A musical instrument is an instrument created or adapted to makemusical sounds. In principle, any object that produces sound can be a musical instrument—it is through purpose that the object becomes a musical instrument.
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The history of musical instruments dates to the beginnings of human culture. Early musical instruments may have been used for ritual, such as a trumpet to signal success on the hunt, or adrum in a religious ceremony. Cultures eventually developed composition and performance of melodies for entertainment. Musical instruments evolved in step with changing applications.
The date and origin of the first device considered a musical instrument is disputed. The oldest object that some scholars refer to as a musical instrument, a simple flute, dates back as far as 67,000 years. Some consensus dates early flutes to about 37,000 years ago.
However, most historians believe that determining a specific time of musical instrument invention is impossible due to the subjectivity of the definition and the relative instability of materials used to make them. Many early musical instruments were made from animal skins, bone, wood, and other non-durable materials.
Musical instruments developed independently in many populated regions of the world. However, contact among civilizations caused rapid spread and adaptation of most instruments in places far from their origin. By the Middle Ages, instruments from Mesopotamia were in maritime Southeast Asia, and Europeans played instruments from North Africa.
Development in the Americas occurred at a slower pace, but cultures of North, Central, and South America shared musical instruments. By 1400, musical instrument development slowed in many areas and was dominated by the Occident.
Musical instrument classification is a discipline in its own right, and many systems of classification have been used over the years. Instruments can be classified by their effective range, their material composition, their size, etc. However, the most common academic method, Hornbostel-Sachs, uses the means by which they produce sound. The academic study of musical instruments is called organology.
Primitive and prehistoric
Two Aztec slit drums (teponaztli). The characteristic “H” slits can be seen on the top of the drum in the foreground.
Until the 19th century AD, European-written music histories began with mythological accounts of how musical instruments were invented. Such accounts included Jubal, descendant of Cain and “father of all such as handle the harp and the organ”, Pan, inventor of the pan pipes, and Mercury, who is said to have made a dried tortoiseshell into the first lyre. Modern histories have replaced such mythology with anthropological speculation, occasionally informed by archeological evidence.
Scholars agree that there was no definitive “invention” of the musical instrument since the definition of the term “musical instrument” is completely subjective to both the scholar and the would-be inventor. For example, a Homo habilis slapping his body could be the makings of a musical instrument regardless of the being’s intent.
Among the first devices external to the human body that are considered instruments are rattles, stampers, and various drums. These earliest instruments evolved due to the human motor impulse to add sound to emotional movements such as dancing. Eventually, some cultures assigned ritual functions to their musical instruments, using them for hunting and various ceremonies.
Those cultures developed more complex percussion instruments and other instruments such as ribbon reeds, flutes, and trumpets. Some of these labels carry far different connotations from those used in modern day; early flutes and trumpets are so-labeled for their basic operation and function rather than any resemblance to modern instruments.
Among early cultures for whom drums developed ritual, even sacred importance are the Chukchi people of the Russian Far East, the indigenous people of Melanesia, and many cultures of Africa. In fact, drums were pervasive throughout every African culture. One East African tribe, the Wahinda, believed it was so holy that seeing a drum would be fatal to any person other than the sultan.
Humans eventually developed the concept of using musical instruments for producing a melody. Until this time in the evolutions of musical instruments, melody was common only in singing. Similar to the process of reduplication in language, instrument players first developed repetition and then arrangement.
An early form of melody was produced by pounding two stamping tubes of slightly different sizes—one tube would produce a “clear” sound and the other would answer with a “darker” sound. Such instrument pairs also included bullroarers, slit drums, shell trumpets, and skin drums.
Cultures who used these instrument pairs associated genders with them; the “father” was the bigger or more energetic instrument, while the “mother” was the smaller or duller instrument. Musical instruments existed in this form for thousands of years before patterns of three or more tones would evolve in the form of the earliest xylophone. Xylophones originated in the mainland and archipelago of Southeast Asia, eventually spreading to Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Along with xylophones, which ranged from simple sets of three “leg bars” to carefully tuned sets of parallel bars, various cultures developed instruments such as the ground harp, ground zither, musical bow, and jaw harp.
Images of musical instruments begin to appear in Mesopotamian artifacts in 2800 BC or earlier. Beginning around 2000 BC, Sumerian and Babylonian cultures began delineating two distinct classes of musical instruments due to division of labor and the evolving class system.
Popular instruments, simple and playable by anyone, evolved differently from professional instruments whose development focused on effectiveness and skill. Despite this development, very few musical instruments have been recovered in Mesopotamia.
Scholars must rely on artifacts and cuneiform texts written in Sumerian or Akkadian to reconstruct the early history of musical instruments in Mesopotamia. Even the process of assigning names to these instruments is challenging since there is no clear distinction among various instruments and the words used to describe them.
Although Sumerian and Babylonian artists mainly depicted ceremonial instruments, historians have been able to distinguish six idiophones used in early Mesopotamia: concussion clubs, clappers, sistra, bells, cymbals, and rattles.
Sistra are depicted prominently in a great relief of Amenhotep III, and are of particular interest because similar designs have been found in far-reaching places such as Tbilisi, Georgia and among the Native American Yaqui tribe.
The people of Mesopotamia preferred stringed instruments to any other, as evidenced by their proliferation in Mesopotamian figurines, plaques, and seals. Innumerable varieties of harps are depicted, as well as lyres and lutes, the forerunner of modern stringed instruments such as the violin.
Ancient Egyptian tomb painting depicting lute players, 18th Dynasty(c. 1350 BC)
Musical instruments used by the Egyptian culture before 2700 BC bore striking similarity to those of Mesopotamia, leading historians to conclude that the civilizations must have been in contact with one another. Sachs notes that Egypt did not possess any instruments that the Sumerian culture did not also possess.
However, by 2700 BC the cultural contacts seem to have dissipated; the lyre, a prominent ceremonial instrument in Sumer, did not appear in Egypt for another 800 years. Clappers and concussion sticks appear on Egyptian vases as early as 3000 BC. The civilization also made use of sistra, vertical flutes, double clarinets, arched and angular harps, and various drums.
Little history is available in the period between 2700 BC and 1500 BC, as Egypt (and indeed, Babylon) entered a long violent period of war and destruction. This period saw the Kassite destroy the Babylonian empire in Mesopotamia and the Hyksos destroy the Middle Kingdom of Egypt.
When the Pharaohs of Egypt conquered Southwest Asia in around 1500 BC, the cultural ties to Mesopotamia were renewed and Egypt’s musical instruments also reflected heavy influence from Asiatic cultures. Under their new cultural influences, the people of the New Kingdom began using oboes, trumpets, lyres, lutes, castanets, and cymbals.
In contrast with Mesopotamia and Egypt, professional musicians did not exist in Israel between 2000 and 1000 BC. While the history of musical instruments in Mesopotamia and Egypt relies on artistic representations, the culture in Israel produced few such representations.
Scholars must therefore rely on information gleaned from the Bible and the Talmud. The Hebrew texts mention two prominent instruments associated with Jubal: the ugab (pipes) and kinnor (lyre). Other instruments of the period included the tof (frame drum), pa’amon (small bells or jingles), shofar, and the trumpet-like hasosra.
The introduction of a monarchy in Israel during the 11th century BC produced the first professional musicians and with them a drastic increase in the number and variety of musical instruments. However, identifying and classifying the instruments remains a challenge due to the lack of artistic interpretations.
For example, stringed instruments of uncertain design called nevals and asors existed, but neither archaeology nor etymology can clearly define them. In her book A Survey of Musical Instruments, American musicologist Sibyl Marcuse proposes that the nevel must be similar to vertical harp due to its relation to nabla, the Phoenician term for “harp”.
In Greece, Rome, and Etruria, the use and development of musical instruments stood in stark contrast to those cultures’ achievements in architecture and sculpture. The instruments of the time were simple and virtually all of them were imported from other cultures.
Lyres were the principal instrument, as musicians used them to honor the gods. Greeks played a variety of wind instruments they classified as aulos (reeds) or syrinx (flutes); Greek writing from that time reflects a serious study of reed production and playing technique. Romans played reed instruments named tibia, featuring side-holes that could be opened or closed, allowing for greater flexibility in playing modes. Other instruments in common use in the region included vertical harps derived from those of the Orient, lutes of Egyptian design, various pipes and organs, and clappers, which were played primarily by women.
Evidence of musical instruments in use by early civilizations of India is almost completely lacking, making it impossible to reliably attribute instruments to the Munda and Dravidian language-speaking cultures that first settled the area. Rather, the history of musical instruments in the area begins with the Indus Valley Civilization that emerged around 3000 BC. Various rattles and whistles found among excavated artifacts are the only physical evidence of musical instruments.
A clay statuette indicates the use of drums, and examination of the Indus script has also revealed representations of vertical arched harps identical in design to those depicted in Sumerian artifacts. This discovery is among many indications that the Indus Valley and Sumerian cultures maintained cultural contact. Subsequent developments in musical instruments in India occurred with the Rigveda, or hymns.
These songs used various drums, shell trumpets, harps, and flutes. Other prominent instruments in use during the early centuries AD were the snake charmer’s double clarinet, bagpipes, barrel drums, cross flutes, and short lutes. In all, India had no unique musical instruments until the Middle Ages.
A Chinese wooden fish, used in Buddhist recitations
Musical instruments such as zithers appeared in Chinese writings around 12th century BC and earlier. Early Chinese philosophers such as Confucius (551–479 BC),Mencius (372–289 BC), and Laozi shaped the development of musical instruments in China, adopting an attitude toward music similar to that of the Greeks. The Chinese believed that music was an essential part of character and community, and developed a unique system of classifying their musical instruments according to their material makeup.
Idiophones were extremely important in Chinese music, hence the majority of early instruments were idiophones. Poetry of the Shang Dynasty mentions bells, chimes, drums, and globular flutes carved from bone, the latter of which has been excavated and preserved by archaeologists. The Zhou Dynasty saw percussion instruments such as clappers, troughs, wooden fish, and yǔ (wooden tiger).
Wind instruments such as flute, pan-pipes, pitch-pipes, and mouth organs also appeared in this time period. The xiao (an end-blown flute) and various other instruments that spread through many cultures, came into use in China during and after the Han Dynasty.
Although civilizations in Central America attained a relatively high level of sophistication by the eleventh century AD, they lagged behind other civilizations in the development of musical instruments. For example, they had no stringed instruments; all of their instruments were idiophones, drums, and wind instruments such as flutes and trumpets. Of these, only the flute was capable of producing a melody.
In contrast, pre-Columbian South American civilizations in areas such as modern-dayPeru, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile were less advanced culturally but more advanced musically. South American cultures of the time used pan-pipes as well as varieties of flutes, idiophones, drums, and shell or wood trumpets.
A young Persian lady playing a ney, painted on Hasht Behesht walls inEsfahan, Safavid dynasty.
During the period of time loosely referred to as the Middle Ages, China developed a tradition of integrating musical influence from other regions. The first record of this type of influence is in 384 AD, when China established an orchestra in its imperial court after a conquest in Turkestan.
Influences from Middle East, Persia, India, Mongolia, and other countries followed. In fact, Chinese tradition attributes many musical instruments from this period to those regions and countries. Cymbals gained popularity, along with more advanced trumpets, clarinets, oboes, flutes, drums, and lutes. Some of the first bowed zithers appeared in China in the 9th or 10th century, influenced by Mongolian culture.
India experienced similar development to China in the Middle Ages; however, stringed instruments developed differently as they accommodated different styles of music. While stringed instruments of China were designed to produce precise tones capable of matching the tones of chimes, stringed instruments of India were considerably more flexible.
This flexibility suited the slides and tremolos of Hindu music. Rhythm was of paramount importance in Indian music of the time, as evidenced by the frequent depiction of drums in reliefs dating to the Middle Ages. The emphasis on rhythm is an aspect native to Indian music. Historians divide the development of musical instruments in medieval India between pre-Islamic and Islamic periods due to the different influence each period provided.
In pre-Islamic times, idiophones such hand bells, cymbals, and peculiar instruments resembling gongs came into wide use in Hindu music. The gong-like instrument was a bronze disk that was struck with a hammer instead of a mallet. Tubular drums, stick zithers (veena), short fiddles, double and triple flutes, coiled trumpets, and curved India horns emerged in this time period.
Islamic influences brought new types of drums, perfectly circular or octagonal as opposed to the irregular pre-Islamic drums. Persian influence brought oboes and sitars, although Persian sitars had three strings and Indian version had from four to seven.
Musical instrument development was dominated by the Occident from 1400 on, indeed, the most profound changes occurred during the Renaissance period. Instruments took on other purposes than accompanying singing or dance, and performers used them as solo instruments. Keyboards and lutes developed as polyphonic instruments, and composers arranged increasingly complex pieces using more advanced tablature.
Composers also began designing pieces of music for specific instruments. In the latter half of the sixteenth century, orchestration came into common practice as a method of writing music for a variety of instruments. Composers now specified orchestration where individual performers once applied their own discretion. The polyphonic style dominated popular music, and the instrument makers responded accordingly.
The Duet, by Dutch painter Cornelis Saftleven, c. 1635
Beginning in about 1400, the rate of development of musical instruments increased in earnest as compositions demanded more dynamic sounds. People also began writing books about creating, playing, and cataloging musical instruments; the first such book was Sebastian Virdung’s 1511 treatise Musica getuscht und ausgezogen(‘Music Germanized and Abstracted’).
Virdung’s work is noted as being particularly thorough for including descriptions of “irregular” instruments such as hunters’ horns and cow bells, though Virdung is critical of the same. Other books followed, including Arnolt Schlick’s Spiegel der Orgelmacher und Organisten (‘Mirror of Organ Makers and Organ Players’) the following year, a treatise on organ building and organ playing.
Of the instructional books and references published in the Renaissance era, one is noted for its detailed description and depiction of all wind and stringed instruments, including their relative sizes. This book, the Syntagma musicum by Michael Praetorius, is now considered an authoritative reference of sixteenth-century musical instruments.
In the sixteenth century, musical instrument builders gave most instruments – such as the violin – the “classical shapes” they retain today. An emphasis on aesthetic beauty also developed; listeners were as pleased with the physical appearance of an instrument as they were with its sound.
Therefore, builders paid special attention to materials and workmanship, and instruments became collectibles in homes and museums. It was during this period that makers began constructing instruments of the same type in various sizes to meet the demand of consorts, or ensembles playing works written for these groups of instruments.
Instrument builders developed other features that endure today. For example, while organs with multiple keyboards and pedals already existed, the first organs with solo stops emerged in the early fifteenth century. These stops were meant to produce a mixture of timbres, a development needed for the complexity of music of the time.Trumpets evolved into their modern form to improve portability, and players used mutes to properly blend into chamber music.
Baroque mounted Jacob Stainerviolin from 1658
Beginning in the seventeenth century, composers began creating works of a more emotional style. They felt that a monophonic style better suited the emotional music and wrote musical parts for instruments that would complement the singing human voice. As a result, many instruments that were incapable of larger ranges and dynamics, and therefore were seen as unemotional, fell out of favor.
One such instrument was the shawm. Bowed instruments such as the violin, viola, baryton, and various lutes dominated popular music. Beginning in around 1750, however, the lute disappeared from musical compositions in favor of the rising popularity of the guitar. As the prevalence of string orchestras rose, wind instruments such as the flute, oboe, and bassoon were readmitted to counteract the monotony of hearing only strings.
Classical and Romantic
During the Classical and Romantic periods of music, lasting from roughly 1750 to 1900, a great deal of musical instruments capable of producing new timbres and higher volume were developed and introduced into popular music. The design changes that broadened the quality of timbres allowed instruments to produce a wider variety of expression.
Large orchestras rose in popularity and, in parallel, the composers determined to produce entire orchestral scores that made use of the expressive abilities of modern instruments. Since instruments were involved in collaborations of a much larger scale, their designs had to evolve to accommodate the demands of the orchestra.
Some instruments also had to become louder to fill larger halls and be heard over sizable orchestras. Flutes and bowed instruments underwent many modifications and design changes—most of them unsuccessful—in efforts to increase volume. Other instruments were changed just so they could play their parts in the scores.
Trumpets traditionally had a “defective” range—they were incapable of producing certain notes with precision. New instruments such as the clarinet, saxophone, and tuba became fixtures in orchestras. Instruments such as the clarinet also grew into entire “families” of instruments capable of different ranges: small clarinets, normal clarinets, bass clarinets, and so on.
Accompanying the changes to timbre and volume was a shift in the typical pitch used to tune instruments. Instruments meant to play together, as in an orchestra, must be tuned to the same standard lest they produce audibly different sounds while playing the same notes.
Beginning in 1762, the average concert pitch began rising from a low of 377 vibrations to a high of 457 in 1880 Vienna. Different regions, countries, and even instrument manufacturers preferred different standards, making orchestral collaboration a challenge. Despite even the efforts of two organized international summits attended by noted composers like Hector Berlioz, no standard could be agreed upon.