Arts / History of Puerto Rican Music
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Music has played a historically crucial role as a means of cultural expression in Puerto Rico. The musical activity that has evolved on the island over the course of five centuries reflects a great diversity of genres ranging from folkloric to classical music, as well as completely new forms. Puerto Rican music and musicians have thus been a pivotal factor in forging and enriching concepts of identity.

The Earliest Developments in Music

The areito was the highest form of artistic expression for the indigenous peoples who lived on the island, combining narrative, dance, ritual and musical traditions. By the late 15th century, the Taino culture had developed various musical instruments that were used to accompany religious ceremonies, as well as for daily enjoyment. Some of the instruments used in the areito, such as the güiro (an instrument made from a hollowed gourd that is played using a scraper), and the maracas (an instrument made from the hollowed gourd of the higüero or calabash tree, which is filled with pebbles or dried seeds and used for rhythmic accompaniment), are still vital parts of Puerto Rico's musical tradition. Beyond the use of indigenous instruments, it is still uncertain whether Puerto Rican folkloric music preserves any linguistic or musical elements originally borrowed from Taino sources. It is speculated, however, that the way in which the nasal cavity is used as a sound box in certain song forms that developed in the island's mountainous interior did originate among the Taino.

Upon their arrival, the colonizing Spaniards triggered a chain of events that transformed music in Puerto Rico. Both the Catholic church and the Spanish Armada served as agents of change: Catholicism introduced musical instruments and formal instruction, while the armed forces established small military bands. During the first years of the 16th century, the island’s music was strongly influenced by the Spanish occupation and included a variety of instruments originating from Europe such as the drum, the harp, the hen bell, the vihuela (Spanish guitar) and the clavichord, among others. The most interesting fact regarding religious ceremonies is that during the 1670s an organist and a choirmaster formed an integral part of the services offered in San Juan's cathedral.

Africa’s Contribution

The establishment of slavery in Puerto Rico brought forth the contribution of Africans and their descendants. Beginning in 1511, King Ferdinand of Spain authorized the mass trade of African slaves to the island. The slaves who arrived on our shores preserved a strong bond with ancestral traditions and beliefs, which were woven into their dances and music. African cultures that formed part of the racial and cultural development of the island were the Ashanti and Fante of Ghana, the Carabali of the southern banks of the Niger River, the Congos of equatorial Africa, as well as the Yorubas and Mendes of western Africa, who arrived from the late 18th century until the mid-19th century.

Africans cultivated their traditions and dances in various seaside settlements that later became municipalities, such as Loíza, Guayama, Ponce and Cataño. African musical heritage has been preserved as an oral tradition in instruments that continue to be used to this day; in the way these instruments are played; and in certain songs, rhythms and dances.

The 18th Century

In 1765, the island’s music was greatly influenced by the arrival of a group of musicians with a Spanish military regiment. These musical groups performed in public concerts and in official, religious and social events, as well as in the traditional recitals in the center of the plaza. Such activities created a favorable environment for the island’s musical development.

By the late 18th century, popular music had evolved through a convergence of ecclesiastic, urban and rural forms, which emerged outside the confines of the city of San Juan. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Puerto Rican society began to absorb various cultural currents that were primarily imported from Europe. Certain social classes of Puerto Rico embraced French such dances as the minuetminuet: 1. A dance of French origin, in which couples execute different figures and movements. In vogue during the 18th century. 2. A musical composition in 3/4 time, played to accompany this dance., rigaudon and contradanza (contredanse). However, there was little fertile soil at this time for the sustained growth of classical music.

This period also witnessed the rise of José Campeche, the island’s first great painter as well as one of its first great musical maestros. Campeche was educated at the Dominican monastery in San Juan, where he learned to play the organ, oboe and flute.

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African Influence in Puerto Rican Music
Brief History of Salsa
Evocation of José Antonio Dávila
History of Dance in Puerto Rico
López Cruz, Francisco
Music in the Films of the Community Education Division
Puerto Rican Danza
Taller Musical Retablo
The Plena
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The String Instruments of Puerto Rico
Traditional Indigenous Music
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