The Origins of 7 Musical Instruments

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Here's a look at the stories behind some of our favorite instruments, from the tambourine to the sax.

1. Tambourines

Long before the Tambourine Man played a song for Bob Dylan, tambourine-like instruments were being used by Ojibwe and Cree people in what is now Canada, in several Middle Eastern cultures, in South India, China, and in Eastern Europe. In ancient Egypt, tambourines were used by temple dancers, and were used in festivals and processions by the Greeks and Romans.

Over in Western Europe, the tambourine began to gain popularity in the mid-18th century as an orchestral instrument, particularly when that infamous rebel of the classical music world, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, began to employ it in several compositions. Today, while the tambourine is still occasionally used in orchestral music, it's more commonly associated with Western folk music.

2. Kettle Drum

The kettle drum varies greatly across cultures, but the earliest versions may date back to at least 4000 B.C.E. in Mesopotamia. Babylonian artifacts have also been found with instructions for building kettle drums inscribed on them. Used throughout the ancient Middle East and in many Islamic cultures, kettle drums first arrived in western Europe thanks to soldiers returning home from the Crusades. It's no surprise then that in Western cultures, kettle drums have typically been associated with the military: The kettle drum was used in battle as an imposing noise to signal the opposing army's impending doom, as well as to keep their own soldiers marching in time.

3. Guitars

crossroads.jpgThe first guitar was a variation on a lute, a stringed instrument with a curved back, designed in western Europe in the 13th century. A few hundred years later, the Spanish "vihuela" had come into being, and by the mid-16th century, the "guitarre" had become a popular instrument in Spain, and was subsequently introduced into France. Musically-inclined Spanish and Portugese colonists brought their guitars with them on their trips to Africa and the New World. In the Carribean, regional variants on the guitar sprang up, as indigenous people adopted the instruments to fit traditional music: the tres, from Cuba, and the cuatro, from Puerto Rico, are two such instruments. Further south, the charango came into being—an instrument sometimes made out of the shell of an armadillo—and in Mexico, the huge bass guitar known as a guitarron became a mainstay of mariachi music.

The guitar largely remained part of the rhythm section until the birth of the recording industry in the United States. Guitar makers and players "“ as well as the industry execs "“ wanted louder guitars, and a few people began to look at electronic amplification as a means to this end. In 1931, a man named Adolph Rickenbacker collaborated with George Beauchamp to make the first electric guitar pickup: a magnet with a coil of wire wrapped around it, which when electrified by a current amplified the sound produced by the vibration of the guitar strings. By the end of the 30s and into the 40s, the "electric sound" was being pioneered by jazz, country, and blues guitarists like Merle Travis and Muddy Waters.

But it was rock and roll that really popularized the electric guitar—in particular, the new solid-body guitar (as opposed to the "hollow body" of earlier guitars). Several guitar makers had experimented with the solid-body style, but it was Leo Fender, a radio repairman, who would put the style on the map in 1950, and forever changed the course of American pop music. [Image courtesy of Slash's World.]

4. Violin

The European violin—a four stringed instrument played with a bow, and held between the chin and shoulder—was developed in the 16th century to accompany dances or to echo the melody sung by a vocalist. In the 17th century, the full range of the violin was utilized in operas, concertos, and sonatas, and was used as a solo instrument for the first time.

The instrument really took off, however, in the years between 1650 and 1750, when all of Europe was succumbing to the violin craze. The hub of violin-making activity was the town of Cremona in northern Italy, where some estimates place the number of violins produced at 20,000. As home to some of the most famous violin-makers of all time, Cremona boasted the likes of Nicola Amati (who died in1684) and his apprentices, Guarneri del Gesu and Antonio Stradivari. Stradivari, of course, is better known as Stradivarius—the Latin version of his family name being the one he chose to sign his instruments with. Stradivarius was famous for his attention to detail and his experimentation, choosing different types of wood, varnishes, and structural techniques to slightly alter the sound; each Stradivarius violin produced a unique tone, which is part of why they are so prized today. In the last 37 years of his life, Stradivarius cranked out an average of one instrument a week—violins and cellos—which was an astounding feat, considering the amount of attention he devoted to each instrument. There are about 1,000 "Strads" still in existence, which can each fetch up to $2 million.

5. Accordion

Beloved instrument of Steve Urkel and Weird Al Yankovic, the accordion's history lies in the wind instruments of Asian and African societies. In fact, "free reeds," which create the distinctive sound when air passes over them, have been used in Chinese instruments for over 2000 years.

weird-al.jpgThe modern accordion was first designed in Austria in the early 19th century—unlike modern accordions, however, it only featured a keyboard on one side, with the other end was used to operate the bellows. Today, there are three types of accordions: the piano accordion (which has a piano-like keyboard on one end of the instrument); the concertina (a hexagonal instrument which has no keys, only buttons on each end); and the button accordion (which is pretty much what it sounds like). All three types work by expanding and squeezing together the bellows, forcing air over the free reeds inside and causing them to vibrate, with the keys and buttons determining the pitch.

6. Harmonica

In the small town of Trossingen, Germany, in 1857, a clockmaker named Matthias Hohner started producing "mouth organs," based on an earlier design by Christian Buschmann in 1821. While another Trossinger, Christian Messner, had already started manufacturing harmonicas by 1930, Hohner was the first to mass-produce them, and the first to ship them across the Atlantic to the US, in 1868. It wasn't long before the mouth organ, now known as the harmonica, became an essential component of a variety of musical styles in the west, including folk, country-western, and (of course) the blues.

7. Saxophone

clinton-sax.jpgThe saxophone is the baby of the reed family, brought into the world in 1841 at the Brussels Exhibition by the Belgian inventor Adolphe Sax. Originally made in 14 different sizes and keys, today three or four horns dominate the scene (with the soprano, the tenor, the alto and the baritone are the most prominent). In 1845, Sax organized a "battle of the bands" in which he led a group of musicians playing his new saxophone (as well as other brass instruments) in competition against an ensemble playing the traditional instruments of the French military band. Sax's band was so enthusiastically received by the audience that the French government decided—shockingly—to adopt the saxophone as part of their standard band lineup.

This article was written by Ransom Riggs and excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything. You can pick up a copy in our store.

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September 11, 2008 - 8:16pm
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