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.

12 Back-to-School Products to Add to Your Shopping List

Kritchanut/iStock via Getty Images
Kritchanut/iStock via Getty Images

Before you know it, your long days (and often longer nights) will be booked with group projects, research papers, and probably some social events, too. It can be difficult to adjust to the sudden onslaught of new responsibilities that come during back-to-school season, but it can help if you feel prepared. Take a look at our 2019 must-have school supplies list to ensure that you’re well-equipped for whatever the fall semester throws at you.

1. Rocketbook Everlast Fusion; $35-$37

Rocketbook everlast fusion
Amazon

Do yourself and the environment a favor and check out the Rocketbook Everlast Fusion, a notebook with 42 reusable pages that will prevent you from ever having to buy another sheet of paper. With seven different page templates for planning, listing, goal-setting, note-taking, sketching, scheduling, and sharing big ideas, the Rocketbook is perfect for students of all ages and disciplines. It comes with one erasable Pilot FriXion pen, and you can also use any other Pilot FriXion utensils on it, markers and highlighters included. What happens when you’ve written on all 42 pages and you’d like to save your work? Simply scan your pages with the free Rocketbook app and upload them to the cloud service of your choice—Google Drive, Dropbox, Evernote, Slack, iCloud, and more. You can get the executive-sized, 6-inch-by-8.8-inch Rocketbook for $35, or the regular letter-sized, 8.5-inch-by-11-inch version for $37.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Bob Ross Agenda; $16

Bob Ross agenda
Amazon

Because Bob Ross understands the importance of going with the flow, this calendar agenda lists only the days of the week, but no dates. Don’t feel like writing anything down in October? Skip it completely without the guilt of seeing blank pages in your planner. Each two-page spread pairs the days of the week on one side with a picturesque, tranquil Bob Ross painting on the other. You can also personalize your calendar entries with Bob Ross-themed stickers included in the back of the agenda, featuring catchphrases like “Be a gentle whisper,” “Just relax and watch it happen,” and “Let’s get crazy!”

Buy it: Amazon

3. Wild Rose Large Planner; $37

papersource wild rose large planner
Paper Source

For those happy to adhere to a date-specific planner, here’s a lovely gold-accented floral option from Paper Source. The 7-inch-by-8.5-inch agenda includes both monthly and weekly calendar pages, so you can see the big-picture overview of your month as well as your day-by-day tasks. There are pages for notes, important dates, and contacts, plus a pocket folder, ruler, and quotes to inspire you. And, because we all love a bit of decoration, there are sticker sheets in the back that feature dainty doodles of flowers, champagne glasses, and more.

Buy it: Paper Source

4. Bluetooth Portable Keyboard; $45-$55

Bluetooth plugable portable foldable keyboard
Amazon

Unburden yourself (and your possibly overstuffed tote bag) from the need to carry around both your tablet and laptop by investing in this portable Bluetooth keyboard that folds into a package smaller than a paperback book and has separate compatibility modes for Android, iOS, and Windows. You only have to charge it once every few weeks, but don’t worry about forgetting—you can always plug it right into your device with the included USB cord. The handy gadget also comes with a case, which doubles as a stand for your electronic device. Though the 11.5-inch-long standard-sized keyboard might be the first choice for those with standard-sized fingers, there’s also a 10-inch compact option for fans of especially miniature things.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Park Foundation Water Bottle; $40

National Parks Foundation water bottle
DICK'S Sporting Goods

These hip Hydro Flask water bottles are each decorated with a design of one of America’s most cherished national parks, including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, Joshua Tree, and Olympic National Parks. The 21-ounce, stainless-steel bottles feature double-walled vacuum insulation that will not only keep your beverage hot for up to 12 hours or cold for 24, but will also prevent condensation from forming on the bottle and soaking whatever park pamphlets you’ve got tucked inside your backpack.

Buy it: DICK’S Sporting Goods

6. Herschel Backpack; $56-$80

herschel navy backpack
Amazon

Herschel backpacks have become a standard for students, professionals, and practically all other people, in part because there’s a color or pattern to match every unique personality. In addition to representing your individuality, they’ll also last you many years, keep your shoulders comfortable with padded straps, and provide you with the perfect amount of space to store your laptop, schoolbooks, case files, overnight toiletries, and snacks. Peruse Amazon’s extensive collection to find out which one best fits you.

Buy it: Amazon

7. PacSafe Anti-Theft Backpack; $130

pacsafe anti-theft backpack
Luggage Designers

If you’ve ever decided to crank out an essay or project in a café, you’re probably familiar with the quandary of needing a bathroom break but not wanting to lose your seat or leave your belongings unattended. Instead of asking a potentially untrustworthy stranger if they can watch your stuff, try PacSafe’s anti-theft backpack, which boasts lockable zippers and straps, so you can fasten your backpack right to your table; the fabric and straps contain wire mesh, so nobody will be able to cut them (without some serious tools, that is). The Nylon backpack can fit a 15-inch laptop and includes several inside pockets to help you stay organized; you can also detach the straps and carry it like a small briefcase using the handle on the side.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Syver Wireless Speaker and Earbuds; $100

wicked audio syver bluetooth speaker and earbuds
Wicked Audio

Music-streaming services like Spotify make it possible for you to create an epic soundtrack for your life virtually everywhere you go, whether it’s a simple walk between classes or a backyard barbecue with your roommates and 50 of your closest friends. Check out Wicked Audio’s Syver, a two-in-one device that includes a Bluetooth speaker and wireless earbuds so you can toggle seamlessly between personal listening and party listening. Enhanced bass and noise isolation ensure you’re hearing the music exactly as the artists intended it, and the devices are also waterproof, so they’re safe from spilled drinks, pools, inclement weather, and the toilet.

Buy it: Wicked Audio

9. Fineliner Pens; $9

taotree fineliner pens
Amazon

Taotree’s Fineliner pens are a bullet journaler’s best friend, but you don’t have to be a master of organization to take advantage of these 24 brightly colored, versatile utensils. You could use them to color-code your class notes, pair them with a coloring book for the ultimate de-stressing session, or design your own fine-ink drawings. They dry quickly, won’t bleed through your paper, and have a soft-edged triangular shape for easy gripping. With an average 4.5-star review on Amazon, these pens will add color and character to all of your written projects.

Buy it: Amazon

10. PackIt Freezable Lunch Bag; $20

packit freezable lunch bag
Amazon

With PackIt’s freezable lunch bag, you’ll never again have to jam ice packs around your meal-prepped containers—as long as you remember to pop the bag in the freezer the night before you’re planning to use it. The walls are insulated with a freezing gel that will refrigerate your food until you’re ready for lunch. It zips closed to keep the cold in, collapses for easy storage, and includes a plastic buckle on the top so you can easily clip it to your backpack or bag. It also comes in a lively assortment of designs like cartoon cats, unicorns, mermaids, and cherries (and, of course, many more traditional patterns like polka dots, stripes, and camouflage).

Buy it: Amazon

11. Magnetic Dry-Erase Board; $15-$54

magnetic dry-erase board
Amazon

Whether you need to leave chore-related messages on the fridge for your roommates or homework-related messages for yourself in your locker, Yuc has a magnetic dry-erase board in every size for every situation. The smallest is 12 inches by 8 inches, the largest is 29 inches by 21 inches, and there are even weekly and monthly options so you can see your schedule at eye level. The boards are stain- and wrinkle-resistant, and each comes with a rectangular magnetic eraser, plus five different-colored fine-tipped markers whose caps also double as magnetic erasers.

Buy it: Amazon

12. SnackSack Subscription Box; $25/month

SnackSack Subscription
Amazon

Since getting back into the swing of school is always busy and exhausting, it’s easy to forgo a commitment to healthy eating and instead reach for the nearest bag of Doritos to keep you going. The SnackSack subscription box will help you make sure that doesn’t happen (too often). Each month, you’ll receive a package with 11 to 14 carefully curated, deliciously satisfying healthy snacks like bars, cookies, chips, nuts, seeds, sweets, and popcorn to support you through every all-nighter and last-minute group project—and there are vegan and gluten-free options, too.

Buy it: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

12 Facts About Netflix, Recommended For You

kasinv/iStock Editorial via Getty Images Plus
kasinv/iStock Editorial via Getty Images Plus

Netflix has become the world’s intravenous line for filmed entertainment. And like any media empire, it has a few stories of its own to tell. Take a look at some lesser-known, non-buffering facts about the streaming giant.

1. Early Netflix subscribers got a lot of Chinese pornography.

Addict man at computer laptop watching porn internet addiction concept
OcusFocus/iStock via Getty Images

In 1998, Netflix was still in the business of selling as well as renting DVDs. To try and offer consumers something new, co-founder Marc Randolph decided to offer footage of President Bill Clinton’s Grand Jury testimony about his involvement with Monica Lewinsky. But according to the book Netflixed, the duplicating house had a mix-up: out of the 1000 customers who ordered Clinton's interview, a few hundred received discs full of hardcore Chinese pornography.

2. Netflix was originally called Kibble.

Choosing a name for the company was a drawn-out process. Directpix.com, Replay.com, and other names were considered; so was Luna.com, which was the name of Randolph’s dog. When the company was being incorporated, he named it Kibble.com until they could decide on something permanent.

3. Netflix executives used to make house calls.

From the beginning, Netflix has been preoccupied with seeing how users interact with its software in order to select titles. In the late 1990s, subscribers near the company’s location in Los Gatos, California were reached via telephone and asked a series of questions. Then staffers would ask if they could stop by to watch them use the site. Surprisingly, most agreed. Netflix brought them coffee, a small investment for gaining valuable information about their usage.

4. Netflix got Dennis Quaid to sing.

For a 2006-2007 publicity tour, Netflix decided to screen films in thematically-correct locations: For example, Field of Dreams was shown in the “real” Iowa cornfield-slash-baseball diamond featured in the movie. But the company also wanted actors to make appearances. Their approach: offer to let those with bands perform for the crowds. Kevin Costner, Bruce Willis, Dennis Quaid, and Kevin Bacon all agreed to the barter deal. Quaid and his band, The Sharks, played in New Orleans before a screening of his film The Big Easy.

5. Netflix has made a science out of spoilers.

Because so much of Netflix’s high-profile content can be “binged” in a single weekend, the company commissioned cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken to examine how spoilers affect a person’s viewing habits. McCracken identified classifications of spoiler-prone people by whether they ruin a plot twist intentionally or hold it over others. (Some people are “Coded Spoilers,” too self-aware to let anything slip. These people are your friends.) His verdict? Some people enjoy the power they get from having knowledge of spoilers. But if a show is good enough, knowing about key scenes won't dissuade viewers from watching.

6. Netflix staffers think you decide on a movie in two minutes.

Apple iPad displaying Netflix app, Black with Reflection
bmcent1/iStock Editorial via Getty Images

Netflix spends more than $150 million on improving their recommendation system every year, trying to arrange selections based on what they think you might like. That kind of personalized menu is necessary: The company estimates that users spend only two minutes browsing for a title before choosing one or opting for another diversion entirely.

7. Netflix staffers also think you might be kind of a liar. 

You can stop trying to impress Netflix with the streaming version of keeping Ulysses on your coffee table. In a 2013 WIRED interview, Carlos Gomez-Uribe—the company's vice president of product innovation from 2010 to 2016—noted that viewers often report viewing documentaries or esoteric foreign movies. “But in practice,” he said, “that doesn’t happen very much.”

8. the first "netflix original" was an abstract test footage short.

In order to test frame rates and how their streaming service handles different kinds of content, Netflix produced 11 minutes of test footage in 2011 that can be viewed by typing “example show” in their search engine. Cut together (as seen above), the shorts become a very strange, very abstract art film, with an unidentified man juggling and reciting Shakespeare. (But not, sadly, juggling while reciting Shakespeare.)

9. Netflix binge-watching might correlate with depression. 

A 2015 study by the University of Texas found that respondents who claimed to binge Netflix shows were more likely to suffer from depression, lack of self-control, or loneliness. The good news? The sample group was small—only 316 people—and the university’s definition of “binge-watching” was as low as two episodes. Amateurs. 

10. There’s a secret Netflix menu.

Netflix website showing on screen laptop with macbook pro at cafe
wutwhanfoto/iStock Editorial via Getty Images Plus

No, not that kind of secret menu. Pressing Shift + Alt + a left mouse click brings up a troubleshooting menu that allows you to adjust the bit rate of a stream so it doesn’t buffer. (On a Mac, it's Shift + Option + click.) The picture quality won’t be as good, but it’s better than a pixelated Demogorgon.

11. There was once a glitch in the Netflix matrix. 

In 2014, Netflix’s content descriptions became odd amalgamations of two different titles to create one completely nonsensical listing. The summaries were quickly fixed, but not before someone took several screen shots of the mishaps.

12. You'll soon be able to stream Netflix in a Tesla.


Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

In July 2019, Tesla founder Elon Musk informed Tesla owners they would soon be able to stream both Netflix and YouTube in their cars, an attractive option for anyone looking to keep passengers occupied. But there's a catch: The services only work when the cars are parked. The feature will be available in newer-model cars at a date to be determined.

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