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A Brief History Of Musical Instruments

Jun 24, 2008
No one is certain when the first musical instruments were made. It's possible that they predate language in human cultural development, but I'll leave that argument to the anthropologists. What is sure is that there is a deep, ancient desire within people to express themselves using sound. Our voices were almost certainly used for more than communication. Somehow that was not enough. Our ancestors pushed creative sound further.

The first instruments were probably percussive because they are the simplest to make. Clapping hands or striking flint on flint, it's easy to imagine that this would be our earliest attempts to make our own rhythm, our own pulse, sent out into the world and echoed back. What likely followed were simple mallets and skins stretched on bowls. What makes these tools so distinct is that were not needed for hunting, food preparation or defense; they had no other purpose than to create a controlled, predictable sound. With advances in metallurgy, gongs and bells developed. Our modern drums are a descendant of this type of early instrument.

Most likely, wind instruments came next. These could have been created relatively easily with a hollowed out plant stem or animal horn to create a simple whistle or horn. The initial benefit was increased amplification. Later, it was discovered that the resonating chamber of the instrument could be manipulated to give differences in pitch. Significantly, many of the wind instruments use breathing to generate and control the sonic effects, which closely resembles our vocal chords. Further technical advancements in smelting and metal working gave us instruments with more sound making precision and exceptional durability. Modern trumpets and saxophones are closely related to these early instruments. Xylophones and organs are special percussive-wind hybrids that gave chording or polyphony in a single instrument.

Stringed instruments likely came last. Egyptian records indicate that instruments using vibrating strings existed at the time of the pharaohs, near the dawn of recorded civilization. Lyres and harps are early examples and their manufacture and required a dedicated craftsman for their manufacture. Strings not only give the instrument a potential for harmony and cording on one device, but also frees the vocal chords of the performer for singing in accompaniment. A later development added a resonating chamber making the instruments potentially louder. Violins and guitars are modern string instruments. Pianos are a special hybrid; it has hammers that strike the strings making it percussive and stringed.

The control and use of electricity took musical instruments to a completely new level with developments like the microphone and amplifier. Guitars had pick-ups added, keyboards had wave form manipulation and the most mind-boggling innovations have come with computers and digital music. Effects technology that alters the sound between the instrument and amplifier keep adding rich tonal qualities that are still being explored. Experiments are being conducted to create plasma instruments and other advances could bring instruments that interface directly with our brains.

Like our ancestors, we still use sound to create and the instruments we use are developed along with our technology. We keep stretching the possibilities toward the horizon and when we arrive, I believe we will find more horizon to explore.
About the Author
Alan Phillips is a freelance writer, he retired from the US Army in 2000 and has spent the last few years in Computer Technology. He currently resides in Texas, USA with his wife and owns and operates Instrument Junction offering Acoustic Guitars, Acoustic Electric Guitars and Amplifiers.
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