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History of Technology of Music

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From Antiquity to C13th


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12,000BC: Use of the bull-roarer in Germany and Denmark. Not exactly a musical instrument, but an impressive sound. Perhaps the Ukrainians used mammoth skulls as drums, circa 12000BC. But earliest-used drums seem to be clay-made, from Germany and Czechoslovakia. (James/Thorpe) In which case, the use of the bull-roarer is not native to Australia or its Aboriginal people. (The bull-roarer is given wonderful prominence in an Australian setting in the movie by Australian Paul Hogan, Crocodile Dundee II).

Circa 7000BC: China: A flute dating to this time is found in the 1980s in Jiahu. Six flutes made from the hollow wing bones of cranes were found in Zheng-zhou province from about this time.

3360BC: A solid gold Sumerian harp survives in Iraq from 3360BC (and was thought to be under threat by looters due to the 2003 US-Iraq war).

3200BC: Stringed instruments (lyres?), are used at Ur in Sumer. Invention of the lyre is credited to the god Enlil. The lyre seems to have inspired the lute by 2300BC; and the lute long later gave rise to the guitar. In India via the Greeks, the lute became the sitar. An adapted lute became the violin. A 1487 opinion is that the Catalans had invented the guitar. (James/Thorpe) The Sumerians used a seven-noted scale like our own, allowing harmonies.

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Early trumpets

Some of the earliest instruments to be mentioned include the herdsman's horn and "the martial blast of the regal trumpet". Baines writes, "The ancient world used horns and trumpets but there is no evidence they used them for music of any sort." The early Danish settlers once made lurs of bronze, cast in the shape of a mammoth tusk, with "mouthpieces astonishingly like modern melodic brass instruments". In contrast, the Roman trumpets had wider and shallower mouthpieces (as did many oriental trumpets of Persia, Tibet and China), for the hook-belled lituus, and the large, hoop-like cornu. The tendency here was to blaring of one or two notes.

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The cornet seems to have begun as the German zink, or the French cornet, cornet a bouquin. Maybe designed in view of a goathorn? The cornet was given particular prominence 1500-1650. Curved cornets were carved from close-grained wood such as pear, with a conical bore; two halves being made, then glued together. A treble or ordinary cornet might be two feet long. There were also a descant (cornetini), plus alto, tenor and a rare bass cornet. The French cornet had six fingerholes and a thumbhole.

About 2200BC: Wooden Pipes: The Wicklow Pipes, c. 2200-2000BC. (taken from online). In 2003 a remarkable artefact was recovered during an archaeological excavation carried out by Bernice Molly at Greystones, County Wicklow, Ireland. It consists of six carefully worked wooden pipes, which represent the world’s oldest surviving wooden musical instrument. They were discovered in a waterlogged trough belonging to an Early Bronze Age burnt mound (c. 2120-2085BC). Fashioned out of yew wood, the pipes were found lying side-by-side, in descending order. They ranged in size from 57cm to 29cm long, although not all were complete. Internally they had been hollowed out, with the resultant internal diameters being approximately 2 cm across. However, there was no evidence for finger holes. Instead, the ends of some of the pipes had been worked to a stepped taper, suggesting that this end was originally contained within an organic fitting. This may indicate that the pipes formed part of a composite wind instrument, such as an organ fed by a bag, or else a complex pan-pipe like device.

2000BC: Approx: The lute is used in Mesopotamia. Once it arrived in Greece as "the ancient lute" it was called the pandoura (long-necked lute). It had two strings which were knotted about the neck pole without pegs, the neck being tied with gut frets to give clear stops. However, difficulties with producing reliable intervals between notes may have meant the lute was given minor roles in ensembles. The ancient lute is known to have been used in "an Egyptian orchestra". The pandoura remained popular in Persia across to the Balkans (where it was called tamboritsa.) Persians strung it with metal strings and played with a mandolin kind of liveliness. The balalaika and the Greek bouzuki are related to it. It also influenced the Indian sitar. The classical Arabo-Persian lute (al 'ud, or, "lute") was traditionally played with a plectrum made from an eagle's talon. In Rumania arose a popular, four-stringed version of the lute known as cobza, often accompanied by violin.

Second Millennium BC: Well-known in Egypt are trumpets, apparently, the ancestor of all later trumpets known.

1100BC: First written record concerning "the mouth-organ of the Far East", which in China is called sheng and in Japan, sho. Both became considered as classical instruments, used for court music. These mouth-organs have brass reeds, well-cut. The reeds are cemented over a slot near the base of a bamboo pipe, which is closed at that end. Higher up, the pipe is pierced with vent slots, two on the outside, two on the inside. Each pipe then provides a tuned air-column, to which its reed is acoustically coupled. The pipes rest in sockets in a lacquer wind-chest, which originally was a gourd, which has a mouthpiece at one side. Fingering holes needed to be covered for playing. The reed tongues are very flexible and vibrate to inhalation or exhalation. Cruder versions than the Chinese or Japanese versions of this instrument were used across Eastern Asia, from Assam in India to Laos, Indo-China and Borneo, using bamboo.

A noted instrument of the Renaissance is the lute.

Discussion of the flute needs to be preceded by mention of some archaic "wind instruments", eg., the bullroarer (used by Australian Aboriginals at funeral ceremonies, and a very solemn, arresting, awe-inspiring sound they produce!)

The whistle...

More to come

On flutes: The human adventure with pipe and flute music is quite amazing. The Book of Genesis says that Jubal is the father of all who play "the harp and the pipe". (Was Jubal equivalent to the Greek figure of Apollo?) The Hebrews had many terms for instruments. Kinnor was the word for "harp", or lyre. A psaltery was nevel, a harp. A timbrel was tof, a frame drum being an ancestor of the tambourine. A pipe was halil. Although, in Genesis and The Book of Job, a "pipe" is ugab, which means the archaic rim-blown flute of cane. The rim-blown flute of cane (blown across the open top end), never entered Western Europe. There have been found, various primitive "harmonic flutes", which enabled a basic melody to consist of the higher natural harmonics of a tube (as with a bugle call), and addition of a few fingerholes. Dr. Hans Hickmann once traced the use of the rim-blown cane flute from Upper Egypt from before the time of the historic dynasties. Later in Egypt a rim-blown flute with maybe three fingerholes was played ensemble-wise with harpists and singers. In Sumeria, the rim-blown cane was a shepherd's pipe, but also used in temple rituals. By the Third Millennium BC in urbanized areas, the rim-blown flute was left to country folk, and replaced in cities with by sets of reedpipes which culminated in the designs of the Greek aulos (two pipes), and the Roman tibia - which lasted to the early Middle Ages. These were short, slender pipes of wood or cane sounded by reeds. (The Greeks used double reeds of cane.) They were often played in pairs, one held in each hand of the piper. Double-piping is still seen about the Mediterranean, the Black Sea area and Sardinia.

Double-pipes utilising single reeds are of "an equally ancient parallel kind, easily spanned by fingers. Some diversified into hornpipes. By variation of the number of fingerholes, such pipes can produce drones, to harmonic and rhythmic counterpoints. Pipers using them, often shepherds, were found wherever the Greeks had colonized.

In Ancient Sicily, a herdsman might have used four pipes - a syrix or panpipe; an aulos; a transverse flute called a plagiaulos; and a donax, which was just a cane. About the Second Century BC, pipes were used by the Scythians, the Celts, probably the Britons. About the Second Century BC, panpipes, double-pipes and a hornpipe were associated with the Phrygian cult of Cybele. After the Dark Ages, pipes were widely used across Europe.

Hornpipes were reedpipes mounted with cowhorn bells, possibly of an original religious significance. They are still played from Spain east to Arabia and Eastern Russia, often having developed into bagpipes, often using a single primitive reed. Hornpipes (no relation to the dance of the same name), were played by Welsh and Scottish shepherds in the Eighteenth Century. Cowhorns remain a related matter for the early medieval period; a plain cowhorn might have holes bored for tune-playing, and they survived in Scandinavia and Spain.

About 1150AD occurred a change with flutes/pipes, termed "a Gothic wind music" which used a pipe and tabor for dancing (an ancient people, the Basques of southern France/Northern Spain, used a tabor); a shawm and trumpet for ceremony and "bagpipe for anything". At times, a piper beat his own drum, perhaps derived from the double-skinned tambourine of the Mediterranean (?); this piper played a flagelot, played with the left hand while the right hand beat the drum. The flagelot had three holes, two for fingers and one behind for the thumb. With harmonics, it gave a complete scale. In England the pipe and tabor became specially associated with the Morris Dance. The flagelot has been used in recent times in Provence and northern Spain.

The Shawm and the origin of "the band": By early Islamic times, the Caliphs had adopted the Roman tradition of using a ceremonial ensemble of trumpets (their own long Arabic versions) but added drums and cymbals, and also shawms, which provided extra melody. So by the end of the Crusades, the idea of the band was adopted in Europe, using pipes, trumpets, nakers, clarions, around the time of Chaucer in England. After Chaucer's time came the band with a wind section, for haut music for dancing. This provided polyphony, with the trumpet taking some lower parts (an inspiration for the later trombone). Shawms arose in different sizes, leading to the bass shawms (pommers) of Sixteenth Century and to about 1650. Here, "bands" were more civilian than military, and would include a trombone and cornett. The shawm was displaced by the oboe, to survive only in Spain. (The zurla popular in Macedonia was a shawm of an Asiatic pattern.)
The shawm, see Baines, p. 53 and p. 212.

Somewhat after 1AD began the use in Near-Eastern cities of the shawm and the bagpipe. In old Alexandria might have been seen a street musician playing a panpipe with a drone accompaniment, the drone pipe fed by a wind bag held under the left arm. Is this the origin of the bagpipe? Little more is known from the times of Antiquity, although in Rome in Nero's time, a bagpipe might have been called utricularius. It is possible the bagpipe was re-invented in the Middle Ages. The bagpipe had a chanter of melody pipe held in a sheep or goatskin bag. The bag also fed a drone, or bass drone, tuned two octaves below the chanter's keynote. (The Scottish added extra drones.)

The design of bagpipes in Europe became highly regionalized. Hornpipes were used from Poland to Bulgaria, with the chanters being narrow, cylindrically-bored using single reeds. Whereas with Western pipes, from Spain to Scotland, chanters were more conical, which gave a wilder, reedier sound. From about 1700, the bagpipes were refined in the British Isles, as with the Northumbrian small-pipe and the Irish union pipe (which have two octaves, and so able to be played with fiddle accompaniment). In Italy was a bagpipe called the zampogna, which had two separate chanters, one for each hand, and arranged for harmonizing in thirds, often used at Christmas. (Handel imitated it for his Messiah (the first eight bars of Pastoral Symphony); Bach similar with his Christmas Oratorio (using four oboes in the Sinfonia to Part Two).

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The use of pipes, tabor and bagpipe preceded the rise of regular ensemble-playing in the West. They were instruments for solo musicians who also used drum or drone. Probably by 1210AD, they were standard instruments for use at a court, although stringed instruments were used at courts by then.

231BC: Kucheng, a long-history traditional plucking instrument in China, was invented in around 231BC. Owing to its long history and prevalent use, the exquisite art of Kucheng playhing features not only variety and gracefulness, but can be fused with regional styles of folk music. Kucheng allows the playing of free-flowing rhythms, rather vividly, as for the depiction of changes in the seasons. the expression of spiritual states of mind. (From notes to a 1993 CD, "Purity - Kucheng", of Chinese music from Wind Records Co. Ltd./Music in China Publishing Co.

Second-CenturyAD: Approx: It is thought perhaps that China may have become acquainted with a short-necked lute as used by Central Asian nomads who played it on horseback. Sachs as he followed the distribution of instruments world-wide came to think that the lute family actually originated not in the Fertile Crescent, or, Mesopotamia, but north-east of there.

A noted instrument of antiquity is the cithara (Lute).

As used in prehistoric China and Egypt, the "globular" flute of earthenware survived to become the Italian carnival whistle, the ocarina (made in the form of a bird, often seen as a childrens' instrument).

Apollo in Ancient Greece

Greek Mythological Times - Apollo

More to come

1AD: The penny-whistle was known in Rome as fistula.

Second Century AD: Early versions of the dulcimer may have been called, the monochord, or the manicordion, from the previous Latin word monochordium, a scientific instruments for measuring what occurred when strings of various lengths were plucked, and other matters varied by finger placement or movement of a bridge. The Greek scientist Ptolemy takes this device and adds a series of fifteen strings (so representing the double diatonic curve). So the monochordium became a multichordium, but during the Middle Ages, people still called it a monochordium. (See files for 1404 of this website here)

And now follows a huge gap in timeframes...


Notation, of Music: Methods of writing-down music, first developed in Europe in C8th.

C12th: Origins of the rudimentary form of the organ keyboard. Much improved by C13th.

The prototype of all stringed instruments where strings are plucked is the dulcimer (and so, ancestor of the piano) - which has existed since antiquity. The dulcimer is still played by people from the Near to the Middle East and by most of the peoples of Europe. (The dulcimer in Hungary has grown in modern times to its most artistic version, called the crimbalom.) The dulcimer probably achieved its more modern design and set of concepts before the Fourteenth Century. Early versions of the dulcimer may have been called, the monochord, or the manicordion, from the previous Latin word monochordium, a scientific instrument for measuring what occurred when strings of various lengths were plucked, and other matters varied by finger placement or movement of a bridge. (See 1404 here)

1250AD: Approx: A Dominican priest, Jerome of Moravia, in a Latin treatise of 1250 writes of something like "a troubadour's fiddle", a viella, which had five strings, tuned to d (bourdon), G, g, d and d. A related instrument is the borduni, hence, bourdon-fiddling, as in later Bulgarian music and some Scottish dancing.

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The rise of fretted instruments


The Lute

Some fretted instruments have fallen into disuse until quite modern revivalisms took hold, others have become famous and appreciated. The classic ancestor of fretted instruments is the lute, celebrated by painters and poets. (In French, luth. In Italian, liuto. In German, laute. In Italian, a smaller lute was the mandore.)

The lute oddly enough also foreshadowed the appearance of the modern pianoforte as an instrument for home use as well as an instrument for virtuosos in concert. The lute has become famous also due to the immense amount of music written for it. Of the family of instruments stemming from the lute, the most famous is the guitar.

A forerunner in England of the guitar was the cittern. (In France, the cistre, from cithara, a much-earlier name for the lyre or zither). (In Germany, Sister, formerly zitter, hence zither.)

The lute came to Europe from Arab civilization to the end of the Thirteenth Century. (It is mentioned in the Roman del la Rose.) In Many European art works of the Fourteenth Century it is still regarded as an "Arab" instrument, having four strings struck with a quill or a plectrum. By about 1350, these had become four pairs or courses of strings. By the C15th arrives more detailed information on how it was tuned - as d, a, f, c, that is, with an interval of a third between two fourths instead of using the Arabic tuning in fourths throughout - with the addition of a trebel g. There was no standard tuning, the treble string was tuned as high as it would go, and the other strings tuned to it. The plectrum was also abandoned in the C15th, with finger-plucking preferred. By 1500 was added a sixth (bass) course of strings. Virdung in 1511 regarded a six-course strung lute as the most usual, and by 1511, the lute had achieved "a perfection of form and construction" never improved upon.

The lute, which was surprisingly light, had a bridge glued to a belly of pine, with strings tied to it. Gut frets were tied around the neck and fingerboard, their correct spacing being variable and one of the player's skills. Many lutes seen today are forgeries, dead and heavy in tone, and intended for collectors. A good lute, writes Baines, "trembles in the hand in response to sounds as light as the speaking voice". One of the most famous lute makers was at Bologna, where most of the makers happened to of German extraction. Laux Maler made lutes at Bologna 1518-1552, and other makers of good reputation were his son Sigismond Maler, Hans Frei and Nikola Sconvelt. Later famed lute-makers were, by 1600, Wendelin Tieffenbrucker and Michael Hartung of Padua, and Magno Dieffopruchar and others in Venice.

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The Guitar

On the guitar: An early form of the guitar was the gittern, as mentioned in literature, Roman de la Rose. The gittern's medieval body was four-cornered and was extended to form the neck. One example is dated circa 1330, once preserved at Warwick Castle and now in the British Museum. Played with a plectrum, the gittern had four pairs of gut strings tuned e, b, g, d. It remained popular in France and England into the C16th till it was supplanted by the bigger five-course guitar. In Spain, where the lute had little hold, serious musicians played the guitar-shaped vihuela. (Sometimes called de mano.) A smaller guitar was used for more popular occasions. The vihuela had six courses of strings tuned like the lute; g, d, a, f, c, G. A guitar was merely a vihuela minus two outer courses of strings. Sometime during the C16th, a fifth course of strings was added to the guitar, standardising it somewhat, while the pitch was raised to give e, b, g, d, A, which has been retained for the tuning of the five upper strings ever since. This new five-stringer became THE "Spanish Guitar" as it travelled to Italy, then to France and England, becoming popular as the lute declined. At the same time, virtuosi turned to the violin, and keyboard composers retained the ornamentation of lute compositions, the guitar "a plaything of the aristocratic amateur", or, the dilettante.
Stradivari made guitars; two examples of his version are still extant.

1750-1800 was a period a decline for the guitar in France and England. Other fretted instruments remained popular. The cittern was regarded as "the English guitar". An Italian version of the guitar was the chitarra battente, a wire-strung plectrum instrument with the belly and sides of a Spanish guitar but with a partly-rounded back. The Italians also developed a "mini-guitar", the mandoline, which derived from a small-sized lute, the mandora and was best-known in a Neapolitan version. The mandoline had four courses of wire strings tuned like violin strings, and played with a plectrum. There was however an earlier Milanese version which was gut-strung and finger-played.

1550 circa: Since about 1550, the guitar became the national instrument of Spain, and was gradually improved. A sixth course of bass strings was added, giving E. Single strings replaced double courses. (So one wonders, when did the 12-string guitar appear as something re-invented?) The Spanish guitar became louder by swelling the sides to produce the figure-eight shape so familiar today. Guitar playing became closely linked to other Spanish preoccupations - flamenco singing and dancing.

More to come

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Website from Peter Western: Maximilian Genealogy - New Main Index 2001


C12th: Origins of the rudimentary form of the organ keyboard. Much improved by C13th.

The prototype of all stringed instruments where strings are plucked is the dulcimer (which thus is ancestor of the piano) - which has existed since antiquity. The dulcimer is still played by people from the Near to the Middle East and by most of the peoples of Europe. (The dulcimer in Hungary has grown in modern times to its most artistic version, called the crimbalom.) The dulcimer probably achieved its more modern design and set of concepts before the Fourteenth Century. Early versions of the dulcimer may have been called, the monochord, or the manicordion, from the previous Latin word monochordium, a scientific instrument for measuring what occurred when strings of various lengths were plucked, and other matters varied by finger placement or movement of a bridge. (See the file of this website for 1404 here on this point.)

For this website's growing Glossary of Musical Terms and definitions, &c, and other items of interest, see: The HoTM Glossary

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