Making a Tlapitzalzintli 1 from Templo Mayor, Mexico City Museum

Roberto Velázquez Cabrera

First version June 11, 2001. Last actualization 2 September 30, 2001


The objective of this paper is to provide insight into a possible way that might have been originally used in the construction of four small Mexica 3 flutes that were on exhibition in the Templo Mayor Museum of Mexico City. They were found in an Offering of the Game of Balls of the main Tenochtitlan Ceremonial Center Precint with whistles, models of other musical instruments (little Teponaztlis 4 and drums of clay ), polished stones and other artifacts. The tubes of the flutes are closed with a representation of the face of Xochipilli, who is the god of music, dance, singing and game.

The Mexica flutes of small format are unique in archaeological finds and represented for the makers challenging processing, construction and playing, whose details are currently unknown. The display does not provide the public with any other information concerning the flutes and Offering.

I have made copies of the flutes using a very fine clay, without sand. It is commercially called "Oaxaca". (Oaxaca is a State of Mexico). It is good for making small pieces and it has a shrinking factor during drying and burning of ~ 8%. The clay of Mexica flutes seems to be sandier, but its analysis is not known. The copy obtained in the exercise described below is not necessarily exact in its dimensions and forms, since drawings or x-rays of the flutes are not available, and access to the flutes for measurement is restricted. The flutes’ size are between 7.2 and 7.6 cm. They are of similar size but nor equal. The estimation of the measurements from the ancient aerophones were obtained using techniques from copyists like Leonardo da Vincy and a good program for printing digital photos like Fotoshop. Now, I can not put here a photo of the original model because it is necessary to have a permit to do it.

Considering previous experiences in the construction of this type of Mexica flutes and the visual analysis of the little flutes in the display cabinet and other broken flutes of the same structure, it is very probable that the original construction used several pieces and very delicate processes. The main manual work steps and tools may be the following:

Note. A click in the Photo number of each section leads to an illustrative image.

Photo 1. Several tools of wood and clay. Little sticks: a conical one to mold the resonator tube; flattened and sharpened ones to make the mouth, the edge and wind way; and a round one to drill the pitch holes. A clay mold may be used to make the Xochipolli face.

Photo 2. The resonator tube can be formed with a "tortilla" of clay. There are several ways to make a suitable "tortilla" or a plain piece of clay of predetermined thickness. One of them involves two little slabs of the desired thickness. Two flattened sticks or thin trowels can be used (2 mm) and a round wood roller employed in a manner similar to that used in forming a flat mass of wheat dough. The resulting thickness is between 2 and 3 mm. A second approach involves the more common process used in making "tortillas" of maize, using a wooden press.

Photo 3. The clay "tortilla" is coiled around a stick, which is slightly conical and thinner in the far distal end and made of the desired thickness.

Photo 4. The tube is smoothed and cut at both ends (inclined a little) to the desired length (this is not known with precision) anticipating the reduction of the clay after its drying and burning.

Photo 5. A round stick can be used to mark and create the four pitch holes.

Photo 6. With a sharpened and flattened stick it is possible to cut and to mold the mouth and its blade (bevel or edge).

Photo 7. A very delicate operation is the flattening of the bevel and shaping it into a wedge.

Photo 8. The pitch holes are sharpened and the internal flashes are eliminated. The pitch holes and the bevel can be done after covering the tube and putting in the wind way, but this makes it difficult to flatten the holes on the inside, to avoid turbulence which can interfere with the production of pure sounds.

Photo 9. The back of the tube is covered with a flattened piece of clay.

Photo 10. The back piece is flattened at the same level of the superior (upper) part of the sonorous hole or mouth and opposite the face of the bevel or edge.

Photo 11. With another strip of flattened clay the wind way (or air channel) is molded placing it around a stick with the internal form of the wind way. The making of the wind way in a separate form, and its patching to the flute body, is a common practice in many ancient Mexica aerophones (whistles, ocarinas and flutes). This can be verified by observing some broken aerophones in Museums, like the one of Xochimilco or in a whistle from Texcoco that I was able to see.

Photo 12. The molded wind way is placed upon the previously prepared mouth and edge. The direction of the wind way must be adjusted so that the instrument generates clear and strong sounds as the jet stream is split by the edge. It may be necessary to sharpen the bevel. This is an operation of great refinement and gentleness. One tenth of millimeter can make the difference between good sounds and silence

Photo 13. The molded wind way is patched to the tube using two small pieces of flattened clay with the form of a virgule (that also is an ancient symbol related to speaking and singing) in the two sides of the voicing. They also serve as guide for the exit air. The sonorous mechanism must be proved and if it is required it is possible to make new adjustments. The external and inner forms of the mouth are sharpened and aligned.

Photo 14. The face is molded using a piece of clay and the mold.

Photo 15. The back part of the face in the mold is flattened, placed and beaten to the front of the little flute.

Photo 16. The patch is reinforced, with small pieces of clay, having the opportunity to make lateral and superior adjustments to the hair and adornments.

Photo 17. This is the finished flute before firing. Which we can retouch to improve the sonorous mechanism then it is good to let it dry slowly in the shade. After several days it is put in the sun several hours, and then it can be fired with wood or charcoal. Because of its small format and thickness it can be burned in a brazier used for barbecue. It seems that the original flutes did not have painted decorations.

Photo 18. This is the flute after firing.

General comments.

1. The main relevance of this work of a modern tlapitzcalzin 5 is that it provides the first known detailed description of the possible steps used in the making of a relevant ancient clay aerophone.

2. Similar procedures, with small changes, can be applied to other relevant known Mexica flutes like those called muy agudas, Tezcatlipoca, flutes classified by Leopoldo Batres, like the 130 that was analyzed by the author previously, and other from different cultures.

3. Those Mexican flutes can be very similar to the modern recorder, but they were constructed and used many centuries before the perfection of the recorder in other geographical areas.

4.The work will be complemented by the analysis of several experimental replicas and, if it is possible, with the analysis of the flutes from the museum. The final version of this short paper 6 will be included in a Chapter of the study on those little flutes.


  1. Tlapitzalzintli means little flute in Nahuatl, the Mexica language. But this Mexica diminutive means more reverence that smallness. The original designation of those little aerophones was lost and the actual names of whistles, recorders, flutes and ocarinas do not adapt well to them.
  2. The last version of the text was possible thanks to the corrections made by Professor in Chemistry Dr. Ray Dessy, who is also expert in acoustics and lover of flutes and ocarinas. He is interested in ancient aerophones.Other corrections were made by Guillermo Velázquez.
  3. Mexica (Aztec) is the people and culture that lived in Tenochtitlan, before the Conquest
  4. Teponaztli is Mexican drum of hard wood that produce two sounds or notes.
  5. Tlapitzcalzin titeraly means Sir of the flutes house. He was one of the two priest of the Cuicacali (school of music and singing). He provided the instruments for their music.
  6. Consultation. This working paper is for public consultation. I will welcome opinions on better possible way to improve the construction. I posted the paper in several specialized forums like Musical Instruments Maker Forum and Ocarinaclub from Yahoo. I did not get any opinion to improve the construction. The only opinion was from the Cortes brothers from Texcoco, the best Mexican makers of clay singers that I could find. Usually, they make the tone holes and the edge after the assembly of the aerophone, to be able to make them very fast. If this procedure was used in the past, the ancient aerophones must have internal flashes.
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