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12 Educational Facts About the Recorder

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Many of us know the recorder as the plastic pipe that gets handed out in elementary school music class. More closely resembling a toy than something a rock star would carry, it doesn’t have a reputation for being the coolest instrument in the world. But that doesn’t mean it deserves to get a bad rap—a long list of artistic geniuses from William Shakespeare to Paul McCartney have turned to the recorder for inspiration. Here are 12 facts worth knowing about this historic instrument.


Centuries before the clarinet, the harmonica, and the tuba were invented, early musicians were playing recorders. The oldest surviving example of the instrument dates back to 14th-century Europe. Back then—unlike the mass-produced, plastic items today’s grade-schoolers are familiar with—recorders were carved from wood or ivory.


Before the age of voicemail and tape recorders, the verb “to record” meant “to memorize by heart.” To this end, the simple recorder flute came in handy. One possible explanation for its name is that it was a good instrument for practicing, or “recording.” In languages other than English, the name doesn’t translate neatly and is usually referred to as a different type of flute.


King Henry VIII is better known for his notorious marriages than his musical talents. But he was also an accomplished composer, publishing several songs and instrumental works during his lifetime. His music hobby led to an ambitious instrument collection: Before he died in 1547, Henry VIII had acquired 76 recorders (the instruments, which were played in choirs, had such a limited range that several were needed for each song). Rather than letting them gather dust in a case, he made sure they were used for their intended purpose. According to the Metropolitan Museum the flutes were likely played by the royal professional recorder consort and other recorder masters when the King himself wasn’t playing them.


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Serious musicians may turn their noses up at the recorder today, but it was an important member of the wind family during the Baroque period. Georg Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, and Johann Sebastian Bach all incorporated the instrument into their compositions. In opera, the clear, sweet sound of the recorder was used to evoke erotic themes and pastoral images like shepherds and birds.


The recorder was so popular during the 16th century that it was used to illustrate a metaphor by the age’s most popular writer. In the third act of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the title character asks Guildenstern to play the recorder for him. After he explains that he doesn’t know how, Hamlet insists that “'tis as easy as lying.” Still he refuses, and Hamlet says that Guildenstern should have no trouble playing the simple recorder after “playing” him like an instrument:

“[Y]ou would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass. And there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak? 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?”

The comparison made its way into the common vernacular, but today you’re more likely to hear someone claim they were “played like a fiddle” than a recorder.


One reason that soprano recorders are a popular choice for grade school music classes is their child-friendly package. But the instrument’s simple form lends itself to several shapes and sizes, the largest being the sub-contrabass recorder, which stands 8 feet tall. To play it, musicians blow into a tube-shaped mouthpiece that swoops down from the top of the recorder. Then there’s the adorably-named garklein, which measures 6 inches long and emits high-pitched tones like a whistle.


While the recorder is technically a type of flute, it’s the transverse flute (a flute that’s held horizontally and blown into from the side) that we associate with the term. The transverse flute migrated to Europe from Asia in the 14th century, and by the 19th century, it was featured in most orchestras. The recorder, with its lack of range and volume, didn’t stand a chance against the bold sound of a flute piercing through a concert hall. As the 19th century progressed, the recorder was phased out of the modern orchestra altogether.


The recorder’s status as a relic from a bygone era is what helped make it cool again. At the turn of the 20th century, more museums were displaying historical instruments, and interest in pre-classical music began to rise. This helped pave the way for the recorder to make a comeback as a revivalist instrument. Soon it began appearing in arrangements of early music. In some cases, like the performance given at 1885’s International Inventions Exhibition, collections of old instruments were displayed at concerts.



Around the middle of the 20th century the recorder underwent its cheap, lightweight transformation. By that point, plastic was easy to come by, and using the material produced an instrument that was tougher than its wooden counterpart and a whole lot cheaper. Not only that, but the sound quality didn’t suffer as a result.


Music teachers might have an easier time selling the recorder as a hip instrument if they played up its connection to classic rock. Paul McCartney was a notable fan, incorporating it into the Beatles song “Fool On The Hill” and some of his solo pieces. It can also be heard in the music of the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Lou Reed. Though plenty of rock stars used the instrument, not all of them were proud of it. According to one rumor, Jimi Hendrix was so ashamed to have played a recorder on “If 6 Was 9” that he asked for it to be listed as a flute on the album credits.


German composer Carl Orff is best known for his scenic cantata Carmina Burana (the first movement of which you've likely heard before), but he’s also credited with revolutionizing children's music education. One of the core principles of his "Orff Schulwerk" teaching style dictated that if children could sing the notes they were playing they’d have an easier time learning the music. The soprano recorder, similar in range to the voice of a child, was a natural fit. His ideas were becoming popular around the same time recorders made the switch to plastic, which meant more schools could afford to buy them in bulk.



If you want your child to fall in love with music early in life, steer them away from the recorder. At least that’s what one paper published by the Economic and Social Research Council in 2002 suggests. For the study, researcher Susan O'Neill of Keele University surveyed 1209 students about the impact the recorder had on their musical ambitions. She said in a press release that the children “tended to view the recorder as 'not a real instrument' or 'a child's instrument' and limited in its ability to express the music they want to play.” As the students grew up feeling limited by instruments like the recorder, they stopped feeling motivated to play music.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.