Latin - Mexican Folk Art Craft

                 History of Prehispanic Musical Instruments



Mesoamerican instruments belong in two groups: idiophones and membranophones.

The existence of chordophones, such as the musical arch (weapon for war and hunting), has never been proved due to lack of archeological evidence. Here is a selection of the known instruments.   


Idiophones are musical instruments which generate sound from the vibration in their body. The chicahuaztli is an idiophone that sounds with an indirect bang described as “palo de sonaja”. It symbolized the solar ray that fertilized the earth. It was the insignia of Xipe Tótec, god of fecundity in earth. In the amoxtin (codices) it has been painted with variations in shape, size and color, as attributions of other gods-of corn, death, wind, life and rain, as well as the goddess of the running waters, medicine and tender corn. As symbol of fecundity he is presented standing straight between the first human couple under a cover. It was in the excavations of the Templo Mayor where these two examples were found. The ayauhchicahuaztli -shaker or haze shaker- described as a board with shakers, magically provided the rain in the etztalcualiztli “meal of cooked corn” festivity. In the ochpaniztli “path sweeping party”, a priest played it along with a danzante and three musicians before Xilonen, “goddess of eternal corn”.

With this instrument they take Acatonal to Tlalocan says the hymn to Tlaloc. The Teponaztli is an idiophone of direct bangs, made of a hollow trunk. With two reeds on the top that form a longitudinal H. it was played with two drumsticks with rubber tips called olmaitl.

The Teponazoani was executed in two ways: sitting on the floor, they placed the instrument over a zacate or braided tule; when standing, they placed it on a wooden support with or without the circunference.

The Mayans named it tunkul, the mixtecos qhu; the zapotecas, nicache;the otomies, nobiuy; and the tarascos, curingua. Their elaboration shows musical knowledge above a primary level, given the fact that the two reeds of preserved examples produce sounds with musical intervals in second mayor, third mayor or minor, fourth or fifth. There are fifteen examples at the National Museum of Anthropology with zoomorphic and human shapes.

The Teponaztli was played during the honors that the elders performed singing and dancing to the most important warriors that had died in war or were captured for sacrifice, like the warrior Huitznahuatl, when the mexicas were defeated by the tarascos. It also marked the rhythm of many chants and dances of the community. The teponazcuicatl chants were named after it, it means chant to the rhythm of the Teponaztli. It was used as a sacrifice stone for the captives after an escaramuza in the party of the panquetzaliztli, rising of the flags and also in the sacrifice of captives that the lords and the kings offered at king Ahuizotl´s funeral.

In the sacrifice of a captive for some merchant’s banquet, who would purchase him at the square for being the best singer and dancer in a group of captives that sang and danced to the rhythm of the Teponaztli and the chants. It is registered in the naandeye, the mixteca codices, that the Qhu was used in the marriage of the governors, and that a township was named after it, the Place of the Qhu.

The ayotl is an idiophone of direct bang, made of turtle shell, played with deer horns. It was believed that the original townships had come from Orient in turtle shells. The ayutl, along with a whale and a mermaid made a bridge so the chanter from Tezcatlipoca, the mirror that smokes, went across the ocean all the way to the House of the Sun and brought chanters and instruments and made him a party.

On its insides inhabited Macuilxochitl, god of music, singing and dance. He was also related to birth, earth and fertility. During the atemoztli festivities, when they celebrated the first rain, it was played along with the Teponaztli and the coyolli, after making images of the mountains. The Mayans named it kayab. The Tarascos played it in the funereal procession of one of their governors.

The coyolli or oyohualli (bells and jingle bells) are idiophones of direct banging trough shaking. They are made of a hollow recipient with an orifice that sometimes contains a little ball inside. They were fabricated from diverse materials such as gold, copper and clay. There are examples made of copper in the shape of an armadillo, seashell and turtle. They were also god attributes, and they wore them in the ankles, like the war gods, the fertility gods, the merchant gods, the pulque gods, the otomi gods, the old man of the fire, the one whom we live for, and the goddess of maintenance, among others. The coyolli featured Coyolxauhqui, in the old fashioned way. In the poetic chants the word oyohualteuhtl means god of the jingle bells and it refers to Huitzilopochtli. The sound of the oyohualli was a metaphor of the battle field, “where the dust between the jingle bells lies”.

It referred to the chanting poet and the wise man as incoyoltototl, “the jingle bell bird” that offers flowers and songs. In the naandeye the symbol of the jingle bell means gold and it determines the name of objects, ornaments, places and people.

The ayacachtli is an idiophone of indirect shaking bangs, constituted by a spherical recipient with orifices and a handle. It contains a determined number of beads (seeds, little clay marbles, or stones), according to the desired sonority. Generally, they were made of guaje fruits. The mixtecos named it doco. Some cultures made them of clay with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic appearance. This being one of Huehuecoyotl´s attributes, god of chant and dance. The oyohualli and the ayacachtli were played in a sort of dialogue, during the assemblies of poets in the shore. In the naandeye the doco determines the name of two places.

Along with the Teponaztli, it joins the ceremonial chant for the mortuary remains of the founder of a dynasty.

The Omichicahuaztli is an idiophone made of bones with parallel grooves carved perpendicularly that produce sound when scraped with a shell of the Oliva genre. Generally it was made of femur. It was related to the world of the dead. In a funereal context mortuary chants were performed to the gods, to the deeds of the deceased, to their relatives, and to grief. Omichicahuaztli of the mexica and Mayan cultures are preserved, the Mayan one is also a horn. In a naandeye the lord 9Wind Quetzalcoatl scrapes it with a bone and sings in a mortuary ritual in which mushrooms are ingested.



Membranophones are music instruments which sound generator is a vibrating membrane. The huéhuetl (drum) is a membranophone of direct banging. It has a tubular cylindrical shape with an open bottom and a leather membrane on the top. It was played with the hands while standing up. It is the most common instrument in Mesoemerica. The Mayans named it zacatán, and the mixtecos, ñuu. Different types of huéhuetl were made in spherical shapes, in a U shape and in a shape similar to a kettledrum. They were also made from different materials, such as the tlacuilolcuahuitl (painted wood), walnut, Encino, ahuhuete and clay. The foundation of the cities was initiated with chants and drums.

The huéhuetl also directed military operations. During funerals it was played by the relatives of the most important warriors killed during combat or to the warriors destined for sacrifice, to join the chants and dances of the women. The expression In huéhuetl in ayacachtli, the drum and the shaker, was one of the symbols of chanted poetry or of the accompaniment of the chants. There is a chant that says that ipalnemohuanithe, the one who gives life, shakes them before the princes, who wrote their chants in books placed next to the drums.  Another chant says that the rulers descended from Tamoanchan to play their florid huéhuetl and ayacachtli with the poets. In the naandeye, the ñuu determined the name of some places, it is carried in a procession and it’s played in funereal ceremonies. 



Aerophones are musical instruments which sound generator is oscillating air. The word tlapitzalli (flute) is the generic name for Aerophones.

There are diverse configurations and classifications of these instruments. The flute is a sub-class which sound mechanism is based on oscillating air generated by the impact of air against an edge.

The mixtecos named it cutu.

In Mesoamerica were used tlapitzalli of straight tube, transverse, global (ocarinas and whistles), global multiples, bread flutes, double flutes, triple and quadruple. In the National Museum of Anthropology a great amount of tlapitzalli of different sizes and kinds are preserved. 

In the toxcatl (drought or lack of water) festivity dedicated to Tezcaltipoca they would sacrifice a young man revered by all and with the disposition for it. He was instructed in the good ways, provided of indulgences for a year and educated to play them and then break them during the sacrifice ceremony. The tlapitzalli and the omichicahuaztli have phallic connotations in many cultures. In the naandeye the cutu determines the name of a person and a place.

The tecciztli is an aerophone classified as a shell trumpet with an orifice for distal blowing. There are also tecciztli with oriphices (occident and Mayan area). It is also named atecocoli or quiquiztli. The mixtecos named it yee.

Some tecciztli with ornamentation have been preserved. There were also tecciztli made of clay in animal and human forms (occident). It was symbol for the ocean, attribute of Quetzalocoatl, Tepeyolotl and Macuilxochitl-Xochipilli, and the matrix where Tecciztecatl, male lunar divinity, was born. 

It was associated with priests, governors and warriors. It was played in battles ceremonies, festivities and sacrifices. It is metaphor for feminine sex in the chanted poems. In the naandeye it appears as an attribute of 9 Viento Quetzlcoatl, and of a nahual priest. It was played when cities were founded, when rulers were born, and it determined the name of places and people.