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2.1: What are Instruments?

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    Musical instruments are any sound producing medium used in the creation of music. This includes the human body (voice) and all electronic and chance production of musical sounds.

    Musical instruments are amongst the earliest evidence of humans creating art. The oldest extant instruments are flutes found in Hohle Fels cave in Southwest Germany. These flutes are made out of the leg bone of a swan and wooly mammoth ivory. These flutes reveal musical activity at the end of the “stone” age. Visual representations of musical instruments can be found in most of the World’s ancient cultures (Egyptian sistrum, Persian ney, Chinese xun, Greek “Pan” flutes, aboriginal Australian bullroarer, log drums of the Aztecs, and so on). We also learn about instruments from myths, legends, and in art. Although there is much evidence left of musical instruments there is little information left on how they were played. Because of this ethnomusicologists must make many deductions and assumptions about how music sounded.

    Perhaps the first musical instruments were used for communication. Signaling instruments are common even today. Trumpets and drums have a long tradition of signaling in military units both on and off of the battlefield. Shofars andKudu horns uphold this same tradition in various older cultures. Gongs and church bells have long signaled many events. In Tibetan Buddhism monks blow into conch shells to signal times and call people to prayer. The drum beat of a Turkish Janissary band was used to strike fear into Christian crusaders. Electronic musical tones now signal the arrival of text messages, phone calls, the completion of a download, and any number of achievements on video games. Determining the use of an instrument helps to give insight into the meaning of it to the people who use it.

    When looking into the instruments of any culture it is helpful to use a classification system. The most common used classification system for musical instruments (used in Western academia) is called the Hornbostel-Sachs instrument classification system (published in 1914). This system is based off of a Hindu system used by Belgian curator Victor Mahillion in the late 1800s. There are five categories of instruments in the Hornbostel-Sachs classification:

    • Idiophones- instrument in which primary sound producing medium is the vibrating body of the instrument itself.
    • Membranophones- instrument in which the primary sound producing medium is a vibrating stretched membrane (skin)
    • Chordophones- instrument in which the primary sound producing medium is a vibrating chord (string)
    • Aerophones- instrument in which the primary sound producing medium is a vibrating column of air
    • Electrophones- instrument where the sound is differentiated electronically

    Some notable examples from each category that can be used for your project:

    Idiophones: cymbal, triangle, zils, slit drums, wood blocks, chimes, bells, glockenspiel, marimba, balaphone, xylophone, mbira, gongs, (Gamelan has: kenong, ageng, kempul, kempli, gansa, ugal, jublag, panyacah, jegogan), steel drums, jaw harp, shakers, rattles, guiro, bones, castanets, udu, Hang drum

    Membranophones: drums of all kinds= djembe, ashiko, talking-drums, tar, tabla, mrdangam, taiko, powwow drum, bass drum, snare drum, timpani, surdo, repinique, cuica, conga, bongo, frame drums, tambourine, rik, kanjir, bodran

    Aerophones: flutes (dizi, western, piccolo, shakuhachi, Native American, ocarina, recorder), trumpets and horns (French horn, bugle, shofar, kudu, trombone, trumpet, baritone, bugle, conch), pan pipes, didgeridoo, reed instruments (oboe, bassoon, clarinet, saxophone, harmonica, bagpipes, accordion, concertina), bullroarer, sirens, organ

    Chordophones: zithers (autoharp, qanun, uhadi, berimbau, dulcimer), harps, kora, lutes (guitar, banjo, mandolin, ukulele, violin, viola, ‘cello, double bass, bouzouki, sitar, oud, charango, guqin, koto, balalaika, ngoni, molo), piano, harpsichord

    Electrophones: telharmonium, theremin, ondes Martenot, synthesizer, computer, midi-instruments, electric aerophones/ chordophones/ membranophones/ idiophones, turntables, magnetic tape, sequencers, samplers

    Extra-Musical Associations:

    Many instruments have extra-musical associations. These are ideas that

    people have about the instruments that are supplemental to musical notes produced by the instrument. Many of these associations highlight what these instruments mean to the people who listen to them.

    Associations of location and culture are found with instruments. The didgeridoo is typically associated with Australia. More particular knowledge of the instrument evokes thoughts of the aboriginal Australians who created and perform on it. The Brazilian berimbau is a chordophone associated with slaves who used the instrument to accompany capoeira. Capoeira is a martial art that is disguised as dance. Because of this the berimbau is associated with rebellion and resistance. Steel pans/drums are the national symbol of Trinidad and Tobago. They are 55- gallon oil “drums” that have musical notes hammered into one end. They are idiophones. Across the globe many people associate the sounds of the steelpan with idyllic island settings.

    Gender Associations can be made about instruments when the instruments are designated to be played by either males or females. In many traditional African cultures many instruments are to be played only by males. The mbira is a plucked idiophone from the Shona people of the Zambezi valley in southern Africa. It is commonly associated with the country of Zimbabwe but has become a popular instrument across the continent and into the diaspora. In many cultural traditions this instrument is only to be performed by males. In ancient Egyptian society this gender bias was not generally the case. The sistrum was an instrument only to be played by females. In American society traditional associations with regards to gender preference for instrumental performance exist, but are fading. The tradition used to have smaller instruments like the flute and clarinet being assigned to girls while larger instruments like the tuba and double bass were played by boys. The second way that instruments can take on gender associations is if the instrument itself is considered to be male or female. The Afro-Cuban bongos are a set of two drums where the larger drum is female (hembra) and the smaller drum is male (macho). This can be seen in American society with harps that are considered to be female.

    Many instruments evoke spiritual associations. This can mean that the instrument is associated with prayer and worship. Examples of this include the organ (associated with traditional Christian worship), the Shakuhachi flute (associated with Zen Buddhist meditation), kangling and conch shell (Tibetan Buddhism=voice of Buddha), and the mrdangam drum (South Indian/Carnatic= association with Hindu deity Ganesh). Sometimes instruments help communication between the spirit world and the physical world. The Australian didgeridoo facilitates passage to “Dream Time” in Aboriginal practice. The Bata drums help to call down Orishas in Cuban Santeria. This is a religious practice of Afro-Cubans that combines African and European religious traditions. The powwow drum helps to cleanse/refresh the spirit of Native American males who play it while singing. Spiritual associations can also be generic associations of instruments with good or evil. This can be seen in American culture with the Harp association with Angels and the violin and guitar association with the devil.

    When musical instruments have aesthetic associations they are often used as visual works of art. When instruments carry strong visual aesthetic value people often obtain them not to play music but instead to enjoy their look. Many instruments are carved or decorated in ways that make them valuable. The Tibetan conch shell is traditionally carved and encrusted with jewels. Gamelan instruments are ornately carved and become visual showpieces in temples where they are performed. Instruments can often be found on display in museums. Instruments valued for differing aesthetics can be found mounted on the walls of restaurants in the USA. Aesthetic value does not always mean “fine-art”.

    Cultural status can sometimes be indicated by the music that one listens to or the instrument that one chooses to play. In pre-television America a favorite pastime was music making. In hollers and farmhouses of less affluent people instruments like the guitar, banjo, and harmonica were common because of their cost and availability. People who owned more complex and expensive instruments could show their cultural status by playing the genres associated with these instruments. To this day many Americans have pianos in homes where no one performs on them. The Korean komungo is a plucked zither that has fretted and non-fretted silk strings. It is traditionally associated with aristocratic courts and high-class status.

    Often instruments are thought of primarily as products to sell for profit. If the instruments are manufactured poorly or not up to the standards needed to make music then they have an extra-musical association of being substandard or cheap. When large department retailers sell musical instruments like guitars, drums, and keyboards they tend to have this association. In America inadequate versions of West-African djembe drums are commonly sold in import stores as “African” themed decorations. To the seller these are a marketable product. To the buyer these are generally an aesthetic visual accent.

    Sometimes instruments retain (or increase) in value as time passes. If this is the case than the instruments can be thought of as investments. The European violin family of instruments became standardized in design and construction during the Baroque style period (1600-1750). The luthiers (violin builders) of that time (Amati, Guarneri, Stradivari) built instruments that remain renowned and sought after. These instruments have been valued for so long that often the historical associations add much to the value. These instruments now sell for millions of dollars at auction.