The Evolution of Musical Instruments

Mar 7, 2018

As we’ve pointed out here time and time again, music has always been an integral part of human history. In fact, music is so important to human societies that it actually pre-dates human history. The first instruments likely began as pairs of stick clapped together to give a beat for dancers to move to or for oral storytellers to weave their tales. Unfortunately, we’ll likely never know the exact origins of our music making, as most of the earliest instruments would have likely been made from materials that would eventually decay over time, like animal skins and wood. That being said, we can get a few small glimpses into that deep, ancient past, as some early wind instruments were made from more durable materials, like bone, and have managed to survive to today. From these humble beginnings music started evolving, and it hasn’t stopped.

Military Advancements

The Bronze age started about 5 thousand years ago, and the time period is named for the copper-tin alloy people used for their military armor. Bronze was cutting edge technology, and highly prized thanks to it’s hardness and low melting point, which allowed it to be cast into all kinds of different shapes. Rounded gongs with definite pitch eventually rose out of the production of bronze helmets. This ultimately lead to the creation of heavy bells with sustained sound, with the nearly flat sheets of bronze used for shields leading to the shimmering sound of the cymbals.

But armor wasn’t the only military tool to inspire the creation of musical instruments; the bow and arrow also have a place of honor in musical history. The twang of the bow string had a definite pitch when plucked by a finger, and a set of strings tied to a flat board to increase the radiating sound eventually evolved into what we now think of as the harp. From this, a keyboard driving a set of quills that plucked at strings became the harpsichord in the 15th century. While this instrument still exists today, and in fact, there has been a little bit of a resurgence of its popularity, the harpsichord would go on to evolve into two very different instruments that we are familiar with today: the piano and the guitar.

A more portable version of the harpsichord was created that only used about half a dozen strings, but had “frets” or ridges on a fingerboard for the player to press the strings against to change their length and thus their pitch. This is easily recognized today as a precursor of the guitar.

Some harpsichords evolution went the other way, becoming larger rather than more portable. This led to using hammers to tap the strings to make a sound, which eventually became to the clavichord, then the forte-piano, and finally the modern piano, arguably the most common of all modern musical instruments.

Bowed Strings

Each of the instruments that had been invented up to this point created a “decaying sound,” meaning that it would fade after it was made. But a new technique for the stringed instruments that arose from the bow and arrow was eventually developed: drawing the string of one bow across the string of another to produce a sustained sound. From this technique a whole new class of instruments arose. These “bowed string” instruments could only have a few strings to give the bow room to move, so they utilized a fretted soundboard like guitars, and a bridge that linked the vibrating strings to the soundboard above a cavity. The first of these instruments was called the viol, and it, and similar instruments, would go on to evolve into modern violins, violas and cellos.

Wind Instruments

Today’s wind instruments come in two varieties (brass and woodwind), but they all pretty much involve a tube or horn of some kind. This all started with the flaring horn shape of the conch shell. Ancient humans would blow through a small hole while vibrating their lips, producing a loud, rich tone. This would led to the rise of brass horns and trumpets, which were eventually modified with slides or valves to change the pitch.

The other type of instrument that modern wind instruments can call “ancestor” started out as tubes of bamboo. These were closed at one end, thanks to the natural way bamboo stalks grow, and could be played by blowing across the open top. Eventually this instrument diverged into two paths. The first added bellows, and then a keyboard to become the pipe organ. The other path added finger holes to the tube, giving rise to the recorder, and later the flute. For many instruments on this evolutionary path, the open end of the pipe was partially closed with a thinned bamboo reed, which led to the modern clarinet, oboes, saxophone, and other reed instruments.

Modern Technology

Though many of today’s instruments haven’t changed all that much recently, modern technology has done a lot for modern musicians by providing a way for the actions of the player to be reproduced to repeat the performance time and time again. One of the earliest examples of this technology was the player piano. When someone played the player piano, every keystroke and pedal motion was recorded by punching slits into a moving paper roll. This instrument had a pneumatic action that worked in parallel to the keyboard, so that the paper roll could reproduce the performance without the musician. This even allowed people to experiment with keyboard strokes that were impossible for a single player, creating new music. Later, as electromagnetic technology improved, it was added in parallel with the mechanical keyboard of some large concert organs. This let the organist record his playing as a set of key and pedal motions, then go down into the audience, take a seat, and enjoy his own performance.

Finally, with the development of modern synthesizers, musicians could do basically whatever they wanted. These first piano-like instruments could produce a massive range of musical sounds, which has since expanded even further to include an entirely new set of “imagined” sounds that aren’t created by any other musical instrument in existence.

Some evolutionary paths in music seem to come from nowhere (like the theremin, where did that come from?), but as we look back on them all, we can see how most have followed a rather predicable set of steps to arrive where they are today. With those paths in mind, where do you think the evolution of musical instruments will take us next?