The Origins of 7 Musical Instruments

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This article is excerpted from the Mental Floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything

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

The 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.

The 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

The 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.

11 Facts About the Library of Congress

Thomas Jefferson Building of the LOC. Image Credit: TheAgency via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Thomas Jefferson Building of the LOC. Image Credit: TheAgency via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

For more than two centuries, the Library of Congress (LOC) and its staff have served as invaluable resources for American legislators. But their mission isn’t limited to U.S. politics. The Library of Congress catalog includes iconic films, historical documents, and your tweets about lunch. In short, it's a cultural treasure. Here are 11 facts worth knowing about the Washington, D.C.-based establishment.

1. The Library of Congress is the nation's oldest cultural institution.

Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress is America’s oldest federal cultural institution. It was established by the same bill that officially moved the capital from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. The library was conceived of as a resource available exclusively to members of Congress, containing "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress." That remains the case today, though citizens can read books on site or request them at their local library through an interlibrary loan.

2. Thomas Jefferson helped rebuild the Library of Congress catalog after a fire.

Not long after it was established, tragedy struck the Library of Congress: Its contents were destroyed when the Capitol Building was set on fire by British troops during the War of 1812. Approximately 3000 books (mostly law-related) were lost in the blaze, but luckily a friend of Washington D.C. owned a collection that was even bigger. Thomas Jefferson’s personal library comprised well over 6000 volumes, making it the largest library in the country at the time. He agreed to sell all of his books to Congress for $23,950 in 1815. Jefferson's contributions significantly expanded the scope of the library, by including books on art, science, and philosophy. (The increased diversity of the collection was a subject of criticism at the time, to which Jefferson responded by saying "there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”) Sadly, the library met with another tragedy when a second fire tore through it on Christmas Eve 1851, burning two-thirds of Jefferson’s contribution.

3. James Madison first proposed the Library of Congress.

Seventeen years prior to the LOC's official formation, James Madison proposed the idea of a special library for Congress. He planted the idea as a Continental Congress member in 1783 when he suggested compiling a list of books to which lawmakers could refer. As president, Madison approved the purchase of Jefferson’s personal library in 1814.

4. It makes Congress's job a lot easier.

Members of Congress drafting legislation don’t necessarily need to do the nitty-gritty research themselves: There’s a whole team [PDF] of lawyers, librarians, economists, and scientists employed through the Library of Congress to do it for them. Established in 1914, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) is a legislative department within the LOC responsible for supporting lawmakers through every step of the lawmaking process. Based on what’s asked of them, CRS employees supply House and Senate members with reports, briefings, seminars, presentations, or consultations detailing research on the issue in question. The CRS is currently staffed with 600 analysts. In any given year, a single researcher responds to hundreds of congressional requests.

5. It's the largest library on Earth.

With over 164 million items in its inventory, the LOC is the world’s largest library. In addition to the 38 million books and other printed materials on the premises, the institution contains millions of photographs, recordings, and films. It also houses some record-breaking collections: more maps, comics, newspapers, and phonebooks can each be found there than any other place on Earth. The whole thing is stored on about 838 miles of bookshelves.

6. The Library of Congress contains some surprising items.

The Library of Congress is home to an eclectic collection, with books ranging in size from a tiny copy of “Ole King Cole” to a 5-foot-by-7-foot photo book filled with color images of Bhutan. Some items, like a Gutenberg Bible and a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, feel right at home in the historic library. Others, like Rosa Parks’s peanut butter pancakes recipe, are a bit more unexpected. Additional noteworthy artifacts include Bob Hope’s joke collection, George Gershwin’s piano, and the contents of Abraham Lincoln's pockets the night he was shot.

7. The Library of Congress owns materials from around the world.

The Library of Congress isn’t solely dedicated to American documents. The institution possesses materials acquired from all around the globe, including 3 million items from Asia and 10 million items in the Iberian, Latin American, and Caribbean collections. Over half of the books in their inventory are written in a language other than English. In total, over 460 languages are represented, and their end goal is to eventually have at least one item from every nation. The LOC also maintains overseas offices in New Delhi, India; Cairo, Egypt; Islamabad, Pakistan; Jakarta, Indonesia; Nairobi, Kenya; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to acquire, catalog, and preserve items that might be hard to access otherwise.

8. It preserves America's most important films.

Since the National Film Preservation Act was passed in 1988, 700 "culturally, historically, or aesthetically" significant films have been selected for the LOC archives. Up to 25 entries are chosen each year by a board of industry professionals, and the only rule is that submissions must be at least 10 years old. Beyond that, they can be anything from beloved comedy blockbusters like Ghostbusters (1984) to health class classics like The Story of Menstruation (1946). Pieces added to the National Film Registry are kept in a climate-controlled storage space where they can theoretically last for centuries.

9. The Library of Congress serves patrons of all abilities.

In 1931 the Library of Congress launched The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). Today the service offers free Braille and audio books, either through digital downloads or physical deliveries, to people with visual impairments or other issues that limit their reading abilities. Offerings include a wide array of books and magazines, as well as the world’s largest collection of Braille music. NLS librarians are currently undertaking the painstaking process of scanning every sheet of Braille music onto their computer system. Once that project is complete, the National Library Service’s entire collection will be fully digitized.

10. Only three librarians of Congress have been actual librarians.

When nominating someone to head the largest library in the world, presidents rarely choose actual librarians. They’re more likely to select a scholar, historian, or some other veteran of academia for the job. Of the 14 Librarians of Congress we’ve had, current title-holder Carla Hayden is one of just three to come into the role with prior librarian experience. (She is also the first woman and the first African American to hold the job.) On top of running the world’s largest library, Hayden is also responsible for managing relations with Congress, selecting the Poet Laureate, and overseeing the U.S. Copyright Office.

11. It receives every public tweet you write.

The government isn’t just responsible for cataloging tweets coming out of the White House. In 2010, Twitter agreed to donate every public tweet in its archive to the Library of Congress. That amounts to several hundred million tweets a day. In addition to documenting the rise and fall of #dressgate and live tweets of The Walking Dead, the archive would also act as an invaluable data source for tracking language and societal trends. Unfortunately, that archive isn’t much closer to being completed than the day the deal was announced. The LOC has yet to develop a way to organize the information, and for the past seven years, unprocessed tweets have been have been stored out of sight on a server. There’s still no word on what the next step will be, but that might change with the newest Librarian of Congress. Unlike her predecessor, Carla Hayden is known for taking a digital-forward approach to librarianship.

Merriam-Webster Just Added Hundreds of New Words to the Dictionary—Here Are 25 of Them

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iStock.com/xxz114

The editors of Merriam-Webster's dictionary know better than most people how quickly language evolves. In April 2019 alone, they added more than 640 words to the dictionary, from old terms that have developed new meanings to words that are products of the digital age.

Entertainment fans will recognize a few of the new words on Merriam-Webster's list: Buzzy (generating speculation or attention), bottle episode (an episode of a television series confined to one setting), and EGOT (winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony) have all received the dictionary's stamp of approval.

Some terms reflect the rise of digital devices in our everyday lives, such as unplug and screen time. Other words have been around for centuries, but started appearing in new contexts in recent years. According to Merriam-Webster, snowflake can now mean “someone who is overly sensitive," purple can describe an area split between Democrat and Republican voters, and Goldilocks can mean “an area of planetary orbit in which temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold to support life."

You can read 25 of the new words below. And for even more recent additions to the dictionary, check out Merriam-Webster's list from last September.

  1. Bioabsorbable

  1. Bottle episode

  1. Bottom surgery

  1. Buzzy

  1. EGOT

  1. Garbage time

  1. Gender nonconforming

  1. Geosmin

  1. Gig economy

  1. Go-cup

  1. Goldilocks

  1. On-brand

  1. Page view

  1. Peak

  1. Purple

  1. Vulture capitalism

  1. Qubit

  1. Salutogenesis

  1. Screen time

  1. Snowflake

  1. Stan

  1. Tailwind

  1. Top surgery

  1. Traumatology

  1. Unplug

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