Musical instruments have always intrigued us. But did you know how they came into being?
Neville Fletcher, who is a retired scientist at the Australian National University in Canberra, is passionate about music and loves to study the physics of instruments. He believes that the first musical instruments probably came up by chance owing to the observed acoustic properties of materials, tools and weapons.
With time, human generations refined the various existing designs to produce more advanced instruments. It was observed that hitting a bronze helmet with a bronze sword had one definite pitch when it was empty; the same exhibited another pitch if something was put in it. People believe that it might have led to the invention of church bells.
Fletcher suggested that brass is dense and gives out a sustained sound. It was later used to make large bells. People, over time, learned that different kinds of sounds are produced using different shapes and materials. This led to the evolution of various musical instruments. Brass can bend and normal bronze could break if it is hit hard; therefore, percussion instruments, thin-walled instruments, such as gongs and cymbals, utilised a special kind of bronze alloy. It was derived from shields and was still made of bronze alloys.
So, what was the secret of stringed instruments? Playing around with wood led to the evolution of instruments, such as violins, violas, cellos, double basses as well as pianos and guitars. In a piano, the wood is useful in sound amplification. Wood is considered to be perfect because it exhibits excellent musical properties. It is anisotropic, which means the vibrations are stronger in one direction, along the grain, so the sound can be directed through the structure.
However, the material does not always matter for the sound of a musical instrument. The shape alone can spell the magic. Conical instruments, such as brass trumpets and horns and the conch, produce a richer sound because of the shape, according to Metcalfe. Tubular instruments, such as the clarinet, pan pipes, and flute work on the same principle. They produce simpler sounds owing to their shape. Moreover, the metals used in pipe organs are less important a factor than their cylindrical shape.
A new technique for the stringed instruments arose from the bow and arrow. Drawing the string of one bow across the string of another produced a sustained sound. This technique introduced a whole new class of instruments. These “bowed string” instruments could use only a few strings so that the bow has enough room to move. A fretted soundboard like guitars and a bridge that linked the vibrating strings to the soundboard above a cavity was used. This is the story of today’s modern instruments such as violins, violas, and cellos. These were initially known as the viol.
The wind instruments that are used today come in two varieties – brass and woodwind. The interesting thing to note is that almost all of these involve a tube or horn of some kind. This might have started with the flaring horn shape of the conch shell. The early humans might have discovered this by blowing through a tiny hole while vibrating their lips, producing a loud, rich tone. This led to the evolution of brass horns and trumpets, which have been greatly modified with slides or valves to experiment with the pitch.
These days we have synthesisers that have widely broadened the scope for new musicians today. It allows the musicians to produce a massive range of musical sounds from a single instrument. Its origin can be traced back. But that is not the case with traditional instruments. Their evolutionary paths have mostly remained unknown to humankind. But, as we look back on them all, we realise that most of them have followed a rather predictable set of steps to arrive where they are today.