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Alarming things can happen on live tv. A broadcast of a concert on Iranian TV a few years ago absolutely scandalized some viewers. People began taking pictures of their TVs and posting them on social media. “Am I dreaming or what?” tweeted one man, unable to believe his eyes. What had been on the screen during this celebration of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday that caused such fervor — a depiction of Muhammed, a woman in immodest clothes, a controversial political protest? People watching were shocked when they saw…musicians, playing instruments.

Our topic today is musical instruments that have been banned and I want to open the show by dividing the room – bagpipes are awesome [sfx]. I used to sell my handmade soaps at an Irish festival here in town and to set up my booth on a cool, misty morning as a single piper begins to play would give me goosebumps. Don’t go saying that bagpipes are Scottish and not Irish, either. [amazing grace under] The instrument that every sound designer relies on for funeral scenes in movies go way, way back and were created in distant, disparate places — Egypt, Rome, India, Italy, Hungary, you name it. There are ancient Roman coins that depict Nero playing the bagpipe. So while we can debate whether or not Nero fiddled while Rome burned, hinging mostly on what the definition of “fiddle” is, it seems clear he played the bagpipes.

It’s not clear when bagpipes made it to Scotland, but we do know they only had a single drone, the pipes that make that single background note, until the 1500’s when a second drone was added, and the last drone third drone appeared around the 1700’s. All the chiefs of the Highland Clans employed pipers for both peace and war, spurring troops on to victory. Until 1745. Bagpipes were linked to Jacobitism, the movement that sought to remove James II from the British throne and restore the Catholic Stewart kings. The Jacobites saw the bagpipes as an icon of Scottish national belonging and military pride, while their opponents saw it, at best, as a rissable accessory for unflattering caricatures and at worst as an instrument of war. Carrying pipes was viewed the same as carrying a weapon and a York man was tried for treason. The court declared “no highland regiment ever marched without a piper and therefore his bagpipes in the eyes of the law, was an instrument of warfare” and sentenced him to death.

But John Gibson, author of “Traditional Gaelic Bagpiping, 1745-1945,” says it didn’t happen that way. The bagpipe ban, not the execution, that happened. In fact, the execution of the piper James Reid contributed to the muddling of historical waters. Some of the confusion seems to stem from the Disarming Act of 1746, which would get an amendment “restraining the Use of the Highland Dress”. This outlawed tartan and plaid, but didn’t say anything about bagpipes. James Reid may well have been a piper, but that wasn’t why he got the short drop and sudden stop; he’d taken part in Jacobite rebellions and his conviction had nothing to do with the Disarming Act. So maybe the 1740 ban didn’t happen. That makes the line from Braveheart, “Playing outlawed tunes on outlawed pipes” twice as wrong, since it’s over four centuries earlier. The bagpipes were verifiably banned in the 1940’s…in Poland. Germans ordered Poles not to play their pipes for the same reason, because of its ability to stir up nationalist spirits. Just think about that next time you say it sounds like a bag of cats in a garbage disposal.

In fairness, you’re not completely alone in your entirely-wrong hatred of bagpipes. In 1897, Belgium sent an expedition to Antarctica with the intention of being the first party to over-winter there. Even in modern Antarctica with modern transportation, a lot of planning goes into keeping a crew alive. If you’re in charge of the food, you might have to plan out a year’s worth of meals and order your supplies 18 months in advance, and that’s today, so imagine what it was like 120+ years ago. Part of the plan of the RV Belgica, that being the ship they took, was to hunt and eat penguins, which would not only provide them with fat and protein, but also vitamin C, to ward off scurvy. Catching animals perfectly adapted to the harshest climate on earth turned out to be much …. easier than they thought. The supplies of the ship included a few musical instruments, to maintain morale and whatnot. Apparently, all you had to do was play the trumpet and they’d come right to you. When one man took out his banjo and played It’s a long way to Tipperary, a whole raft of penguins, which is the collective noun gathered around to listen. The reception was somewhat more critical of the bagpiper. The penguins fled in terror and plunged back into the sea.

glass armonica

Tremendous tinkerer Benjamin Franklin had been so captivated by performances on the “musical glasses”, where you rub the rims of glasses with different amounts of water in them to produce different notes. It was big in the 18th century, and Franklin wanted to see if he could make it even better. He saw that, before each concert, the performer would tune the instrument by filling each glass with just the right amount of water. That sounds like a faff, and if you watched Miss Congeniality, by choice or because it was on in the doctor’s office waiting room, you know that musical glasses are one of the few instruments that can be ruined by being mistaken for a crafts services table.

In a letter written in 1762 to the Italian scientist Giambatista Beccaria, Franklin described a musical instrument he had designed that made use of 37 cups. To help you visualize it, rather than cups, think bowls, each slightly smaller than the last. Picture them in a neat stack. Now imagine a rod going down through the lot, turning them on their side, and having them spin on that rod like an axle, thanks to a foot pedal and flywheel. Below our sideways stack, a pan might be added to catch water dripping off the bowls from the player’s fingers. Would it have worked if they’d spun through the water instead, I wonder. Franklin wrote that his new instrument “seems peculiarly adapted to Italian music, especially that of the soft and plaintive kind”. “Its tones are incomparably sweet beyond those of any other; that they may be swelled and softened at pleasure by stronger or weaker pressures of the finger, and continued to any length; and that the instrument, being once well tuned, never again wants tuning. In honour of your musical language, I have borrowed from it the name of this instrument, calling it the Armonica.” Harken to an instrument whose sound is so ethereal, it was dubbed by some “the angels’ organ.” [clip] [beavis and butthead laugh]

The armonica was popular with the public and received the serious attention of many 18th century musicians. Its music was used as a therapeutic tool by Franz Mesmer, the man who gave the word the theories of animal magnetism and whose name became a verb for hypnosis, mesmerism, during the heyday of his Parisian practice in the 1780s. Over in the palace of Versaille, no less than Marie Antoinette was playing it. Franklin himself enjoyed performing on it and seems to have always had one in his living quarters. Mme. Brillon de Jouy, a dear friend of Franklin’s despite being 40 years his junior, was an accomplished musician and composer, and her armonica can still be seen in the Bakken Museum in Minneapolis. Any Minnesotans listening today? Shout out on the social media.

Not everyone was a fan of the glass armonica’s ethereal sound. Rumors began to waft around that the music induced madness in otherwise healthy people. German playwright, musicologist and art and music critic Friedrich Rochlitz wrote, “There may be various reasons for the scarcity of armonica players, principally the almost universally shared opinion that playing it is damaging to the health, that it excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood,” which is extra funny because melancholy was what Mesmer claimed to be curing, “that it is an apt method for slow self-annihilation… Many (physicians with whom I have discussed this matter) say the sharp penetrating tone runs like a spark through the entire nervous system, forcibly shaking it up and causing nervous disorders.”

These fears even made their way into the instruction manual for a machine built in 1788: “If you have been upset by harmful novels, false friends, or perhaps a deceiving girl then abstain from playing the armonica — it will only upset you even more. There are people of this kind — of both sexes — who must be advised not to study the instrument, in order that their state of mind should not be aggravated.”

When rumor began to spread that such maladies could be attributed to the instrument, panic erupted. Some thought it made magic powers and could communicate with or summon the dead. The instrument was blamed for domestic disputes, premature births, even convulsions in dogs and cats. Some armonica players became ill and had to stop playing the instrument. They complained of muscle spasms, nervousness, cramps, and dizziness. A few listeners were also subject to ill effects; after an incident in Germany where a child died during a performance, the armonica was actually banned in a few towns. The instrument soon fell out of favor and was forgotten by all but a sundry few.

In its heyday, though, several 18th century composers wrote for the glass armonica, including most notably Beethoven; notable not only for being one of the few names on the list that I recognized, but also because there is speculation the glass armonica might have killed him. So that you know where your fingers are in relation to the bowls, certain bowls have a lovely metallic band around the rim, made mostly or exclusively of lead. Even if the band wasn’t, the glass itself might be lead crystal glass. Don’t worry about your fancy crystal glasses that you only get out twice a year. As long as they weren’t made hundreds of years ago and you’re not rubbing them against skin for hours on end, you’ll be fine. A study in California, which was given access to a sample of Beethoven’s hair to study, found the composer had a concentration of lead 100 times higher than is normal today. Researchers commissioned by San Jose State University say it’s virtually certain Beethoven had lead poisoning, technical name: plumbism, which could explain his illnesses, strange eccentricities, maybe his deafness and quite possibly his death. A 582-strand Beethoven hair sample, taken just after his death at age 56 in 1827, was purchased at auction for $7,300 in 1994 by Ira Brilliant, founder of the Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University, and Alfredo Guevara, a surgeon from Nogales, Ariz. Their findings are no smoking gun, though. During Beethoven’s time, you couldn’t swing a piccolo without hitting something containing what we know now are dangerous levels of lead – pewter cups, plates and utensils, lead windows, water pipes, paint, even candles. So maybe Beehtoven was done in by the glass armonica, or maybe he just chewed on his pencils. We’ll never know for sure. (Unless the armonica really can be used to talk to the dead and one of the few dozen players in the world can reach him to ask.)


The next instrument charged with […] is the harmonium. Ooh, you say, if the armonica was so interesting, how strange and fancy will the harmonium be? It’s an organ. Sorry to preemptively harsh your buzz. [sfx] The reason it was banned is interesting, though. It was banned for being too British, even though it was created by a Dane who was inspired by the Chinese by way of an Italian. That perked you back up.

The prototype of the harmonium was designed by Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein, a professor – not of music but physiology – at the University of Copenhagen, who could often be found experimenting with the effects of electricity on the human body. He was fascinated by the sound and mechanism of the sheng, a Chinese free-reed instrument that Marco Polo had introduced to Europe centuries earlier. For those unfamiliar with the sheng, imagine you grabbed a double fistful of boba tea straws and artistically staggering their heights, then blowing into your thumb. It sounds weird, I’ll mark you, but when you google it, you’ll say “actually, that’s exactly what that looks like.” Kratzenstein built a small pneumatic organ fitted with free reeds, and others were soon copying and improving on his design. The harmonium is like a diminutive organ, like you might hear in a church and you just don’t hear in rock music anymore, that produces sound when foot-operated bellows sends wind through a pressure-equalizing air reservoir, causing metal reeds, which are fixed at one end and free at the other, hence the name, to vibrate.

Harmoniums were lighter in weight and smaller in size than organs and therefore easier to transport and less liable to be damaged in transit, so they were soon exported all over. Being smaller meant they cost less, too, so you didn’t have to be in the to 1% to have one for the living room. Heat and humidity did not affect harmoniums as much as they did pianos, so it was also suitable to ship to the lovely tropical places that Europeans had imposed themselves on and colonized throughout Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and most notably for us today, the Indian subcontinent. It really caught on in India, where one instrument maker, Dwarkanath Ghose of Dwarkin & Sons in Kolkata, gave it a full make-over in 1875. His version was half the size, had drones that would make it suitable for classical music, had a scale changing mechanism, was cheaper to make and repair, and could be played while sitting on the floor, as is the custom for Indian musicians in concert.

Even though prominent names in music were writing pieces for the harmonium and including it in operas, but others viewed it as an agent of an unwelcome foreign musical sensibility. You see, it’s all to do with semitones. You know the 8 note octave [sfx] do re mi and so one. Imagine the octave divided into 12 notes, such as with the black keys on a piano. [sfx] But the notes between those 12 are semitones. And if you squeeze a note between those notes, it’s a microtone. Southern Indian carnatic music scoffs at the semitone and divides their octave into between 22 and a boggling 66 notes. [sfx] Either way, it’s thought to be the smallest difference in tone that the human ear can hear. The recently re-launched YouTube channel This Exists did a great video; I’ll put a link in the shownotes.

Indian singers were traditionally accompanied by musicians playing the sarangi, a short-necked bowed string instrument thought to sound like the human voice. [sfx] The sarangi is difficult to master and needs constant re-tuning, plus it carried an association with courtesans, helping the harmonium gain market-share. But the sarangi could provide semi and microtones with a tiny move of the fingers, and harmoniums, with their metaphorically and physically rigid keyboard, could not. Also, they’d been introduced to the country by an invading nation who in 1905 thought it would be keen to split Bengal in half like it was Berlin, Bengal where 3 million people who starve to death a generation later thanks in no small part to Winston Churchill, but you already know that if you’ve made it to page [] of the YBOF book. The fact that it had been complete reengineered in Kolkata didn’t really matter after that. All India Radio (which, at one time, had the monopoly over commercial radio broadcasting in India) then banned the instrument from its airwaves from 1940 to 1971. The attempt to banish the sound of the harmonium was part of an attempt to define a national sound for India, distinct from the West. The die-hard harmonium heads weren’t deterred though. They appreciated the way you could always get the note the way you want it, unless the fussy and finicky sarangi. Harmoniums were also a heavy-hitter in teaching music. All India Radio partially lifted the ban in 1970 for classical music. To this day, they’ll allow a harmonium as part of an orchestra, but not as a soloist.


If you didn’t like my devotion to the bagpipes at the top of the show, you’re gonna hate how hard I stan the next instrument [sfx] There’s no more talking, we’re just going to listen to this. Then the Night Court theme, [sfx] then that one song from the 80’s, you know which one. [sfx] While the saxamaphone has indeed been banned, I want to talk about its obvious-once-its-been-pointed-out shadow ban. Why aren’t there any saxophones in orchestras? You’ve got piccolos that sound like dental drills, oboes that sound like ducks trying to tell you about their problems, and the triangle, that glorified coat-hanger, but yet somehow the sax doesn’t make the cut. Kicked down to the marching band. The most common reason given is because they were invented much later than the standard orchestra. So was the tuba, that slowed-down fart, is allowed in. Some contend that the sound color of the saxophone doesn’t blend with the other woodwinds, on account of, not to be reductive, they have wind but aren’t wood. Some late romantic and modern composers do write for saxophone, but they highlight how the sax stands out. At the end of the day, there isn’t one clear reason for the saxophone’s omission. It may simply be one of those things that never caught on.

It did take donkey’s years for the bendy bit of baritone to make space for itself in the music world since it was created in the 1840’s. The name and the noise comes from Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax and inventing the saxophone doesn’t even make the top ten most interesting things that happened to him. As a boy, Sax was struck on the head by a slate roof tile,… swallowed a needle… fell down a flight of stairs onto a stone floor,… toppled onto a burning stove,…got blown across a room by a gunpowder explosion,… fell in a river and was found floating face-down… and drank some sulfuric acid *and a mix of white lead, copper oxide by accident. If you want to hear those in detail, meet me over at patreon url for the first bonus mini episode for this month. You’ll also get to vote on next week’s topic and depending on the tier, there’s a tshirt in it for you. Sax could play the flute and clarinet at an early age and began tinkering with improved designs in his early teens.

So sax managed to survive to adulthood and played around with different instrument designs, getting into a stone groove after he made a clarinet from brass. Sax invented not one saxophone, but 14, or at least that’s the number of patents he got. They ranged from F contrabass [sfx] all the way up to Eb sopranino. [sfx] It didn’t exactly turn the music world on its ear, but a number of notable composers had fallen in love with it. Hector Berlioz said, “It cries, sighs, and dreams. It possesses a crescendo and can gradually diminish until it is only an echo of an echo. I know of no other instrument that possesses this particular capacity to reach the outer limits of audible sound.” The saxophone can be delicate like a woodwind and blast like a brass, the latter of which is why they were a natural adoption for military bands.

In 1842, Sax and his new hybrid instrument moved to France, a place famous for innovation, especially in the arts. That’s sarcasm, as evinced by the fact that French instrument-makers set about destroying him, stealing his designs, burning down his factory, and trying to kill him, for good measure. Our bastion of good luck went bankrupt twice and died penniless. He didn’t even live long enough to see Pope Pius X ban them in 1903. Officially, this ban is still in effect… in churches. It’s not like all Catholics are fish on Friday and no saxophones ever. “The employment of the piano is forbidden in church, as is also that of noisy or frivolous instruments such as drums, cymbals, bells and the like.” The organ was the only instrument he would allow to accompany the human voice, which was the only proper music in a church. “Only in special cases with the consent the Ordinary will it be permissible to admit wind instruments, limited in number, judiciously used, and proportioned to the size of the place provided the composition and accompaniment be written in grave and suitable style, and conform in all respects to that proper to the organ.” Pious prohibited instruments that could cause “disgust or scandal.” He didn’t say which instrument he meant, but they knew which instrument he meant.

Sunday morning might be saxophone-deficient, but soon you could hear plenty of sax on a Saturday night. It was about the time of Pious’ anti-sax bull that nightclub and dance hall bands started getting into them, and they were really into them. More saxophones were sold in the mid-to-late-1920s than electric guitars in the 1960s. The saxophone became an integral part of jazz music and that was a problem for a lot of people in Weimar Republic. In1927, Ernst Krenek’s opera of Jonny spielt auf (Jonny Plays) contained jazz numbers that caused protests among some right-wing ethnic-nationalist groups. In 1930, the American musician Henry Cowell wrote in the Melos Journal magazine that jazz interpreted a mixture of African-American and Jewish elements: “The fundamentals of jazz are the syncopation and rhythmic accents of the Negro. Their modernization is the work of New York Jews … So jazz is Negro music seen through the eyes of the Jews.” I don’t need to tell you who *that clicked with. They went on to scrutinize all modern music of the 1930s as a “political weapon of the Jews.” Jazz and the solidly jazz-aligned saxophone was slapped with the label “Entartete Kunst”, or “degenerate art”, which saw many artforms banned, or Negermusik. You can work that translation out for yourself. One 1938 poster advertising a “degenerate music” exhibition featured a black, monkey-like caricature, wearing a Star of David badge and playing the saxophone. In 1930, the Minister of the Interior and Education for Thuringia made a decree called “Against the Negro Culture – For Our German Heritage”. In 1932, pandering to the Nazis, the national government banned all public performances by black musicians. After Hitler gained power in 1933, a full legal ban on jazz was issued, with the head of the Reich’s radio declaring, “As of today, I decree a definitive ban on the negro jazz for the entire German Radio.” It became difficult, and dangerous, to play the saxophone in Germany. The Nazis, sadly, weren’t alone. In the 1930s, Stalin’s Soviet Union also persecuted the saxophone. There, jazz was seen not only as the music of, by, and for black people, but also the embodiment of bourgeois American imperialist culture. Saxophonists had to hand over their instruments, and players were arrested, imprisoned and even exiled.

It won’t surprise you that these weren’t the only examples of music and instruments important to black culture were outlawed. On the slave plantations of the antebellum South, they outlawed drums. Remember in episode 129, Never Surrender, when I talked about the Stono Rebellion, the one with the very Spartacus/GoT outcome, and how the rebels gathered enslaved people as they moved? That didn’t just happen. It was coordinated in advance. The plantations were many miles apart from each other, and there was no way for enslaved people to communicate… except with drums. The language of the talking-drums exists in various forms throughout the various and varied cultures of Africa, branching out from their oral traditions. Talking-drums can produce a range of tonalities and were used in conduction ceremonies, relating history, even to recite poetry. During the 1600s and 1700s, Africans enslaved in North America used drums to communicate with each other as they had back home — sending messages over long distances, with the added bonus that white people couldn’t understand it in the slightest. This way, communities separated on different plantations throughout a given region could stay in contact. That might not have seemed like an issue for the slave-holders, until Stono. Then it became clear what all that drumming could actually do. It was made illegal for any enslaved person to play or even have a drum. “It is absolutely necessary to the safety of this Province, that all due care be taken to restrain Negroes from using or keeping of drums, which may call together or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs and purposes,” read the Slave Code of South Carolina, 1740.

Starting on the plantations of the Carolinas and Georgia, this ban soon spread nearly everywhere. But the human spirit that survived kidnapping and transportation couldn’t be stifled by some silly old law. The great thing about using percussion to communicate is that anything you hit, broadly speaking, is a drum, even the human body, called Patting Juba, for a slave who was executed. That’s also part of the ancestry of the “modern” dance style stepping, as well as tap, a dance style appropriately dominated by African-Americans, from Mr. Bojangles to Gregory Hines and beyond. If you’ve never seen the Nicholas Brothers, who did what Fred Astaire called “the greatest dance number ever filmed,” your life is incomplete. There’s video of them in an article linked in the shownotes.

Don’t rest on your laurels, thinking, “Silly old-timey people with their foolish musical instrument bans.” There are music instruments being banned right now, thanks to the gift that keeps on giving, Covid-19. Real talk, it’s okay to be glad that 2020 is ending, but our problems aren’t going to magically evaporate. The 1918 flu ran rampant for three years and last week Covid was the leading cause of death in the US, so if I were you, I’d sew another mask and tip your grocery delivery driver as if your mortal soul depends on it. Back on track, to the best of our understanding, covid is spread through respiratory droplets. If you’ve seen a live band even once in your life, you know that exhaling huge amounts of air is a key component for whole sections of the orchestra. But it’s not that Sydney Symphony Orchestra that lawmakers in NSW, Aus are concerned with. Health officials banned woodwind instruments from schools, based on the theory that a woodwind player expels more respiratory droplets than even the brass players.

This line of thought isn’t exclusive to Oz. At Clemson University in SC, head band director is trying to work out how to keep the music program alive. Teaching band isn’t the easiest thing to do over Skype, after all. No studies had actually been done a study on the aerosols of the band room, so Spede formed a committee of band directors and raised funds to study band rooms in three states.

His associates in the International Coalition of Performing Arts Aerosol Study. Shelly Miller and Jelena Srebric, brought musicians into labs and recorded what players were blasting into the air from various instruments, as well as testing actors and chorus members. The playing of lung-powered instruments was found to be worse than talking, though not as bad as coughing. They found the woodwinds were worse than brass instruments because the warm, moist breath of the player collides with the cooler, drier air inside an instrument and condenses only to trickle out the end of through the keys. In brass instruments, the air has farther to travel — imagine an uncoiled trumpet next to a flute– the condensation accumulates at the spit valve, which can in theory be emptied safely. The worst culprit? The oboe, which can quickly fill a space with vapor.

And that’s…So what was all the kerfuffle over musicians on Iranian television? Musical instruments have been banned on Iranian state television for more than three decades. Some Shia Muslim clerics say broadcasting music instruments is a haram act – an act forbidden by Islamic law, even though music is as important to Persian culture as it is to anyone’s. According to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “Although music is halal [or okay], promoting and teaching it is not compatible with [our] highest values.” Normally, if a live performance is being aired, the singer will be onstage, but the band will be in the wings or behind a screen. Failing that, the line director will cut to stock video of meadows or clouds rather than show the band. Many Iranians find the restriction ridiculous and a band called Pallett used their invitation to perform as a chance to point out how silly the rule is — they mimed playing their instruments, and that was perfectly okay to air. Special thanks to today’s guest voices: (in no set order) Zach – Wasteland Active Radio; Matt – The Campaign; Andrew – 1999; Thomas – Physical Attraction; Drew – Misery Machine.