The incomplete history of musical instruments

The incomplete history of musical instruments

¿How the music came about? ¿What was the first musical instrument that man created? ¿It was string, percussion, or maybe wind? What do we know about the history of musical instruments? Despite many years of study and all the research that has been done in this regard, these questions still remain in the air and pose many headaches for expert musicologists.

Australian physicists agree that the appearance of musical instruments had to be accidental and that its development depended on the materials available in each region and sometimes, from stimuli from the clamor of battle.

Neville Fletcher, a retired scientist at the Australian National University in Canberra, who has made the study of instrument physics his hobby, believes that the key to discover the origin of the invention of instruments, it's in the study of the materials available to each civilization. To create rhythms, the different peoples used what was closest to hand.

In an article published in the Acoustics Australia newspaper, Fletcher writes that at some point, one of the human sound-makers, added words or rhymes to songs to tell a story. “Traditional poetry had a rhythm"Commented Fletcher,"And someone would extend those rhythms to the songs that were sung”. Nobody knows when it happened but it was music.

For archaeologists, the origin of the first instrument is a real debate. The biggest problem that arises to solve this mystery is that most of the instruments were made with perishable materials (such as animal skins) and therefore have been disintegrating over time.

The archaeologists have found objects that are approximately 67,000 years old, and that they were probably very rudimentary flutes. Another possible flute was also found, which may have been made by Neanderthals around 40,000 to 60,000 years ago. But the objects that have clearly been identified as such an instrument, they met in china and are about 7,000 to 9,000 years old.

On the other hand, the lyres and harps created around 2,600 and 2,500 BC, were found in Sumerian in the city of Ur, home of the biblical character Abraham.

Fletcher explained in his article that about 10,000 years ago, Australian Aboriginals developed a didgeridoo (wind instrument, which is made from eucalyptus plants, which have previously been emptied through the use of termites). Someone must have noticed that blowing into the tube made a placid sound.

Aborigines too they started hitting sticks against each other to make them sound, and other cultures learned that they could generate sounds if a log with a hole was struck with heavy sticks. Soon, people were modifying the length of objects to produce different notes, a finding that would give rise to instruments such as xylophones.

The appearance of metals was a great advance for humans. Alloys pewter (tin and lead), brass (copper and zinc) Y bronze (copper and tin) that had special relevance during the Bronze Age, played a fundamental role in the development of wars, since, according to Fletcher, alloys were originally intended to improve the swords, harpoons and spears of warriors.

Someone would then realize that when striking a bronze helmet with a sword of the same material, a specific tone was obtained that varied around whether the helmet was empty, or on the contrary someone was wearing it on their head. This fact would probably lead to first church bells.

Fletcher comments that the big bells They are mostly made of brass because it is a dense material that gives the sound gravity. The different shapes of these instruments provided different sounds that were adapting to the tastes and preferences of different cultures.

«Bells are unusual because they have a certain resonance, a person could go crazy trying to synchronize the tone of a bell with that of another instrument"Says Scott Metcalfe, Director of Arts and Sciences at the Institution of Baltimore in Peabody. "The bells don't follow normal harmonies" Y for that reason, every bell rings different.

Other percussion instruments made of thin blades, such as gongs or cymbals, required special bronze alloysas brass could be bent easily and common bronze was more susceptible to breaking if struck hard enough. This type of instrument could be a derivative of the shields that the soldiers used at that time, and even today, they are still made with those special bronze alloys.

Wood is the secret for tuning instruments such as the violin, violas, cellos, double basses, as well as pianos and guitars.. Experts believe that these instruments could have been derived from bows and arrows. «The tolling of the string when plucked with a finger created a defined sound«, Fletcher commented.

Initially, the strings would be made from animal guts, but in the end metal and polymers would end up replacing these types of materials. "When the strings of a violin are rubbed, the sound that is produced is very small"Merclafe states, however,"we hear it amplified due to the wood and the design of the instrument”.

Also in pianos, wood is essential for amplifying sounds.

The famous Italian violinists of the 18th century, Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri, they got their wonderful sounds thanks to the wood they used, which is very difficult to reproduce today. This is because Europe suffered a Little Ice Age, what made the structure of the wood will change subtly. However, experts believe that today you can make replica violins that sound as good as they did in the past.

Regarding the wind instruments, Fletcher affirms, that the first had to be a conch shell, since if it is blown into it, a clear and defined sound is produced. In some instruments, the sound is not affected by the material they are made of, the only thing that matters is the shape. We see for example that conical instruments like bronze trumpets, horns or shells, they are independent of the material, the shape is what makes their sound special, says Metcalfe.

The same is true for tubular instruments like the clarinet, flute and panpipe, which reproduce simpler sounds, due to their shape. Also, the metals used in pipe organs are not as important as the cylindrical shape.

Many are the theories that have been formulated, but we still have a long way to go to be able to solve the great mystery that surrounds the origin of music and the instruments that make it possible. Hopefully one day "sound the flute”And all these secrets, be revealed.

Shurkin. J. N, “Exploring the evolution of musical instruments", in Inside Science News Service, 2012.

Church bells image: cecilia_ in Art and Photography
Images: Public domain

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