Musical Instruments

views updated May 14 2018

Musical Instruments


NAICS: 33-9992 Musical Instrument Manufacturing

SIC: 3931 Musical Instrument Manufacturing

NAICS-Based Product Codes: 33-99921 through 33-99921106, 33-99923 through 33-99923106, 33-99925 through 33-99925106, and 33-99927 through 33-99927116


In 1914 Kurt Sachs and E. M. von Hornbostel developed a system for classifying musical instruments built around the concept that such instruments were extensions of the primary musical instrument, the human voice. Musicologists and anthropologists have embraced this system because it accounts for western, non-western, and primitive instruments. The classification system includes idiophones, membranophones, aerophones, chordophones, and electrophones. Idiophones and membranophones include most percussion instruments. Aerophones include both string and wind instruments. Chordophones are string instruments. Electrophones include the electronic instruments developed in the twentieth century. Sachs is credited with the creation of the field of organology, the study of musical instruments.


A woodwind instrument produces sound when air is blown into a mouthpiece or vibrating reed. The length of the air column determines the instrument's pitch. Examples of woodwinds include flutes, oboes, bassoons, clarinets, and saxophones. Flutes are typically made of metal. The player blows into a hole in the mouthpiece. The flute may be side-blown, as with a piccolo or fife, or end-blown, as with a recorder. The player will also press and release keys to change the pitch. There have been many types of flutes, some of which have become obsolete as instrument makers perfected existing models. A flute might be made of metal or wood, be constructed in one part or in pieces, and have a varying number of keys.

The earliest examples of flutes go back thousands of years to the earliest civilizations. Flutes appear in Byzantine art from the tenth century, often in the hands of shepherds or religious figures. By the fifteenth century the Swiss military used flutes along with drums, trumpets, and other instruments to signal to soldiers. This practice was soon adopted across Europe. By the sixteenth century, the flute found its way to orchestra compositions.

A clarinet is usually made of wood and is shaped like a long tube. It has a cylindrical bore in its center. It has a mouthpiece with a reed and a bell shaped end. The player blows into the reed while pressing and releasing levers on the front. These levers cover holes in the instrument, which produce pitches. The B flat clarinet is the most popular type of clarinet.

The clarinet is closely related to the chalumeau. The chalumeau first appeared in the baroque era, and contained a single reed and a cylindrical bore. Johann Cristoph Denner is credited with making improvements to the mouthpiece and keys to produce the modern clarinet in the late seventeenth century. The clarinet would be common in many orchestras by the 1780s. The oboe is a close cousin of the clarinet. It has a double reed and is the smallest and highest pitched of the woodwind family. It was invented by Jean Hotteterre and Michel Philidor in the 1600s. The bassoon has a double reed and contains nearly eight feet of tubing. It first appeared about 1650.

The saxophone, invented by Adolph Sax in 1840, has some similarity to the clarinet in terms of construction. They are both single reed instruments and roughly the same size. However, while the clarinet has a cylindrical bore in its center, the saxophone has a conical bore. This gives the instrument a very different resonance, roughly an octave above the clarinet. To play the instrument, a player blows into the reed and operates six finger plates; these plates cover twenty holes that produce the tones when covered and uncovered. Types of saxophones include the baritone, tenor, and alto. Adolph Sax invented the saxophone in 1840.

Percussion Instruments

A percussion instrument includes any instrument that produces a tone when struck or shaken. Such instruments are believed to be among the earliest music devices known. Different objects would make different noises when struck; the implement used in the striking would affect the tone produced as well. The most well known percussion instruments are drums and cymbals, but the category also includes tambourines, maracas, xylophones, and gongs.

Bass drums are the largest member of the percussion family and are played using a foot pedal. A snare drum is shallow and has metal wires pulled across its bottom head. This allows a variety of distinctive sounds to be made depending on how the instrument is struck. Timpani are often called kettledrums because of their shape. The shell is typically fiberglass or copper and has a single head. They appeared in Europe about the twelfth century. Bongos have been traced to Cuba in the 1800s.

Cymbals first appeared in the Middle Ages. They are made of metal and may be six to twenty-two inches in diameter. Popular types of cymbals include the crash and the high hat. The steel triangle was first used in Europe in the fourteenth century. Gongs are typically bronze disks that produce a rich, vibrating sound when struck. The instrument is believed to have first appeared in Southeast Asia or the Middle East.

Stringed Instruments

Stringed instruments produce sound when their strings vibrate after being struck, plucked, or similarly manipulated. Examples of stringed instruments include the harp, violin, guitar, and piano.

The violin first appeared in Italy in the 1500s, and is thought to have evolved from the fiddle and the lira da braccio, a Renaissance instrument. It is the highest pitched member of the violin family. The violin has four strings and consists of several main parts including the front, the ribs, the neck, the fingerboard, the pegbox, the scroll, the bridge, the tailpiece, and the f-holes. The violin began as the instrument of the lower class but it gained respectability as Bach, Vivaldi, and other composers began to specifically compose for it. After the violin came the viola, the second highest pitched instrument in the violin family. The first cellos appeared about the middle of the sixteenth century. The string bass is the largest and lowest pitched string instrument of the violin family.

The Greeks, Romans, and Hittites all played early versions of the guitar. By the 1400s the number of strings had doubled and other modifications were made. The typical guitar had four strings; by the late 1600s it gained a fifth string which gave it greater flexibility. By the middle of the nineteenth century the guitar lost its double set of strings and began to resemble the modern guitar more closely. In the late 1880s, Antonio Torres Jurado modified the strutting and sideboard. The modern guitar has changed little since the nineteenth century.

There are a number of types of guitars, including bass, electric, and accoustic. Adolph Rickenbacher invented the first model of an electric lap guitar in 1932. In 1950 Clarence Leonidas Fender designed the first commercially successful solid-body electric guitar. He eventually named the new guitar Telecaster. In 1954 he offered the Fender Stratocaster with various modifications.

Batolomeo Cristofori of Padua, Italy is credited with inventing the first piano. Pianos were in existence by the start of the eighteenth century. Keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord and clavichord were already in existence by this period. Cristofori's major improvement over other keyboard instruments was to have notes struck rather than plucked. Others copied and modified Cristofori's work. Gottfreid Silbermann's version included an early damper pedal, which allows the dampers to be lifted from the strings in unison. Piano production moved to Paris by the middle nineteenth century. The piano's design was further modified with the inclusion of the double escapement in 1821, which permits the repetition of a note even if the key has not returned to its full position (good during rapid playing). Felt hammers became more commonplace through the nineteenth century; three strings rather than two were used to produce a note (except for low notes). The average piano has 88 keys, approximately 10,000 moving parts, and as much as 30 tons of string tension.

Brass Instruments

Brass instruments include trumpets, coronets, French horns, and trombones. Trumpets are tuned to the key of B flat and are composed of approximately four feet of brass tubing, opening to a small bell. The player holds it with both hands horizontal to the ground. To produce sound the player blows into the mouthpiece. He may change notes by changing the posi-tion of his lips and his fingerings on the instrument's three valves. The trumpet is the oldest brass instrument; its earliest versions are known to have existed in ancient Egypt.

The French horn is composed of twelve feet of tubing. A player vibrates his lips into the mouthpiece. Like the trumpet a player may change notes by shifting his fingers on the valves, or adjusting the tension of his lips. The French horn first appeared in France around 1650. The instrument was first used in hunts before finding its way into orchestras. When the French horn was first introduced a player would place his hand in the bell to alter the instrument's sound; keys would not be added until the nineteenth century.

A trombone is made of nine feet of brass tubing. The mouthpiece is inserted into a stationary segment of tubing and then attached to the bell by means of a cross-stay. The slide is then threaded over the stationary segment. A player may sound different notes by vibrating his lips into the mouthpiece. There are seven positions on the slide, beginning with the slide closed and reaching to the slide fully extended. As the slide is extended it moves down the harmonic scale by semitones. The trombone first appeared in the middle of the fifteenth century. They were once known as sackbuts, a name derived from the term trompette-saicqueboute, trumpets with sliding mechanisms played by minstrels during the Renaissance. Through the sixteenth century, the instrument was used in churches and town bands as a support instrument. It appeared in orchestras by the eighteenth century.

The origins of the tuba and euphonium can be traced back to the ophicleide, patented in 1821. The ophicleide is sometimes described as a keyed bugle and was popular in the early 1800s, but lost favor and was displaced by its descendant, the tuba. Johann Gottfried Moritz modified the ophicleide and patented the first tuba in 1835. The tuba's design has changed little since its invention. The tubing that makes up a tuba is wound into an elliptical shape with a bell that measures between 14 and 30 inches in diameter. The tuba may be held with the bell pointing up or to the side. The position in which it is held affects its tone quality. The euphonium is smaller than the tuba and has a higher pitch and mellower sound.

Early Music History

Musical instruments appear in the writings and art of many early civilizations. Stone reliefs from as early as 3000 BC depict Assyrian and Babylonian musicians playing brass instruments while leading their armies in processions. The Romans are credited with being the first to incorporate musical instruments into battles. Roman musicians known as aenatores used instruments to signal attacks and retreats or to mark the beginnings and ends of watches. During the Crusades (1096–1272 AD) Arabs made use of a wider range of drums, bagpipes, cymbals, and reed instruments.

Military musicians also performed at various town functions, including weddings and public ceremonies. Instruments would also become a vital part of royal courts, with trumpets being used to mark the arrival of a nobleman or royal proclamation. Secular musicians known as troubadours sang about courtly love and chivalry in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Music was a vital part of the church as well. Initially, chants were the earliest music used in religious services. The psaltery, the rebec, the harp, and the organ would eventually be introduced into liturgical services. By the time of the Renaissance (1400–1600) music theory became more advanced. Music became polyphonic, or consisting of many melodies. The harpsichord was a popular instrument during this period, as was the viola da gamba, the recorder, the lute, and the organ. Until 1501 music was either copied or played by ear. But in 1501 Ottaviano Petrucci published the first collection of polyphonic music. Such music books were usually in the hands of the wealthy. Music collections would eventually find their way to the masses, where they could be learned and played.

Before the Baroque period (1600–1700) composers did not write with specific instruments in mind. Little attention was paid to what instrument played what part. However, during the Baroque period composers had a greater understanding of how harmony and melody worked together. Composers paid more attention to the emotion that could be conveyed in their music and how the sounds of instruments might convey these emotions. The greater understanding of music theory led to the creation of a new art form: opera. The first operas were written in Florence, Italy during the seventeenth century; the first opera house opened there in 1637. The modern orchestra appeared for the first time in the early 1700s.

Composers also began to write specifically for certain instruments during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Beethoven gave the piccolo its first important role in a symphony in his Fifth (1808), Sixth (1808), and Ninth (1824) symphonies. Mozart is credited with being the first composer to make real use of the clarinet. His Clarinet Concerto in A Major (1791) is considered a classic. Beethoven's symphonies all call for at least a pair of clarinets.

An eighteenth century symphony had approximately twenty players. By the nineteenth century the size had increased to sixty players. A large, modern orchestra has around ninety instrumentalists. The number of players and instruments can vary, depending on the pieces played. A large orchestra might have:

  • Strings: 16 first violins, 16 second violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos and 8 basses
  • Woodwinds: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 3 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons
  • Brass: 6 french horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba
  • Percussion: 1 timpani, 2 harps

A Developing Market

Musical instrument manufacturing frequently involves inventors improving upon existing instruments. Many inventions were made to improve the ease of playing an instrument, to improve sound quality, or to allow the instrument to play a wider range of notes. The first trumpets were made in Greece, Egypt, and Africa and were made from wood, bronze, or silver. Heinrich Stoelzel added the piston in 1814. The addition of the piston allowed the trumpet to play all the notes in the chromatic scale. In short, it allowed the instrument to play melody. Stoelzel also added pistons to the French horn and other brass instruments with the help of instrument maker Frederich Bluhmel. Wilhelm Wieprecht continued to develop the piston valve and created the first bass tuba in 1835. Instrument maker Adolphe Sax performed his own work with the valves. He patented improvements to the clarinet in 1834. In 1845 he patented a group of brass instruments called saxhorns, the earliest saxophone.

Theobald Boehm patented a new fingering system for the flute in 1847 after testing designs and materials for over a decade. His design is still used on modern flutes. Anton Kastner insulated the flute with cork to prevent sound distortion. Johann Christoph Denner improved upon the chalumeau to invent the first clarinet in the last decade of the 1600s. He later added keys, improved the bell, and modified the mouthpiece of his invention. French military bandsman Jean Xavier Lefevre went on to add a sixth key to the clarinet. Klose and Buffet patented Boehm's flute key system for the clarinet in 1843. The increased availability of plastics in the 1950s and 1960s, precision cutting tools, and mass production principles have all been used to improve instrument sound, durability, look, and overall quality.

War, immigration, art, and commerce each played a role in the development of musical instruments. The Europeans adopted the Tabor, a small snare drum, and the Naker, the kettledrum, from the Arabs after the Crusades. In the 1830s the Mexican cattle ranchers introduced the Spanish guitar to Hawaii. Native musicians changed its tuning and played the guitar across their laps. The first electric guitars produced in nearby California were based on this model in 1931. In 1879 Portuguese workers planning to work in Hawaii's sugar cane fields brought along the small guitar known as the machete de braca. The Hawaiians took to the instrument and renamed it the ukulele. German immigrants introduced the accordion to Louisiana, where Cajun bands incorporated the instrument into their music.


U.S. Musical Instrument Manufacturing

As a whole, the musical instrument manufacturing industry in the United States is on solid ground in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Product shipments by this industry grew 22 percent between 1997 and 2005. Shipments peaked in 2002 at $1.7 billion and declined slightly afterward to $1.56 billion in 2005, but overall represented a 22 percent increase over 1997 shipments. Figure 153 presents industry shipments for this period.

According to the Census Bureau, manufacturers shipped $1.5 billion in musical instruments and parts in 2005. There were 588 firms involved in the industry in 2004, which employed 13,684 people. From a retail perspective, industry trade journal Music Trades magazine estimated the retail industry to be worth $7.6 billion in 2006. Other sources have placed the figure far higher.

Using data gathered and compiled by Music Trades magazine, the market breakdown by instruments can be estimated. The trade journal reports on various types of instruments including: support equipment and peripherals such as amplifiers for electric guitars and synthesizer accessories, musical recording devices, notation software, printed music, and karaoke machines. Instrument categories include:

  • Guitars, both acoustic and electric, represent nearly one-third of the value of the retail instrument market. Total retail sales of guitars was estimated at $1.1 billion for 2006 with the market split evenly between acoustic and electronic guitars.
  • Pianos represented 17 percent of the instrument market in the United States in 2006 with retail sales valued at $$582 million.
  • Percussion instruments had retail sales only slightly less than piano sales in 2006. The sale of drums, drum kits, sticks and mallets, cymbals, xylophones, and other percussion instruments was valued at $580 million.
  • Band and orchestra instruments, which include brass, woodwind, and stringed instruments, had retail sales of $563 million in 2006. This represented 16 percent of the instrument market that year. Of the three categories, the woodwinds were the largest, with nearly half of this category's retail sales, $276 million.
  • Electronic synthesizers and portable keyboards are another important segment of this market. They had sales of approximately $455 million in 2006 and represented 13 percent of the instrument market.
  • Organs are the smallest category of instruments based on retail sales in 2006, which were valued at approximately $131 million.

The retail sales totals listed by instrument category and the corresponding shares of that market do not include the segments of this market involved with offering the many types of supplies needed by users of musical instruments or replacement parts. Some of the larger categories of support equipment include the electronic equipment used to amplify sound and to record and manipulate digitally recorded sounds. Sound reinforcement equipment had retail sales valued at $865 million in 2006. This category includes speakers, mixers, and amplifiers. The signal processing equipment category had sales in 2006 valued at $219 million and includes a full line of processors for the manipulation of digitally produced and/or recorded music. Figure 154 presents these U.S. musical instrument figures graphically.

The divide between acoustical instruments and electronic instruments is somewhat blurred by the fact that most music is now recorded digitally and can be easily manipulated thereafter. How this will impact the market for instruments is not fully understood at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century.


The musical instrument industry has become very competitive. A number of mergers took place in the 1990s and first decade of the twenty-first century. Some of these mergers took place because of downturns in the industry. In many cases these smaller firms benefited from the established distribution networks of the larger firm. These small firms may not be as well known as Yamaha or Stein-way but they have carved out important market niches. According to Market Share Reporter 2007, Vic Firth had 42 percent of the global drum stick market in 2004, and was hoping to ultimately climb to a 50 percent share. Zildijian had a 65 percent share of the cymbals market. The Allen Organ Company had a 75 percent share of the worldwide organ market. Sound to Earth had a commanding 30 percent of the mandolin market. Buffet Crampon had 80 percent of the professional clarinet market. Large firms have their own important niches. Steinway had approximately 90 percent of the grand piano market in the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century.

The U.S. industry's competition comes in part from low-cost instruments shipped from China. China began shipping inexpensive instruments in increasing quanti-ties to the United States in 2000. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the United States imported $151 million in instruments from China in 2000. By 2006 this figure had climbed to $436.4 million. China's market share of imports climbed from 12 percent to 38 percent during this period. The presence of so many low cost instruments in the marketplace touched off price cuts in the United States that ultimately cut into the domestic industry's revenues.

Yamaha Corporation of America

This company is the leading producer of music and audio products in the United States and is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Yamaha Corporation of Japan. Its products include pianos and electronic keyboards, woodwind and brass instruments, guitars and drums. It also distributes professional audio and live sound reinforcement gear. In addition, Yamaha Corporation of America is a leading supplier of home audio and video equipment, including stereo receivers, home theater systems, DVD and CD players, loudspeakers, and video displays. In 2006 Yamaha generated $730.8 billion in revenues, according to Music Trades. Yamaha's first involvement in manufacturing in the United States came in 1974 with the acquisition of the Everett Piano Company in Grand Haven, Michigan. Soon after the acquisition the plant was expanded to handle production of Yamaha branded products.

Harman International Industries

Harman manufactures a wide range of audio products for the consumer and professional market. The company operates in three segments: automotive, consumer, and professional. The company sells its products primarily through audio/video specialty and retail chain stores. Harman International Industries was incorporated in 1980 and is headquartered in Washington, D.C. In 2006 Harman Professional generated revenues of $510 billion.

Fender Musical Instruments

Fender is the world's leading maker of stringed instruments and is also the leading maker of solid-body electric guitars, including the Strato-caster and Telecaster lines. In addition to electric guitars, Fender makes instruments such as acoustic guitars, electric basses, mandolins, banjos, and violins, as well as amplifiers, and public announcement equipment. Other notable brands include Guild (acoustic and electric guitars), Rodriguez (classical guitars), Benedetto (jazz guitars), and Squier (lower-priced guitars). In 2006 Fender generated revenues of $438 million.

Steinway Musical Instruments

This industry leader became publicly held in August 1996 after acquiring Selmer Company, the largest maker of band instruments, and Steinway Musical Properties, an acoustic piano maker and distributor. The new company quickly acquired other companies. It acquired flute maker Emerson in January 1997, piano-key maker Kluge in December 1998, and then piano-plate maker O.S. Kelly in November 1999. It then acquired band instrument makers United Musical Instruments Holdings, Inc. in September 2000 and G. LeBlanc in August 2004.

Approximately half of the company's earnings come from its piano division. Steinway makes seven different piano sizes, ranging from the baby grand to the concert grand. The price of a Steinway ebony grand piano might range from $47,200 to $119,200. A limited edition piano or one with an exotic finish will cost in excess of $160,000. Steinway also markets the Boston and Essex line of pianos, which retail for prices ranging from $3,900 to $39,990.

Steinway Musical Instruments is the largest producer of band and orchestral instruments in the United States through its various subsidiaries. It claims to have the number one or number two market share position in most band instrument categories. The brand names sold by Steinway include Bach Stradivarius trumpets, Selmer Paris saxophones, C.G. Conn French horns, Leblanc clarinets, King trombones, Ludwig snare drums, and Steinway & Sons pianos. Steinway also competes in the student and the intermediate/professional instrument market. A brass or woodwind may cost between $300 and $2,300 for a student instrument, while a string instrument will cost between $175 and $3,000. The intermediate or professional instruments are higher quality and higher price. An intermediate or professional instrument brass or woodwind instrument will cost between $1,000 and $11,000, while a string instrument might cost between $900 and $4,500. Steinway Musical Instruments earned $388 million for the fiscal year ended September 30, 2006. Its piano division accounted for $207 million, 53 percent, with the band division representing the remaining 47 percent of the company's earnings. It employed 2,363 people as of December 31, 2006.

Conn-Selmer, Inc.

This company, owned by Steinway, is the leading manufacturer and distributor of band and orchestral instruments for professional, amateur, and student use. The company was formed in 2003 by the merger of United Musical Instruments Holdings, Inc. (UMI) and Selmer Company. Conn-Selmer has an impressive history. Its founder Charles Gerald Conn claims to have produced the first American-made coronet in 1875 and the first American-made saxophone in 1888. By 1905 Conn had the world's largest musical instrument factory, which produced a full line of wind, string, and percussion instruments; a portable organ; and gramophone bells.

The company manufactures and distributes its products under a variety of well-known brand names, including Vincent Bach brass, Selmer USA woodwinds, C.G. Conn brass, King brass, Armstrong woodwinds, Ludwig and Musser percussion, and Glaesel string instruments. Other brands include Scherl & Roth and William Lewis & Son string instruments, Emerson flutes, Benge brass, and Artley woodwinds. Under its Leblanc, Inc. division, purchased in 2004, the company also manufactures and distributes Leblanc, Holton, Noblet, and Vito band instruments. Conn-Selmer is also the exclusive North American distributor for Selmer (Paris) professional brass and woodwinds and U.S. distributor for Yanagisawa saxophones.


In 2006 music firms faced a number of production challenges primarily associated with the price and availability of raw materials. After several years of declines in price, the cost of brass, silver, and other metals all increased in 2006. Instrument makers prefer wood such as mahogany, rosewood, ebony, and spruce because these species are beautiful, resilient, and known for their ability to resonate. Supply of this type of wood is shrinking, however, making it expensive or nearly unattainable. According to a Guitar World article, the Sitka spruce tree of southeast Alaska have been so over harvested that some fear that the end of instrument-quality wood may be in sight. Instrument makers consume approximately 150 logs each year. Yet instrument makers need trees that are at least 250 years old. Only old growth trees are large enough in diameter to provide a section of clearwood—a section with no knots or blemishes—that can be used to create a guitar top.

Brass Instrument Manufacturing

Brass instruments are made almost entirely of brass. There are several different types of brass, including yellow brass, gold brass, and silver brass. Other metals are used for the keys and sliding mechanisms, such as chromium or nickel. Cork is also used in the water key. The manufacturing process begins with the brass heated to approximately 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and then shaped into a tube. The tube is then bent into a specific shape. Manufacturers typically use hydraulic systems and high-pressure water in this stage of manufacturing because water forces the tubing into a precision cut die. Precision tools are used to manufacture the instrument's bells and valves. The various parts are then assembled, and the instrument is polished, lacquered, and electroplated. The instrument goes through a quality control process. The most important part is the checking of sound quality.

Piano Manufacturing

The piano has approximately 2,500 parts which can be grouped together into five large categories: the case or the cabinet; the soundboard, which includes ribs, bridges, and various parts; the cast iron plate; the strings; and the keys, hammer and the piano action, or mechanism. The case contains the holdings for the piano legs, the soundboard, and the keybed. The cast iron plate is attached to the soundboard and provides tension for the piano strings. The piano framework containing braces, tuning pins, and other parts is manufactured first. The iron plate is produced in a foundry. Machines then drill precision holes in the iron plate for tuning pins, bolts, and nosepins. The soundboard sits beneath the strings and the plate. The treble and bass strings carry vibrations to the soundboard over soundboard bridges. Piano strings are made of carbon steel wire. Keys are made from wood, dried in a kiln and covered in white or black plastic (ivory was used in the early days of piano making). The hammers, pedals, and other parts are added. The piano then goes through a number of quality control checks.

Guitar Manufacturing

The back of a guitar is typically made of rosewood. The top of the guitar, or the soundboard, is usually made of Alpine spruce, although other forms of wood might be used in inexpensive models. Ebony wood is typically used to make the fingerboard. In guitar manufacturing, a single piece of wood is sliced into two sheets, each the same length and width as the original but only half as thick. This process is known as bookmatching. This process gives the wood sheets a symmetrical grain pattern. The wood is then cut into a guitar shape. Wood braces are attached to the underside of the top piece. These pieces act as braces and also shape the guitar's tone. The sides are shaped in molds and then attached to the guitar's front and back. The neck is built, reinforced with a special rod, and attached to the fingerboard. It is then attached to the guitar's body. The bridge, saddle, and tuning machine are then attached. The completed instrument is then polished and checked for quality. The process for manufacturing electric guitars is quite similar. The major distinction is that electric guitars include devices known as pickups, which convert the vibrations into electrical signals.

Clarinet Manufacturing

Clarinets are made primarily from African blackwood. The clarinet mouthpiece is made out of a hard rubber called ebonite. The keys are usually made out of an alloy of copper, zinc, and nickel called German silver. The keys require cardboard, felt, or leather. The reed is made from cane. Other materials used in the clarinet are cork and wax for lining the joints, silver for the ligature (the screw clip that holds the reed in place), and stainless steel for the spring mechanisms that work the keys. The African blackwood, which gives the clarinet its color, is cut into the appropriate shape. Workers drill a hole lengthwise through the piece; this cut must be bored correctly, for it gives the instrument its tone. A lathe is used to shape the wood into a cylinder form. The wood is seasoned and then reduced in size. The size of the center hole may be refined and then finished. A borer is used to drill finger holes for notes. These note holes are then refined using various tools and finishing products. Various joints and parts for the clarinet are manufactured in molds. The keys are mounted and screwed into the finished clarinet. Joints are corked and waxed. Body pieces are fitted with some metal ornamentation and then the mouthpiece is fitted.


The Census Bureau reported that 3,656 musical instrument stores were active in the United States in 2004, employing a total of 34,560 people. The industry saw significant consolidation during the first half of the first decade of the twenty-first century. The top 200 musical product retailers generated sales of $4.5 billion in 2005, according to Music Trades magazine. This figure was up steadily from $3.7 billion in 2000. The top 200 firms had 38.5 percent of the market in 1995. By 2005 the top 200 firms represented 58 percent of industry sales. Industry leader Guitar Center had a market share of 39 percent in 2005, up from 21.2 percent in 2000.

Some retailers reported strong enough sales that they were able to expand their store count or remodel existing spaces, but the industry continues to face challenges. Wal-Mart and other big box stores have moved into the business, although they are seen as appealing to a very different customer than the typical musical product store. These types of stores have gained market share in the category of entry-level guitars. Mail order and online vendors are also very popular with customers. Some music stores have started their own online sites.

Guitar Center had $1.7 billion in revenues in 2005, according to Music Trades. It had 8,154 employees and 242 outlets. Guitar Center is a $1.8 billion company with approximately 170 guitar shops that cater to both amateur performers and experienced professionals. It also owns 129 stores that sell band and orchestral instruments, and has a substantial catalog and Web business. Guitar Center launched its own Web site in June 2006.

Sam Ash had $445 million in revenues in 2005. It employed 2,100 people and had 45 stores in more than a dozen states including, California, Florida, New York, and Texas. Besides instruments, Sam Ash sells sheet music, recording equipment, electronics, lighting, computers, and music software. The company also sells vintage guitars, offers custom-built instruments and music clinics, and buys used musical instruments. Sam Ash runs also a pro services and parts division called Sam Ash Professional, and an educational division that specializes in servicing schools.

Brooks Mays was the third leading U.S. musical instrument retailer in 2005. It had revenues of $147 million that year and employed 760 people at 64 locations. Two other leading retailers are Victor's House of Music, which generated sales of $125 million in 2005, and Sweetwater with sales that year totaling approximately $104 million.


The National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) claims the major buyers of musical instruments have traditionally fallen into four major categories: children and young adults between 12 and 20 years of age, the parents of these children, professional musicians, and institutions such as churches, schools, and nightclubs.


Children represent a major portion of the market. When a child should start taking lessons depends on the child. The Children's Music Workshop notes that classes exist for mothers with infants between 6 and 8 months of age. Such classes introduce mother and child to music, movement, and rhythm. As the child matures, he or she may take singing classes and be exposed to props and more advanced musical concepts. Children at least five years of age often take violin or piano lessons. Children at least seven years of age are often introduced to guitars and drums. Most elementary schools allow children the opportunity to perform in a group or play with a band.

NAMM estimates that approximately 1.1 million children at the K-12 level participate in school music programs based on instrument sales and school enrollment figures. This represented 2 percent of school aged children in 2005. Ten percent of these young musicians may be expected to purchase a higher level instrument in the future. Approximately 5 percent will purchase a professional instrument.


NAMM reports that the industry has seen increased sales among those over 35 years of age since 2005. There are several reasons for this. Those in this age range—Baby Boomers and Generation Xers—often have the time and disposable income to devote to musical endeavors. The drop in prices for entry-level instruments might make music lessons even more accessible. According to Mediamark Research, approximately 15.7 million adults or 7.1 percent of the adult population reported playing an instrument in 2005.

According to a 2006 survey by the Piano Manufacturers Association International, the typical piano buyer tends to be well off financially, Their survey of 5,000 piano buyers, teachers, manufacturers, and technicians found that 39 percent of typical buyers had an income of $100,000 per year or more. Nearly 59 percent were men and 41 percent were women. Graduate degrees had been earned by 49 percent and 31 percent had a four-year degree. Of those who took lessons, nearly one-quarter, 23 percent, reported having done so for more than 12 years.

Steinway sells most of its grand pianos to amateur or professional pianists. The company reported that its typical customer was between 40 and 50 years of age, had a graduate degree, and a household income of $300,000. The company also sells pianos to concert halls, colleges, music schools, and similar institutions. The institutional market represented approximately 20 percent of all piano sales in 2006.



The International Federation of the Phonograph Industry estimates that the global market for recorded music saw sales of $31 billion in 2006, down from $33 billion in 2005. The industry's major concern has been the rise of digital downloading. With more people purchasing music from iTunes and other online sites, fewer people now purchase compact discs. According to industry tracking firm SoundScan, compact disc sales have fallen from 712 million in 2001 to 553 million in 2006 (there was a brief increase in 2004). Digital song and album sales have increased. There were 580 million digital song sales in 2006, up from 353 million in 2005. Digital album sales increased over 100 percent from 2005 to 2006, reaching 32 million.

The genre that relies most heavily on musical instruments, classical music, saw the largest increase in compact disc sales in 2006. Classical music CD sales increased 23 percent from 2005 to 2006. Sales of digital albums increased 109 percent over the same period, according to SoundScan. Classical music sales have always represented a small segment of the music industry, but the sales growth was a bright spot for the compact disc industry. Much larger genres saw their disc sales drop: rap fell 21 percent, R&B fell 18 percent, and alternative music fell 9 percent.

Instrument Repair

Musical instrument technicians repair and tune instruments. They typically specialize in four major areas: brass and wind instruments, pianos and organs, violins, and guitars. Technicians play an instrument to determine any defects in its playing. They replace worn pads, fix dents, cut new drumheads, and replace wheels on xylophones. It is not uncommon for an instrument to be disassembled and rebuilt. The length of time to make proper repairs varies depending on the job. A piano tuner can tune a piano in 1-2 hours, depending on the condition of the piano. The installation or major repair of a church organ may easily take several weeks or months depending on its complexity. Certain jobs, such as the repair of player pianos, take additional training.

The musical instrument repair field employed 5,120 people in 2005, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate. In 1996 this industry employed 9,000 people. The average wage paid to employees in this field, in 2005, was $31,850 per year. Most technicians work on pianos, and two-thirds are self-employed. Demand for such technicians is expected to be low through at least 2008.


Much of the musical instrument's development came from necessity and ingenuity. Musicians needed an instrument that was easier to play, had a better sound, or was simply more resilient. Various technologies helped musicians and inventors achieve these goals. The valve gave brass players the chance to play melody. New manufacturing techniques produced metal strings, stronger bows, and sturdier connective parts. Precision cutting machines ensured proper bores for wood instruments.

The electronics and software industries have offered the latest wave of innovations. A musician once had to pay thousands of dollars for large, expensive studio equipment. The digital revolution of the 1990s helped synthesizers, soundboards, and other studio equipment become smaller, less expensive, and more powerful. Music performance and composition is also taking place on the home computer through sophisticated music-creation software. Some software packages are aimed at professional musicians, while others are aimed at children. Electronic music has existed in its earliest form since the 1930s. The genre received new life in the 1990s. New, powerful equipment sparked many popular electronic music genres such as house, trance, or techno. Software isn't just used for performance either. Other software packages allow music technicians to properly tune an instrument or diagnose a performance issue.

Technology has brought new life to familiar instruments. In 2003 Geoff Smith invented a device to give the piano fluid tuning. The device allows a piano to play notes beyond its 88 keys and play music not composed on the standard 12 note western system. The Hyperinstruments/Opera of the Future group at MIT's Media Lab has developed what it calls a Hypercello for Yo-Yo Ma and a Hy-perviolin for Joshua Bell and Cora Venus Lunny. Hyper-instruments combine a standard instrument interface with software and wireless technology to create an instrument that responds more organically to the player.


Musical instrument makers faced many challenges in 2006 and 2007. The industry continued to be very competitive at both the manufacturing and retail levels. Companies in the current environment must control manufacturing and labor costs. The acquisition of materials remained a serious issue. Musical instruments were made using some exotic wood such as blackwood or Sitka spruce. Manufacturers had long extolled the virtues of instruments made from such wood to their customers. However, suppliers in the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century were faced with a dwindling supply of some desired species. In early 2007 the four major guitar makers Martin, Taylor, Fender, and Gibson banded together to bring greater awareness to conservation issues. The guitar firms have joined up with Greenpeace to promote the need for better forest management. This partnership, known as the Music Wood Coalition, urges more responsible logging practices and educates the public about delicate regions, such as southeast Alaska, which are the home to rare species because of their unique geography.

Companies may soon face metal shortages as well. Metal produced during a tight market are often insufficient or of inferior quality. Because many mines that are used by musical instrument manufacturers are located outside the United States, they are often plagued with problems related to the infrastructure of the mine or the processing facilities. Labor problems are also frequent; both Steinway and Conn-Selmer faced strikes by their workers in 2006.

The increase in metal and wood prices has meant a jump in instrument prices after years of decline. For example, an acoustic guitar cost approximately $520 in 2001 and fell to $325 in 2005, but the price for an acoustic guitar increased to approximately $367 in 2006. The price of a grand piano saw similar price fluctuations, from $13,500 in 2001, to $11,364 in 2005, and up slightly in 2006 to an average price of $11,887.


Musical instruments are very popular. According to a Gallup Poll conducted for the National Association of Music Merchants, 52 percent of U.S. households have at least one person over the age of five who plays a musical instrument. In 40 percent of American homes there are two or more people who play an instrument. Both women and men enjoy playing instruments at roughly similar rates, 51 percent for women and 49 percent for men. The most preferred instrument is the guitar.

Music was once seen as a charming past-time or hobby. However, an increasing body of research suggests that music education plays a vital role in intellectual stimulation, physical wellness, and self-esteem. Organizations as diverse as NAMM and Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization formerly known as the Children's Television Workshop, have stepped up attempts to get children interested in music education. The VH1 Save the Music Foundation has provided more than $30 million worth of new musical instruments to over 1,200 schools in 80 communities since 1997, affecting the lives of more than 700,000 public school children.


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National Association of Professional Band Instrument Repair Technicians, Inc.,

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Musical Instruments

views updated May 18 2018

Musical Instruments

The Voice.

The human voice was the first and the most central of musical instruments in Greek and Roman life. Ordinary people sang while they plowed fields, harvested grain, worked wool, made wine, and tended children. There were drinking songs, hymns to the gods and heroes, laments, and wedding songs. Victors at the athletic games were awarded a song of praise; paeans rallied troops for battle. Singers competed for prizes in solo and choral song. One of the earliest depictions of singing is found on a Bronze-Age black steatite vase from Crete, dating to the second millennium b.c.e.: a group of three singers, heads thrown back and mouths open in song, march together with a group of harvesters; a sistrum (shaker) player keeps the beat. The first surviving reference to singing in literature comes from the Odyssey where the goddess Circe sang in a sweet voice as she worked at her loom. Singers were commonly portrayed on Greek vase-paintings from the sixth century b.c.e.; some paintings represent the sound emitting from the mouth in the form of little "o's." Epic lyric poetry was sung or recited, often to the accompaniment of musical instruments, and the few examples of surviving written music show that the poetry that would be sung was important enough to be written down even if the piece was for a solo instrument. Language itself glorified the voice as an important instrument as well. In his work De Anima, the philosopher Aristotle distinguished phone ("voice") from psophos ("sound") by noting that only animals with souls have a true voice. The Greek adjective ligys, or ligyros, was most often applied to the voice when it was tuneful, clean, and pure, like a nightingale.


Chordophones (stringed instruments) were the most basic and arguably the most important of the musical instruments in ancient Greece. They included four types of lyre, a variety of harps, psalteria (zithers), and, after the fourth century b.c.e., a lute-like instrument called the pandouros. The Romans preferred the wind instruments, but the lyre appeared in Etruscan art and continued to be popular with soloists throughout the Roman period. Ancient scholars and lexicographers, such as Pollux and Athenaeus (second century c.e.), listed and discussed the different types of lyres and harps, providing important information about their construction, tuning, and usage. In music education, Plato, Aristotle, and the later music theorists advocated the use of simple, traditional tunes on the lyre.

The Lyre.

Musicians used the lyre to accompany the singing of sacred hymns, as well as epic and lyric poetry, and it became the preferred instrument of solo virtuoso performers. People of all ages played the lyre for their own personal pleasure, in musical contests, at ritual ceremonies such as weddings and funerals, and at parties and festivals. In Greek myth the lyre was associated with the Muses, Hermes, Apollo, Dionysus, and Orpheus. According to the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, the god Hermes fashioned the first lyre from the shell of a chelys (tortoise). Archaeology shows that the earliest lyres appeared in ancient Palestine and Sumeria in the third millennium b.c.e., and most likely entered Greece through trade with the Mycenaeans during the Bronze Age. Earliest depictions of the Greek lyre in action come from Mycenaean Greek settlements of the second millennium, where archaeologists have found painted frescoes and sculptures depicting lyre players and women's circle dances. Lyre-players appear on Mycenaean engraved rings and seals. The Greek word for "lyre"—lura—refers to the family of chordophones with strings of equal length. There are four main types of lyre: the chelys, barbitos, phorminx, and kithara, each having its own particular shape, size, tuning, and social function. Basic construction consisted of a soundbox (tortoise shell or wood), to which arms and a crossbar were attached; gut strings were attached by a knot to the chordotonon (a small board on the bottom of the sound-box), passed over the bridge, and were attached to the crossbar at the top of the instrument. The number of strings varied from five to nine, with seven being the norm from the Archaic Period onward. The player could stand, sit, or walk while strumming or plucking the strings with a bone plectrum (pick). A lyrestrap helped the musician to hold the instrument in place against the chest.

Types of Lyres.

The chelys and the barbitos were small and lightweight; their bowl-shaped soundboxes did not amplify sound with much volume. They were played by amateur musicians, used for music lessons, and were preferred by the lyric poets such as Sappho for smaller, indoor group performances. Although the ancients attribute the invention of the barbitos to the Greek musician and poet Terpander, it is not a Greek word and most likely came to Greece from Asia Minor. The most accomplished musicians desired bigger wooden-soundbox lyres: the phorminx and the kithara. There are numerous literary and artistic references to these being more professional instruments. In Homer's Odyssey, two aoidoi (professional bards) named Demodokos and Phemios perform songs of the epic cycle to the accompaniment of the phorminx before an audience eager to applaud "that song which is the latest to circulate among men." In the Iliad, the Achaean fighter Achilles sat in his tent singing "the glory of heroes" as he strummed a beautiful phorminx "made by an artist, with a silver bridge and a clear lovely tone" (9.185–188). Vase paintings often showed the phorminx with a decorative eye on the soundbox, a feature that always distinguished it from its close relative, the kithara. In the classical period (480–323 b.c.e.), the phorminx came to be associated primarily with the cult worship of Dionysus, and the kithara was increasingly the preferred instrument for competition and virtuoso performance; it could be paired with the aulos (double-reed pipe) in ensemble playing. Its large wooden soundbox gave the kithara a powerful sound that made it suitable for playing outdoors, for example, during the Panathenaia (national festival of Athena) in Athens; two kitharodes (kithara-players), dressed in fancy costumes, are depicted marching in the Panathenaic procession on the frieze of the Parthenon temple.


The names of several famous Greek kitharodes are known. Terpander was one of the earliest and best-known composers and performers on the instrument in the Archaic Period, while Philoxenus of Kythera and Timotheus of Miletus were the most famous in the classical period (480–323 b.c.e.). Timotheus claimed to have invented "eleven-stroke meters and rhythms"; this may mean that he added strings in order to embellish the melody of a song with intricate rhythmic ornamentation. Fame had its downside, however; great kitharodes were sometimes lampooned in Athenian comedies. Two famous kitharodes in Greek myth are Orpheus and Thamyris, both from Thrace. Orpheus was said to have charmed even the rocks with his playing, and Thamyris boasted that he played better than the Muses. Both died violently, but were compensated with cult worship after death. Orpheus gained the gift of prophecy, while a special type of kithara was named after Thamyris.

The Harp.

The harp, an instrument that was used by the Sumerians and the Egyptians in the fourth millennium b.c.e., first appeared in the Greek world during the Bronze Age about a thousand years later; a number of marble figurines from tombs in the Cycladic Islands represent the triangular harp in the arms of seated male musicians; no strings are indicated in the statues, but a contemporary seal impression shows four. Later versions had twenty to forty strings, and were thus called "many-stringed" instruments. Harps varied in size, and appear in three basic shapes: arched, triangular, and C-shaped. Among the many names for the instrument are: pektis, trigonon, psalterion, magadis, and sambyke. The harp falls into the category of a psalter because it was normally played with the fingers of both hands without the aid of a plectrum (pick). The frame was of wood, and a soundbox was located at the base. Strings of unequal length were stretched from the base to the top of the harp, following the curve of the frame, and tuning pegs were either located on the base or at the top, depending on the type of harp. The Bronze-Age Greek harper figurines were all male, but by the fifth century b.c.e. harps—especially the trigonon, sambyke, pektis, and magadis—were most often described as women's instruments; they were shown in vase-paintings as being played exclusively by women, generally in the context of a wedding or a symposium (men's drinking party) together in ensemble with the aulos and the chelys. Since it was associated primarily with the feminine, and especially sensual or erotic entertainment, Plato did not consider the harp to be an appropriate instrument for educational purposes. Professional women harpists—known as psaltriai or sambykai—scandalized conservative Romans when they first played there.

The Lute.

There was limited use for the lute in Greece and Rome, although the instrument was known in Mesopotamia as early as the third millennium b.c.e., and in Egypt soon thereafter. The name pandouros ("lute") may derive from the Sumerian pan-tur ("little bow"). In both Egypt and the Mediterranean, the lute was another instrument primarily played by women. It is not known in Greece before the Alexandrian Period of the mid-fourth century b.c.e., when the pandouros appears in the arms of a group of female terracotta figurines. The instrument is also held by one of the Muses in a well-known pedestal relief sculpture on a temple to the goddess Leto built in the same century. The fourth-century comic poet Anaxilas alludes to a lute in his play The Lyre-Maker. It is possible that the instrument, which resembles a small guitar or a banjo, came into Greece during Alexander the Great's military campaigns in Persia. Constructed of wood, the pandouros consisted of a pear or triangular-shaped soundbox from which projected a fretted neck of varying length. A cord around the shoulders served as a lute-strap. Gut strings were stretched from the bottom of the soundbox to the tuning pegs on the head. The players could either sit or stand, and strummed with their right hand while fretting with their left. The number of strings varied from one to four. The theorist Pollux included the pandouros with the trichordos ("three-stringed") lyres, and it is likely that this very simple chordophone was also used by the Pythagoreans for acoustic research.


The wind instruments—reeds, pipes, horns, and flutes—were important in ancient Greek and Roman music from the earliest periods, especially the double-reed instrument known as the aulos. In fact, the aulos appears more often in vase paintings and fresco art than any other instrument, despite the opinion of Plato and Aristotle that the instrument was not appropriate for education. Wind instruments were used in a variety of contexts: salpinges ("brass trumpets") and kerata("horns") accompanied military processions as well as public spectacle. The Roman cavalry thundered to the sound of the lituus ("trumpet"); brass ensembles featured the cornu ("horn") and the bucina ("tuba"). Triton-shells were used as trumpets (or, perhaps, megaphones) by ordinary people and children; they were often imitated in stone or faience. The aulos was used to accompany small and large groups of singers during religious festivals, banquets, and parties, and could be played while dancing. The aulos was essential during the ecstatic cult worship of the gods Dionysus (Roman Bacchus) and Cybele; it is often shown being played by satyrs and silenes (over-sexed woodland creatures associated with the ecstatic cult of Dionysus), and Aristotle commented that the aulos could arouse wild and dangerous passion. Pan-pipes (Greek syringes, Roman fistula) were played by shepherds and herdsmen. Along with iconographical and literary evidence, a good number of actual wind instruments have been recovered by archaeologists, so that scholars have a good idea of how many of them were manufactured, tuned, and played.

The Aulos.

The aulos was not a flute, but a single-or double-reed instrument, comparable to the oboe. Thinner than an oboe and often much longer, the aulos was usually played in pairs, one held in each hand. It commonly consisted of five parts: the glotta (mouth-piece), in which a reed of varying materials was housed; a three-part resonator consisting of two bulb-or oval-shaped resonators called the holmos and the hupholmion; the bombyx (main resonator), constructed in sections; and the trupemata (finger-holes). The pipe could be made of reed, ivory, bone, wood, or metal, and could be straight or have a curved bell. In vase-paintings from the sixth century b.c.e., the instrument was frequently shown strapped to the musician's face with a phorbeia ("halter"). The aulos (plural, auloi) was carried in a sybene ("bag"), and the reeds in a glottokomeion ("reed-carrier"), when not in use. In the classical period (480–323 b.c.e.) the aulos normally had five fingerholes, with one located on the bottom of the pipe for the thumb. In later Greek and Roman auloi, the holes could be covered by rotatable bands. The theorist Aristoxenus listed five sizes of auloi from highest to lowest in pitch: parthenikoi ("for girls," soprano), paidikoi ("for boys," treble), kitharisterioi ("for lyre-players," tenor), teleioi ("complete," baritone), and hyperteleioi ("more complete," bass).

Origins of the Aulos.

The writer Pollux noted a number of so-called "ethnic species" of auloi coming from Phrygia, Libya, Egypt, Thebes, and Scythia, each with its own peculiarities. The Greeks desired to claim the aulos as their own instrument and not a foreign import, thus some myths credit Athena with creating the aulos, or its music, while other stories say that a virtuoso player named Pronomos of Thebes (late fifth century b.c.e.) invented the two-pipe arrangement. In fact, the aulos was played in pairs in Mesopotamia, Babylonia, and Egypt from the third–second millenia b.c.e. and is attested in early Bronze-Age Aegean art. The earliest example of an aulete (aulos-player) in Greece is a marble figurine from the Cycladic island of Keros (c. 2200 b.c.e.). Myth and history are intertwined regarding the invention of the aulos. Two Greek myths, often re-told well into the fifth century b.c.e., credit the Phrygian satyr Marsyas or the goddess Athena with inventing the instrument. Pollux places the origin of the aulos in Phrygia, noting that there was a Phrygian type of aulos, the elymos aulos, used in the celebration of the Phyrgian goddess Cybele. Plutarch (first century c.e.) related a famous and often illustrated Greek myth of the Phrygian satyr Marsyas, whose father Hyagnis was said to have invented both the aulos and the first tune for it: "The Great Mother's aulos tune" (a reference to the goddess Cybele). Hyagnis taught the tune to his impish son, who in turn taught a certain real-life musician named Olympos. Pindar (fifth century b.c.e.) claimed in his twelfth Pythian ode that Athena created the pamphonon melos ("all-sounding song") of the aulos "in order to imitate the shrieking cry of the Gorgon." In his De cohibenda ira, Plutarch gives another account of the story in which Marsyas, watching Athena play the aulos, ridiculed the way her cheeks puffed out when she blew notes; the goddess, mortified, threw the instrument away. Marsyas then invented the phorbeia ("cheek-halter") to control the movement of the mouth and cheek. In yet another version, Athena, displeased with the aulos, passed the instrument on to Apollo.

The Aulos in Performance.

Numerous artistic and literary references show the aulos being used. On the famous painted Bronze-Age sarcophagus from Ayia Triada from Crete (c. 1490 b.c.e.), a male aulete plays during the occasion of an animal sacrifice; a phorminx player performs on the opposite side. Auloi are again paired with the phorminx in the Odyssey on Achilles' shield, accompanying dancing at a wedding. The aulos was often played in ensemble with lyres and harps. It accompanied the dithyramb (choral dance) and most other types of choral and lyric performance. Deemed appropriate for both happy and sad occasions, the aulos was played at funerals. Auloi were the instruments that accompanied dancing and singing during the Eastern ecstatic worship of Dionysus, Cybele, and Orpheus. Prostitute women auletes entertained men at drinking-parties, and the instrument is often depicted in erotic scenes on vase-paintings.

The Sound of the Aulos.

There were three basic modal systems, or scales, associated with the aulos: Dorian, Lydian, and Phyrgian, but several dozen types were categorized by pitch range. Accomplished auletes could play an impressive array of scales and pitches by employing techniques such as half-holing, cross-fingering, and over-blowing; by playing two auloi at once, the aulete could combine scales. Different tones and timbres were also accomplished by adjusting the tonguing of the reed and embouchure (lip position) on the mouthpiece. Different writers described the sound of the aulos as screeching, buzzing, sweet-breathed, pure-toned, wailing, enticing, orgiastic, and lamenting. Plato and Aristotle considered complex melodies employing more than one mode or scale to be disruptive to the soul; Plato banned the aulos from his ideal city in the Republic because it was a "pan-harmonic" instrument.

The Roman Tibia.

The Roman tibia (plural tibiae) was a pipe of reed or bone, equivalent to the Greek aulos. The Roman writer Varro said the same thing about the tibia as the Greek philosophers did about the aulos: its tones were complex, and could have an ecstatic affect on the soul. As in Greece, the reed pipe was played during the worship of deities such as Cybele, Bacchus (Greek Dionysus), and Isis, all of whom are connected with fertility, fecundity, and rebirth. The tibia was also used to accompany different kinds of solo theatrical performance, such as mime, pantomime, and farce, often in ensemble with lyres and percussion. Solo tibicen ("tibia-players") would introduce tragedies, and according to Cicero, the audience could often identify a drama by the first few notes. The tibia is ubiquitous in Roman mosaics and paintings depicting scenes from Roman comedy. Tibicen would play instrumental pieces or accompany songs between the acts. The tibia was indespensible in the comedies of Terence and Plautus as the accompaniment to certain polymetric scenes of dialogue called cantica; the playwrights would direct the tibia to play, or to be silent, depending on the desired effect in the scene, and the tibicen would engage sometimes in the action. Stage directions in the comedies of Terence indicate which type of tibia were required: tibiae pares ("pipes of equal length"), tibiae impares ("pipes of unequal length," probably an octave difference), and tibiae sarranae ("Phoenician tibiae"). The tibia musician who composed for Terence may have also served as musical director.


introduction: The tibicines were musicians in Rome who played the tibia, originally a pipe made of bone with three or four finger-holes; as time went on, it became a double-pipe reed instrument like the Greek aulos. The guild of tibicines held a festival every year on the Ides of June (15 June) when they wore masks and fancy dress—sometimes women's clothing. The festival commemorated a strike of the tibicines in 311 b.c.e., which is described in the following passage of Livy. The story shows how important a role that the guild of pipe-players had in Roman sacrificial rites.

I should have omitted an episode of the same year as being scarcely worth mentioning did it not seem to concern religious duties. The pipe-players (tibicines) were angry at having been forbidden by the last censors to hold their feast in the temple of Jupiter, according to ancient custom, and marched off to Tibur in a body, with the result that there was no one in the city to play the pipes at sacrifices. The Senate was seized with pious misgivings about the incident, and sent delegates to Tibur to request the citizens to do their best to return the men to Rome. The Tiburtines courteously promised to do so and first summoned the pipers to their senate-house and urged them to return to Rome. Then, when they found that persuasion achieved nothing, they dealt with the men by a ruse nicely in tune with their nature. On a public holiday various citizens invited parties of pipers to their homes on the pretext of celebrating the feast with music, and sent them to sleep by plying them with wine, for which men of their kind are generally greedy. In that condition they dumped them, heavily asleep, in cart and carried them off to Rome. The carts were left in the Forum and the pipers knew nothing until daylight surprised them there, still very drunk. The people quickly gathered round them and prevailed on them to stay. They were given permission on three days a year to roam the city in fancy dress, making music and enjoying the license which is now customary, and those of them who played pipes at sacrifices had their right to hold a feast in the temple restored.

source: Livy, Rome and Italy. Books VI–X of The History of Rome from its Foundation. Trans. Betty Radice (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1982): 259.

The Flute and Pan-Pipe.

The aulos has often been translated as "flute," but this is incorrect. The true flute has no reed, and is played by blowing transversely across the blow-hole while holding the instrument horizontally to the side. Most types of auloi were reed instruments played in pairs and held in front of the musician, like an oboe or bassoon. One type of aulos, however, might have been played like the modern flute: the plagiaulos (Greek) or obliqua tibia (Latin). Like the other auloi, the plagiaulos was not Greek in origin, but came from Lydia, Phrygia, or, according to Pollux and Athenaeus (late second century c.e.), Libyia. The flute is rare, and does not appear in Greece before the third century b.c.e. Two surviving plagiauloi are housed in the British Museum; both feature a small bust of a bacchante (worshipper of Bacchus) on one end. Both the plagiaulos and the syrinx ("pan-pipes") were pastoral instruments, played by shepherds and herdsmen for simple enjoyment. There are more artistic and literary references to the syrinx then there are to the flute. While there are no surviving Bronze-Age examples of the syrinx, it is depicted in the Iliad (eighth century b.c.e.) on the shield of Achilles, in the hands of happy shepherds. The so-called "François Vase" (circa 575 b.c.e.) features a Muse playing the syrinx at the mythical wedding of Peleus and Thetis, but the instrument is most widely associated with pastoral poetry of the third century b.c.e. Although Plato bans the aulos from his ideal state in The Republic, he allows herdsmen in the country to have their simple syringes. In Greek myth, the god Hermes is credited with inventing the syrinx; it is the instrument commonly associated with Hermes' son, Pan, god of shepherds—hence the term "pan-pipe." Later writers suggest other origins, including Pollux who associates it with the Celts and unnamed "islanders in the ocean." The term syrinx (Latin fistula) was used to designate both a single-pipe whistle and also a group of five to seven equal-length pipes, tied together, and plugged with wax at graduated intervals to form a scale. The musician holds the instrument upright beneath the mouth and blows across the pipes as one would a bottle. Later versions include a rank of different-length pipes tied together, or pipes with holes bored into them to effect the desired pitch.

The Organ.

The idea behind the syrinx—that scales could be created by blowing air across the opening of pipes—was expanded by Greek engineers in Egypt during the Hellenistic Period (fourth century b.c.e.). Athenaeus, writing in the late second century c.e., credits an Alexandrian mechanic named Ktesibios with the invention of the hydraulis ("water organ"), which used a hydraulic pump to create a continuous supply of air to ranks of pipes. The Roman architect Vitruvius (late first century b.c.e.) later described how "stops" were used to close off air from entire rows of pipes in order to alter the pitch. Hero of Alexandria, an engineer writing 100 years later, explained in detail how the hydraulic machine of Ktesibios worked in his book Pneumatika. A complex mechanical organ, the hydraulis was not commonly played, but there is an inscription from the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi that praises the hydraulist Antipatros for winning a musical competition in 90 b.c.e.

The Trumpet.

Several different types of horns were played by the Greeks and Romans. The ivory or more often bronze salpinx ("trumpet") was primarily a battle instrument, used to send signals; it also appeared in ritual and ceremonial contexts, especially in the Roman period, where it was called a tuba and often made of brass or iron. The blast of the trumpet was used to call people to assembly and start races. Most writers claim the salpinx to be of Etruscan (Italian) origin, but the instrument is comparable to both Mesopotamian and Egyptian trumpets. It consisted of a long, thin, tube, which could be straight or curved, with a funnel or orchid-shaped bell at the end. The glotta ("mouthpiece") was made of bone. In his De Musica, the Roman theorist Aristides Quintilianus (third–fourth century c.e.) described the salpinx as a "warlike and terrifying instrument" that the Roman army employed to move troops by playing "codes through music." Human and divine salpinges (players of the salpinx) were frequently depicted in vase paintings; on a fifth-century b.c.e. cup by the painter Epiktetos, a saytr holds a salpinx in one hand, a shield in his right, and plays while running; a phorbeia ("halter," also used by dancing auletes) holds the mouthpiece to his lips.


Animal and sea-shell horns were commonly used throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East from the earliest periods. In Greek myth, triton and conch shell horns were the instruments played by sea deities such as Nereids and Tritons. The keras ("cow-horn"), often baked to produce a clearer tone, was used together with the much louder salpinx to signal troops in battle. In Rome, military horns and trumpets, including the tuba, bucina (shaped like a bull-horn), and the circular cornu were featured in concerts given by large choral groups and orchestras.


Percussion instruments included the sistrum ("rattle"), krotala ("castenets"), kumbala ("finger-cymbals"), tympanon ("drum"), kymbalon ("cymbal"), and the kroupalon (Latin scabellum), a wooden or metal tap worn on a shoe used to keep time. The rhombos ("bull-roarer") could be classified as either a percussion or a wind instrument. It consisted of a piece of wood attached to a string, which made a rumbling sound when whirled above the head. Sistra—metal or clay-and-wood rattles—were popular in Egypt and throughout the Mediterranean. They appeared in Bronze-Age art of the second millennium b.c.e., and many actual sistra survive—over twenty were found at Pompeii. Evidence shows that percussion instruments—notably large, one-sided drums (rhoptra and tympana) and perhaps clappers—were used by the Parthians, ancient people of Iran and Afghanistan, to terrify the enemy in battle. In Greece and Rome, percussion instruments were rather used predominately by women to accent rhythm of dance and poetic meter in the cult worship of Dionysus, Cybele, Pan, and Aphrodite, deities associated with fertility, fecundity, and sexuality. Women devotees of Dionysus, called maenads, are frequently depicted in vase-paintings dancing while striking small hand-held tympana with their palms. In his comedy Lysistrata, the fifth-century b.c.e. playwright Aristophanes suggested that women playing the tympana during the worship of Pan and Aphrodite could create quite a ruckus. Women also played the krotala, a pair of bar-shaped wooden or metal clappers, hinged at one end, and played with each hand, like castenets; a commonly depicted duet includes a female krotala-player and a male aulete, both dancing wildly. Krotala are also depicted as being played by satyrs, over-sexed mythical creatures associated with Dionysus. Kumbala (finger-cymbals) are also associated principally with female worshippers of Dionysus. These are small, round clappers made of wood, shell, or clay, which produced a higher tone than krotala. Many examples can be found in museums. A pair of kumbala from the fifth or fourth century b.c.e. in the British Museum is inscribed with the owner's name. The sistrum (rattle or shaker) was also a woman's instrument. A ladder-shaped wooden version, labelled by Pollux as a psithyra, is regularly depicted hanging on the wall in a woman's room or in a woman's hands in Greek vase-paintings from Apulia in southern Italy.


Giovanni Comotti, Music in Greek and Roman Culture. Trans. Rosaria V. Munson (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, originally published in Italian, 1979).

John G. Landels, Music in Ancient Greece and Rome (London: Routlege, 1999).

Martha Maas and Jane Snyder, Stringed Instruments of Ancient Greece (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989).

Thomas J. Mathiesen, Apollo's Lyre: Greek Music and Music Theory in Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999).

Martin West, Ancient Greek Music (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).

Musical Instruments

views updated May 18 2018

Musical Instruments

Many of the most popular musical instruments in American music derive from African Americans, who used traditional African instruments and developed new ones according

not only to musical needs, but to the natural and manufactured materials at hand and the legal restrictions placed on them by slave owners regarding the making of music. The prominence of stringed instruments in early African-American music was no doubt due to plantation prohibitions on drum and wind instruments, which slave-masters believed would be used for long-distance and mass communication among slaves.

Stringed Instruments

Although the banjo, the earliest and most important African-American instrument, is today used almost exclusively in white music, the instrument derives from the West African "banja," or "banza," which was brought to the New World by slaves. References to a gourd covered with sheepskin and strung with four strings along an attached stick occur in accounts of the Americas as early as 1678. Both fretless and fretted banjos were used by African-American musicians, and open tunings were common. Slaves also pioneered most of the techniques that became standard on the modern instrument, including the various kinds of strumming and plucking heard in twentieth-century bluegrass and country music. Although informal banjo playing was a central feature of African-American domestic life in the eighteenth century, it was through nineteenth-century minstrel shows that the instrument was first widely noticed among whites. The banjo was used by white musicians before the Civil War and was being commercially produced using a wood frame (Contrary to some accounts, the now-standard fifth string was a feature of the banjo before the white minstrel musician Joel Walker Sweeney [18101860] helped popularize the instrument). Soon, the banjo was considered as much a parlor instrument among white families as a staple of rural black music. Among the best early recordings of black banjo music are "Long Gone Lost John" (1928) by Papa Charlie Jackson (18901950), and "Money Never Runs Out" (1930) by Gus Cannon (18831979), who recorded under the name Banjo Joe. Early jazz bands also used the banjo extensively, most notably Johnny St. Cyr (18901966), a sideman with Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton in the 1920s. After the late 1920s, however, the guitar supplanted the banjo as a rhythm instrument. After that time the banjo became the almost exclusive province of white country, bluegrass, and folk music, although some black folk musicians, including Elizabeth Cotten (18951987), continued to play the banjo.

African Americans also developed many types of single-string instruments. The diddley bow was a type of simple guitar popular among black musicians in the South well into the twentieth century. Elias McDaniel's prowess on the instrument as a child was so great that he was known by the name Bo Diddley (19281955) well before he gained fame as a blues musician in the 1950s. The blues guitarist and singer Elmore James (19181963) learned music on a jitterbug, a variant of the diddley bow that is strung between two nails along a wall. The washtub bass, or gutbucket, played a central role in folk blues and jug bands (the word "gutbucket" has also come to mean a crude, raucous, earthy style of jazz or blues). This instrument was created by stringing a rope from the bottom of an inverted metal washtub to the end of a stick, the other end of which stands on the tub. Plucked much in the manner of the modern jazz bass, the washtub bass is still in use today in informal street ensembles. It probably originated from an African instrument called the earthbow, or mosquito drum, in which resonating material was stretched over a hole in the ground. The practice of using a hard object to create glissandos on the guitar is of unclear origincertainly the "Hawaiian" style of picking with the right hand while using a slide with the left, introduced in the late nineteenth century, was influentialbut African-American musicians were the first to master the use of broken-off bottlenecks, knives, and medicine bottles for this purpose, now typical of blues guitar playing.

Wind Instruments

Numerous types of flutes, pipes, and fifes were brought by African slaves to the New World, and despite being outlawed in slave states, these wind instruments played a central part in the development of African-American music. Wooden or metal fifes, similar to European transverse flutes, were used in ubiquitous fife and drum bands as early as the eighteenth century. The kazoo, a small cylinder with a resonating membrane set into motion by humming or singing, was also probably of African-American originalthough it bears similarities to European musical devicesand became a popular folk instrument among whites and blacks after being manufactured commercially starting around 1850.

Perhaps the most distinctive African-American wind instrument is the quills. These pan pipes were traditionally made from cane, reed, or willow stalks cut from riverbanks, but their name suggests that at one time they may have been made with feathers. After being cut down to a length of approximately one foot, a hole was bored through the center, and finger and mouth holes were also created. Among the earliest and most representative of the quill recordings are "Arkansas" (1927) by Henry Thomas (18741930), and "Quill Blues" (1927) by Big Boy Clarence.

The domestic earthen jug, which produces a sound when blown across its mouth, was another wind instrument popular among African Americans, and it gave its name to an independent genre of music in the late nineteenth century. Throughout the South, and well into the twentieth century, jug bandsconsisting of a jug, fiddle and bass, kazoo or harmonica, and often a washboard scraped and played as a percussion instrumentperformed folk-blues music often suited for dancing. Early examples of jug bands include the Memphis Jug Band, the Dixieland Jug Blowers, who recorded "Skip Skat Doodle Do" in 1926, and Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers, who recorded "K.C. Moan" in 1929.

Percussion Instruments

Many African-American percussion instruments were developed from common household or agricultural materials that lent themselves to use as knockers, rattles, and scrapers. Clapping together small sections of dried bone or wood was a long-standing feature of European folk music by the time the slave trade began, but playing "the bones" was elevated to a virtuosic state by black minstrels in nineteenth-century America. In fact, the player of the bones was such an important part of African-American culture that the role was immortalized alongside the tambourine player in minstrel shows as the characters of Tambo and Bones. The practice of striking and shaking the weathered jawbone of a donkey or horse probably derives from African slavesalthough visual images and literary references to jawbone percussion are also found in medieval and Renaissance Europeand was a conspicuous aspect of both white and black minstrel shows early in the nineteenth century.

Although the playing of drums was proscribed on most plantations, the striking of skin stretched on a sturdy frame remained a part of black musical life. The marching bands that were so popular in the nineteenth century, at both parades and military functions, were driven by drummers using a variety of instruments, from huge bass drums to smaller snare drums.

Although the origin of the snare drum is not clear, the use of bamboo or feathers stretched across a drumhead to give an impure, buzzing tone is a characteristic of many African instruments. The tuned or talking drums of Africa also had their counterparts in America, as African-American musicians played peg drums, which used posts on the side of the frames to tighten or loosen the skin head, and therefore raise or lower the pitch of the drum.

The decline of marching music in favor of the dance music played at nightclubs where musicians remained stationary made possible the trap drum set, whose combination of bass drum, snare, tom-tom, and cymbals was developed by popular dance drummers and early jazz musicians such as Baby Dodds (18981959) and Zutty Singleton (18981975). In the 1940s, Cuban musicians such as Chano Pozo (19151948) brought Latin-style drums and drumming to jazz. The Afro-Cuban tradition, which used congas and bongos played with the hands, as opposed to drumsticks, was directly linked to West African religious practices that had been carried over and sustained in Cuba.

The marimba is sometimes called an Amerindian creation, but some scholars believe that this melodic percussion instrument, with its parallel wooden blocks gathered together and struck with a mallet, was brought to the Americas by African slaves. Its use is documented in Virginia as early as 1775.

European Instruments

In addition to using instruments of African origin, or creating ones, African Americans have also approached traditional European instruments from such a new perspective that instruments such as the saxophone, violin, harmonica, and piano were transformed into virtually new instruments. Perhaps the best such example is the double bass, which in the European tradition was almost always bowed, forming the harmonic underpinning of the orchestra. In the 1920s, African Americans began to use the bass as a timekeeper, making the pizzicato, or plucked technique, its main feature in jazz and jug bands. Among the finest early recorded example of jazz bass playing is the performance by John Lindsay (18941950) on Jelly Roll Morton's "Black Bottom Stomp" (1926). A slightly different example of the metamorphosis of a purely European instrument is the plunger-muted trumpet. In the European tradition, trumpeters used mutes to muffle their sounds. In the 1920s, African-American jazz trumpeters such as Joe "King" Oliver (18851938), Bubber Miley (19031932), and, later, Cootie Williams (19101985), adapted rubber toilet plungers as mutes that, when manipulated in front of the bell of the horn, could create a whole new range of growls and speech-like sounds, a practice that was also extended to the trombone in the playing of Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton (19041946).

Newer Instruments

The development of African-American instruments has continued into the twenty-first century. The Chicago musicians' collective known as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) integrated the use of unusual tools and household items into its percussion array. One AACM member, Henry Threadgill (b. 1944), invented a percussion instrument made of automobile hubcaps. In more recent years, African-American disc jockeys have developed the technique of "scratching"manually moving records backwards and forwards on turntables to create melodic rhythms. Digital electronics have allowed African-American musicians to develop "sampling," in which fragments of older recordings by various musicians are integrated into new musical works. These modern techniques demonstrate how the response by African Americans to both musical and material imperatives continues to inspire the development of new African-American musical instruments.

See also Armstrong, Louis; Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians; Diddley, Bo (McDaniel, Otha Elias); Minstrels/Minstrelsy


Evans, David. "Afro-American One-Stringed Instruments." In Afro-American Folk Art and Crafts, edited by William Ferris, pp. 181198. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.

Evans, David. "Black Fife and Drum Music in Mississippi." In Afro-American Folk Art and Craft s, pp. 163172. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.

MacLeod, Bruce. "The Musical Instruments of North American Slaves." Mississippi Folklore Register 11 (1977): 3449.

MacLeod, Bruce. "Quills, Fifes, and Flutes before the Civil War." Southern Folklore Quarterly 42 (1978): 201208.

Webb, Robert Lloyd. Ring the Banjar: The Banjo from Folklore to Factory. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Museum, 1984.

jonathan gill (1996)

Musical Instruments

views updated May 18 2018

Musical Instruments

Musical Instruments

The following list describes various musical instruments from ancient Egypt, including the Egyptian name (when known), the modern equivalent, and a brief description.

Egyptian NameModern EquivalentDescription
?ClappersIvory or wood
MenatRattlePart of a necklace
Sekhem or SesshetSistrum (rattle)Ritual use
?Finger CymbalRitual use
?Barrel DrumMilitary use for marching or signaling
SerFrame drumTambourine without shakers
?HarpNative Egyptina, arched
?HarpImported from Mesopotamia, angled
GengentyLuteSyrian import
Djadjaret or kinnarumThin LyreSyrian import, c. 1900 b.c.e.
?Thick LyreForeign import
?Giant LyreCanaanite import
MatFluteUsed for entertainment
MemetClarinetSingle reed, Old and New Kingdom only
WedjenyOboeDouble reed; invented in the New Kingdom
ShenebTrumpetMilitary use only; made of metal

Sacred and Secular Evidence.

The evidence for ancient Egyptian music comes exclusively from surviving religious structures such as temples and tombs, which limits scholarly understanding of this art form to its role within religious life. Relief sculptures and paintings created by artists for the walls of tombs and temples, as well as a few actual instruments found in tombs, are all that is left of Egypt's musical tradition. The scenes carved in temples provide unambiguous evidence for music in religious life, but the scenes on the walls of tombs present considerable difficulties for interpretation because the tomb drawings served a very specific purpose in the Egyptian belief system regarding the rebirth of the dead. Scenes in tombs were meant to ensure through magical means that the deceased would be reborn into the afterlife and that the good things in this life could be made available magically in the next life. Egyptians particularly relied on scenes with erotic content to aid in the process of rebirth because they believed that sexual energy had the religious

purpose of duplicating the sexual act that began the first birth so that one could be "reconceived" into the next life. Thus, the tomb scenes of parties involving men and women drinking wine while music entertains them aided the rebirth of the dead by their erotically charged content. While it is reasonable to conclude from these drawings that music served an important and pleasurable purpose in ancient Egyptian society, the magical purpose of these drawings presents only indirect evidence for how music truly functioned outside of a religious context.

Types of Instruments.

The Egyptians used percussion, wind, and stringed instruments as well as the human voice to make music. Musicians played clappers as well as sistra and menats—two kinds of sacred rattles—in cult ceremonies. Harps also functioned in a religious context by accompanying songs about life and death. Other stringed instruments, such as lutes, joined with woodwinds for entertainment at parties, demonstrating the more secular nature of these instruments. Evidence for these instruments comes from both archaeological finds of actual instruments and the relief sculptures and paintings found on tomb and temple walls. Some instruments are indigenous, but Egypt also participated in a wider musical culture, importing many instruments from the Near East over time. Egyptian music gained from foreign imports in greater measure during the New Kingdom, when Egyptian political fortunes expanded the area of rule to include other cultures and their musical traditions. The Egyptians, for example, imported the Mesopotamian harp, though they never abandoned their native instruments. During the reign of Akhenaten, foreign musicians dressed in distinctive flounced gowns played the giant harp at court. Two musicians played this instrument simultaneously, suggesting that they played notes together in harmony.


The first percussion instrument in Egypt was probably the human hands in the act of clapping. The Egyptians depicted singers clapping in Old Kingdom tombs and called clapping mech. Beyond the clapping of singers, Egyptians developed an instrument to mimic human clapping; archeologists have recovered many examples of ivory clappers shaped like arms and sometimes ending in representations of human hands. Smaller clappers, called finger cymbals, were also part of the Egyptian percussion repertoire. Even jewelry could function as a percussion instrument; female singers wore or held the menat, a counter-weight for a necklace, and shook it so that its beads made a musical noise. Ancient Egyptians also had barrel-shaped drums made from tree trunks covered with hide in the Middle Kingdom, although these were primarily used for military purposes, both for marching and signaling. A ceramic drum covered with animal skin also came into use in the Middle Kingdom. A tambourine-like instrument called the ser was a hoop with a skin stretched across it, though the absence of the metal shakers found around the edge of a modern tambourine makes the term "frame drum" more suitable than "tambourine." The sistrum, a rattle used almost exclusively by women in worship, did resemble a tambourine in its use of pierced metal disks suspended from rods to make noise.

Wind Instruments.

The Egyptians played four wind instruments, each translated into English by the name of a modern instrument. The mat is a flute with a wedge on the mouthpiece. It was held across the musician's body. The memet consisted of two tubes lashed together. This instrument resembles a modern Egyptian folk clarinet with a single reed. Almost exclusively used during the Old and Middle Kingdom, it disappeared with the invention of the wedjeny in the New Kingdom. The wedjeny consisted of two diverging tubes and resembled the ancient Greek aulos, a double reeded instrument. Egyptologists thus call it an oboe in English. Unlike these wind instruments, which were made from stalks of reeds, the trumpet was made of metal. The trumpets discovered in Tutankhamun's tomb, for example, were made from silver and bronze with mouthpieces of gold and silver. Like the barrel-shaped drum, trumpets were military instruments used for communication on the battlefield and during marching.

Stringed Instruments: Harps.

Egyptians played several kinds of stringed instruments, including two types of harps, three types of lyres, and the lute. There are many different subdivisions of the harp types, but basically they are either arched—an indigenous Egyptian type—or angular—an import from Mesopotamia. The arched harp, the most popular in Egypt in all periods, was a curved rod inserted in a sound box. A collar in the shape of a ring attached the strings to the top of the rod, which were stretched to a rib in contact with the sound box. Each string had its own collar that allowed for tuning. Egyptian arched harps had six to ten strings, but since each string on a harp had only one pitch, Egyptian harp music made melodies with a very limited number of pitches. The shovel-shaped arched harp used during the Old and Middle Kingdoms came in a variety of sizes, which allowed for different tonal ranges, the smaller harps making higher pitches than the larger harps. Scholars conjecture that since harp music accompanied singing, the harp sizes may have complemented particular voices. The angular harp in use in Mesopotamia by 1900 b.c.e. did not entirely replace the arch-shaped harp in Egypt until nearly 900 b.c.e. The major difference between arched- and angular-shaped harps was the construction and the number of strings. In an angular harp, the rib was inserted into the sound box rather than being parallel to it as with the arched harp. Moreover, the angular harp has between 21 and 29 strings. Thus, the angular harp can produce between double and triple the number of pitches of an arched harp. The Egyptians clearly were reluctant to expand the pitch range of their music since they resisted adopting the angular harp. During the first millennium, however, the angular harp was popular in Egypt since it continues to be represented in reliefs of the period.

Stringed Instruments: Lyres and Lutes.

The three types of lyres that the Egyptians used are distinguished today as thin, thick, and giant. The thin lyre originated in Syria around 2500 b.c.e. and appeared in Egypt by 1900 b.c.e. Yet the thin lyre was not really popular until the Eighteenth Dynasty (1539–1075 b.c.e.), nearly 500 years later, as evidenced by the fact that artists represented it more often in tombs. The thin lyre might have been called the djadjat, but was better known in the New Kingdom by its Semitic name: the kinnarum. Egyptians considered it a low-status alternative to the harp since the musicians playing it appear in the tombs of poorer people. The thick lyre was larger and had more strings than a thin lyre. The thick lyre first appeared in the Middle Kingdom (2008 to after 1630 b.c.e.) in Egypt and lasted until the Ptolemaic Period (332–30 b.c.e.). The giant lyre is best known from the Amarna Period (1352–1336 b.c.e.). Curiously, depictions of musicians playing the giant lyre always portray them as dressed in the fashion of Canaanites, though no archaeological evidence of the giant lyre is known from Canaan. Another cross-cultural connection is evident in the Egyptian importation of the gengenty, a lute from the Near East. Though known in Mesopotamia about 2000 b.c.e., it only became popular in Egypt during the New Kingdom. Lutes in Egypt were the exclusive domain of women.

Tutankhamun's Trumpets

The poor state of preservation of most ancient Egyptian instruments made of wood or reeds makes it impossible to attempt to play them. But trumpet players have attempted to sound the trumpets of Tutankhamun, made from bronze and silver, at least three times during the twentieth century c.e. In 1933, Percival Robson Kirby played the trumpets without a modern mouthpiece. He found that it played only one note: one that corresponded with a tone between C and C-sharp. In 1939 James Tappern played the Tutankhamun trumpets with a modern mouthpiece as if they were modern instruments. In 1941, a final attempt was made to play the trumpet as an ancient player would have. Again only one note could be sounded. This one note must have been the original sound the trumpet made.


Bo Lawgren. "Music," in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Vol. 2. Donald B. Redford et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001): 450–454.

Lisa Manniche, Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum Press, 1991).

Musical Instruments

views updated May 23 2018

Musical Instruments


introduction: This fanciful scene from Remede de Fortune by Guillaume de Machaut (1340) names a number of instruments, including some that cannot be identified.

But you should have seen after the meal
The minstrels who entered in generous number,
With shining hair and simple dress!
They played many varied harmonies.
For I saw there all in a group
Fiddle, rebec and gittern,
Lutes, morache, micanon,
Citols, and a psalterion,
Harp, tabour, trumpets, nakers,
Organs, more than ten pair of trumpets,
Bagpipes, flutes, chevretes,
Douceinnes, cymbals, clocettes,
Tymbres, flutes from Brittany,
And the large German horn,
Flutes from Scens, panpipes, whistles,
Muse d'Aussay, small trumpets,
Ceremonial trumpets, eles,
and monocords with only a single string,
And muse de blef all together.
And certainly, it seemed to me
That never was such a melody seen nor heard,
For each of them, according to the tone
Of his instrument, without discord
Plays on vielle, gittern, citole
Harp, trumpet, horn, flageolet,
Pipe, bellows, bagpipe, nakers
Or tabor and every sound that one can make
With fingers, quill and bow
I heard and saw in that park.

source: Le jugement du roy de Behaigne, and, Remede de fortune/Guillaume de Machaut. Ed. James I. Wimsatt and William W. Kibler (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988): lines 3959–3988. Translation by Robert Taylor.

Loud Versus Soft.

Musical instruments were divided into two fairly discrete groups—loud and soft—each group having specific functions and repertories; the two groups were rarely mixed together. The "loud" instruments were trumpets, bagpipes, shawms (double-reed instruments rather like the modern oboe), and drums. These instruments were assigned ceremonial functions, mostly out of doors, and were never found in the company of voices. The remaining "soft" instruments—bowed and plucked strings, woodwinds, and keyboard instruments—were played individually or in ensembles; some of them accompanied voices. The instruments that are described in this section are those most often seen in visual art and mentioned in literature.


Trumpets came in several sizes, shapes, and materials. Straight trumpets approximately six feet in length and often made of silver were the instruments usually associated with governmental authority. Military trumpets were approximately the same length and made of brass, but beginning in the fourteenth century they were, for practical reasons, folded (similar to a modern bugle). Another popular shape was one resembling an "S," which was used for the smaller trumpets (approximately four feet of pipe) that are often depicted being played at indoor ceremonies such as banquets. All trumpets were without valves or keys, which restricted their notes to those of the natural acoustic overtone series, that is, something similar to the sounds of a modern bugle call. By 1400 a trumpet with a sliding pipe was invented to allow the players to access the complete scale. This was refined by 1480 to a double slide, which improved both speed and accuracy. The new instrument was called trombone in Italy, sackbut in England, and saqbutte in France.


The shawm, also considered "loud," is a double-reed instrument much like an oboe. It resembles similar instruments popular in the Arab countries and is first depicted in Spanish sources of the late thirteenth century, suggesting that it had been introduced to Europe during the Arab or Moorish occupation of Spain. Since the shawm had a fairly large range and could play many of the chromatic notes, it was capable of performing all of the repertory of the period. By the mid-fourteenth century there were two sizes, the traditional alto range instrument and a newer one that played at a lower pitch (tenor range) called a bombarde because of its resemblance to a cannon. Instruments of these two sizes often performed in pairs. By the early fifteenth century an alto and tenor shawm were often depicted with a slide trumpet as a standard dance music ensemble.


The bagpipe is found throughout the Middle Ages in most areas of Asia and the Middle East as well as in Europe, with a heritage that goes back to ancient times. There are many different sizes and shapes, but what they all have in common is that the sound is made by squeezing a bag (originally the skin of a goat) and the melody is played on a chanter pipe with finger holes. Instruments could have one, two, or three drone pipes or even none, and there are examples of both one and two chanter pipes. The bagpipe is most often seen playing alone, mostly for dancers, and it is usually associated with rural or pastoral scenes.


The percussion instruments make up the final group in the "loud" category. The type most frequently depicted is nakers, a pair of small "kettle" drums, usually tied to the performer's waist or over the neck of a horse; tabor, a larger barrel-shaped drum, often called a "side drum," usually associated with the military; and tambourine, a hand-held instrument with jingles, which is usually depicted in conjunction with dancing.


The keyboard group, considered "soft" instruments, included organs, harpsichords, and clavichords. Two types of organs were in common use: a portative organ (i.e. small and portable), which was usually held on the lap of the player and played with one hand while the other hand worked the bellows; and a larger positive organ that was not portable and was usually found in church, some of which had multiple keyboards, pedals, and several ranks of pipes. Medieval harpsichords were similar to those in use today. The earliest evidence of their existence comes from the mid-fifteenth century. They had a single keyboard with one wire string for each note, and a sounding device that plucked the strings with a pick called a plectrum, which could be made of leather or quill. The clavichord (also called exchequer in England) appears as early as the fourteenth century. It differs from the harpsichord in several ways: it had a very soft volume; it made its sound by striking the strings with a metal strip called a tangent; and some of its strings could make more than one pitch according to the amount of force applied to the key—that is, a stronger pressure would result in a higher pitch.


The woodwind group was quite small, including only the flute and the recorder. These instruments were similar to those of today, but without keys. Only the higher-pitched (soprano) members of these families existed until late in the fifteenth century. The flute is often depicted with drums in a military setting, while the recorder was used for domestic music making.

Bowed Strings.

Bowed strings in the Middle Ages ranged from those that are obvious ancestors of modern instruments to some that are much less familiar. One of those that is less well known today was the hurdy-gurdy, which made its sound by the turning of a crank that caused a wheel to scrape against two or three strings. A set of keys or levers could be pressed against one of the strings to change the pitch, while the other(s) provided a drone. By the late Middle Ages it was played by a single performer, usually in a lower-class setting, but an earlier version, known as an organistrum or symphonia, requiring two performers, can be found depicted in a sacred setting in the form of stone sculptures on Gothic churches. Other bowed instruments of the period were distinguished mainly by size and pitch. The rebec, a small three-string instrument, played in the soprano range, while the vielle (Italian viola, English fiddle) was a four-or five-string instrument with a range similar to a modern viola. In Italy the lira da braccio was used to accompany improvised song. It was a bit larger than a vielle/viola although it was still played while held against the shoulder. It had seven strings, five of which could be "stopped" (i.e. the player could change the pitch with the fingers of his left hand, similar to a modern violin), and two more that were plucked by the thumb of the left hand, adding a strummed drone.

Plucked Strings.

Lutes came in several sizes, with frets and four "courses" (paired sets) of strings and a fifth solo string called a chantarelle, used for playing melodies. During this period it was usually plucked with a quill plectrum and played mostly single-line melodies with drones. It is clearly descended from the Arab instrument oud. The gittern, in contrast, was smaller and higher-pitched than the lute. It also had frets and was plucked with a plectrum and is depicted with three to five single strings. The final member of the group was the harp. Although harps existed in a variety of sizes and forms, the instrument most often depicted was a small portable harp with 24 or 25 strings.

Music for Instruments.

Although musical instruments were present all through the period and were played at many different kinds of occasions, very little music intended solely for instruments has survived. The repertory of instrumentalists consisted mainly of improvised music and melodies that circulated aurally. The only materials recorded in written form were ornamented versions of some pieces originally written for voice and a small number of dances. It is clear that throughout the period instrumentalists often performed vocal music, but it was not until the period of the Renaissance, beginning at the very end of the fifteenth century, that we begin to find a sizable body of music specifically composed for instrumental performance.


Edmund Bowles, "Haut and bas: The Grouping of Musical Instruments in the Middle Ages," Musica Disciplina 8 (1954): 115–140.

Sibyl Marcuse, A Survey of Musical Instruments (London: David and Charles, 1975).

Timothy J. McGee, "Medieval Instrumental Repertoire," in A Performer's Guide to Medieval Music. Ed. Ross W. Duffin (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000): 448–453.

Jeremy Montagu, The World of Medieval and Renaissance Musical Instruments (London: David and Charles, 1976).

Keith Polk, "Ensemble Performance in Dufay's Time," in Dufay Quincentenary Conference. Ed. Allan W. Atlas (Brooklyn: Brooklyn College, 1976): 61–75.

Musical Instruments

views updated May 23 2018

Musical Instruments

This article will focus on musical instruments used in post-Columbian times, regardless of their period of origin. Because Latin America is a mosaic of various cultures, the musical instruments will be discussed in relation to the music cultures to which they belong: Indian-derived, European-derived, and African-derived. Cross-cultural elements, however, are present in most Latin American music, and therefore it is difficult to classify instruments in one of the three cultures exclusively.


In Indian-derived music cultures, rhythms are played on instruments such as gourd rattles used by shamans, bell rattles in northern Chile (chorromón), water drums among the Chaco Indians (northern Argentina and Paraguay), wooden drums filled with pebbles (kultrún) among the Mapuche shamans of Chile and Argentina, double-headed frame drums used in the Andes, Central American kettle drums, the Maya teponaztli (two-tongue slit drum) and turtle shells played with antlers.

Among the wind instruments from Indian-derived music cultures are side-blown bamboo trumpets with gourd or metal bells like the erke of Peru and Ecuador; natural horn trumpets like the putu of northern Chile; long, end-blown bamboo trumpets like the Argentine and Chilean trutruka; conch-shell trumpets of the Central American Indians; flutes, whistles, and pipes of wood, clay, bone, or reed used by the Guatuso, Mayas, and other Central American Indians; clay globular flutes (ocarinas), transverse flutes with both ends stopped or opened, Andean vertical flutes such as the kena (end-blown notched flute) and pinkillo (end-blown duct flute), the 8-foot-long paired flute uruá among the Kamaiura of Brazil; panpipes in the Andes and among the Kuna of Panama; clarinets of probable post-Columbian origin among groups from Guyana, Brazil, Bolivia, and northern Argentina (the erkencho).

It is believed that string instruments were brought to the Americas by Europeans and Africans. Some string instruments used by the Indians and mestizos as accompaniment in Andean folk music are the European harp and guitar, and the mestizo charango, a small, fretted lute that sometimes is constructed with an armadillo shell as resonator.


European-derived music cultures have used string instruments such as the harp, violin, and guitar, all over Latin America. The harp has been widely used throughout Latin America since colonial times: from Mexico and Central America through the plains of Colombia and Venezuela to Peru, Paraguay, Argentina, and Chile. The guitar, too, is found in many countries (e.g., Argentine folk dances such as the chacarera, zamba, and gato; the Ecuadorian pasillo; the Peruvian vals; the Chilean cueca; and the Mexican mariachi ensemble).

Other string instruments used in European-derived music cultures are various types of tiples (treble guitars; Colombia, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela), bandolas (flat-backed lutes; Guatemala, Colombia, and Venezuela), the bandurria, a plucked lute (Peru, Venezuela), the jarana (small guitar; Yucatán and Veracruz, Mexico), the guitarrón (large, five-string bass instrument with convex body that is accompaniment for the mariachi ensemble), various types of cuatro (a small, four-string guitar of Venezuela and a larger, ten-string guitar of Puerto Rico), and the tres (a small, three-double-string guitar of Cuba).

European-derived music cultures use wind instruments such as the accordion (played for the Colombian vallenato and the Argentine tango [in the latter it is called bandoneón]), flutes, brass instruments (Mexican and Colombian bandas), and chirimías (shawm) played by conjuntos of Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia.


African-derived music cultures are found throughout Latin America but more particularly in Brazil, the Caribbean, and coastal areas of northern South America, Central America, and Mexico. Percussion instruments such as drums, bells, and rattles are important elements in African-derived music. For example, in Venezuela there are drum ensembles called mina (6.5-feet-tall Tambor De Mina or tambor grande and curbata drum), culo 'e puya (double-headed tambor redondo and culo 'e puya drum), golpe de tambor (cumaco drum and campana drum); and fulia (drums of three different sizes).

Drums are also the principal musical instruments in African-derived religions. In some religions such as Candomblé and Umbanda in Brazil, Santería in Cuba, vodun in Haiti, and shango in Trinidad, most drums are played in groups of three, together with a bell and/or a rattle. These drums vary in size and shape, but most are of three sizes: the largest drums, played by the master drummer; the medium-sized drums and the smallest ones keep a steady rhythm. The bell (agogo) or the rattle generally sets the fundamental beat. This complex combination of different rhythms, played simultaneously, is called polyrhythm.

Wind instruments can be included in African-derived drum ensembles as melodic instruments. For example, on the Atlantic coast of Colombia, we find two drum ensembles comprised of repicador, llamador, tambora or bombo drums, guache (tubular rattles), and maracas. One ensemble uses as melodic instrument the caña de millo, probably an African-derived transverse clarinet. The other uses the gaita, an Indian-derived end-blown duct flute.

Three other important percussion instruments in African-derived music cultures are the Marimba, the güiro, and the claves. The marimba, a xylophone of African origin, is the national instrument of Guatemala, and is a popular instrument in other African-derived and Indian-derived traditions of Latin America as well. In nineteenth-century Brazil, marimba was the name for a portable lamello-phone played with the thumbs. The guiro is a scraper (reco-reco) used in the Caribbean, Panama, and South America; the claves, consisting of two cylindrical hardwood sticks, is used in Cuba. Tambourines and cuicas are widely used in Brazilian Carnival music.

A string instrument in the African-derived tradition is the berimbau, a gourd-resonated bow used in Brazil as part of the music for the martial art/dance Capoeira. African bow lutes were played in nineteenth-century Brazil.

See alsoMusic: Pre-Columbian Music of Mesoamerica; Music: Pre-Columbian Music of South America.


Karl Gustav Izikowitz, Musical and Other Sound Instruments of the South American Indians (1935), Carlos Vega, Los instrumentos musicales aborígenes y criollos de la Argentina (1946).

Fernando Ortiz Fernández, Los instrumentos de la música afrocubana, 5 vols. (1952–1955).

Alceu Maynard Araújo, Instrumentos musicais e implementos (1954).

Gilbert Chase, A Guide to the Music of Latin America (1962; 2d ed., 1972).

Isabel Aretz De Ramón y Rivera, Instrumentos musicales de Venezuela (1967).

Joan Rimmer, "The Instruments Called Chirimia in Latin America," in Studia instrumentorum musicae popularis, 4 (1973); 101-110.

Sibyl Marcuse, Musical Instruments: A Comprehensive Dictionary (1975).

Instituto Nacional De Musicología "Carlos Vega," Instrumentos musicales etnográficos y folklóricos de la Argentina (1980).

Fradique Lizardo, Instrumentos musicales folklóricos dominicanos (1980).

Dale A. Olsen, "Folk Music of South America—A Musical Mosaic," in Music of Many Cultures, edited by Elizabeth May (1980).

Carlos Alberto Coba Andrade, Instrumentos musicales populares registrados en el Ecuador, 2 vols. (1981).

Egberto Bermúdez, Los instrumentos musicales en Colombia (1985).

René De Maeyer, ed., "Musique et influences culturelles réciproques entre l'Europe et l'Amérique Latine du XVIe au XXe sicèle," in Brussels Museum of Musical Instruments Bulletin 16 (1986).

Centro Para Las Culturas Populares y Tradicionales, Instrumentos musicales de América Latina y el Caribe (1988).

Jesús Muñoz-Tábora, Organología del folklore hondureño (1988).

Bruno Nettl, ed., Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents, 3d ed. (1990), chaps. 9, 10.

Guillermo Abadía, Instrumentos musicales: Folklore colombiano (1991).

Revista Musical Chilean, Bibliografía musicológica latinoamericana, no. 1 (1992).

Additional Bibliography

Olsen, Dale A. Music of El Dorado: The Ethnomusicology of Ancient South American Cultures. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.

Olsen, Dale A., and Daniel Edward Sheehy. The Garland Handbook of Latin American Music. New York: Garland, 2000.

Orovio, Helio. Cuban Music from A to Z. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

                                   Manuel FernÁndez

Musical Instruments

views updated May 29 2018

Musical Instruments

Many musical instruments of the Renaissance were inherited from the Middle Ages. However, some of these medieval* instruments changed in shape and size in response to changing musical needs and tastes. The growing popularity of polyphonic music, which had several interwoven melody lines, created a demand for new types of instruments. At the same time, some popular medieval instruments, such as the bagpipe, fell out of favor as performance instruments, although they remained common in folk music.

Meanwhile, amateurs took a greater interest in musical performance. They favored instruments that could play chords and several musical lines at once, such as keyboards and the lute*. Musicians used them for solo performances, to accompany singers, and to provide a background for amateur music-making in people's homes. Another factor that changed instruments during the Renaissance was the growth of theatrical productions and spectacles in the 1500s. To fill large performance halls with sound, composers began producing music for large groups of different instruments. The demands of the theater also gave rise to new instruments.

Stringed Instruments. Some Renaissance stringed instruments were played with bows, others by plucking the strings with the fingers. Various bowed instruments had survived from the Middle Ages, but only one of these—the viol—was adapted to meet the new musical demands of the Renaissance. In fact, the viol evolved into an entire family of instruments, each of a different size and capable of playing in a different musical range. The members of the viol family became very popular for amateur performance.

A new type of bowed instrument, the violin, appeared in the late 1400s. A shoulder-held instrument with four strings, it combined features of several earlier medieval instruments. Originally used only to perform dance music, the violin became the instrument of choice for a wide variety of musical styles. Like the viol, the violin was joined by related instruments that could play in different ranges. The violin and its relatives, the viola and cello, have remained essentially unchanged since the Renaissance.

Many plucked instruments of the Middle Ages lost favor during the Renaissance and were used only for folk music after that period. Only the harp and lute evolved to meet the needs of the new musical styles. The Renaissance harp had new strings added to expand its range and to enable it to play all the notes of the scale. These changes made it more suitable for use in the theater. The lute also went through a series of changes that enabled it to play more than one melody line at the same time. During the 1500s new types of lutes emerged with larger numbers of strings. Versatile and portable, the members of the lute family remained in constant demand to accompany solo and group performances. Another type of plucked instrument, the guitar, first appeared during the Renaissance. In England and France, four-string guitars served for both solos and accompaniment. In Spain, a six-string version became very popular in the 1500s.

Wind Instruments. During the Middle Ages, most woodwind instruments, such as flutes and recorders, had played in the alto range. Larger and smaller versions of these instruments emerged during the Renaissance to cover higher and lower ranges. Recorders had traditionally been popular for making music in the home, while flutes had played a role in the military. In the late 1400s, however, both these instruments came into common use for performances—sometimes in groups of the same instrument and sometimes mixed with other instruments or with voices.

Another popular woodwind was the shawm, a double-reed instrument that had often played alongside the bagpipe in the late Middle Ages. In the Renaissance, the shawm commonly appeared with a larger version of itself, known as the bombard because it resembled a small cannon. Ensembles of two or three shawms—often joined by a trombone—became the chief type of instrumental group employed by town governments and royal courts.

Renaissance trumpets and other types of horns all featured a cupshaped mouthpiece. They could be made of a variety of materials—brass, silver, and even wood. Trumpets commonly served as signal instruments and to "announce" people or events. Ceremonial trumpets were usually made of silver and hung with pennants bearing the symbols of a government or a noble family. Renaissance trumpets, unlike modern ones, had no valves and could play only a few notes, such as those used in fanfares. In the early 1400s a slide trumpet appeared, which used a movable slide to alter the length of the instrument and produce all the notes of the scale.

A more complex slide-based instrument, called the sackbut or trombone, emerged in the late 1400s. More versatile than the trumpet, the trombone was used in a variety of ways. Trombones appeared along with trumpets on ceremonial occasions, they formed a part of small groups with shawms, and they played with orchestras of strings and woodwinds in theatrical productions. They were also used for dance music and to support the lower voices in church choirs.

The cornet, which evolved from a medieval folk instrument, became a favorite instrument of the Renaissance. Made of wood and leather, it had a cup mouthpiece and was fingered like a flute. Popular in soprano and alto sizes, cornets performed with a wide variety of chamber and theater groups. They also supported the high voices in church choirs.

Keyboard Instruments. The main keyboard instruments of the Renaissance were organs, harpsichords, and clavichords. Organs used pipes to produce their sound, while harpsichords and clavichords used strings. The small portable organs of the Middle Ages, which could be held on the lap or placed on a table, remained fairly unchanged during the Renaissance. Large, stationary organs, by contrast, grew and developed dramatically during the 1400s and 1500s. Installed in all cathedrals and major churches throughout Europe, these large organs had many rows of pipes, and some had extra keyboards and foot pedals. These changes increased the range, volume, and variety of sounds that the organ could produce.

Harpsichords (with plucked strings) and clavichords (with hammered strings) first appeared in the late 1300s and grew increasingly popular over the next few hundred years. The clavichord, which played softly, appeared only in homes. The harpsichord, however, was far more versatile. By the mid-1500s it had become the most common instrument for solo performance, large and small groups, and accompaniment. Harpsichords varied greatly in size. Some had two or three strings per note and some featured extra keyboards, which enabled them to produce a variety of different tones.

(See alsoMusic; Music, Instrumental. )

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* lute

guitarlike stringed instrument with a rounded back

Musical Instruments

views updated Jun 27 2018

Musical Instruments

In 1833, English visitor John Finch remarked on slaves' love of creating music. "A black boy will make an excellent fiddle of a gourd and some string. In autumn they play tunes on the dried stalks of Indian corn, when it is still standing in the field. By striking it near the ground or at the top, they make it discourse most excellent music." Finch concluded that "an instrument of music seems necessary to their existence" (Epstein 1965, p. 381).

Solomon Northup, who eventually escaped slavery, seemed to agree with Finch's observation about the importance of musical instruments:

My master often received letters, sometimes from a distance often miles, requesting him to send me to play at a ball or festival of the whites. He received his compensation, and usually I also returned with many picayunes jingling in my pockets … Alas! Had it not been for my beloved violin, I scarcely can conceive how I could have endured the long years of bondage. (Northup 1853, pp.216-217)

Talented black musicians were in demand for whites' parties, and—as in Northup's case—were able to gain a measure of mobility, economic remuneration, prestige, and self-satisfaction. They were also in demand for social events in the slave quarters, a service they usually did not charge for. Former slave Gus Smith recounted that "in times of our holidays, we always had our own musicians. Sometimes we sent ten or twelve miles for a fiddler. He'd stay a week or so in one place and den he would go on to de next farm, maybe four or five miles away, and dey had a good time for a week" (Born in Slavery, Missouri Narratives, vol. 10, p. 323). Another slave, Fanny Randolph, recalled how in her childhood bands would play "one wid er fiddle an' one ter beat straws, an' one wid er banjo, an' one ter beat bones" (Born in Slavery, Georgia Narratives, vol. 4, pt. 3, p. 196).

The instruments themselves varied. Some masters provided instruments for talented slaves, in order to benefit both personally and (as Northup's master did) financially from the use of the pianos and brass horns they provided. Most slave musicians, however, made their own instruments, as demonstrated in the following testimonies:

Betty Curtlett: The only musical instrument we had was a banjo. Some made their banjos. Take a bucket or pan a long strip of wood. 5 horse hairs twisted made the base string. 2 horsehairs twisted made the second string. 1 horse hair twisted made the fourth and the fifth string was a fine one, it was not twisted at all but drawn tight. They were all bees waxed (Born in Slavery, Arkansas Narratives, vol. 2, pt. 2, p. 81).

Hammett Dell: I made some music instruments. We had music. Folks danced more than they do now. Most darkies blowed quills and Jew's harps. I took cane cut four or six made whistles then tuned em together and knit them together in a row like a mouth harp you see. Another way get a big long cane cut out holes long down to the joint, hold your fingers over different holes and blow. I never had a better time since freedom (p. 141).

Isaac D. Williams: We generally made our own banjos and fiddles, and I had a fiddle that was manufactured out of a gourd, with horse hair strings and a bow made out of the same material. If you put plenty of rosin on the strings, it would compare very favorably with an ordinary violin and made excellent music. When we made a banjo we would first of all catch what we called a ground hog, known in the north as a woodchuck. After tanning his hide, it would be stretched over a piece of timber fashioned like a cheese box, and you couldn't tell the difference between that homely affair and a handsome store bought one (Epstein 1965, p. 384).

Jeff Davis demonstrated the relationship that slave performers had with their instruments: "I'm a musician—played the fife. Played it to a T. Had two kinds of drums. Had different kinds of brass horns, too. I 'member one time they was a fellow thought he could beat the drum till I took it" (Born in Slavery, Arkansas Narratives, vol. 2, pt 2, p. 116). Davis was especially proud that he had two drumsets—drums were usually not permitted at all, as whites feared they might be used to send signals in an uprising. Producing music with their own instruments enabled slaves such as Davis and Curtlett to feel a sense of humanity and pride which still came easily to mind in their old age, and which, as with Northup, sustained them during their bondage.


Cimbala, Paul A. "Fortunate Bondsmen: Black 'Musicianers' and Their Role as an Antebellum Southern Plantation Slave Elite." Southern Studies 18 (1979):291-303.

Epstein, Dena J. "Slave Music in the United States Before 1860." Music Library Association Notes 20 (1965): 195-212, 377-390.

Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave. Auburn: Derby and Miller, 1853.

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938. Online collection of the Manuscript and Prints and Photographs Divisions of the Library of Congress. Available from

                                         Troy D. Smith

Musical Instruments

views updated May 23 2018

Musical Instruments


Variety of Instruments. The Egyptians used percussion, wind, and stringed instruments. Some of these instruments were imported from the Near East, while others were indigenous to Egypt. The simplest percussion instrument was two hands clapping. The Egyptians depicted singers clapping in Old Kingdom (circa 2675-2130 b.c.e.) tomb scenes, but the sound could be amplified by use of instruments they called “Two Hands,” which were made from two pieces of curving ivory or bone with the image of Hathor or of hands carved at their ends. A smaller version of these instruments resembles castanets. A related instrument is the menat, which was also associated with the goddess Hathor. This instrument was worn around the neck like jewelry. All these instruments were in use during the Old Kingdom and later.

Percussion. Drums resembled a variety of shapes including barrels, goblets, and circles. From the Middle Kingdom (circa 1980-1630 b.c.e.) through the New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 b.c.e.), drums were small enough to be held with one hand and beaten with the other. These smaller drums were played by women. The Egyptians did not use drumsticks. In the Late Period (664-332 b.c.e.) a larger barrel drum was worn with a strap around the neck and was played by a man. The drummer beat on both ends with his hands. These drums were all made by stretching skin across a wooden frame. The circular drum was probably introduced from Syria-Palestine during Dynasty 13 (circa 1759–after 1630 b.c.e.).

Sistra. The sistrum (plural “sistra”) is an instrument resembling a rattle. Egyptian sistra include metal disks, pierced in the middle, which are strung on a metal bar that is suspended on another loop of metal. The loop is mounted on a wooden handle often decorated with Hathor’s face. Other sistra used a rectangular frame shaped like a shrine in a temple. Sistra were commonly used in religious ceremonies and were played by women.

Wind Instruments. Egyptians played a variety of wind instruments, including flutes, parallel double pipes, and divergent double pipes. The flute was held to the side of the body, while the two kinds of pipes were held in front of the body. The parallel double pipes seem to have been bound together with string, while the divergent double pipes form a V-shape with the point at the mouth. Each half was played with one hand. These wind instruments all had a slightly different mouthpiece. The parallel pipes had a single vibrating element, so it is sometimes called a clarinet. The divergent pipes had a double vibrating element, similar to an oboe. Metal trumpets were used by the military.

Stringed Instruments. Stringed instruments included harps, lyres, and lutes. The shape of the harp was uniquely Egyptian, but lyres and lutes probably were based on Near Eastern types. In the arched harp the sound box and neck form a continuous curve. The arched harp was most popular during the Old and Middle Kingdoms. It had fewer than ten strings and thus had a limited range of sounds. In the angular harp the sound box and neck are at right angles to one another. Angular harps were known in Mesopotamia by 1900 b.c.e. but did not become common in Egypt until almost four hundred years later. Angular harps had more strings than arched harps. They introduced a much broader range of sound than the older arched harp. Thin, thick, and giant lyres were known throughout the Near East. Egyptian lyres are part of a broader, international

musical culture. In the New Kingdom, the same name was used for the thick lyre both in the Near East and in Egypt (kinnarum). Giant lyre players, depicted in Egyptian scenes of the Amarna period, wore typical Canaanite dress. Lutes were invented in Mesopotamia in circa 1900 b.c.e. and quickly spread to Egypt. They were played both by men and women in ensembles or alone.


Bo Lawergren, “Music,” in Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, edited by Donald B. Redford (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 450–454.

Lise Manniche, Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum Press, 1991).

instruments, musical

views updated May 14 2018

instruments, musical. Objects or devices for producing mus. sound by mechanical energy or electrical impulses. They can be classified as: (1) Str. (plucked or bowed). (2) Wind (played by blowing direct into the mouthpiece or through a reed). (3) Perc. (of determinate or indeterminate pitch). (4) Elec. Note that the pf., though it has str., is percussive in its mechanism, so is not easily classified. For the classifications of instr. by C. Sachs and E. M. von Hornbostel pubd. in 1914, see aerophones, chordophones, idiophones, and membranophones, with electrophones as additional category. For the Sachs–Hornbostel introduction to their classifications, see New Grove, Vol. 9, pp. 241–5.

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