Music of the Olmec Heads

Seventeen colossal carved heads are known, each made out of large basalt boulders. The heads shown here, from the city of San Lorenzo [1200-900 BCE], are a distinctive feature of the Olmec civilization of ancient Mesoamerica. In the absence of any evidence, they are thought to be portraits of individual Olmec rulers but here I propose the heads represented musical ratios connected to the ancient Dorian heptachord, natural to tuning by perfect fifths and fourths. In the small Olmec city of Chalcatzingo [900-500BCE] , Olmec knowledge of tuning theory is made clear in Monument 1, of La Reina the Queen (though called El Rey, the King, despite female attire), whose symbolism portrays musical harmony and its relationship to the geocentric planetary world *(see picture at end).

* These mysteries were visible using the ancient tuning theories of Ernest G. McClain, who believed the Maya had received many things from the ancient near east. Chapter Eight of Harmonic Origins of the World was devoted to harmonic culture of the Olmec, the parent culture of later Toltec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations of Mexico.

Monument 5 at Chatcatzinga has the negative shape of two rectangles at right angles to each other, with radiating carved strips framing the shape like waves emanating from the space through which the sky is seen. The rectangles are approximately 3 by 5 square or of a 5 by 5 square with its corner squares removed.

Monument 5 at Chalcatzingo is a framed hollow shape. The multiple squares have been added to show that, if the inner points are a square then the four cardinal cutouts are described by triple squares.

The important to see that the Olmec colossal heads were all formed as a carved down oval shape, that would fit the height to width ratio of a rectangular block. For example, three heads from San Lorenzo appear to have a ratio 4 in height to 3 in width, which in music is the fourth (note) or subdominant of our modern diatonic (major or Ionian) scale.

Even narrower is the fourth head at San Lorenzo, whose height is three to a width of two. This is the ratio of the perfect fifth, so called as the fifth note of the major scale.

And finally (for this short study), the ratio 6/5 can be seen in Head 9 of San Lorenzo and also at La Venta’s Monument 1 (below).


If the heads were conceived in this way, the different ratios apply when seen face on. The corners of the heads were probably rounded out from a supplied slab with the correct ratio between height and width. The corners would then round-out to form helmets and chins and the face added.

And as a group, the six heads sit within in a hierarchy of whole number ratios, each between two small numbers, different by one. At San Lorenzo, Head 4 looks higher status than Head 9 and this is because of its ratio 3/2 (a musical fifth or cubit), relative to the 6/5 of Head 9. We now call the fifth note dominant while the fourths (Heads 1, 5 and 8) are called subdominant. These two are the foundation stones of Plato’s World Soul {6 8 9 12}, within a low number octave {6 12} then having three main intervals {4/3 9/8 4/3}* where 4/3 times 9/8 equals 3/2, the dominant fifth.

*Harmonic numbers, more or less responsible for musical harmony, divide only by the first three primes {2 3 5} so that the numbers between six and twelve can only support four harmonic numbers {8 9 10}

San Lorenzo existed between 1200 to 900 BCE, and in the ancient Near East there are no clear statements for primacy of the octave {2/1}, nor was it apparent in practical musical instruments before the 1st Millennium BCE, according to Richard Dumbrill: Music was largely five noted (pentatonic) and sometimes nine-noted (enneadic) with two players. However, the eight notes of the octave could instead be arrived at, in practice, by the ear, using only fifths and fourths to fill out the six inner tones of a single octave; starting from the highest and lowest tones (identical sounding notes differing by 2/1). A single musical scale results from a harp tuned in this way: the ancient heptachord: it had two somewhat dissonant semitone (called “leftovers” in Greek), intervals seen between E-F and B-C on our keyboards (with no black note between). Our D would then be “do“, and the symmetrical scale we today call Dorian.

The order of the Dorian scale is tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone, tone {T S T T T S T} and the early intervals of the Dorian {9/8 S 6/5 4/3 3/2} are the ratios also found in these Olmec Heads*. The ancient heptachord** could therefore have inspired the Olmec Heads to follow the natural order tuned by fourths and fifths.

*I did not consciously select these images of Heads but rather, around 2017, they were easily found on the web. Only this week did I root out my work on the heads and put them in order of relative width.

**here updated to the use of all three early prime numbers {2 3 5} and hence part of Just Intonation in which the two semitones are stretched at the expense of two tones of 9/8 to become 10/9, a change of 81/80.
(The Babylonians used all three of these tones in their harmonic numbers.)

To understand these intervals as numbers required the difference between two string lengths be divided into the lengths of the two strings, this giving the ratio of the Head in question. The intervals of the heptachord would become known and the same ratios achieved within the Heads, carved out as blocks cut out into the very simple rectangular ratios, made of multiple squares.

The rectangular ratio of Head 4, expressed within multiple squares as 3 by 2.

The early numbers have this power, to define these early musical ratios {2/1 3/2 4/3 5/4 6/5}, which are the large musical tones {octave fifth fourth major-third minor-third}. These ratios are also very simple rectangular geometries which, combined with cosmological ideas based around planetary resonance, would have quite simply allowed Heads to be carved as the intervals they represented. The intervals would then have both a planetary and musical significance in the Olmec religion and state structure.

Frontispiece to Part Three of Harmonic Origins of the World: War in Heaven
The seven caves of Chicomoztoc, from which arose the Aztec, Olmec and
other Nahuatl-speaking peoples of Mexico. The seven tribes or rivers of the old world are here seven wombs, resembling the octaves of different modal scales, and perhaps including two who make war and sacrifice to overturn/redeem/re-create the world.

A Musical Cosmogenesis

Everything in music comes out of the number one, the vibrating string, which is then modified in length to create an interval. Two strings at right angles, held within a framework such as Monument 5 (if other things like tension, material, etc.were the same) would generate intervals between “pure” tones. However Monument 5 is not probably symbolic but rather, it was probably laid flat like a grand piano (see top illustration). Wooden posts could hold fixings, to make a framework for one (or more) musical strings of different length, at right angles to a reference string. This would be a duo-chord or potentially a cross-strung harp. Within the four inner points of Monument 5 is a square notionally side length. In the image of Monument 1, and variations in height and width from the number ONE were visualized in stone as emanating waves of sound.

The highest numbers lead to the smallest ratio of 6/5 then the 6/5 ratio of Head 9 can be placed with five squares between the inner points and the 3/2 ratio of Head 2 then fills the vertical space left open within Chalcatzingo’s Monument 5.

Monument 5’s horizontal gap can embrace the denominator of a Head’s ratio (as notionally equal to ONE) so that the inner points define a square side ONE, and the full vertical dimension then embraces the 3/2 ratio of the tallest, that of Head 2.

It may well be that this monument was carved for use in tuning experiments and was then erected at Chalcatzingo to celebrate later centuries of progress in tuning theory since the San Lorenzo Heads were made. By the time of Chalcatzingo, musical theory appears to have advanced, to generate the seven different scales of Just intonation (hence the seven caves of origin above), whose smallest limiting number must then be 2880 (or 4 x 720), the number presented (as if in a thought bubble) upon the head of a royal female harmonist (La Reina), see below. She is shown seeing the tones created by that number, now supporting two symmetrical tritones. The lunar eclipse year was also shown above her head (that is, in her mind) as the newly appeared number 1875, at that limit. This latter story probably dates around 600 BCE. This, and much more besides, can be found in my Harmonic Origins of the World, Chapter Eight: Quetzcoatl’s Brave New World.

Figure 5.8 Picture of an ancient female harmonist realizing the matrix for 144 x 20 = 2880. If we tilt our tone circle so that the harmonist is D and her cave is the octave, then the octave is an arc from bottom to top, of the limit. Above and below form two tetrachords to A and D, separated by a middle tritone pain, a-flat and g-sharp. Art by by Michael D Coe, 1965: permission given.

One thought on “Music of the Olmec Heads”

Comments are closed.