Musical Instruments

—The means for the production of musical sound are few in number, and of such universality and antiquity that we cannot say when, how, or by whom they were invented. Modern skill has not added one new means, but has simply improved the contrivances by which musical sound is produced. We can, however, trace the evolution and growth of the various instruments with considerable accuracy, and to this end it is of the utmost importance to have a clear understanding of the principles upon which musical instruments are constructed, in order to avoid bewilderment among the endless variety that have been and are yet made. All instruments may be divided into three general classes: Percussion Instruments, Wind Instruments, Stringed Instruments.

The Percussion Instruments are the instruments of rhythm. In this class are included all instruments used for this purpose. It is universally admitted that rhythm is the very basis of music, without which it is vague and meaningless. Possibly the physical fact that lies behind rhythm is the tendency of all repeated muscular action to become regular ; witness the blows of the hammer on the anvil, or the carpenter driving in a nail. The psychologic reason is that when the will has set a certain muscular action in motion, it leaves the carrying out of the command to some subordinate function, so long as it is continuous; but if the continuity is to be interrupted, the will must again exert itself ; hence, drumbeating and rattle shaking must of necessity be rhythmic. Nearly all savages have dances of various kinds. Varieties of drum rhythms arise from the almost universal custom of accompanying dances with drums and rattles.

Varieties of Percussion Instruments.—Percussion instruments are almost endless in variety. The most primitive example is that of a hollow log beaten with a war-club by some prehistoric savage. The next step leads to the hollow gourd or other hollow body, across the open end of which is stretched the dried membrane of some wild animal. From these descend all the long line of drums of all sorts, ending with the modern orchestral kettle-drums (tympani) which, by means of a mechanism for changing the tension of their parchment heads, may be tuned in various keys. Percussion instruments of metal are of very ancient origin. In this category are included cymbals of various sizes and shapes, gongs of all sorts, and later, bells and triangles. Comparatively few of the percussion instruments emit sounds of any definite pitch. They were and are to a great extent noise-producing, used for the purpose of marking rhythms.

Wind Instruments : Vibrating Column of Air in a Tube. —The next step in advance of noise-producing instruments is the discovery of means for the production of musical sound, which differs from noise in the possession of definite pitch. This leads to a consideration of the wind instruments that produce sound by means of a vibrating column of air enclosed in a tube. This is an important class and has several subdivisions, as will be seen. The simplest form of the wind instrument is the plain tube, producing a single sound when blown across the top. A series of such tubes fastened together side by side constitutes the Syrinx or Pan’s pipe, an instrument known over all the world from the remotest ages. This is thought to be the instrument mentioned in Genesis with the Hebrew name Ugab—translated organ, in the verse : “Jubal was the father of all such as handle the harp or the organ.” It is generally believed by scholars that the Pandean Pipe or Syrinx is the oldest of musical instruments ; but long before a sufficient advance had been made to bind together several reeds giving different sounds, the discovery was made that sound might be produced in this way. Some prehistoric man found it out, perhaps by blowing across the top of a hollow bone. A whistle of this kind, of prehistoric make, bored from one of the bones of a reindeer’s foot, was found in a bone cave in France. It may have been used as a signal, and we may imagine that it may have guided a troop of palaeolithic hunters in the chase of the mammoth or rhinoceros, when these animals still roamed over the plains of Europe.

A Tube Pierced with Holes.—The next advance was the discovery that one tube could be made to give several sounds by piercing holes in it. The effect of piercing is equivalent to shortening the tube ; thus the Flute came into existence. There are three forms of the flute; the simplest is the old Japanese flute, blown at the end and pierced with a few holes. Next, the endless variety of flutes blown at a hole in the side, hence called the cross flute, or Flauto Traverso, in German, Querflote. A perfect series of these flutes may be made. From the piece of bamboo with three or four holes, up to the exquisite workmanship and musical possibilities of the orchestral Boehm flute, all these flutes are identical in principle. The third kind of flute is blown at the end and is furnished with a diaphragm, which directs the air in a thin stream against the edge of the opening. Flutes of this kind were once used under the names of flageolet and recorder. Their chief interest lies in the fact that they have served as the model for the flue pipes of the organ, from the ponderous thirty-two foot Diapason to the half-inch extreme of the Mixture.

The Tube with a Reed.—The next subdivision is: The tube in conjunction with a tongue or slip of cane, called a reed. Reed instruments are further divided into single and double reed instruments. The double reed instrument is of great antiquity and widely known. This is the instrument generally meant by the term “flute” ‘in the ancient Greek authors. It is known in China and Thibet, and in its mod-ern form as Hautboy (oboe), English Horn or Bassoon, is an important member of the modern orchestra. The beating or single reed is so-called because it is made a little larger than the orifice over which it is fixed, and therefore beats against this orifice at every vibration, closing it and causing the air to be emitted in puffs. This form of reed instrument is also widely distributed. By the Greeks it was called the Berecynthian pipe; in modern Egypt Arghool, in early England the Shawm, which is a corruption of an older French name—Chalumeau. Under the name Clarinet it is another important member of the orchestra. The beating reed also furnishes the model after which the reed stops of the organ are constructed.

The Tube with the Lips of the Player.—The last sub-division is the tube in conjunction with the lip of the performer, the lips assuming the rôle of the reed. Count-less varieties of trumpets have been used from time immemorial, made at first from that natural tube that has given them their generic name, the “horn” of the ox or goat or antelope. The forms of the horn are endless, but from the conch shell of the Japanese or the ram’s horn Shofar of the Hebrews to the perfectly tuned and mechanically perfect instruments of our bands and orchestras the series is complete, and the acoustic principle in all respects identical.

Stringed Instruments Played by Plucking.—The stringed instruments are those which depend for their sound upon the vibration of stretched strings. This class of instruments is of very ancient origin. As in the case of the wind instruments, the discovery of the principle of the vibration of a stretched string was probably accidental. The twanging of a bow-string suggests a possible clue, or the membranes of animals used for any purpose in which tension is required. Earliest among stringed instruments are the various forms of Harp or Lyre, in which each string gives a single sound, and is put in motion by being plucked by the finger or struck by a rod or flat strip of wood, ivory, etc., called a plectrum. In the next class are included those instruments that are furnished with a neck or fingerboard, with or without frets. In this class the strings are comparatively few in number, as many sounds may be obtained from each string by altering its length by the pressure of the fingers on the neck. These instruments-are also played either with the fingers or the plectrum; to this class belong the Guitar, Lute, Mandolin, etc.

The Lute Family.—For many years, until displaced by instruments of the violin family, the Lute occupied the fore-most position among instruments. It was a favorite instrument in the East, whence it reached Spain and lower Italy. During the 14th century, it spread over all Europe, retaining its popularity from the 15th to the 17th centuries. In shape it was similar to the mandolin of the present day. It had, however, a far greater number of strings. Five pairs of these and a single melody string lay over the keyboard, while the bass strings (finally five in number and used only as open strings) lay at the side. More elaborate forms of the lute, owing to improvements in the arrangement of the bass strings, were the Theorbo and the Archilute. For the various forms of the lute the ordinary measured notation was not used, but special letters or figures were given to indicate, not the pitch of the sound, but the proper fret on the fingerboard of the instrument to be used by the player. This method of notation was called Tablature; it differed somewhat in the various countries. Until displaced by the violin, the lute was in use as an orchestral instrument. In addition, transcriptions of all sorts of vocal and instrumental pieces were made for the lute, for home use, much in the same manner as they are at the present day made for the pianoforte.

Stringed Instruments Played with a Bow.—The next and most important class resembles the last in being furnished with a neck or fingerboard, but with strings put in vibration by a bow, the familiar Violin family. A German writer on the stringed instruments played with a bow gives the following as the successive steps in the evolution of the violin : Rebec, Tromba Marina, Hurdy Gurdy, Fidel (Fidula), Chrotta, Viole, and Violin. The early history of instruments is shrouded in darkness, which existed up to the 16th century. Before that time, although writers on music made reference to the instruments in use, they did not give detailed descriptions. Virdung, who published a work in 1511; Agricola, in 1528; and Gerle, in 1546, were among the first writers. Yet much confusion has arisen from the fact that these writers used different terms for the same instruments, a difficulty that confronts the student of musical history who consults German, French, or Italian works.

I. The Rebec was of Oriental origin and consisted of a wooden frame, which formed the side walls, the top and the bottom being spanned with skin, like a drum. The instrument had only two strings, and was used in accompanying singing. Later the number of strings was increased to three. In the 8th or 9th century an instrument called the Lyra (Lyre) was in use. Its shape shows a change toward the pear-shaped body and narrow neck of the lute.

2. The Tromba Marina (Eng., literally, “Marine Trumpet”), which the Germans call Trumscheit, had a long, sonorous body, over which a strong string, like that of the ‘cello D, was stretched. This string, when sounded with the bow, gave forth a harsh, somewhat nasal tone, similar to that of the 8-foot wooden organ reed-pipe. But the proper way to play it was by lightly touching the string with the finger, as in making harmonics on the violin. This gave a series of tones, according to the pitch of the open string, the same as the so-called over-tones. If the string were tuned to low C, the sounds were middle C, then in succession E, G, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. This instrument was a favorite with choirs of nuns to accompany their singing. Another name given to this instrument from its single string is Monochord.

3. The Hurdy Gurdy, also called Vielle, Radleier (“wheel lyre”), Bettlerleier (“mendicants’ lyre”), Organistrum and Chiffonie, was a great favorite in the period from the loth to the 12th century. This peculiar instrument consisted of a resonant body, over which four strings were stretched. It has analogies to bowed and keyed instruments. Its shape was somewhat like that of the lute or the viola d’amore or guitar. Two of the strings were tuned in unison, were stopped by an arrangement of keys, directed by the player’s left hand shortening the string, thus making it possible to play melodies of a limited compass. The other two strings were usually tuned as Tonic and Dominant, thus giving a drone like the bagpipe. The strings are set in vibration by a wooden wheel, which, being well rosined, has the function of a violin bow; this wheel is turned by a handle at the tail end of the instrument, the player using his right hand for the purpose.

4. The Chrotta (Welsh Crwth—”crooth”) is one of the oldest of string instruments played with a bow. The original home was possibly India, but in its European use it was limited to England, and especially to Wales. It was a favorite instrument of the Welsh bards. The oldest form had three strings. In its later form it was mounted with six strings, four stretched over the fingerboard and played with the bow, and two lying at the side of the fingerboard, and pinched with the thumb of the left hand.

5. Fidula (Fidel, Fiddle), equivalent to “viol,” is the comprehensive term for the string instruments of the 8th to the 14th century. Its resonant body was arched and pear-shaped. The French flattened it more and called it Gigue, the Italians Giga, the Germans Geige, the latter term still being used. Two varieties were in use—the small and the large. The former had three strings tuned in fifths, the latter four to six, usually tuned in fourths and one third. The “large” species was made in four sizes for Discant (soprano), Alto, Tenor, and Bass. The “large” instrument had no bridge such as the violin of today has, and in its rounded form was difficult to play. Later it was cut out at the sides, thus approaching the shape of our violin.

6. The Viol, which first appears in the 15th century, had a resonant body which came almost to a point back of the neck, and the upper part of the body of the instrument was smaller than the lower; the fingerboard had frets like our guitar ; the edges were higher, the f holes were sickle-shaped, the top was flat, and the number of strings was six. Viols were divided into two groups—those held with the arm (like our violin), those played between the knees (like our ‘cello). They were named the soprano or discant viol (violetta), the alto and tenor viols, and the bass viol (gamba). The contrabass or double bass has the viol form in certain respects.

From the viol family comes our violin through a diminution and beautifying of the form, through lessening the number of strings and doing away with the frets.


Lavignac.—Music and Musicians. Section on Instruments.

Grove.—Dictionary of Music and Musicians, articles on the various instruments.