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“Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast, To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.”  When William Congreve wrote that in 1697, I’ll hazard he never could have imagined the variety of musical instruments the world would produce over the next three centuries or even all the different instrument that existed through the world at that time.  Mankind has been using materials at hand to make music since the caveman days. Now, we have triple-neck electric guitars. My name’s Moxie…

If you’ve found yourself wishing for episodes with more ound effect and intricate editing, youre i for a treat today.  From simple flutes to enormous self-playing art installations, the breadth of the category of musical instruments is enormous.  This is another one of those assignments where you have to decide where to draw the line, what gets in and what stays out. Some instruments are machines, some are sculptures, some are one-off inventions, all of them are instrumets in ther own right but most of them won’t make the list today.


There are four main types of musical instruments, or five, depending on who you ask: percussion, woodwinds, strings, brass, and keyboard, each appearing as mankind’s ability to work different materials evolved.  Like the soundtrack of Fiddler on the Roof, let’s start with tradition. Every culture on earth began making music with percussion, hitting one thing with another thing to make a sound you like. The earliest evidence we’ve been able to find of drumming dates back 165,000 years.  Evidence to this and all other prehistoric instruments is scarce not only because of the vast chasm of time, but because of the materials these items were made from — wood, bone, leather, etc — decomposed millenia ago. That doesn’t mean no evidence exists. Fragments of bone flutes found at the Isturitz archaeological site in southwestern France range in age from about 20,000 to 35,000 years old.  They showed evidence of being used extensively, with the finger holes having been burnished smooth by the player’s fingers. A very nearly complete bone flute was found in Germany and was nearly twice as old as the one in France. Slightly older still was a flute made from a cave bear femur, on which archeologists found evidence of chewing by the ancestors of hyenas. This flute may have been carved by Neanderthals, expanding scientific opinion on what they were capable of.  Full and intact bone flutes have been found in the Yellow River Valley of China, dating back some 8,000 years. They’re the oldest playable instruments ever found and lucky for us, someone did play them. The recording doesn’t sounds so great, but just think about someone playing the same same flute that a man or woman played not eight centuries ago, but eight millennia ago. [bone flute 7.wav] How different the world was the first time that flute sang.


After pounding on things and blowing through things, early man began to experiment with strings.  The earliest records referencing stringed instruments come from Mesopotamia 3,000 years ago and fragments of one over 2,000 years old were found on the Isle of Skye. [lyre.flac]  There were lyres, little harps held against the body. Plucked instruments were joined by bowed instruments. The first recorded reference to the bowed lyra was in the 9th century in Persia.  Though we don’t have recordings of that, we do have the Chinese erhu, which evolved from the two-string lute, teh xiqin, a thousand years old, and is still played today. [erhu.wav]


Over in the brass section, a pair of ornately engraved trumpets from Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb are believed to be the oldest playable trumpets in the world at over 3,000 years old.  They were discovered in 1922 by archaeologist Howard Carter and played over BBC radio the following year. Since their discovery, there have been claims that the trumpets have the power to summon war, since Britain entered World War II five months after the BBC broadcast.  Sadly, there’s no evidence a recording was preserved.


That leaves the fifth category, keyboards.  “Oh yeah, harpsichords and stuff,” you’re probably thinking, “those are relatively modern.”  You’d be surprised how old “relatively modern” can be. The five key Instrument, known by the Igbo of present-day Nigeria as ‘Uba-Aka’ or ‘Ubo-Akwara’, survives in the modern era as the thumb piano known as “mbira” or kalimba.  The oldest specimen found was crafted in bronze, which probably accounted for its having survived 1000 years of degradation, though it is known to have exist three times as early. This medium-sized circular instrument had 8 bronze keys and was carved with intricate patterns. [kalimba.wav]


As our mention of bone flutes should indicate, musical instruments can be made from almost anything, even stone.  It’s called a lithophone — Greek for stone and sound — and it reaches backwards to Vietnam 10,000 years ago and forward to the modern day Michigan.  Picture a xylophone with carefully selected and shaped slabs of stone. Naturally, different types of stone make different sounds. Here’s one made of granite [granite lithophone.mp3] and another made from limestone [limestone lithophone.mp3].  Both were created by musician, artist and educator Tom Kaufmann. You can see and hear more of his musical sculptures at If hard things aren’t your style, what about carving your next instrument out of a carrot, a head of lettuce or an eggplant.  Vienna is home to the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra, a group that hit the green grocer on their way to the concert hall. Before each performance, they carve new instruments from the fresh produce. Each performance is different, varying with the vegetables available. They turn the veggies into recorders, castanets, whatever you would call it to rub to things together.  By the end of the performance, the beggies are shot and the whole process starts again. Here in Richmond, VA, we have the Indigenous Gourd Orchestra, which is just as it sounds, but they add a few accoutrements like strings and drum sticks, and also dress up in cool, funny gourd hats.[]


You can wash those veggies down with a cold beer, while you listen to the beer bottle organ.  The invention is the product of an instrument accessory company and was created with Guinness bottles to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the company. []  If you like your beer cold, which is *not* how you drink Guiness (cool, sure, but not ice cold; that’s for pilsner and light lager), there’s an entire festival with instruments made of ice.  Just like those who make music with produce, musicians at the Ice Music Festival in Norway work with a team of ice carvers to prep their gear. You can’t use any old ice for this. Last year, ice carvers selected the frozen waters of Lake Finse as well as a nearby glacier, as their materials of choice.  Armed with chainsaws, chisels and hammers, they’re tasked with the finger-numbing process of fashioning blocks of ice into guitars, woodwinds, keyboard and drums—even the stage is carved out of ice.


To ensure that there is enough ice to work with, the festival has been moved to Finse, as temperatures have been abnormally warm and getting warmer in Geilo, where the event debuted in 2005.  []


If that’s not your kind of cool, you could always play a skatar.  The Skatar is a bass & guitar made from a skateboard, played (and sometimes ridden) by Keith Irish punk band “Punk as a Doornail” which mixes rock with the atonal avant-garde by means of the skatar.  Being a bass player, when asked to join the band as the guitarist, he didn’t have a guitar, but owned a skateboard, so necessity being the mother of invention, the Skatar was born, serving as both bass and guitar, as well as quick transportation from the stage to the bar. []  If you’re really into rock, there’s always the Great Stalagpipe Organ. Deep in the Luray Caverns of Virginia sits the largest musical instrument in the world. The Great Stalacpipe Organ appears at first to be a normal organ, but instead of using pipes, the organ is wired to soft rubber mallets poised to gently strike stalactites of varying lengths and thicknesses. When the keyboard is played, the entire subterranean landscape becomes a musical instrument.  In order to achieve a precise musical scale, the chosen stalactites of the organ range over 3.5 acres, but due to the enclosed nature of the space, the full sound can be heard anywhere within the cavern. The organ was invented and built in 1954 by Leland Sprinkle, a mathematician and electronic scientist. It took him over three years to complete it. []


If you’d prefer something more delicate, welcome our guest presenter this week….


Musical instrument-making can get wild, as in wild animal.  The charango is a small ten string lute that originated in South America. The back of the instrument is traditionally fashioned from an armadillo.  When the Spanish came to South America, they brought the vihuela (an ancestor of the guitar) with them. The native people liked the vihuela, but lacked the technology to shape the wood to make their own. However, there was a convenient resource available to them: armadillo shells. Thus the charango was born.  It was a happy day for music, but a sad day for armadillos. Legend has it that the armadillo has to go to a conservatory for five years to study to become a charango. Today, many of the best charangos have wooden backs instead of employing the armadillo shell. [not gotten] Domestic animals have their place, too.  In the Balkans, there exists a bagpipe called gaida bags, which are usually made of sheep or goat hide. Different regions have different ways of treating the hide. The simplest methods involve just the use of salt, while more complex treatments involve milk, flour, and the removal of fur. The hide is normally turned inside out so that the fur is on the inside of the bag, as this helps with moisture buildup within the bag.   Curious what one looks like? Search YouTube for goat bagpipe, where the most popular search result hasn’t lost its head.


Debatably the wildest example in his category is also one of the strangest instruments out there.  You’ve probably heard theremins your entire life without knowing what they were called or even what made that sound.  A theremin i a little wooden box with dial along one side, a loop of metal sticking out one end and two bits of metal rising from the other end.   the tone is generated by two high-frequency oscillators and the pitch controlled by the movement of the performer’s hand toward and away from the circuit, but never actually touching.  It sounds a little something like this. So it’s odd enough on its own, let alone when you stuff it into a dead European badger, taxidermied into a strolling pose by artist David Cramner.  Why? Why not.


Just as there are many materials from which to make instruments, there are many ways to make the sound.  Contact and moving air are so passe once you figure out how to make music with fire. The pyrophone, also known as the fire organ or explosion calliope, actually dates back to 1870.   It is made of glass tubes in different lengths, like organ pipes, which are fed with a hydrogen or propane flame at the bottom. The airflow is regulated to divide the flames up, each vibrating in its tube to create a different sound.  If fire isn’t entertaining enough for you, how about lightning? The Zuesaphone is a “singing Tesla coil.” For those who don’t recognize the term right off, you know that thing at the science museum where you touch the metal sphere on top and it makes your hair stand up?  Like that, but much bigger and more powerful. It is a variation of a solid state Tesla coil that has been modified to produce musical tones by modulating its spark output. The resulting pitch is a low fidelity square wave like sound reminiscent of an analog synthesizer. The high-frequency signal acts in effect as a carrier wave; its frequency is significantly above human-audible sound frequencies, so that digital modulation can reproduce a recognizable pitch. The musical tone results directly from the passage of the spark through the air. Because solid-state coil drivers are limited to “on-off” modulation, the sound produced consists of square-like waveforms rather than sinusoidal (though simple chords are possible).




Ticking with the natural elements,but perhaps something a little more gentle, we look to the wind and the Aeolian harp.   Named for Aeolus, the ancient Greek god of the wind, the traditional Aeolian harp is essentially a wooden box including a sounding board, with strings stretched lengthwise across two bridges. It is often placed in a slightly opened window where the wind can blow across the strings to produce sounds. The strings can be made of different materials (or thicknesses) and all be tuned to the same pitch, or identical strings can be tuned to different pitches.[] It became popular as a household instrument during the Romantic era, when they were all about anything even vaguely Greco-Roman, and Aeolian harps are still hand-crafted today. Some are now made in the form of monumental metal sound sculptures located on the roof of a building or a windy hilltop.  There’s one in New Mexico that stands 24ft/7.3m high and plays it’s beautiful melody over a now-abandoned shopping mall, which is a post-apoc movie set waiting to happen. For an even lighter touch, how about light itself? Professor Scott F. Hall of Cogswell Polytechnical College has used modern technology to create a theremin-type instrument which is truly unique. The optivideotone projects video onto a ceiling from stock footage, movies, etc. and simultaneously responds to the light, color, and images it creates with loud tones, buzzes, and howls. Professor Hall can control the images to create his own music. The optivideotone might not create the most beautiful or symphonic music in the world, but it certainly deserves a spot on the strangest instruments list.


Say you’re in the mood for something more subtle.  The very road beneath your feet can make music. Or under your car, anyway.  There are a nmber of musical roads throught the word, from CA to Japan to Denmark t, where the first was created in 1995.  Grooves are strategically carved into the road surface that change the ound of your tires as you drive over it at the correct speed.  Like a rumble strip if you tuned it. [] Unfortunately for the folks who drive over the musical road in Lancaster,CA, a math error lead to more space than necessary between the grooves, so their road sounds like this.  []


Size really matters when it comes to musical instruments.  For example, here is a standard flute, which measures 25in/65cm. []  The alto flute is 8in/20 cm longer and sounds like this. [] The contrabass flute is an unbelievable 9.3ft/2.5m, as wide as your two hands making a circle, and sounds like this. [] They’re so big, they can’t be held when playing and actually stand on the floor the way a cello does  There’s even a double contrabass flute that’s twice as long. Here’s a contrabass saxophone, [] bassoon, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and an octobass.


And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today.  I’ll leave you with one of my favorite instruments, for a very specific reason.  Lovers of the Dark Crystal should remember the branches recorder that Jen played.  I’d include a clip, but Disney probably owns that movie now. That sounds comes from a real instrument, the double-flageolet.  It’s like a bassoon mouthpiece with two wooden flutes sticking out of it. [] Can’t you just see the valley of he Mystics when you hear it?  Thanks for spending part of your day with me.