Cerámica de Talavera, detalle

Music in the Museum

Itinerary available in the museum with the Multimedia Guide.

Length: 90'


The beginning of music. Upper Paleolithic Period

Music has accompanied human beings for as long as they have existed, but until very recently it couldn´t be recorded. This fact makes it difficult to study music in ancient civilizations, and even more so at the dawn of human history. Musical instruments are proof of the existence of music in any given civilization. However, the simple, sound-producing instruments crafted by the earliest human beings are practically impossible to identify in archeology. Sticks that tap against each other or an object that produces sound when struck leave no trace or signs of use. In order to make the first flutes, for example, the men and women of the Paleolithic Period probably used the feather shafts or elongated bones of birds, upon which holes were drilled once they had been hollowed out. These might have been some of the first musical instruments of which there remains, unfortunately, very little evidence.

Humanos del Paleolítico , Vitrina 5.7

Upper Paleolithic Period (Sala 5, Vitrina 5.7)

Objects that reveal musical activity

Shells from rivers or the sea, such as these from Los Millares, were probably used while tied together with a hemp or esparto grass cord, which no longer exists. By tying them together, it was easier to strike them against each other to produce sounds. In other examples, they hung from belts, wristbands or ankle bands in order to produce sounds as the wearer danced. This function was in addition to their purely esthetic appeal, given the beauty of the prized mother-of-pearl they contained.

The snail shells suggest more complex use, since they contain holes drilled in a premeditated fashion. Ethno-archeo-musicology has attempted to determine the type of sound they produced and how they were played. These snail shells could be played much like a horn. The user would blow into the narrow opening in order to make use of the rest of the snail shell as a resonating chamber, thus amplifying the sound. By partially covering certain openings, the sound would vary. This was one of the first truly musical manifestations in human history.

Conchas marinas y caracolas. Los Millares, Almería

Sea and snail shells. Los Millares, Almería (Sala 8, Vitrina 8.2)

Making music: a priestly occupation

Ijé was an Egyptian priestess who died around the year 1,000 B.C. The hieroglyphs of her sarcophagus mention her musical abilities. She was a “singer to Ammon”, a priestly office occupied exclusively by women who were tasked with singing, playing instruments and dancing in ceremonies in honor of the god Ammon. They were highly revered in society. As occurs in many other ancient cultures, women played the role of mediators with the gods, particularly through song, the most sublime of the musical arts and a link to the underworld.

In Ancient Egypt, especially during the New Empire, we are aware of the existence of a variety of percussion, wind and string instruments. The harp stands out as a particularly emblematic instrument, which was very well represented through the iconography of the period, appearing mostly in women´s hands and associated with the divine cult. This instrument´s size, shape and number of strings varied considerably over the course of time. Depending on the particular model of the instrument, the minstrel would play it either seated on the ground, standing up or with the instrument resting upon his or her shoulder.

Sarcófago de Ijé, cantora de Amón

Sarcophagus of Ijé, singer to Ammon(Sala 35, Vitrina 35.2)

Instruments for the gods

The sistrum is an instrument made out of a bronze or metal U-shaped frame with a handle, and various movable metal crossbars which, when shaken, clanked against the frame much like a rattle. In addition to producing sound, it repelled insects and curses. It is documented to have existed since the 3rd millennium B.C., associated with the cults to goddesses such as Hathor and Isis. It was considered to offer protection by driving off evil. In Egyptian mythology, Ihy was the god of music. His name meant the player of the sistrum and his music gladdened the hearts of the gods.

In Egyptian culture we are also aware of other percussion instruments used for religious ceremonies, such as finger cymbals, sticks, hand bells or castanet-like tejoletas, including some curious specimens in the shape of a hand. But the musical instrument that is best identified with Ancient Egypt is the sistrum, which later spread to the Greek and Roman world thanks to the cult of the goddess Isis. Female priestesses were mostly responsible for playing these instruments in religious ceremonies.

Sistro egipcio

Egyptian Sistrum (Sala, 34, Vitrina 34.7)

Music, a form of high art

This cabinet displays various Greek musical percussion instruments, such as zills or finger cymbals, tiny metallic discs that produced sounds when struck against each other. It also displays other instruments, such as the tympanum, a hand drum made out of animal skin stretched around a frame, in the hands of a terracotta figurine.

The earliest explanations for the origin of music were mythical. In this regard, Greece assimilated the religious themed tales from eastern peoples as well as from Egypt or Phoenicia. The Greeks were the first Western people to consider music as an art and to integrate musical skills as a basic part of its citizens’ education. Hence, learning how to play was taught in school. In Greece, the term mousikè referred not only to the art of combining sounds, but also comprised the poetic texts and the dances that accompanied the singing. They didn´t understand the one without the other. Anything related to the muses, the goddesses responsible for having created the arts, was therefore, “musical”. Music probably developed to the same extent as the other arts, but unfortunately no written musical notation has been preserved, with the exception of a few dubiously reconstructed fragments.

Instrumentos musicales

Religion and music (Sala 36, Vitrina 36.17)

Music, an invention of the gods

This lekythos depicts an image of the goddess Aurora abducting young Tithonus, who is holding a lyre, quite possibly the musical instrument most frequently associated with Greek culture. It is made out of a frame in the shape of an abacus with strings that were played with two hands. The Greek lyre, whose earliest models date back to the Mycenaean Period, originates from Egyptian and Phoenician harps. According to myth, Hermes invented this instrument. In order to make it, he used a turtle shell, similar to the one on young Tithonus´ lyre, and he tied twelve strings crafted from the intestines of twelve cows he stole from Apollo. The latter complained to Zeus, who in turn ordered that the cattle be returned. Given that it was impossible for him to carry out his punishment, Hermes paid by giving the instrument to Apollo. Ever since then, it has been associated with Apollo, who is usually depicted holding the instrument in his hands. Later, he was also portrayed playing the zither, a more robust instrument than the lyre, which produced a louder sound. Whenever Apollo played either of these string instruments, he managed to soothe the spirits of his listeners, for in ancient civilizations music was considered to have a tremendous influence on men and the gods.

Lécito de la diosa Aurora

Lekythos depicting the goddess Aurora (Sala 36, Vitrina 36.9)

Music from Ancient Greece

This Greek vessel displays a character in eastern style dress, with a Phrygian cap, a long-sleeved, embroidered short tunic and boots. He is playing a tympanum or hand drum. To his right, seated upon a rock, a satyr plays a wind instrument called a diaulos, made out of a pair of tubes. Such instruments belonged to the entourage that accompanied the god Dionysus.

The aulos was, by far, the most typical Greek wind instrument along with the panpipes or pan flute. It was made out of wood or cane and included four holes and a reed that produced a high-pitched sound. Another similar instrument was the diaulos, whose most noteworthy feature was its ability to produce polyphony or more than one note at a time, and which in this case, is being played by a satyr. This aerophone was associated with the cult to Dionysus, a god whose rival was Apollo, who in turn was associated with string instruments. In Ancient Greece, there was a rivalry between string and wind instruments, which went beyond mere music. The sound of the lyre calmed the listeners´ spirits while the sound of the diaulos aroused them.

Cratera con escena dionisíacas

Krater depicting a Dionysian scene (Sala 36, Vitrina 36.27)

The sounds of the Iberian world

The maiden represented in one of the reliefs on this Iberian monument is playing a diaulos, a wind instrument comprised by a pair of tubes and a bone or ivory reed. Its shrill and stirring sound was perfect for use within the context of public ceremonies. It was the preferred instrument of Iberian women, as opposed to the tuba, played mostly by men. This female diaulos or double aulos player, called an auletrix, appears to be accompanied by other youths. They may be participating in funeral rites, which include combat exhibitions, processions and the presentation of offerings. Ever since the earliest moments of Antiquity, music was a means of communication between human beings and the gods, that is, between the real world and the great beyond. All these rites were performed to the sound of music, considered to be yet another component of the ceremonies that were surely linked to cantillations, or spoken sentences with slight musical modulations.

Monumento funerario de Osuna. Conjunto A

Funeral Monument from Osuna. Group A (Sala 13)

The image of song

This Iberian funeral monument from Pozo Moro displays a peculiar image on its northern facade. Strictly speaking, it is not musical, but rather symbolizes sound itself. A hero is carrying a large tree, whose branches poke other much smaller figures. From between the jaws of a cat-like animal, a series of lines clearly emerge, similar to rays, which possibly were intended to graphically represent the sound of a roar. The scene, which was framed within another cat-like animal in a similar pose, highlights the difficulty throughout history of representing sound through symbols when no musical instruments were present. Hence, it was often impossible to clearly represent song in many historical periods, in spite of the fact that song was the form of musical expression par excellence practically until the Modern Era.

Escena con representación de un sonido. Pozo Moro, Albacete

Scene depicting the representation of a sound. Pozo Moro, Albacete (Sala 12)

Talking musical symbols

In this relief, a musician is playing a large wind instrument that functioned like a horn. The greater the size of the instrument, the lower the pitch. The tube widened around its resonating chamber in order to produce a louder sound. Given the instrument´s weight, a perpendicular bar was added which the musician held in his left hand. Similar instruments have appeared in Iberian, Celt Iberian and Roman archeological sites. This figure belongs to a group of scenes from a funerary monument aimed at exalting the status of the deceased person. In this case, the instrument is used as a symbolic attribute to represent sound, a basic ingredient in all such public ceremonies. Once again, we find ourselves before an instrument that is not musical, strictly speaking, but rather evocative of sound itself, similar to the others we´ve already discussed.

Relieve del músico de Osuna. Conjunto B

Relief of a musician from Osuna. Group B (Sala 17)

The muses, inventors of the art of music

This mosaic made out of differently colored tiles or tesserae decorated the floor of a room in a late Roman villa in the region of Navarra toward the end of the 3rd century. Its octagonal floorplan is divided into nine irregular spaces surrounding a central medallion. The medallion displays Pegasus, the winged horse, and a male figure that must be Apollo, the god of music and leader of the Muses who appear around him in the remaining spaces of the mosaic. Each of these spaces is occupied by one of the nine muses with their respective iconographic attributes and by a relevant historical figure from each of the arts the muses represent. Although some scenes have been lost, among those muses preserved, we are able to identify six, some of whom are carrying musical instruments. Such is the case of Erato, the muse of geometry, who is represented plucking a lyre that is leaning upon a column. Euterpe, the muse of music, gazes upon her companion and mentor who, in turn, is playing an aulos.

Mosaico de la villa romana de las Musas. Arellano, Navarra

Mosaic with Muses from a Roman villa. Arellano, Navarra (Sala 23, Pared)

Polyphony and musical notation

This Visigothic altar evokes past periods in which song was vital to liturgical celebrations, since they contained prayers that had been transformed into music. The teaching of liturgical music during these centuries was exclusively via the oral tradition and only after many years of apprenticeship did cantors manage to fully comprehend it. Indeed, Saint Isidore of Seville, a Visigothic wise man, was already conscious of the fact that “the sounds would be lost because they could not be written down.”

In the 9th century, a momentous occurrence took place: polyphony emerged and various voices layered upon each other gave rise to different simultaneous melodies within the same piece of music. This practice brought about the appearance of musical writing or notation that allowed for each of the various melodies to be identified. For the first time in history, it was possible to perform a musical work without having listened to it beforehand. Mozarabic culture inherited and perpetuated this Visigothic tradition. Thanks to this fact, we have been able to preserve thousands of Visigoth-Mozarabic liturgical songs, the so-called Hispanic liturgy, whose peculiar notation system has yet to be deciphered, leaving us unaware of how to properly perform them.

Altar visigodo de iglesia

Visigothic church altar (Sala 23, Podio)

Muslim music.

This glass paste unguent jar with a gilded neck is a luxury item, dating back to the first centuries of Islam, and may have originated from Egypt. It most likely arrived in Al-Andalus through the import trade. This item was used within a courtly setting as a woman´s personal ornament. Sophisticated Muslim culture, naturally, did not disregard music, which on occasion, was associated with women. In fact, a good number of images depict women playing the oud (that is, the lute), which played a fundamental role in Christian Europe. There are documents that allow us to reconstruct the evolution of this instrument, in which a multifaceted figure from the eastern Mediterranean would play a key role. Ziryab, raised in Bagdad and a connoisseur of fashion, customs, and refined tastes, settled down in 9th century Umayyad Cordoba and laid the foundation for the teaching of music in Al-Andalus. Moreover, according to the legend, he added a fifth string to this instrument. He thus transferred eastern musical expertise to Al-Andalus.

Understanding ancient Muslim music is made difficult by its essentially oral, unwritten nature, which was based on traditional improvised methods. It is organized in a completely different manner from western music; nevertheless it left a lasting impression on those places where both cultures lived alongside one another.

Ungüentario andalusí

Unguent Jar from Al-Andalus. (Sala 23, Vitrina 23.16)

Religious medieval music

Choir stalls such as this Mudejar style example from the women´s Santa Clara Convent in Astudillo, were usually laid out in a U-shape. In the center, a giant music stand or lectern held large choir books containing the music to be sung at each point of the liturgy. The celebration of the Divine Office was a daily practice at the monasteries of monks and nuns as well as at cathedral chapters and canonical councils. This spurred the creation of special furniture; choir stalls such as these, which were necessary for the exercise of divine praise. Singing was the central activity that occupied much of the time spent by these people, devoted to a religious life within the confines of their respective communities.

Initially, this music was monadic, meaning that it had only one melodic voice, which was performed by all members of the community. Is it the so-called Gregorian chant, whose roots go back to Jewish synagogues and the earliest Christian communities. As of the 12th century, polyphonic compositions began to make their way to the monasteries, where they embellished the liturgy and were alternated with the earlier songs.

Sillería de coro. Astudillo, Palencia

Choir stalls. Astudillo, Palencia (Sala 24, Podio)


Secular medieval music

Two scenes represented on these planks reflect musical instruments typical of chivalric nobility from the late Middle Ages. The horn, used for hunting, was more of a sound-producing object than a musical one. It was not tuned to any particular pitch and gave off a shrill sound that could be heard in outdoor settings.

The other instrument that appears, the oval-shaped lute, was played with a plectrum or pen by a minstrel. It was introduced via Al-Andalus into Europe, where it became the most famous plucked string instrument of the Middle Ages, although on our Peninsula its important role was shared soon after with the vihuela. One can observe a flat headstock with six pegs, which would indicate the presence of six strings, or more likely, two sets of double strings and two single strings.

At the time, it was common for the same person to sing and accompany him or herself on an instrument. In this case, the song being played appears to have a single melody, or a very primitive version of polyphony, since its execution doesn´t require the use of the fingers on the right hand.


Aliceres de la techumbre del palacio de Curiel de los Ajos

Planks from the roofing of the palace at Curiel de los Ajos (Sala 24, Pared)

Angel musicians, a source of musical information

On the central panel of this triptych, painter Jaume Cabrera represents the Virgin Mary surrounded by two pairs of angel musicians who are playing a lute and a portative organ, and a recorder and a gothic harp respectively.

In the 14th century, a new iconographic scene emerges: the Virgin surrounded by angel musicians, most of whom are playing in praise of God. Thanks to this fact, we preserve a great many representations of musical instruments, even though the Bible does not feature many scenes on this topic. We can appreciate details regarding their shape and how they were played: the strings of the lute were plucked with a plectrum and the organ is powered by a hidden bellow operated by the player himself while playing a peculiar keyboard with his right hand. This group of instruments, typical of the gothic period, is an example of so-called “soft music”, that is, moderate sounding instruments appropriate for indoor playing, as opposed to those used in “loud music”, for heraldic or commemorative occasions. The angel musicians might possibly be playing a polyphonic work. The emergence of polyphony cannot be separated from another fundamental discovery, which was musical notation, essential for the execution of this type of repertoire.

Tabla con 4 ángeles músicos. Jaume Cabrera

Panel with 4 angel musicians. Jaume Cabrera (Sala 27, Vitrina 27.14)

Impossible musical instruments

This whimsical object from the late Middle Ages is a pitcher with a spout used to pour water into a basin for hand-washing. It displays a fantastical animal holding an equally imaginary musical instrument. The monster is a centaur: half man and half horse. The piece that connects the back to the rear legs is used as a handle for holding the object. The water, which goes in through the head, is poured out through the orifice that simultaneously corresponds to an undefined musical string instrument that he holds in one hand. The instrument appears to be more decorative than useful. Given his pose, the centaur might have been holding a bow in the other hand for stroking the strings, which the artist attempted to highlight.

Sometimes it´s complicated to know whether or not the models represented by the artists are actual instruments or figments of their imagination, which is quite obviously the case here. The same may be said of the instrument groupings. The symbolic meaning of the music often gave rise to imagery that did not correspond to reality. On certain occasions, the artist´s intent was merely to indicate the generic presence of music or to use it for decorative purposes. Hence, these instruments cannot be used to document others that may no longer exist today.

Aguamanil con centauro

Water pitcher with centaur (Sala 27, Vitrina 27.18)

String instruments in the Middle Ages

This liturgical garment from the end of the 14th century is made out of colored silk upon golden threads with linen lining. It is an example of the so-called opus anglicanum, a complex and laborious embroidery technique of which only five specimens remain in Spain. It was donated by Pope Benedict XIII, known as “Papa Luna”, to the Aragonese collegiate church of Daroca. Accompanying the scenes from Genesis, six medallions adorn the front portion upon which we can observe six angel musicians playing various instruments. One is playing the flute and the tabor drum, a combination that is still alive even to this day in many Spanish towns. Another angel is playing a citole, a plucked string instrument with a neck. Another two are holding vielles or bowed vihuelas, although one of them has almost completely disappeared. Finally, a fifth angel is playing a gothic harp and the sixth one, a psaltery, an instrument of eastern origin.

It should be noted that, with the exception of the flute and the tabor drum, the rest of the instruments are string instruments with or without a neck that are plucked, struck or stroked. String instruments may have been considered to be more important than other families of instruments given that they were placed in the hands of angels.

Capa pluvial de Daroca

Cope from Daroca (Sala 27, Vitrina 27.17)

An ancient myth, new instruments

In Mexico under the viceroyship, many desks and folding screens were decorated with musical scenes. Ever since the Spanish arrived in New Spain, the Creole aristocracy attempted to reproduce the refined musical atmosphere that they had left behind in the mother country. The galleons filled their holds with books on music, vihuela strings and all sorts of instruments. The chroniclers did their part to document the Indians’ great skill at this art form. In a very short period of time, the natives were able to build organs, play sackbuts – wind instruments similar to the trombone – and they managed to become outstanding composers.

On the desktop cover, Orpheus presides the center of the scene, calming the animals and the plants around him by playing the viola da gamba. At the time, this instrument was about to go out of fashion, before being displaced by the much more powerful violoncello. In one of the right-hand corners Apollo was depicted playing a string instrument similar to the lute, surrounded by a small orchestra of muses playing lutes, hornpipes, a transverse flute or traverso and a viola da gamba.

Escritorio de Oaxaca, México

Desk from Oaxaca, Mexico (Sala 29, Vitrina 29.6)

Popular music

This ceramic plate from Talavera made toward the end of the 17th century has been exquisitely decorated and polychromed. It displays a country dance scene on its inner surface. Two mixed couples with a courtly air hold hands as they dance to the sound of the bagpipes. The scene is of a markedly popular nature, consistent with the instrument being played. In this case the instrument is a boot or bellowed bagpipes, which is being blown into by a peculiar nude male figure, undoubtedly reminiscent of a mythological character. One can clearly make out the different parts of the instrument: the hide bag, possibly covered with a cloth lining, a characteristic feature of this wind instrument; the chanter or tube where the holes are placed; the blowpipe, a small tube through which air flows into the bag; the drone, a long conical tube which serves as a resonator; and the three tassels that adorn it.

There are many types of bagpipes depending on the region and historical period. They were the ideal wind instruments for accompanying outdoor dances for three reasons: their loud and piercing pitch; the fact that they generated sound continuously, without stopping, thanks to the bellow or the bag; and finally, because they were capable of executing a melody while simultaneously playing a continuous bass note or bourdon, as a sort of primitive polyphony. Ever since the medieval cornamuse, the bagpipes have continued to evolve to this day.

Plato de cerámica con danzantes. Talavera

Ceramic plate with dancing figures. Talavera (Sala 29, Vitrina 29.2)