Son, Ranchera and Mariachi Musical Styles in Mexico

Traditional musical styles that make Mexican music unique

Mariachi band walking in street
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Mexico has a musical history that is full of many different musical styles and influences, such as music from the Aztecan indigenous culture, music from Spain and Africa, songs from ranching life or festive mariachi bands.

Rich Musical History

Dating back more than a thousand years before any contact was made with Europeans in the 16th century, the area was dominated by the Aztec culture, a culture that maintained an important and complex musical tradition.

After Cortes’ invasion and conquest, Mexico became a Spanish colony and remained under Spanish dominion for the next two hundred years. The music of Mexico incorporated their Pre-Columbian, Aztecan roots together with Spanish culture. Then, add a third dimension to the mix, the music of the Spanish-imported African slaves to the land. Mexican folk music draws from all three of these cultural influences.

Mexican Son

Son Mexicano means "sound" in Spanish. The music style first appeared in the 17th century and is a fusion of music from indigenous, Spanish and African traditions, much like the Cuban son

In Mexico, the music exhibits lots of variation from region to region, both in rhythm and instrumentation. Some of these regional differences include son jarocho from the area around Vera Cruz, son jaliscenses from Jalisco, and others, such as son huasteco, son calentano, and son michoacano. 

Ranchera

Ranchera is an outgrowth of son jaliscenses.

Ranchera is a type of song that was literally sung on a Mexican ranch. Ranchera originated in the mid-19th century just before the Mexican revolution. The music was centered on traditional themes of love, patriotism and nature. Ranchera songs are not just one rhythm; the style can be like a waltz, polka or bolero.

Ranchera music is formulaic, it has an instrumental introduction and conclusion and a verse and refrain in the middle.

Mariachi Origins

We tend to think of mariachi as a style of music, but it's actually a group of musicians. There is some disagreement about where the name mariachi comes from. Some music historians believe that it is derived from the French word mariage, meaning "wedding," and indeed, mariachi groups still form an essential part of weddings in Mexico.

An alternate theory posits that the word comes from a Coca Indian word that originally referred to the platform on which the orchestra performed.

A mariachi orchestra is composed of at least two violins, two trumpets, a Spanish guitar, and two other types of guitars, the vihuela and guitarron. The charro suits, or ornate horseman suits, worn by the band members are attributed to General Portofino Diaz who, in 1907, ordered the poor peasant musicians to don these outfits in order to look good for a visit by the U.S. Secretary of State. The tradition has lived on ever since.

Mariachi Evolution

Mariachis play many different types of music, although the style is closely tied to ranchera music. Originally mariachi and ranchera music was mostly about romantic themes, but as the Mexican economy worsened, the haciendas could no longer afford to have their own mariachi band on the premises and they let the musicians go.

As a result of unemployment and harder times, the mariachi began to change themes singing about revolutionary heroes or current events.

By the early 20th century, mariachi previously known only through their various regional styles began to coalesce into a uniform musical genre, one that became recognizable throughout all of Mexico. That was due, in large part, to musicians Silvestre Vargas and Ruben Fuentes of the mariachi group "Vargas de Tecalitlan" who made sure that the popular music was written down and standardized.

In the 1950s, trumpets and a harp were introduced to the orchestra, and that instrumentation is what we can currently find in mariachi bands of today.