Pre-Columbian Civilizations

Long before any white man ever set foot in this hemisphere, there were fully functional and highly developed societies here. These civilizations were sophisticated, could even be considered more advanced than the European nations at the time. While the rest of the Eastern world was in the dark Middle Ages, the people here were flourishing. The Aztecs were the Native American people who dominated northern Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest led by Hernan CORTES in the early 16th century. According to their own legends, they originated from a place called Aztlan, somewhere in north or northwest Mexico.

At that time the Aztecs (who referred to themselves as the Mexica or Tenochca) were a small, nomadic, Nahuatl-speaking aggregation of tribal peoples living on the margins of civilized Mesoamerica. Sometime in the 12th century they embarked on a period of wandering and in the 13th century settled in the central basin of Mexico (Encarta). Continually dislodged by the small city-states that fought one another in shifting alliances, the Aztecs finally found refuge on small islands in Lake Texcoco where, in 1325, they founded the town of Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City).

Fearless warriors and pragmatic builders, the Aztecs created an empire during the 15th century that was surpassed in size in the Americas only by that of the Incas in Peru. As early texts and modern archaeology continue to reveal, beyond their conquests and many of their religious practices, there were many positive achievements such as the formation of a highly specialized and stratified society and an imperial administration, the expansion of a trading network as well as a tribute system, and the development and maintenance of a sophisticated agricultural economy, carefully adjusted to the land (Mexico).

The Aztecs were very religious and their entire culture revolved around their beliefs. The leader of the Aztec empire was called the tlatoani. He was considered to be a divine descendant of the gods. They built large pyramids and built temples on top of them to worship their many gods. In these temples they would even have human sacrifices. They believed they had to keep the good gods strong and happy, in order for them to prevent the evil gods from destroying the empire. “It is believed that in 1487 there were more than 80,000 human sacrifices to appease the gods (Mexico). ”

Another pre-Columbian civilization that existed in that era was the Maya civilization. They ruled a large part of Central and South America from approximately the years 300 – 900. The Maya were also a farming society like the Aztecs. They too, worshiped many gods, whom they felt were responsible for their survival. Gods of rain, wind, and sun were among the ones most worshiped. Mayan leaders went to war to try and capture the ruler of another city. If they did they would sacrifice the prisoner, again much like the Aztecs (Mexico). The Mayans created many things to affect the world.

They created a 365 day calendar. They also made great strides in mathematics and astronomy. They used the number zero, which was very advanced for their time period. The astronomers were able to tell what day of the week a date would fall on in future years (Encarta). And they were able to calculate the length of years of other planets with remarkable precision given the instruments they had to work with (Mexico). Contrary to popular belief, the Mayan civilization was not one unified empire, but rather a multitude of separate entities with a common cultural background.

Similar to the Greeks, they were religiously and artistically a nation, but politically sovereign states. As many as twenty such states existed on the Yucatan Peninsula, but although a woman has, on rare occasions, ascended to the ruling position, she has never acquired the title of ‘mah kina’ (one of the highest titles that can be achieved)(Encarta). Music was central to both these and other Pre Columbian cultures as a form of religious expression. It was highly developed, including a system of perfect harmony before the West developed anything similar.

Because the instruments were for a religious purpose, they were often elaborately decorated with pictures of gods, whether by painting or carving. They were also decorated with natural subjects, especially the animals to which the peoples were accustomed, and many smaller instruments were formed into animal shapes (Pre-Columbian music). Drums, whistles, ocarinas, trumpets, bells, rattles and single, double, triple and even quadruple flutes were made from wood, clay, reeds, bone or shells.

Peruvians, because of their skill in metallurgy, made trumpets of gold, silver and copper, though few have survived being melted down for their valuable metal. In the Aztec culture, a horizontal drum, the huehuetl or tlapanhuehuetl, was played with the hands, and a vertical drum, the teponaztli, was played with rubber-tipped drumsticks. Rain sticks were used in many cultures to plead with the rain god to send rain by simulating the sound of rain. “Panpipes were popular in the Andean region, though some have also been found in Veracruz, Mexico (Pre-Columbian music). ”

In my opinion, the style sounds like a cross between ancient Egyptian and African music. I find this strange because there was no contact between these civilizations at this time period. The music is almost like the drums you hear being played by the Indians in old western movies, as they are dancing around a fire in the middle of their teepees. This connection makes more sense because; natives of South American and North American probably had some influence on each other. Both of these civilizations flourished in Latin America centuries before it was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus.

However, these great societies were no match for the European invaders. Soon, these once successful and powerful people were enslaved or killed off with the coming of the Spanish colonies due to the diseases and advanced weaponry that they brought with them. Tonal System The Tonal system is the foundation of modern music. It uses a great deal of musical gravity. The tonal system is the structure behind all the music that we hear and love in recent history. The tonal system builds off the principal of pitch, into ones like melody, harmony and chords.

Pitch is the how high or low a sound is. This level is determined by the frequency of whatever is making the sound. The higher the frequency goes, the higher the pitch gets. Pitch ties into the tonal system, the tone of a note is a pitch with a certain frequency to it (Music). Building off of pitch is a melody. Melody is the combination of pitches and rhythms that make up a musical pattern. The melody is what begins to provide shape to the musical piece. The pitches can go up and down, and the rhythm controls the speed at which it does.

Melodies have a beginning, middle, and end. They can be taken apart into phrases. A harmony is built up by the progression of chords. The chord is the sound of a couple of pitches mixed together. The chords can be classified into two categories; Major and minor (Music). All the elements defined above combine to create the shape in the music. The composer will mix up the pitches, melodies, harmonies and so on, to create the shape of the song. He can also add in things like dynamics and meter to create this effect.

The listener of the piece usually picks up on this through the changes in the piece. From a loud part to a soft part, or from melody to harmony, sometimes even the changes in pitch can help a listener hear the musical shape (Tonal system). It can also be created by repeating something in the song. Such as a repeating of the chorus or melody a couple times throughout the piece. Text can add to the effect of the music. The vocal part can add new parts to the harmonies and melodies. The lyrics can also help to create a sense of shape in the music, by telling a story.

The text can also help to accent certain parts in the music, and you can have a vocal melody to accompany the instrument one (Music). The music I like today is built on the structures of the tonal system. They use the pitches and melodies to hook you into the music. Most of the music I like has lyrics to it. This adds the effect of bringing you into the song by shaping it into a story. An example would be “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin, and “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam. I see the tonal system like a stairway; each level builds off the progress of the one before it, and adds something to it.


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