According to some researchers, musical instruments came about randomly, depending on the available materials, and, in some cases, by the stimulus of the clamor of battle. The definition of a musical instrument is quite simple: it is an instrument that was created or adapted to make musical sounds.
It is important to remember that the history of musical instruments dates back to the beginning of human culture. This tells us that man has always been drawn to music. The earliest musical instruments were used for rituals. For example, the trumpet-like ones were used to signal success in a hunt, or drum-like instruments were used in religious ceremonies.
Over time, cultures have developed the composition and performance of musical pieces for entertainment. Musical instruments have also evolved with the ever-changing applications.
The birth of music
It appears that no one knows exactly where music came from. We are not talking here about who Elvis’ singing predecessors were, not even about when the first musical instrument was invented.
Researchers who have been interested in the physics of instruments believe that musical devices have always depended pretty much on the materials that were available to each civilization. In other words, people worked with what they had. In time, traditional poetry was recited alongside human noise-makers and got rhythms to them.
Again, there is no exact data to back this up, so no one knows exactly when the first song was born. However, adding stories to melodies became a tradition that was carried on to our days and it does not seem like it will ever go out of fashion. Even now, archeologists debate over when the first instruments were created.
The issue is that most instruments from the very early times were made of perishable materials like animal skins, which would have disintegrated ages ago. Basically, it is impossible to determine exactly when and how the first instruments of this kind were created.
We do know, however, that flute-like instruments were found and date back to approximately 67,000 years ago. Harps and lyres that were made in the 2,600 – 2,500 B.C. have been found in the Sumerian city of Ur. Some researchers believe that Australian aborigines developed an instrument called a didgeridoo, 10,000 years ago.
When termites emptied the centers of small eucalyptus plants, someone noticed that it made a sound if they blew into the tube, possibly due to the wind blowing through them. Just like that, other cultures realized that sounds could be made by hitting hollow logs with heavy sticks.
People soon realized that they could produce different sounds by modifying the target object’s length and this eventually lead to the creation of instruments like the xylophone. Even though nobody knows exactly how and when the first musical instruments were made, music seems to be as old as civilization.
Later on, as civilization advanced to the Bronze Age, metals appeared. The available alloy was used in the war business for shields and weapons. However, it soon became obvious that different sounds could be made from hitting a bronze helmet with a sword. Also, there were distinct pitches when the helmet was empty, or when it was covering somebody’s head.
Church bells may have very well been created based on this idea. Other percussion instruments, such as cymbals and gongs required unique bronze alloys because normal bronze can break when hit too hard and brass can bend.
When it comes to stringed instruments like violins, cellos, guitars, and pianos, wood is the secret, and it is possible that they have derived from arrows and bows. It is very clear that the twang of the string has a specific pitch when plucked by a finger. Once, the strings were made of animal gut but, in time, they were replaced by metal and polymers.
Simply bowing the strings of a violin creates very little sound. The sound we can hear from instruments like violins and pianos is actually sustained and amplified by the wood and the design.
Wood is a great material because it is anisotropic. This means that the vibrations are more powerful in one direction, along the grain, while the sound is directed through the structure.
There are instruments for which the material used is irrelevant to the sound and it is only the shape that counts. Conical instruments like horns or brass trumpets have a richer sound not because of the material used but because of their shape.
As electricity appeared, a new kind of musical instrument has been created. These are the electronic instruments or electrophones. These have mechanical parts that generate sound vibrations. Those vibrations are picked up as well as amplified by electrical components.
One thing is for sure. In the past, each musical instrument was a journey, it took a lot of time to create and to adjust to generate the right sounds.
Nowadays, musical instruments are made in rows, in factories, and the magic was somehow lost along the way.