Musical Instruments

In this section, you can know more about 20 musical instruments in the Museum´s collection through photographs, sound clips, diagrams and explanations.

Music was an important part of pre-Columbian societies. Musical instruments and songs played a key role in major social events such as New Year celebrations, agricultural festivals, and investitures of new rulers, as well as in family celebrations relating to marriage, rites of passage and funeral rites.

Each type of event had its own melodies that had to be played on the right instruments, as music was thought to affect all planes of existence: It resonated in the world of the gods and affected climate, fertility and death. For ancient cultures, music therefore did much more than accompany life –it also played a central role in defining the future.

Flutes are the most common instruments in Central and South America pre-Columbian collections, and they are most often ceramic. They tend to adopt a symmetrical fingering scheme, so the musician’s hands can work as mirror images of each other. This system allows the flute to be finely adorned without adding excessive technical complications (for example, the Tairona ocarina, or the Nasca globular flutes).

Another fascinating North-Andean instrument is the whistling bottle, which produces sound from the movement of the water it contains without any need for blowing over or into the neck. This produces a distinctive sound, the sound of the water played through a whistle or flute.

Another kind of wind instrument –here represented by a single artifact, the very ancient Arica double whistle– produces high, dissonant and penetrating sounds that can be heard from a great distance. This type of effect is related to the use of music as a means of entering a trance, a phenomenon that is still widespread in the southern Andes of today.

The quena, a classic Andean instrument, has been used by cultures spanning a wide range of regions and eras. In contrast, the Mapuche piloilo is unique to a certain period in the south of Chile. Finally, the shell trumpet, an instrument common to many coastal peoples, was taken to an unequalled height of craftsmanship by ancient ceramic artists on the shores of the central Andean region.

The rest of the instruments on display here are linked to symbols of power and the movement of individuals (the metal rattles) or llama caravans (the Atacaman llama bell or cancagua). There are also other instruments that were used universally (the Arica drum), and some about which we know little (the Arica rattle).