There is no doubt about the importance of Prehispanic music in Mexico. Of the relevant role it played in the rites and of its undeniable mythic facet there are numerous testimonies in chronicles, codices, and murals. Beside a large group of objects from different times and cultures give account of the variety of instruments used for its execution.
In Mesoamerica multifaceted musical cultures flourished. The environmental sounds as instrumental and vocal music were much related to the religious conceptions.
While the origin of the music instruments had mythological roots, the sound of the most sacred instruments was considered the voice of the gods. Because they were considered divine recipients, the instruments were treated with great respect, even temples and altars were dedicated to them, were they were worshiped next to the statues of the gods of music and dance.
The research of musical cultures in Mesoamerica is based on the study of a great amount of sound artifacts and art representations that manifest a ritual employment of music and dance. Written sources from early colonial time provide revealing information where a comparison between music and dances from contemporary ethnic groups, where prehispanic elements survive with great historic profoundness.
History of Music in Mesoamerica.
Archaic Period (before 2500 B.C.).
The origins of music in Mesoamerica get lost in the darkness of history. Although it is probable that with the first population of the continent came the bone flutes that in the old world were known during the Superior Paleolithic (40000-10000 B.C).
In the group of prehistoric musical instruments manufactured by hunters-gatherers around 10000 B.C are found bone whistles with a perforation, which can produce animal sounds.
Imitation of natural sounds constituted an efficient remedy and a magical means of communication.
Imitation of animal sounds for hunting proved that it was possible to influence the natural environment trough sound. Probably, the ritual evocation for rain trough Maracas was originated based on this observation.
With the fabrication of instruments that produced sounds that did not exist in nature the idea that artificial sounds were associated to religious conceptions grew stronger. Among the first instruments in Mesoamerica used for this purpose are found the bone scrapers, turtle shells and seashell sartales.
It is probable that this instruments were used in ritual activities, in which sounds, rhythm and movement performed a very important role to enter in contact with the spiritual world.
Preclassic (2500 B.C-150 A.C.).
Great part of the prehispanic musical instruments was conformed during the construction of the first ceremonial centers. In a simultaneous manner with ceramic development whistles and flutes with small orifices were fabricated. Which indicates that similar instruments, made with vegetal materials were known from previous times. Among funerary discoveries from Tlatilco, State of Mexico, shell trumpets were found, which indicates that commerce channels were wide. Calling instruments, which their vibrating sound could be heard from long distances, had great importance in the cult.
The figurines from Tlatilco represented musicians with maracas, drums and flutes, which demonstrates the complexity of the musical activities during the Medium Preclassic (1200-300 B.C.). The whistling vases belong to the group of the fascinating instruments of Tlatilco. Filled with water, these vases sounded with motion alone without the need of blowing; therefore a magical ritual function was attributed.
Fabrication of flutes with the shape of birds, felines, snakes and other animals, also suggest ritual use, given the fact that they were frequently considered divine animals.
Shell trumpets that were placed in the tombs in the Occident during the Late Preclassic (300 B.C-150 A.C) are decorated with paintings al fresco. It was in the cultures from the Occident the first double flutes were fabricated that can produce interference and psychoacoustic effects. The figurines demonstrate that shamans used drums, ma racas and bone scrapers. To achieve trance states related with the music psychoactive substances found in sacred plants were consumed.
Classic (150-750/900 A.C)
The great number of artifacts found as many art representations show the importance of musical activities and dance. The production of diverse ceramic wind instruments demonstrates that even the smaller regional centers had their own music. Several discoveries, among them a burial in Tres Zapotes, Veracruz, prove the employment of bread flutes. Fabrication of flutes reached its climax with quadruple flutes from Teotihuacan, State of Mexico and they demonstrate the development of complex musical scales.
In the famous murals of Bonampak, Chiapas a Mayan ceremony with dance and music is appreciated; in which musicians of the court appear with trumpets, turtle shells, pumpkin maracas and a big sized drum. Seashell trumpets reached such sacred status, that temples were dedicated to them. For example the Templo de los Caracoles Emplumados de Teotihuacan; murals in the Conjunto de los Jaguares portrait felines blowing feathered seashell trumpets in a procession of jaguar priests. Other murals in Teotihuacan demonstrate that trumpets emit sound by themselves in order to join the apparitions of the gods.
Instruments are closely related to fertility rituals, with sacrifices and with the underworld.
Other extraordinary instruments, also related to the underworld are two big whale bone scrapers, located in Monte Albán, Oaxaca. The ribs were probably considered remains of gigantic creatures of past eras; it is believed that they took a very important place in the cult to their ancestors.
Post classic (900-1521 A.C)
New technologies, like Metallurgy allowed the addition of cascabeles and metal plaques made of copper that were probably used as small gongs.
Gold jingle bells were offered to el Cenote Sagrado in Chichen Itzá, Yucatán, and also to mixteca burials in Monte Albán. Metallic sounds were considered the expression of royal power by excellence.
Mexica drums are the proof of a highly developed skill in wood carving. The famous huéhuetl of Malinalco shows the symbol of the fourth movement (nahui ollin), related to the fifth era, Xochipili, the music god, as well as dancing jaguars and eagles, and the atltlachinolli, metaphor for war.
A representation in stone of a Teponaztli shows Macuilxochitl, a god closely related to Xochipili, with a flower around his mouth, metaphor for music and sacrifice, and his eyes in the palm of his hands. The sides were decorated with representations of jaguar skin.
In the excavations of the Recinto Sagrado of Tenochtitlan a great amount of musical instruments were found. These discoveries provide valuable information about ritual music and also reflect the association between the sounds, the aquatic underworld and the sphere of Tlaloc.
In the Red Temples mexica music gods were honored. And in the altars monumental representations of seashell trumpets were honored.
Sources from the Early Colonial time
Ethnic historical documents indicate that mexicas marked the difference between temple music, played by the priests, and court music, executed by professional musicians. The priests played before the nocturne sacrifices in a ritual called tlatlapitzaliztli. At midnight the tozohualiztli (the night guard) took place, which also joined the astronomic observations at the temples. The priests that were also musicians resided in the Recinto Sagrado and professional musicians in the palace.
The codices show that the danzantes frequently used the feathered pumpkin shakers, while the drummers stayed in the center of the dancing circle.
It is known that there was war music, used in surprise attacks and as a horn. For the conquerors, this noise was extremely unpleasant and dreadful, as much as the music used in human sacrifices, while the solemn songs and dances for grand ceremonies caused great admiration.
Myth and Music
In the mexica mythology valuable information about the importance of the instruments is preserved. La Leyenda de Los Soles explains the origin of the seashell trumpet. At the beginning of the fifth era Quetzalcoatl traveled to the underworld to seek the kingdom of the lord of the dead: Mictlantecuhtli. There, he had to find bones that belonged to beings from past eras, with which the human being would be created.
In order to be able to take the bones, Quetzalcoatl had to play the seashell trumpet that belonged to the lord of the underworld four times facing the four cardinal points. Nevertheless, the trumpet was still to be created; it needed to be pierced to make a mouthpiece.
Quetzalcoatl achieved this with his magic, and with the help of the insects that pierced the seashell. After Quetzalcoatl played the trumpet, Mictlantecuhtli had to permit his enemy’s exit with the precious bones.
Men’s creation was announced in the underworld with the seashell trumpet, which is why great creative potential was imputed to its sound. As a wind instrument, the trumpet was closely associated to Quetzalcoatl’s magical powers. The symbolism of numbers and directions also performed a very important part in other instruments, like the set of flutes of Tezcatlipoca.
There is a myth that tells how drums were first created. In an era when in Earth music was yet to exist, these instruments lived as singers in the court of the Sun. To give human beings the chance to communicate with the gods, Tezcatlipoca-according to one version of the myth-and Ehécatl-according to another-started a journey to the Sun to attract the singers to Earth using their ritual songs. Even though the Sun prohibited the singers to listen, their songs were so powerful that the singers were drawn to Earth, where they finally materialized as drums.
This myth describes drums as divine beings that descended from the sphere of the Sun, indicating that they where sound idols that were inhabited by divine beings during the rituals. This music was considered the ritual voice or Florid Singing of the gods. Musicians occupied the position of expert mediators; they established a communication with the spiritual world, enjoying great prestige, due to the fact that they permitted the gods voices to manifest. This explains the formalization of the musical activities, which at the time of the conquest had a 3000 year history.