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Jazzy Trumpets of the Ancient Maya

THEY BLARED AHEAD of royal entourages, announcing their impending departure to far-away lands or heralding their arrival into a city or temple. Accompanied with drums and rattles, they enlivened frenzied dances before members of the elites, exalted the mood in victory and sacrificial rituals and added to the anticipation in the ball court. Such was the ubiquity of trumpets during Classic Maya times (250 to 900 CE.)

Figure 1. A ball game match is heralded with conch shell and trumpet (Kerr Catalog K5937, see also K3814) [1]

Their utilization was commonly to signal the beginning and end of events and to coordinate activities in between; as such, their sound would not require complex musicality. After all, the purpose of trumpets in those instances was to broadcast information to all corners.

However, there are also multiple instances depicted in polychrome clay vases from the Classic Maya where trumpets appear instead to add to the mood inside palatial chambers. Those illustrations often describe intimate events where a lord is pampered with food, drinks, flowers, and music, all within the narrow confines of a palatial room (see Figure 2 below and also K6984 of the Maya Vase Catalog [1]). Such scenes are intriguing because, while trumpets have been used since antiquity by various cultures around the world as military communication tools (for example, the Greek salpinx, bronze-age Nordic lur or the famous Egyptian metal trumpets), their utilization for their musicality in the western world is rather recent, beginning really with natural trumpets during the Baroque period. Thus, evidence of the use of trumpets in the classic Maya world for the purpose of musically enhancing the ambient would be quite unique. As one would expect, the characteristics of a trumpet when used for the purpose of melodic output within the reduced space of a palatial chamber, must be very particular: far from sheer loudness, what is desirable is the production of soft, multiple tones from the instrument, akin to what could be obtained, for example, from flutes. But did the Classic Maya possess such type of trumpet? Before addressing this question, let's look at what the Ancient Maya left us in regard to lip-reed instruments in their area.

Figure 2. A lord addresses visitors in his chambers while his attendants watch and musicians play a pair of long trumpets and a conch shell (Kerr K1453).[1]

Types of trumpets in Classic Maya times, according to their use and construction

When they appear in the context of victory parades and ceremonies where many people participate, trumpets are typically huge and have a large conical shape. Based on the murals at Bonampak and numerous representations in ceramic vases, it has been suggested that the hollowed trunk of agave or other plants from the yucca genus were used. Such enormous conical trumpets with a large opening as mouthpiece would have yielded a single or very few low notes, akin to the didgeridoo of the Australian aborigines.

Of a similar signaling nature, we also find long, segmented trumpets with a cylindrical body, to which a wide conical section made from gourd, bark or wood frame, sometimes wrapped in animal skin, was added. Examples are those shown in vases from the Chama mountains in central Guatemala, depicting typically a traveling cortege. The cylindrical section in those trumpets was fabricated in a manner practiced by many cultures around the world: by splitting longitudinally long and uniform woody branches that have a soft core, such as palms, sauco and bamboo, followed by removal and polishing of the soft core, and reattachment of the two halves with a sealant material, such as rubber latex. Finally, to reinforce the bond of the two halves, the tube was tightly wrapped with plant ribbons, such as those obtained from vines, palm leaves or reeds. An identical process is still used today by indigenous people in the Amazon to fabricate blowguns [2], and was implemented in medieval times in Europe to make the Nordic wooden trumpet or lur [3]. Maya vases also show this type of construction in blowguns.

Figure 4. (a) Wrapping a split cane with vine ribbons for a blowgun in the Amazon (b) Recreation of a trumpet tube by splitting, core removal, re-gluing and wrapping with plant ribbons (lake reeds).

Figure 4. Traveling cortege with four men carrying wrapped split-tube trumpets and led by a conch shell player (Kerr K6317)[1]. The trumpets incorporate large, cupped mouthpieces and tightly bound cylindrical bodies ending in open gourds.

Acoustics of a trumpet

Any cylindrical tube can function as a basic lip-reed instrument or trumpet. Sound waves generated at one end by the musician’s vibrating lips (mouth end) travel along the length of the tube and are partially reflected at the open end, overlapping with waves traveling in the opposite direction. When the length of the column of air in the tube is equal to an odd multiple of ¼ of the sound wavelength (for a tube closed at the mouth and open at the other extreme), the two waves traveling in opposite directions form a stationary wave, with a minimum of displacement amplitude at the mouth end and a maximum of displacement at the open end. That is, the column can naturally vibrate in any of a series of vibration modes with wavelength λ(n) = n·(L/4) where L is the tube length and n= 1, 3, 5, … etc. The lowest mode with wavelength L/4 is the fundamental mode. The other modes are odd harmonics of the fundamental. What is special about trumpets is that any of those harmonics can be excited with the appropriate lip vibration and a suitable mouthpiece. That is, a simple tube already contains a series of inherent tones that constitute a basic scale dictated by physics. However, one still needs the appropriate mouthpiece to facilitate the production of those various notes.

The addition of a mouthpiece with small cavity or cup (a resonator in itself) and a flared bell at the other extreme modify the frequency spectrum of a trumpet. For example, in modern trumpets, they give rise to a spectrum of even and odd harmonics. As is well known to trumpetists, by exciting a particular harmonic with the vibration of the lips, the trumpet can generate any of the pitches corresponding to multiples of the fundamental. For a natural (valveless) trumpet, up to a dozen tones can be produced.

Furthermore, although the first few natural notes of the trumpet are widely spaced among themselves, they cluster together as the higher harmonics are excited, acquiring a semblance of a musical scale. In fact, in modern instruments, those are the notes we typically hear in military bugle calls. As higher harmonics are played, more notes become available, making it possible to play more complex melodic pieces.

Now, in order to produce the higher notes and thus be able to play more varied melodies, a proper mouthpiece is critical. As is known to trumpetists, the shape of the mouthpiece (diameter, rim thickness, cup shape and depth, throat diameter and length) have a crucial influence on the ease with which the notes in the harmonic series are produced in such “natural” trumpets. We can therefore see that, to investigate the complexity of music played by the ancient Maya in trumpets, it is necessary to identify and study the shape of their mouthpieces.

Mouthpieces of Maya Trumpets

Pictorial and sculptural representations of Maya trumpets show that the instrument often had a separate, typically cup-shaped mouthpiece inserted into the tubular (cylindrical or conical) body.

Figure 5. Chama style vase with representation of trumpet consisting of conical gourd, cylindrical body and cup-shaped mouthpiece (Kerr K594).[1]

There is also elsewhere in Mesoamerica (for example, Teotihuacan) clay trumpets with mouthpieces that have an inner conical shape, with narrow throat and rounded rim. The Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City also has a short, single-piece clay trumpet that gives further evidence of the employment of conical mouthpieces with a very narrow throat orifice.

Figure 6. Clay trumpet with mouthpiece, body and bell in one piece. The detail shows the conical shape of the mouthpiece (Detail and approximate dimensions courtesy of Mr. Ken Moore, Curator Emeritus, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

Figure 7. Two views of a short clay trumpet from Jaina Island, Campeche, Mexico. The mouthpiece has a wide, conical shape but a narrow orifice or throat (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico city. Photos: E. Figueroa)

In view of the abundant pictorial representations of trumpets in Maya art, it is very surprising that there are no reports known to the author of individual mouthpieces found in the classic Maya area. This may be due to the use of wood, bone or other perishable material in their construction, although it is also likely due to misidentification of the mouthpieces with other artifacts, particularly ear spools.

Clay is a readily available material for mouthpieces implemented in trumpets fabricated as a single piece. Thus, we anticipate that, with more careful examination, examples of trumpet mouthpieces made from this material will be identified in the future in the Maya area. As a useful reference, we mention the recovery of what is believed to be a trumpet mouthpiece at Río Viejo, an Early Post-classic site in coastal Oaxaca, a site that has yielded various types of musical instruments.[4] This appears to be an insertable mouthpiece of length ~ 8.8 cm and diameter at the mouthpiece of ~ 2.5 cm. The mouthpiece cavity is approximately conical, with a center orifice of diameter ~ 0.5 cm. Interestingly, it also presents a light indentation around the shaft about 2.5 cm from the rim, which could indicate the depth to which the mouthpiece was inserted into the cylindrical body of the trumpet. The rim is quite thick, about 2.5 mm, which would have allowed a good seal with the musician’s lips. In fact, the overall dimensions and geometry of the cavity and orifice are remarkably similar to modern trumpet mouthpieces. This artifact is an excellent reference when searching for additional similar items in the Maya area, either in current collections or yet to be discovered.

Figure 8. Post-classic clay artifact from Río Viejo, Coastal Oaxaca, believed to be a trumpet mouthpiece.

(Photo courtesy of Dr. Stacie King, Department of Anthropology, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.)

Bells of Maya trumpets

From the ancient bronze Greek salpinx and Scandinavian lur, to terracotta trumpets of the Moche people in South America, it has been realized for thousands of years the focusing power of a flared end of a trumpet. As noted, the Maya attached mostly conical sections made from bark and animal skin or attached bells made from gourds to cylindrical wooden tubes. They also appear to have employed the natural flare of trunks from the Agavaceae family. Often, we see trumpeters playing in pairs and even trios (see K6984 and K6294 in the Kerr database)[1]. The instruments typically consist of a cylindrical tube with a separate, insertable mouthpiece and a separate conical section that has been affixed to the tube by wrapping with plant ribbons. There are also pictorial representations of one-piece trumpets with a conical tube, likely made from hollowed softwood.

Subdued trumpet sounds in the courts of Maya royalty

RETURNING TO OUR SEARCH for the musicality of Maya trumpets, where the instrument would have been used for its pleasant, sonorous qualities, we point to a well-known classic Maya vase where two musicians are shown playing trumpets that feature a globular gourd at its far end. The vase (catalogued as number K1210 in the J. Kerr catalog [1]), shows a scene with two trumpeters inside a palace, Figure 2. Believed to originate from Northern Petén, Guatemala, this vase was looted several decades ago and became part of the private collection of Mr. Edwin Pearlman, an ophthalmologist in the United States. He subsequently donated it to the Museum of Israel, where it is currently kept in the Ethnic Arts section.[5]

In this vase’s scene, a character with an otherworldly headdress offers food or drink to a sitting lord who, adorned with quetzal feathers and a fancy bird headdress, seems eager to taste the food. Floating on the upper band of the base are four-petal flowers, which add to the sensorial imagery. And behind the man with the offering, two trumpeters prepare their embouchure to play their instruments.

Figure 9. Musicians playing trumpets ended in globular gourds, K1210.[1]

The two trumpets are essentially of the same type, consisting most likely of a short, split-wood tube tightly wrapped with plant ribbons, and having a small diameter mouthpiece with shaft fully inserted into the tube. Furthermore, the illustration unequivocally shows a very small orifice for the mouthpiece. At the output extreme, the tube terminates in a round gourd with long, twisted neck. As in other scenes, the trumpet’s output is adorned with feathers, and a volute representing the sound emanates from one of them. Quite significantly, unlike the large mouthpieces of the Bonampak trumpets, these instruments have a small-area mouthpiece, and the trumpeters themselves are shown approaching it with their lips closed, as they would with a modern trumpet. Whether musicians represented in pairs, as in this scene, actually played together in some sort of coordinated fashion is the subject of discussion among experts, but the possibility of multi-tone melodic phrases is intriguing.[6]

As is well known by trumpetists, a small mouthpiece, as depicted by the Maya artist of K1210, facilitates the production of high notes. This is because a shortened width of the lips entrapped by the mouthpiece results in a higher stiffness of the formed slit, and consequently a higher frequency of vibration. While a skilled player can produce both low and high notes with a wide mouthpiece, a smaller mouthpiece rim makes it easier to reach the higher harmonics. Furthermore, as explained before, exciting the upper harmonics in the trumpet makes available a wider variety of musical tones and the possibility of melodies.

But what is even more intriguing about the instruments in the scene is the adaptation of a globular gourd with a long neck at the output. We can anticipate from modern modalities of playing the trumpet that such addition would both reduce the loudness of the resulting sound and modify its timbre. From the physical point of view, the gourd is the equivalent of a modern Harmon mute for the trumpet, in essence, a Helmholtz resonator acting as a band-pass filter. Such type of mute was popularized by the great American jazz trumpetist Miles Davis.

As in the Harmon mute case, the globular volume of air with its spring-like behavior and the air in the neck (mass-like behavior) couple to the oscillation in the cylindrical tube. The result is a sound that seems distant, subdued, and rich in high harmonics (the result of filtering the lower frequencies). In fact, when the early version of a Harmon mute was patented in 1865, it was described primarily as a manner of reducing the loudness during practice.

This construction of trumpets by the Maya appears to be described in Fray Diego de Landa's “Relación de las cosas de Yucatán” of 1566:

Y tienen trompetas largas y delgadas de palos huecos, y al cabo unas largas y tuertas calabazas[7]

("And they have long, thin trumpets made of hollow poles with long, crooked gourds at their end")

The utilization of trumpets with gourd mutes makes sense in the context in which they are shown being played. The scene in K1210 takes place inside the narrow, intimate space of a palace. The occasion is one for the senses: the aroma and taste of food, the beauty of flowers, and adding to it, the gentle sounds of trumpets. The combination of a small mouthpiece, which opens the possibility of producing higher, closely-spaced notes occurring naturally in the tube’s air column, and the softened, distant timbre of the gourd mute, lend themselves to imagine sounds whose purpose was for pleasure and enjoyment, even in the context of a ceremony, as opposed to simple signaling.

The generation of various pitches from individual trumpets playing in coordination would allow the production of some type of harmony from identical instruments. Although we do not know if more than one trumpet were played in unison or in some form of coordination, as in an ensemble, the construction of the above devices strongly suggests at least the physical possibility of producing multi-tone melodies, as an ensemble.

Recreating a globular (muted) trumpet

For this purpose, we molded bakeable polymer clay mouthpieces with the general dimensions and characteristics of conical-body and cupped mouthpieces, as depicted in polychrome vases, as well as based on the few known Mesoamerican instruments, such as the Teotihuacan trumpet [8].

Figure 10. Recreations of conical and cupped clay mouthpieces. The latter, of the type appearing in Figure 5, has a narrow shank to allow full insertion into the trumpet tube, exposing only the embouchure cup, as represented in K1210 above.

For the body of the trumpet we have used the method of longitudinal splitting and emptying of the core of woody branches, such as bamboo palm, available in the Mesoamerican area and used until recently for the construction of blowguns [9]. After emptying and polishing the core of a 96 cm long rod, the two halves were reattached with liquid rubber and tightly wrapped with reeds. Additional turns of reed at the extremes form a stop against which the gourd is affixed. We selected for the globular chamber round “dipper gourds” with diameter of ~ 13 cm and long, bending output neck of length ~ 12 cm and inside diameter of 2.5 cm.

Figure 11. Lateral view of a recreated Maya trumpet with gourd mute.

A comparison of the sound produced, using the same mouthpiece and cylindrical tube, but with exchangeable open gourd bell and mute gourd (the latter recreating that of vase K1210), allows for a direct comparison of the sound from both types of trumpet. As expected, the gourd mute not only reduces the overall volume but strongly modifies the timbre of the emitted sound: it confers a quiet, mellow sound akin to a harmonica or perhaps a bagpipe.

In summary, we propose that, even though it is not known whether the ancient Maya played trumpets in a melodic manner (as opposed to straight signaling), both the context of their appearance in painted vases and the physical characteristics of their construction (most notably vase K1210) point to their utilization as true musical instruments. In order to confirm this thesis, more specimens of trumpet mouthpieces must be identified and studied for their sound production capabilities. While the trumpet's cylinder and bell define the specific frequencies of the harmonic series of a given specimen, it's the mouthpiece's shape and dimensions that enable the use of the trumpet as a true musical instrument, because it facilitates the generation of multiple pitches based on the overtones (which approximate a harmonic series) as each overtone is excited by the vibration of the lips against the mouthpiece. Furthermore, a unique kind of trumpet incorporating a globular gourd as a mute device produces a subtle, mellow sound appropriate for soft music within the small chamber of a palace. This finding suggests that the Classic Maya invented and utilized trumpet mutes more than a thousand years before they were introduced by Jazz players in modern times.

[1] See Database of Maya vases by Justin Kerr at

[3] See a demonstration of a lur replica at

[4] King, Stacie., and Sanchez Santiago, G., Soundscapes of the Everyday in Ancient Oaxaca, Archaeologies, V.7, No. 2, 201.

[5] Old Gods and Young Heroes, The Pearlman Collection of Maya Ceramics, M. Coe and J. Kerr, Brodock Press Inc., Utica, NY, USA.1982

[6] Stockli, Matthias, Trumpets in Classic Maya Vase Paintings, Music in Art XXXVI, 1-2, 2011.

[8] Approximate measurements of the Teotihuacan trumpet were kindly provided to the author by Mr. Ken Moore, Curator Emeritus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2021.

[9] Ventura, C. The Jakaltek Maya Blowgun in Mythological and Historical Context, Ancient Mesoamerica 14, (2003), 257-268, Cambridge University Press.


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