Pic 9: Aztec dancers move anti-clockwise round the musicians (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec chants tended to build up gradually over several hours, getting louder, faster and stronger, backed by steady, driving rhythms. The Spanish were amazed at how perfectly coordinated and choreographed the (circular) dances were. They always went round ANTI-CLOCKWISE (pic 9).

Pic 10: Dancers perform around a solo woman drummer
Pic 10: Dancers perform around a solo woman drummer (Click on image to enlarge)

You can see dancers (holding flowers, BTW) going in the same direction in pic 10. Look who’s in the middle: a drummer playing a sacred tongue drum and, yes, it’s a woman. Women performed in particular festivals dedicated to goddesses.

Pic 11: Playing stone tinkles; each gives its own unique sound
Pic 11: Playing stone tinkles; each gives its own unique sound (Click on image to enlarge)

In Mexico sounds come naturally from natural materials: stones*** (pic 11), sea shells, gourds, nuts, tortoise****/turtle shells, seed pods, bones, even from...

Pic 12: A skull rasp (bone on bone!)
Pic 12: A skull rasp (bone on bone!)

... human skulls! The god ‘impersonator’ (pic 12) is scraping a bone rasp along the top of a skull, which rests on a woven ring. The skull acts as a ‘resonator’ to amplify the sound. Cool!

Pic 13: A village elder plays an extremely rare original wooden tongue drum
Pic 13: A village elder plays an extremely rare original wooden tongue drum (Click on image to enlarge)

*A very few original Aztec instruments have been kept so carefully within their communities over centuries that their whereabouts today are SECRET! One was kept permanently with a lead round its neck (’to prevent it [its soul] flying away...’) They’re sacred objects of worship, believed to hold spiritual powers to this day. SUPER cool!

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Apr 30th 2018

emoticon ****The Spanish asked Aztec children how they learned to play strange musical instruments so well. The kids replied ‘Our mum and dad tortoise really well’! (You can see an upside-down tortoise-shell drum by clicking on pic 4...)

Visit our main Aztec Music section...

‘How Music Came to the World’

**Learn about our ‘crying boy’ whistling jug...

***SEE singing stones being played...

Feedback button