Palatial soundscapes : music in Maya court societies

Duke, Bethany Kay
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title

Music is a powerful force. It highlights social hierarchies and relationships. It is a means by which the ordinary everyday can be transformed into the sacred. It has the ability to change our daily routine. How though, was music used, and in what ways did it function in the courtly society of the ancient Maya? In Classic Maya iconography we frequently find scenes of dance performance, ritual, or palace scenes depicted with musicians. Rarely however, are musicians the central focus of the action taking place. Were Maya musicians simply a background ‘soundtrack’ to the primary action unfolding or were they an integral part of Maya courtly life?This thesis conducts an iconographical analysis of the representations of music, musical instruments, and musicians among the Maya along with the consideration of archaeological evidence. The evidence considered comes primarily from the iconography of musicians and musical instruments depicted on several painted ceramic vessels but also takes into consideration iconography found in the murals of Bonampak and the paintings at Naj Tunich Cave, as well as archaeological evidence that appears in the form of preserved instruments at sites such as Pacbitun and the Copan Valley.

 For the ancient Maya, music was segmented. This is seen in the types of instruments and their groupings as portrayed in Maya iconography. These groupings denote differing categories of musical forms and functions which pertain to particular settings, such as interior palace settings as compared to exterior public settings.In exploring these images, many characteristics common to the depiction of musicians in interior palace settings become apparent that are not see in depictions of musicians in exterior public settings. First, the musicians are depicted kneeling, seated, or standing still. Second, they are located furthest from the most prominent figure. Third, acoustics do not affect instrument choice. Fourth, the form of attire varies more greatly in interior settings than in exterior settings. Finally, the order of instruments remains as standard as those in exterior settings. These scenes provide further evidence of instrument specialization and musical segmentation in Maya music and emphasize the significance music held in Ancient Maya Culture.