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Two Aztec teponaztli. The characteristic "H" slits can be seen on the top of the drum in the foreground -- note that one of the tongues is longer than the other. These drums in the American Museum of Natural History are approximately 2 feet (60 cm) long.
A drawing from the 16th century Florentine Codex showing a One Flower ceremony with a teponaztli (foreground) and a huehuetl (background).

A teponaztli is a type of slit drum used in central Mexico by the Aztecs and related cultures.

Teponaztli are made of hollow hardwood logs, often fire-hardened. Like most slit drums, teponaztli have three slits on their topside, cut into the shape of an "H". The resultant tongues are then struck with rubber balls on mallets, which were often made of deer antlers.[1] Since the tongues are of different lengths, or carved into different thicknesses, the teponaztli produces 2 different pitches, usually a third or fourth apart.[2]

Teponaztli were usually decorated with relief carvings of various deities or with abstract designs, and were even carved into the shapes of creatures or humans. Some of these creatures are open-mouthed, providing increased volume through the hole at the end. On other drums, a hole was made on the drum's underside. Teponaztli from the Mixtec culture in what is today south-central Mexico are known for their various battle or mythological scenes carved in relief.

These drums ranged in size from about 1 foot (30 cm) to 4 feet (1.2 metres) long. The larger teponaztli would be rested upon a supporting frame. The smaller ones could either be rested on a frame or carried by straps about the shoulders.

Motolinia, a Franciscan friar and chronicler of post-conquest Aztec life, stated that the teponaztli, or as he called it the contrabajos (counterbass), was often played with the huehuetl skin drum to accompany various dances.[3] In addition to dances, teponaztlis were used to accompanied poetry readings: the sounds of the drum even at times appear within the poetry itself ("totocoto tototo cototo tiquititi titiqui tiquito").[4] This solfege-style notation allows us to reconstruct the rhythms and sounds of the Aztecs.

The drums were also used in other celebrations (as shown in the Florentine Codex above) or in warfare as a means of communication. According to some sources, on important state occasions the blood of sacrificial victims was at times poured into the drum.[5]


  1. ^ Guggenheim.
  2. ^ Collier, p. 404.
  3. ^ Motolinia, Book 2, Chapter 26.
  4. ^ Coe, p. 193-194.
  5. ^ Collier, p.404.


  • Coe, Michael D. (2002); Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, London: Thames and Hudson.
  • Collier, Simon; Skidmore, Thomas E.; Blakemore, Harold (1992) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Latin America and the Caribbean, Cambridge World Encyclopedia, Cambridge University Press.
  • Guggenheim Museum, The Aztec Empire: Catalogue of the Exhibition, Guggenheim Museum, New York.
  • Motolinia, Toribio de Benavente, Historia de los Indios de la Nueva EspaƱa.
  • "Teponaztli", in Dictionary of Musical Instruments, University of Michigan School of Information, Cultural Heritage Initiative for Community Outreach, accessed April 2007.

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