Tue. Oct 15th, 2019

Musical instruments and their historical past

8 min read

There has been speculation about the origin of instruments since antiquity. Older writers were generally content to rely on mythology or legends. In the 19th century, partly as a result of theories of evolution put forward by Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, new chronologies based on anthropological evidence were advanced. The British writer John Frederick Rowbotham argued that there was originally a drum stage, followed by a pipestage, and finally a lyre stage. The Austrian writer Richard Wallaschek, on the other hand, maintained that, although rhythm was the primal element, the pipe came first, followed by song, and the drum last. Sachs based his chronology on archaeological excavation and the geographic distribution of the instruments found in them. Following this method, he established three main strata. The first stratum, which is found all over the world, consists of simple idiophones and aerophones; the second stratum, less widely distributed, adds drums and simple stringed instruments; the third, occurring only in certain areas, adds xylophones, drumsticks, and more complex flutes. In the 21st century, ethnomusicologists have questioned assumptions about the evolution of instruments from simple to complex; see above Technological developments.

The development of musical instruments among ancient high civilizations in Asia, North Africa, and the Mediterranean appears to have emphasized stringed instruments. In Central and South America, wind and struck instruments seem to have been most important. It is not always easy to say whether instruments are indigenous to a particular area, however, since their cultivation may well have spread from one country to another through trade or migration. Nevertheless, it is known that the harp was used from early times in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India and was imported into China after the end of the 4th century AD. In Greece it was regarded as a foreign instrument: the standard plucked instrument was the lyre, known in its fully developed form as the kithara (or cithara). Apart from the trumpet, the only wind instrument in normal use in Greece was the aulos, a double-reed instrument akin to the modern oboe. The Egyptians used wind instruments not only with double reeds but also with single reeds and thus may be said to have anticipated the clarinet. Peculiar to China was the sheng, or mouth organ; the Chinese also used as an artistic instrument the panpipes (xiao), which in Greece had a recreational function.

In medieval Europe, many instruments came from Asia, having been transmitted through Byzantium, Spain, or eastern Europe. Perhaps the most notable development in western Europe was the practice, originating apparently in the 15th century, of building instruments in families, from the smallest to the largest size. A typical family was that of the shawms, which were powerful double-reed instruments. A distinction was made between haut(loud) and bas (soft) instruments, the former being suitable for performance out-of-doors and the latter for more intimate occasions. Hence, the shawm came to be known as the hautbois (loud wood), and this name was transferred to its more delicately toned descendant, the 17th-century oboe. By the beginning of the 17th century the German musical writer and composer Michael Praetorius, in his Syntagma musicum (“Musical Treatise”), was able to give a detailed account of families of instruments of all kinds—recorders, flutes, shawms, trombones, viols, and violins.

Percussion instruments

Drum ensembles have achieved extraordinary sophistication in Africa, and the small hand-beaten drum is of great musical significance in western Asia and India. The native culturesof the Americas have always made extensive use of drums, as well as other struck and shaken instruments. In Southeast Asia and parts of Africa, xylophones and, since the introduction of metals, their cousins the metallophones play significant roles. Europe, however, has not placed great emphasis on drums and other percussion instruments. (See also percussion instrument.)

Stringed instruments

Many varieties of plucked instruments were found in Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; but bowed instruments eventually came to characterize the area, and they played an important role in the rest of Eurasia and in North Africa as well. The idea of playing a stringed instrument with a bow may have originated with the horse cultures of Central Asia, perhaps in the 9th century AD. The technique then spread rapidly over most of the European landmass.

The European fiddle existed in various forms: by the 16th century these had settled down into two distinct types—the viol, known in Italy as viola da gamba (leg fiddle), and the violin, or viola da braccio (arm fiddle). The viol has a flat back, sloping shoulders, and six or seven strings; the violin has a rounded back, rounded shoulders, and four strings. The viol, unlike the violin, has frets—pieces of gut wound at intervals around the fingerboard—which make every stopped note (i.e., the string being pressed by the finger to produce a higher pitch) sound like an open (unstopped) string. The violin, being the smallest member of the family, came to be known by the diminutive violino: the tenor of the family was called simply viola, while the bass acquired the name violoncello, a diminutive of violone (“big fiddle”). (See alsostringed instrument.)

Keyboard instruments

Only in Europe did the keyboard develop—for reasons that are not clear. The principle of the keyboard has been used successfully to control bells (the carillon), plucked and struck stringed instruments (the piano and harpsichord), and wind instruments (the organ, the accordion, and the harmonium).

Of all instruments, the organ showed the most remarkable development from the early Middle Ages to the 17th century. Originally, sound was admitted to the pipes by withdrawing sliders or depressing levers. Both of these methods were clumsy: they gave way to a reduction in the size of the levers, which eventually could be depressed by the fingers, while the larger pipes were controlled by pedals. A further development was to separate the various rows of pipes, so that each row could be brought into action or suppressed by means of a draw stop. Once a manageable keyboard had been produced, it could be applied to the portable organ, carried by the player, which was already in use by the 12th century. Scientific experiments with the monochord, a stretched string that could be divided into various lengths by means of a metal tangent, were followed by the construction of an instrument with a whole range of strings and a keyboard similar to that of the organ—the clavichord. A similar adaptation of the plucking of stringed instruments led to the harpsichord, the ingenious mechanism of which had been perfected by the 16th century. It is curious that a similar method was not applied to the dulcimer, which was struck with hammers, until the early 18th century, when the Italian maker Bartolomeo Cristofori constructed the first pianoforte, so-called because, unlike the harpsichord, it could vary the tone from soft (piano) to loud (forte). (See also keyboard instrument.)

Wind instruments

In Europe the practice of constructing instruments in families continued from the 17th century onward. English composers wrote for the tenor hautbois, the intermediate oboe d’amore, and the bass, or baritone, oboe. The clarinet (the name means “little trumpet”) emerged at the end of the 17th century and, like the oboe, developed into a family extending to a contrabass clarinet in the 19th century and later a subcontrabass. It established itself only gradually in the orchestra in the course of the 18th century.

Trumpets and horns were used in most areas of Eurasia for ceremonial and military purposes. They remained relatively unchanged until the early 19th century, when valves were added to European instruments. This modification also led to the creation of new types. A pioneer in the field was the Belgian instrument maker Antoine-Joseph Sax, who in 1845 built a family of valved instruments called saxhorns, using the bugle as the basis for his invention. Similar instruments were widely adopted in military and brass bands, but only the bass, under the name bass tuba, became a normal member of the orchestra. Sax also invented the saxophone, a single-reed instrument like the clarinet but with a conical tube. This, too, was made in various sizes, which came to be used both in military bands and in jazz ensembles. The saxophone never became a normal member of the symphony orchestra, but the alto and the tenor have been used by art-music composers, largely as solo instruments, and occasionally a complete quartet of four different sizes has appeared in an orchestral work. (See also wind instrument.)


The variety of musical ensembles used throughout the world is vast and beyond description, but the following principles apply nearly everywhere. Outdoor music, which is often ceremonial, most frequently involves the use of loud wind instruments and drums. Indoor music, which is more often intended for passive listening, emphasizes such quieter instruments as bowed and plucked strings and flutes.

The establishment of orchestras, as opposed to chamber groups, in the early 17th century led to a slight revision of these principles in Europe. The orchestra’s sound is founded on a large ensemble of bowed strings, but it adds the previously outdoor instruments (wind and percussion) for colour and climax. As concert halls increased in size and popularity, so too did the sound-volume requirements of so-called indoor instruments. One result was that the violin family was favoured at the expense of the quieter viols. The latter, along with other instruments whose tone was too weak for orchestral music, gradually dropped out of use until the 20th century, when earlier styles of music and their associated instruments experienced a revival in popularity.

Automatic instruments

Water power, clockwork, steam, and electricity have all been used at various times to power musical instruments, enabling them to produce sound automatically. Examples include church bells, automatic organs, musical clocks, automatic pianos and harpsichords, music boxes, calliopes, and even automatic orchestras. Most of the impetus behind this phenomenon ceased with the development of the phonograph and other recordingdevices of the 20th century.

Electric and electronic instruments

The development of electricity led not only to its use for mechanical purposes—for example, to control the key action and wind flow in the organ—but also as a means of amplification (e.g., in the vibraphone). With advances in electronics technology, players can now also make use of computers to generate and store tones and musical patterns. The growth of companies manufacturing electronic and digital instruments has been rapid, and the use of electronic equipment, such as sound synthesizers and recorders using analog or digital media, to produce and combine sound unrelated to the musical scale has become common.

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