Mariachi Music 101: Everything You Should Know About the Beloved Genre
If you’ve ever traveled to Mexico or eaten at an authentic Mexican-style restaurant, you’ve probably listened to mariachi music. Whether streaming through speakers or performed by a group of musicians wearing dazzling matching suits and wide-brim sombreros, the sound of this traditional Mexican music style is unique and recognizable.
This article explains the origins of this beloved musical genre, introduces the instrumentation that gives mariachi music its distinctive sound, and explores the characteristics of a typical Mexican mariachi band.
What is Mariachi Music?
The term “mariachi” has its origins in a combination of the now-extinct indigenous Coca language — once spoken in the area now referred to as the Mexican state of Jalisco — and Spanish. Both a noun and an adjective, the word can be used to refer to a musical group, an individual member of the group, or a type of music or instrument. So a mariachi (also called a mariachero) might play a mariachi trumpet in a mariachi (group) that plays mariachi music.
Mariachi music is a distinct type of traditional Mexican folk music that combines brass and string instruments. The music is accompanied by a distinctive singing style in its harmonies. It can feel rustic, aged, and inspiring in one moment, whimsical and comical in another.
The exact location where mariachi music was first performed remains a matter of dispute. However, the consensus of musical historians can answer the question, “Where did mariachi originate?”
Historians place the origin of mariachi music in the western part of Mexico, likely in an area encompassing the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Colima. Regardless of where mariachi was first played — some historians place mariachi origin as far north as Sinaloa and Durango, while others trace its roots farther south in Guerrero. All agree that the mariachi sound is multicultural.
During colonial times — from the early 16th century through the mid-19th century — Mexico’s large and varied indigenous nations and cultures mingled their musical styles with the Spanish colonists and the African slave population. Over time, these varied sounds and styles converged to produce the style of music we now call mariachi.
Following the end of the Mexican revolution in the early 1920s, the Mexican government began promoting mariachi. Mexican folk music was viewed as a unifying source of pride. The government pushed the uniquely Mexican style of mariachi music on the radio and in movies. Mexican mariachi band music became the most featured at political rallies in Mexico, and its most well-known musicians were catapulted into superstardom.
By the middle of the 20th century, mariachi music had made its way into US culture, gaining popularity in California, the southwest, and eventually throughout the nation. By the 1970s, mariachi music had garnered a worldwide following. To this day, mariachi music consistently tops the Spanish-language music charts and has remained one of the world’s most beloved and recognizable Latin music types.
The Instruments a Mariachi Band Plays
One of the most distinguishing characteristics of a mariachi band is that several musicians will often play the same instrument. This results in a loud style of music that has a festive feel.
Typical instruments in a mariachi band include trumpets, violins, guitars, vihuelas, and guitarróns. While not as prevalent today, some mariachi bands also feature a Jalisco harp and/or a Guitarra de golpe. And, of course, the singing voice is an integral part of the mariachi sound.
Trumpets give mariachi its signature sound, so they are considered an essential part of every mariachi band. The brass instrument has a high-pitched tone and is often used to grab the audience’s attention, announcing the beginning of a robust mariachi tune.
While not as essential as the trumpet for producing the recognizable mariachi sound, violins are often used to anchor the band’s sound. Where only one trumpet can suffice for mariachi, the sound of a single violin will easily be drowned out. That’s why a mariachi band that chooses to include the violin sound will want several violin-playing musicians on board to produce enough sound to make the violins’ contributions meaningful.
Six-stringed acoustic guitars are an essential part of the mariachi sound, and it’s unusual to find a mariachi without at least one guitar player among its ranks. The guitar serves as a grounding instrument, providing a foundation for carrying the many melodies and storylines in traditional mariachi music.
A five-stringed instrument that many mistake for a small guitar, the vihuela produces a high-pitched sound that complements the guitar. Where a guitar will provide the melody for a mariachi composition, the vihuela is often used for harmony.
The guitarrón is considered essential to achieving the authentic mariachi sound. An oversized stringed instrument that produces a low bass sound, the guitarron resembles a large guitar, although the two instruments are quite different and hail from various regions. Whereas the guitar originated in Western Europe, the guitarron was first conceived in Spain.
One of the benefits of the guitarrón is its ample size, which provides natural sound amplification. The guitarron can hold its own in the mariachi sound stream.
While not as prevalent in today’s more modern mariachi groups — it has been largely replaced by the violin and the guitarrón — the Jalisco harp is a traditional mariachi instrument still used in some southern regions of Mexico. The Jalisco harp can have up to 36 strings and provides a mariachi group with a deep bass tone and melody. The difficulty keeping so many strings in tune, combined with the instrument’s lack of portability, is likely why it is not seen in traveling mariachi bands.
Guitarra De Golpe
The Guitarra de golpe — sometimes referred to as an jarana, guitarra mariachera, guitarra colorado, or guitarra quinta — is a 5-string instrument that is used in manner similar to the vihuela. Although rarely used in modern mariachi groups, some traditional mariachi bands — particularly in Mexico’s Michoacán region still prefer the Guitarra de golpe as they claim it has a unique sound that can’t be replaced.
A mariachi band’s singers are integral to the ensemble’s sound. Masters of harmony, one interesting facet of the mariachi is the absence of a designated lead singer. Instead, the musicians take turns singing lead, often with different verses in the same song.
The Characteristics of a Mexican Mariachi Band
If you turn your radio to a Mexican music station, you’ll immediately recognize the Mexican mariachi band sound. But it’s equally as easy to identify a Mexican mariachi group by its distinctive attire.
In the early days of the mariachi, most group members dressed the same, wearing white shirts, matching white trousers, and huarache-style sandals. In the 1920s, the mariachi group costumes started to become more elaborate. Taking their cues from the typical dress of the Jalisco charros — Mexican ranchers or cowboys — the musicians began donning their signature waist-length jackets, fitted pants, cowboy-style boots, and silk ties. Completing the ensembles were accessories like the wide-brimmed sombreros.
Over time, these costumes became more elaborate and colorful, with brocade fabrics and sometimes fringed trim that seems to announce the larger-than-life nature of the mariachi sound before a single note is even played.
Another distinct characteristic of the mariachi band is the varied types of songs you’ll hear played. From traditional Mexican folk songs to numbers designed for specific types of dances, the one aspect you’ll find in every mariachi band is its versatility and range.
Whether lamenting lost love through sentimental and romantic boleros, revving up the crowd with foot-stomping country tunes (known as Canciones Rancheras), or encouraging folks to get out on the dance floor with a rowdy polka, mariachi music plays into all kinds of moods and emotions. Love, politics, country life, machismo, and death are common themes of mariachi music.
With such a vast and varied range of musical offerings, it’s no surprise that the genre is not only popular among people with Mexican heritage but also attracts millions of followers from all different countries and cultures around the world.
How Save the Music Promotes Learning About Mariachi and All Musical Genres
Save the Music is dedicated to teaching students everywhere about different rich musical genres like mariachi. We’ve been helping students, schools, and communities reach their full potential through the power of making music for 25 years. We do this by:
- Investing in schools. STM partners with public school districts to donate grants in the form of new musical instruments, technology, equipment, and resources for music teachers and school leaders.
- Supporting music teachers. STM offers teachers special professional development opportunities, long-term program support, and an online resource center for anyone to explore!
- Advocating for music education. STM addresses the importance of public school music education programs because we believe music should be part of every young student’s well-rounded education.