8 Extinct Musical Instruments That Mankind Has Forgotten How to Play

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Image credit: 
Rien_Photo, Flickr

Can you imagine a world without pianos and guitars? Few can, and fewer still would want to actually live in such a place. But history has shown that musical devices don't last forever. Regrettably, when instruments fall out of favor and finally disappear, musicians aren’t always careful to leave instructions on how to build or play them. Here are eight that have been lost to the wheel of time.

1. The Sambuca

Hellenistic scholars credited the ancient Syrians and Phoenicians with the creation of the shrill-sounding Sambuca, which bore a striking resemblance to modern harps. Regardless of its roots, this instrument’s exotic sound made it a popular fixture in Roman, Athenian, and Macedonian ceremonies.

2. The Gue

According to historian John Jamison, the Gue was once a common sight in Scotland’s Shetland Islands. Similar to the violin, it “had only two strings of horse hair and was played upon in the same manner as a [cello].” The last eyewitness account of a Gue was written in 1809

3. The Biblical Nevel

There’s a fair amount of debate regarding how this Biblical lyre was built, but here’s a neat clip in which composer Michael Levy plays a replica that he believes closely mirrors the original.

4. The Peri Yazh

Several varieties of Yazh—a harp-like instrument of ancient India—are known to have existed. While most of these had somewhere between seven and 17 strings, the leather-bound Peri Yazh sported 21. However, this pales in comparison to the Adi Yazh which, according to legend, was employed to scare off dangerous animals and incorporated an astonishing 1000 strings!

5. The Mayan Trumpets

We can thank a handful of beautiful murals and painted vases for keeping the memory of Mayan trumpets alive, along with a few fleeting literary references.

6. The Asor

Used by the ancient Levites, present-day scholars are unsure of what Asors actually looked like. All that’s known for certain is that these ten-stringed instruments date back to Biblical times and are most notably referenced in the Book of Psalms.

7. The Yorkshire Bagpipe

Bagpipes are a rather diverse lot. Sadly, not every member of the family has survived into the 21st century. For example, the dearly-departed Yorkshire bagpipe was widely-heard during Shakespeare’s time before it fell into disuse and, eventually, extinction.

8. The Lituus

How do you perform a musical composition that calls for a long-gone instrument? You rebuild it, of course. In 1736, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a motet which employed an eight-foot war trumpet called a “lituus.” Likely due to its massive size, the instrument died off shortly thereafter, and no surviving examples are known to exist. However, in 2009, a group of scientists from the Edinburgh University used a combination of written accounts and sophisticated software to produce a few replicas designed to mirror the models Bach might have used.

Primary image courtesy of Rien_Photo, under Creative Commons license. 

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March 27, 2014 - 5:00pm
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