Mexican Folk Music

• Folk and Traditional Styles

Mexican Folk Music

Far more than just mariachi music, the music of Mexico is as varied as the country's topography. From the tropical coast of the Gulf of Mexico to the high deserts of the north to the plazas of Mexico City, each area of Mexico can claim its own style. Though instruments and song forms are often shared across the country, each style reflects the unique historical flavor of the locale.

Before the Spanish

Since the native population was decimated by disease and warfare, and most indigenous musical objects were destroyed by the Spanish conquistadores, what is known about music in Mexico before 1519 comes from archaeology, witness testimony, and analysis of native languages. It seems that most music in Aztec and Mayan cultures was intimately tied to the ruling elite. There was a class of musicians who enjoyed exemption from taxation and performed in religious and political ceremonies. Instruments included percussion and winds, with drums, maracas, and flutes being most prevalent. Dance was an important part of life as well. Among the Aztec there were schools of music and dance, one of which apparently was attended by all Aztec youth.

In the nineteenth century, a distinct mestizo (mixed Spanish and indigenous) of cultural identity began to form in Mexico that differed from Spain and the indigenous cultures. Styles like the son, the corrido, and the cancion-and dances like the jarabe all developed out of the new mestizo culture.

Foreign Influences

The Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés arrived near present-day Veracruz in 1519, and from that point forward everything changed in Mexico, including the music. The Spanish set out to destroy nearly all vestiges of indigenous culture, including musical objects, because they considered them idolatrous and offensive to the Catholic Church. Without their own instruments, Native Mexicans quickly took to the stringed instruments of the Spanish such as the violin and guitar, and adopted and eventually adapted many of them for their own designs. In addition to instruments, the Spanish left a musical legacy of song forms like the decima and the villancico. Multipart singing with harmony in thirds and sixths and chordal harmony are vestiges of the early Spanish influence.

Another important influence came by way of the African peoples, who were enslaved and brought to Mexico to work the plantations. Mainly centered around Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico, the Africans brought with them their polyrhythmic sensibilities, still heard today in many Mexican styles. In addition, Africans introduced drums and marimbas. Marimba bands are still very popular today from Veracruz as far south as Guatemala.

Lastly, some German settlers also made important contributions to Mexican music. The tubas and oom-pah sound of banda music of the state of Sinaloa are direct results of the German influence. The accordion also became an important part of norteño music found in northern Mexico.


Beyond Mexico's borders, mariachi music is by far the most well-known Mexican style. The origins of the word are still debated, but the style originated in Jalisco state in western Mexico. During the 1800s, groups with two violins, a small guitar called a vihuela, and a bass guitarrón became popular. The people started calling these groups "mariachis."

By the 1930s the instruments of mariachi were standardized: violin(s), trumpet(s), vihuela, guitar, and guitarrón. Today, mariachis can be found throughout Mexico and thoughout the world. Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, which first formed in 1897, is still the leading ensemble of the exciting music.

Other Styles

The famous song "La bamba" is the best-known example of a Mexican style called son jarocho. Son jarocho, from Jarocho state in eastern Mexico, features three instruments: the jarana, a small guitar with 5 or 10 strings; the requinto, a 4-stringed guitar that plays melody; and the harpa, a harp with 32 strings that plays the bass and melody. Son jarocho is one of the few Mexican styles with an established practice of improvisation, played by the requinto. Son huasteco is similar to son jarocho, the difference being that the violin replaces the harp. Son istmeno is the marimba-driven music of Veracruz and southern Mexico. Ensembles often have up to four marimbas playing together.