Friday Top 5: Instruments

We spend a ton of time on this site covering music and musicians, but rarely do we ever set our focus on the tools of music-maker’s trade. Excluding voice, clapping, whistling, etc. as instruments, which were almost certainly the first true musical tools, several apparatuses have left indelible marks on human society. Without instruments, some of the finest art and music in the recorded history of man would cease to exist.  The romantic image of a child and a piano becoming the next Chopin lead parents around the world to push their children into musical apathy, but sometimes a musician needs an instrument to find their voice, not the other way around. Throughout the history of music, a few instruments stand out as more important than others, so here is the FT5 of influential instruments.


5. The Harp

The harp is quite possibly the first string instrument invented with resembling images showing up in cave paintings in France completed in 15,000 BC as seen in Herzog’s The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Many theorize that the sound produced by the string on a hunting bow produced the first harp-like sounds and the rest was just the evolution of our brains putting the pieces together from there. The harp and lyre took many giant leaps through heavy mainstays in musical cultures of Egypt and the Middle East. Slowly, the classic harp began to take shape around the 9th Century in Europe. The triangular shape as opposed to the U-shaped Lyre could hold more strings, stronger volume, and created a richer tone, which revolutionized the instrument.  Between the 9th and 17th Centuries, cultural influence ran rampant on the harp’s shape and structure with much of its popularity becoming focused on the British Isles, with the Gaelic Harp taking center stage. Around this time in English held Ireland, Oliver Cromwell banned the use of harps and executed harpists in a way to quell the Irish nationalist uprising. Rarely does an instrument mean so much to so many. Today the harp is not as popular in society as other instruments, but there’s no doubting its influence on modern music construction and technique.


4. The Guitar

It’s difficult to imagine a world without the guitar. This elegantly simple design as we know it today is a marvel of ingenuity, craftsmanship, and evolution. With its earliest ancestry dating well into ancient Egypt and classic antiquity, the guitar has certainly touched nearly every culture on the globe while creating strongholds in Europe, India, and eventually the Americas. As an early brother to the guitar popular in ancient Greece, the lute had its recognition increased with the Renaissance in the 1400’s. Back then was a different kind of rock star, but ultimately, the instrument has more or less stayed the same. The sitar on the other hand evolved from the same lineage of thought and became widely known as the instrument of an entire culture. Of course during the late 19th and 20th centuries did the guitar explode in popularity with Orville Gibson’s remodels and eventual amplification in the 1930’s.


3. The Flute

The first true musical tools that archaeologists have dug up around the world come in the form of the flute. The wind instrument is the ideal evolutionary instrument pairing our basic survival mechanism of the breath to create sound. Surely, the thought process behind the flute involved first a human whistle or a reed along a river bank whistling in the breeze. The more traditional transverse flute as we know it today emerged in the Middle Ages from the Byzantine Roman Empire. The use of the flute by European militaries expanded their recognition and soon after the keyed flute began its climb into popularity with the help of Theobald Boehm. Today flutes are known more for classical interpretations than in other genres, but the wind instrument in general owes a great deal of thanks to the flute.


2. The Organ

Few instruments have been modified so widely in recent times with new technological discoveries as the organ. This rapid altering of the instrument seen today is a far cry from the first pipe organs dating back into 200 BC, which utilized water and wind energy to produce sound.  These first renditions of organs remained unchanged for about two-thousand years in design until the ability to harness electric power in the 1800’s. When Renaissance composers began taking tablature to a new level on the organ, harpsichord, and piano, the world took notice. Here was the moment when music turned from recreation into revolution. Some of the most complex compositions began to emerge as musicians took their craft to new heights. Further exploration of the instrument pushed the boundaries of composing and as a result, we find works of art that will be relevant long into the future and into the deepest regions of space. Indeed several excerpts of Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Mozart were included on the Voyager Golden Record. If the NASA committee and chairman Carl Sagan felt that these pieces were important enough for extraterrestrials to hear, then the founding tools used in their production are surely some of the most influential.


1. The Drum

The question of when rhythm and beat made its way into the genes of humans is debatable. Drums and percussion in general certainly deserve a spot on the list due mainly to their innate accessibility. Throughout every culture from prehistory to antiquity to modern times, the drum has shown up as a constant in musical production. It’s the pace, the rhythm, and the beat of the world. Even the Earth itself has a rhythm as heard in the Schumann resonance. To think that it took humans long to produce beats using skin and stick is absurd. To contemplate a world without percussion is equally ridiculous.  One of the foremost skills we learn through our genetic makeup is the emotion and skill tied to beat and rhythm. Even our closest ancestors, the primate, use beats to show dominance. Drumming is a skill that is innately tied to our existence on this planet and no other instrument has seen such widespread use or influence. Whether drums are used for talking, signaling, military, religious ceremony, or just as a hobby like tapping your hands on the steering wheel of your car, percussion is constantly in use in a variety of ways every day. The sheer scale and the openness of its use make it without a doubt the most influential musical instrument ever. Too bad most band groupies don’t get this fact and go for the lead guitarists. Don’t fret drummers; you’re doing god’s work.


Hopefully you learned something you didn’t know about the history and use of the musical instruments we so often forget about in the grand scheme of things. If I left one off or if you agree or disagree about the overall influence of my choices, leave us a comment.


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