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hotm1.gif - 5612 BytesHistory of Technology of Music - everything here is designed to pique your curiosity about music, musical instruments and history. So delve, delight, explore and enjoy!

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History of Technology of Music

This file updated 14 October 2014

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MUSIC is one of the great joys of human life, and people have been using it since time immemorial. Hence HotM's treatments (still to come) on so-called primitive instruments...
Part of this section is owed to a reading of: Anthony Baines, (Ed.), Musical Instruments Through The Ages. London, Faber and Faber/Penguin, 1961. Also, Encyclopedia Britannica

ESPECIALLY, music is shareable. Music lifts the spirits of the group and transports people to psychological dimensions removed from misery, or closer to happiness. Musicians and singers engaged in joint activity need to be in close contact with each other - which has a socially binding effect while it engrosses an audience. Yet anyone from any culture can hear, see and appreciate a performance specific to any other culture. So the satisfactions of music spread. Music is a multicultural and an international language.

In the soul of the individual musician, when by themselves, extraordinary thoughts can occur about new possibilities in life, or new visions, which could have an outcome in new composition, in new or revised performance, in group life, in solidarity and in politics, even in religious thought.

Another fascinating aspect of musical life, associated, is technological life. People for thousands of years have spent time on dreaming up ways to improve instruments, to add to musical life, and therefore to social life. As if this were not enough, new styles and compositions of music can always arise, so easily, especially when a creative musician finds access to improved instruments - or an instrument that is entirely new to them. So the creativity of musical life - and so social life - can enlarge, expand, move on to new horizons and as ideas-and-emotions, move on to new sets of possibilities.

By the same tokens, the reproduction of old musics can provide reassurance of the past - the nostalgia trip. The power of all this should never be under-estimated. The music of Richard Wagner was greatly inspired by imagined-legendary visions of an old Nordic-Germanic-Aryan past - Valhalla and all that. Adolf Hitler was impressed. The rest is very negative history in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Music tastes can act as a holding pattern for both the present and the past, and also as a leader into the future - which makes music in the early Twenty First Century a potent and possibly volatile cultural force.

Music is an extraordinary power in social groups; it should never be underestimated for its claimed good or for its claimed ill. As debates about the moral worth of rock 'n' roll since the time of Elvis Presley have also revealed. As Bob Dylan famously wrote, "the times they are a'changing", and times have changed again a great deal since Dylan wrote that. Luckily, music itself endures... when music has died, people have died, whatever they used to be singing about.

For thousands of years, technology has been used for the invention and improvement of instruments. - the major topic of this website. Naturally, the chronology of the invention, improvement and use of ancient instruments is choppy. Music historians prefer to avoid giving any suggestion that the invention and improvement of instruments has been gradualistic or uniformly progressive. Rather, the history is choppy, spiked, full of ups-and-downs, with old instruments falling into obsolescence in one area if not in others, new instruments and styles being invented for maybe no apparent reason. Progress with music is one of the great-lesser-knowns of archaeology and anthropology.

The sheer changeability of music is just one of its fascinations, though the more things change, the more things stay the same. Whatever, people love music. This website has ambitions of becoming an encyclopedic resource on world music history - history of world music and the technology behind it - whatever. Whatever you can name, this website will be interested somehow or other - one day.

Music and the depths of time

CENTURIES ago, even simple instruments were made with great skill and devotion. One view is that "the effectiveness of a musical instrument can only be measured by the degree of satisfaction its sound gives to people who use it. Resonance, trueness of pitch, and other acoustic excellences may take second place to the retention of some particular quality of musical sound, and that quality may even seem to us [Western ears] to be unpleasant and unfortunate."

BUT the historical record on the invention and use of instruments is "fragmentary and inconclusive" in terms of the sequence of their invention. Curt Sachs as a theorist tried to cope with this by analyzing the pattern of the distribution of early instruments worldwide, trying also to account for human migrations, trading and cultural contacts. As well as "accidents". Sachs' conclusion was that distributions took place radiating from a few important centres. So he arranged discussion of the whole gamut of instruments in 23 successive strata.

Of these, five came from Paleolithic times, seven from the next metal ages, and four strata from the Middle Ages. Sachs' classifications are mostly regarded by specialists only. (Baines' book treats mostly percussion, wind and string instruments). Even so, some specialists feel that Sachs' reliance on a few centres of distribution of instruments may be misleading - there is no reason why similar inventions of instruments could not have occurred independently for different areas at different times, as happens with other artefacts of technology, and also ideas in religious, intellectual and scientific life. Sachs also tried to classify instruments according to "the action required to sound them", and so discussed beating, shaking, concussion, scraping, rubbing, plucking and blowing. (Taking this line further will alone help to create a very long and fascinating list of instruments to consider - Ed)

Meanwhile, if Andre Schaeffner is followed up, other factors arise for consideration: he proposed classifying instruments on the "physical properties of the material which gives the sound". This focuses attention on solid bodies, vibrating air, where bodies can be rigid, flexible or tensile.

There also arise more human questions. Rhythm is one thing, and is inherent in the bodily movements of humans and animals. Melody is perhaps more complicated, as it proposes patterns of notes, and variation, selection and memory of patterns of notes. Then comes a distinction between "light" and "dark" sounds when mixtures of instruments are used, and notions (or, perceptions?) of pitch, intervals between notes, and timbre. Variations in the tuning or even varying the manufacture of an instruments can create new interest here.

Further, the imposition of any non-musical criterion on an instrument can modify the music finally produced. Examples of this are the ancient custom in China of cutting a flute to the length of some sacred standard, or with flutes in some other countries, spacing the finger holes by fingers' span or breadths.

Yet another factor is the human amusement of trying to get an instrument to simulate speech - "to literally talk" - and this can further stretch notions of pitch, interval and timbre. Baines finally mentions how percussion and melody can be combined in different ways - Here is the question of the tuned metal tongue - as with the xylophone, the lithophone and the sansa - also the piano. Also arising here are the questions of percussion and dance - and so, back to rhythm

Dancing

WITH dancing, certain bodily movements become prominent - stamping the ground, hand-clapping, slapping of body parts. Baines notes, "Reliefs show ancient Assyrians beating their throats as if to obtain some sound effect", and still in many parts of Africa, the mouth can be tapped to modify the sound of ululation - both actions are instrumental, not a matter of speech or singing. Further, a dancer can fix some kind of rattling device to some part of their body - dry seed shells, strings of bones and teeth, snail shells or twigs. It matters little if the rattle is taken in hand and deliberately shaken - the use of the rattle has much the same effect due to association with rhythm. Rhythm is inextricable from life - just ride a horse or an elephant in order to find out!

Rattles

One wonders how far it is useful to delve into antiquity concerning music? Baines suggests that rattles serve to introduce a connection between music and magic. Some North American Indians (certainly in C19th USA territory and earlier) had shamans who used rattles. Shamanism is an ancient form of religious sensibility, possibly more common in the Northern Hemisphere than the Southern. A gourd rattle in tropical South America was called the marca, to be "identified with the head of a supernatural being in whose service it is used".

Various forms exist for rattles, but many use seeds or stones enclosed in a sonorous gourd, a tube or a basket. A rattle can also consist of items of bone or wood strung on a cord such as a necklace. A rattle of advanced design is the sistrum of Brazil, which has rattling objects suspended in a Y-frame which can be shaken like a baby's rattle. (Just why rattles take babies' fancy is another interesting question.) The sistrum has been used in Ancient Egypt, Rome, Ethiopia, Mesopotamia, the Caucasus, West Africa, Malaya and by two American tribes.

Rattles make a variety of imagination-affecting sounds - percussive strikings, slow or sinuous-sounding hissings - as scrapers can.

Scrapers

A basic scraper merely has a corrugated surface to be rasped with a stick. Bones are useful, since their corrugations can be carved and will be permanent. (Perhaps, scrapers from animals hunted in ancient times were rasped ritually as a magical aid to the success of a new hunt?) Scrapers have been used on all continents. In modern times, the folk music of Venezuela has used a scraper (guiro or charrasca) as made from a bull's horn. A similar instrument has been used in Cuban rhumba bands, also called a guiro.

A rather more advanced form of "automatic scraper" is the cog rattle, where the corrugations are provided circularly by a wooden cog-wheel fixed to a handle and set in a frame - where the scraping stick is provided by the wooden blade of a ratchet, and the scraping motion is provided by whirling the frame around the handle. Ratchet-rattles were used in the Middle Ages in the week before Easter. Such instruments provide a hint of dire warning or premonition - they were used as gas warners during World War One.

Percussion

Improvised percussion

Have you ever been a little nervous, agitated or in a state of anticipation, and tapped your fingers on a table top? That's improvised percussion. People improvise with percussion in many ways. Metal-made pellet bells or "jingle bells" are known on five continents. A shoe-polish tin - or any small container - can be filled with small stones to make a rattle. Some items of clothing can be used as drum skins. The mouth of a water pot might produce a sound if beaten. Australian Aboriginals beat boomerangs together, or simply two sticks (click sticks). Tribesmen elsewhere might clank their bows against spears. Children drum on a log of wood, exploring sound. At a dance, metal pendants on a woman's girdle or belt can sound a musical accompaniment, possibly quite rhythmic.

Music and singing? Music and early forms of religion? Music and celebration? Music and communal grieving?

Ground instruments for percussion

FOR groups, music often means a sense of occasion - something special happening, something ritualised. The most basic instrument is the earth itself, used so perhaps, long ago, for magical reasons, perhaps depending if the ground is old to particular people, new, perhaps "consecrated" or not, that is, regularly used for semi-religious purposes. Percussion beams have been found over all continents except Europe. A friction bard can be seen as a kind of scraper. Stamping pits have been seen in the Solomon Islands. In Africa and South America a xylophone can be placed over a pit to be played - so to be amplified? There has been in Indonesia, Malagasy, and on the Nile-Congo watersheds, in Uganda, an instrument termed a ground zither, or ground bow, which was presumably inspired by the thrum of a hunting bow? A resonance chamber is made in the ground, surmounted by a stone slab. A central post is placed on the slab and a string or two can be strung across the top of the post. So the ground itself can become an instrument.

Rocks are part of the earth and rock slabs have been used as drums. "Rock gongs", as they've been called have been found in Africa, mostly north of the equator, in Europe and Asia. These tend to be rocks in situ, part of a natural formation - which presumably is periodically visited. In brief, the slab is found to ring naturally. If one, then several. Examples have been found of "tuned" sets of rock slabs, as in 1949, an example found in Indo-China. The slabs need not be large, they can be sounded on the laps of seated players. The surfaces of such stones might even show typical flaking techniques used by Stone Age Man, though archaeologists can rarely find an age-date for such "instruments". Sets of tuned rock slabs have been found in North Vietnam (Annam), China, Korea and Samoa. F. Kuttner has described such a Chinese set as obeying "a Pythagorean system", but seen 400-500 years before the Pythagorean school of music arose in Greece.

Sachs has noted that such Neolithic stones and stone chimes fostered the bells and bell-chimes of the Bronze Age. Interestingly, musical scales can be realized on bell chimes, and were first worked out in China. In days before metal-working, bells could be made from seed shells, carapaces of tortoises, animal horns or carved wood. Bell clappers can be made of sticks or animal ribs. Bells originally were not for musical entertainment, they were for purposes magico-religious - hence, church bells. To protect a user from harm, or to signify special social function. (As Baines says, such were used with the sacred bull calves of the ruler of East African kingdom of Bunyoro.) But bells could also be utilitarian, as worn by a hunting animal, or, as worn by a domestic animal, for warning purposes and for stock protection.

One beautiful child of the tuned-percussion family is the xylophone, invented in Africa. (One of its children is the marimba of Central America, translated to America via the trans-Atlantic slave trade.) Sister to the African xylophone is the Indonesian gambang kayu, seen as "metallophones" of two types, named saron (dated to about 900AD) and gender (dated about 1157AD). The African and Indonesian versions of the xylophone have similarities, such as some structural details, tuning, and the form of music to be played on them - but are the similarities due to any common link or any variety of human contact?

The role of independent invention around the world?

Unfortunately, the origins of the xylophone are obscure. An ancient two-slab form used for signalling purposes has been found in far-flung places such as Columbia in South America, New Britain of Melanesia and Liberia, Africa. Schaeffer has explored the idea that the xylophone began with primitive "pounding tubes", which originally were hollow pipes of bamboo or gourd, with ends tapped against the ground or thigh to give a muffled sound. Later, the tubes, now of different lengths, are pounded on a tree trunk laid on the ground. A sophistication of "earth music"? (This website finds this explanation somewhat unconvincing - Ed)

Also of African origin is the sansa, as from Uganda, which can provide enjoyable melody. A set of long, thin iron tongues of varying length is clamped to a soundboard so that each can vibrate freely and separately. Playing is accomplished by depressing a free end of a tongue and then releasing it. Slivers of cane or bamboo can be used for a similar purpose. If the securing of the tongue can be variable, the playing length of a tongue can be tuned and retuned. Being variable in tuning, the sansa is a considerable advance on other percussive instruments.
Drums can provide proper notes. As the editor found personally in the late 1960s, a guitar can be tuned from a properly-tuned, ordinary rock group-type drum kit. The Indian tabla provides a limited set of proper notes which can be used for tuning purposes - Ed

The slit drum

An intervening instrument - the slit drum, not your usual drum

SLIT drums had more a magico-religious-communication function than a musical one. Slit drums have been found in America, Oceania and Africa, and seem also to be items of independent human invention. Slit drums simulate codes of speech for signalling purposes, and have been called "talking drums" (as in all those frightening movies made before 1960 about events in Africa, "the natives are restless"). Originally their messages probably had magico-religious significance or power-play significance as message from rulers. They may have represented the power of a chief, the spirit of the moon, or been used to personify the presence of a tribe. Baines writes, a slit drum was made by hollowing out a tree trunk through a narrow slit, with edges of the slit deliberately varied in thickness so that when the drum was beaten, varying pitches of sound were produced which could simulate a speech pattern.

DRUMS

Drums probably began as instruments improvised by stretching skins across the mouth or legs of a pot. What is necessary is a resonator, and a way to fix or stabilise a stretched-but-flexible skin so that it will sound permanently. Drums also has magico-religious uses, and their manufacture might have been accompanied by ritual, ritual-sacrifice, and other non-musical sets of meanings. Sachs - the music categoriser noted above - identified drums as stemming from the Neolithic period. He put cup-shaped or goblet drums at his "lowest" level - lowest Metal Age. Of these, the darabuka, a cup-shaped drum made of painted clay, found mostly in North Africa and Anatolia (Turkey), is still popular in Egypt today.

Sachs divided some drums into categories as follows:
(a) single-skin drums (cylindrical or tube drums, the gourd drum, as from the Neolithic period, and from west and east coasts of Africa, Malaya, South Seas and South America. A single-skinned drum of hour-glass shape with maybe a handle at its waist has been found in East and West Africa, Siam, Melanesia, Micronesia);
(b) double-skin drums; (c) frame drums (eg, today's tambourine); and (d) friction drums.

The kettledrum as still used in modern orchestras was of two basic kinds. A medium-size or shallow drum (nakers) as imported into Europe during the Crusades, known as "a Saracen instrument". And a larger instrument carried by horses, mules or camels which came to the West as late as C15th. (Nakers, from the Arabic, naqqara.) The earliest, smallest kettledrum seems to be dated at 600AD in a Persian relief. The larger versions seem to appear first in a Mesopotamian miniature version dated from the C12thAD. The kettledrum, mostly played in pairs mounted on camel or horse, became a distinctively Islamic cultural artefact, but use of it spread, and they seem also to have been used in Equatorial Africa, associated with the use of royal trumpets. Larger kettledrums reached the West from the Ottoman Empire during the C15th, and inspired European cavalry kettledrums, then the orchestral models we know today. Henry VIII became interested in cavalry kettledrums, which were used with trumpets. Large kettledrums were tuned to a fifth.
The military snare drum: A side drum, this drum descended from the medieval double-skinned drum (tabor or tabret), and is given a snappy sound by snares, which are gut or wire strings stretched across the lower skin, or snare head, so that they vibrate when the upper skin (the batter head) is hit with the familiar round-tipped sticks.

The double-skinned hourglass drum has been found as far afield as Africa (from Sierra Leone to Cameroon, and north of the Zambesi. But it has been found in ancient Mesopotamia, Persia, Turkestan and from Ceylon to Java to Japan.

Frame drums come in various forms, such as huge drums as used in ancient Sumeria, the "shaman drums" of Siberian tribes, Eskimos/Inuit and North American Indians, and the European tambourine. Baines writes, "Africa accepted the frame drum with Islam as indispensable for the recitation of the Koran in very recent times", but the Zulu of South Africa also used their own form. Frame drums might also be double-skinned and used like rattles, with stones or seeds enclosed between two skins - "rattle drums".

More to come on the modern timpani of orchestras. On side and bass drums, cymbals, gongs, triangle, tambourine, castanets, and tuned-percussion instruments glockenspiel, tubular bells, xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, rumba/samba instruments.

More to come

Stringed instruments are thought to have originated from the principles of the hunting bow. In human life, the bow was "the first method of concentrating energy". The bow began to be used between 30,000-15,000BC. In south-west France, in the cave Les Trois Freres, dated at about 15,000BC, appears a use of a bow not for hunting, but for some religious purpose, as an instrument sounded during a religious ceremony. Baines writes, "A man disguised under a bison skin holds a bow to his face, apparently playing it in the manner of a musical bow." One Henry Balfour once wrote a book entitled The Natural History of the Musical Bow, and concluded that the archer's bow derived from the musico-religious bow. But his view was contradicted when a Swiss anthropologist, Montandon, wrote that the musical bow derived from the hunting bow. In 1929, Sachs tried to dispose of both views by suggesting independent origins for both items, adding that the musical bow derived from the ground zither. (Discussed in another section here on drums.) The argument becomes technical.

The ground bow (as once used in Uganda) is played over a pit used as a resonator. A wand (thin piece of wood) is stuck in the ground near it with a string tied to its free end. The other end of the string is weighted with wooden material which is placed as a semi-lid over the pit. Stones might be added for extra weight. The tension of the string can be varied with thumb and forefinger at the wand's end, the string can be plucked by the other hand, and so a musical range can be found which can support a melody. Pygmies of the Congo used such an instrument. And in some ways, such a primitive stringed instrument using the earth as a resonator encourages use of percussion, melody and rhythm. Yet the "mouth bow" becomes something different. The mouth bow resembles a hunting bow, can give several notes, and the resonating cavity is the player's mouth. Harmonics can be varied by mouthing of words, while the string is moved by a twig or a plectrum.

Zithers as stringed instruments

Zithers enabled greater use of melody. An idiochord zither was used in ancient Malagasy, Cambodia, Malacca (Indonesia), in the Carpathian Mountains and in Serbia. They were perhaps played with sticks or beaters, and strings (made of vegetable material, fibre or sinew?) could be sounded across two bridges. Other developments of the zither-design included: tube zither, board and trough zithers. In one design, a single string is multilaced across a frame, and if it can be given uniform tension, will give different sounds. Much depends on the tensile qualities of the string. Much also depended on the invention of frets, which enabled notes to be modified. This idea is seen with the "flat-bar zithers" of Africa and the Far East, which have projections marking finger-positions for string stopping. Extra bridges might also be used to vary string layouts. Such multi-stringed zithers are seen with the cases of the harp zithers of the Dyak of Borneo, of South India, West Africa and with the harp-lute of West Africa, where the bridge is a stick with a notch for each string, wedged upright against the bow or the sound-box. This notching of a bridge, organising or reorganising string placement, is an essential mark of both the harp-zither and the harp.

The psaltery

The psaltery was "a zitherized harp".

Harps

Zithers tended to the horizontal. Baines writes, "In contrast to zithers, harps are instruments with a neck and with the strings arranged in a plane perpendicular to the soundboard." A possible earliest date for a harp (an arched or bow-harp) is from a representation on a vase fragment from Sumeria dated about 3000BC. Arched harps (which also utilised a stretched skin) were used in ancient Egypt, possibly with a design originating from the tribal harps of East Africa. Some such instruments might be rather small, maybe using a tortoise shell as a sound-bowl. Their use perhaps travelled no further south than Lake Victoria of Africa. But a primitive harp of four-five strings has been used to the present day, the "Kafir" harp of Afghanistan, in "the mountains of the Hindu Kush". Afghanistan was part of the ancient culture of Ganhara, and some Gandharan sculpture about 1700BC depict such an instrument. Ugandans have also used an arched harp.

Primitive harps tended to be deep in pitch, though the idea of "true sound" varied from region to region. Such differences in taste in some areas might have helped the development of the lyre. But it is uncertain just how old the harp is in human use.

The modern harp

More to come

Lyres

A bowl-lyre with a bridge was used in Uganda. Baines writes, "Lyres are instruments in which the strings run from a yoke supported by two arms to a tailpiece." Early versions presumably appeared in ancient Mesopotamia. The strings are intended to vibrate without touching the sound-table, and if a bridge was used, it was probably supported by feet. Tuning pegs were not used, although the Ancient Greeks used a tuning bulge (cloth wrapped around the yoke for a given string). This sort of bulge-tuned lyre was in use in Ethiopia and the northern shores of Lake Victoria, and not surprisingly, tuning schemes tended to the irregular. (Examples are the endongo of Ganda and Soga and the baganna of Ethiopia.) One Ancient Greek example was named the cithara. The lyre was used in Africa in the upper-Nile region, to the north and east of Lake Victoria, and on the Nile-Congo watershed.

Lutes

Lutes are instruments with strings carried on a handle firmly attached to a body, with the strings parallel with the sound-table of the body. Lutes developed into two types, plucked or bowed lutes (or, fiddles). They seem to be definitely not prehistoric in origin, and belong to "the metal age". Sachs thought lutes originated in the Caucasus area. They were used in Assyria, later exported to Egypt, and from there travelled to North Africa.

The earliest version is the bow lute, as once seen in Angola. A sound-box is made, and from its bottom protrude fixed sticks which are strung, the strings proceeding to a bridge at the further end of the sound-box. When played, it was held like a harp. The fixed sticks could be given different lengths and curvatures to modify string tensions, and so refine tuning possibilities. Such lutes were played till recently in the Northern Sahara, Senengambia and south of Cameroon. But in general, the developmental differences between the plucked and bowed lutes still seem blurry. Knowledge of what became the fiddle does not appear before C9thAD, when the instrument began to be noted in the West.

NB: A theorbo is a member of the lute family, except that it plays deeper notes. It can be five feet long, and has longer strings than usual, and single string, with no courses of string.

The violin

More to come

The viola

More to come

The violincello

More to come

The double bass

More to come

The guitar

More to come

Guitar variations

More to come, eg, Hawaiian guitar -

The mandolin

More to come

The balalaika

More to come

Wind instruments

Aeolian harps

Or, wind harps... The name comes from the Greek...

Follows an astonishing story on an "aeolian harp" imagined by Salvador Dali...

Late 1970s: Dali dream comes true in Spain: Famed surrealist painter Salvador Dali (d. 1989) at the end of the 1970s dreamt up a surrealist organ, a giant organ which would be played by the wind. This would be heard by the people of the Ampurdan region, as played by the fierce tramontane wind from their north. Locals say this wind can drive people mad. Design problems set in due to the wind's irregularity, however. Engineers set to work to try to develop "a wind accumulator". The wind would blow into the organ via a huge funnel, then channelled past a pressure regulator to be blasted out of the organ 500 pipes. Feasibility studies have been carried out by engineers at Ramon Llull University at Barcelona, and two prototypes produced. Three local entrepreneurs have funded the venture. German organist Wolfgang Seifen is now working on special compositions for the organ, and an inaugural concert was set for 6 September, 2004. The surreal organ will possibly be housed in the ruined 10th-century castle of Quermanco in Vilajuiga, a village near Dali's birthplace of Figueras, which castle Dali had once tried to buy. Dali also wanted to see a domesticated rhinoceros guarding the hilltop housing the organ. (Domesticated? - Ed) (Reported in Australia 4 July 2003:

More to come

Wind instruments

Wind instruments fall into three groups - flutes, trumpets and reeds

Flutes

More to come

Pipes

More to come

Trumpets

More to come

Reed instruments

More to come

Free-reed instruments

More to come

Keyboard instruments

The "monochordium"

More to come

The clavichord

More to come

The harpsichord

More to come

The spinet

More to come

The Virginal

More to come

The organ

The portative organ

More to come

The modern electric organ

More to come

The piano

More to come

Instruments of the Twentieth Century

For a treatment on invention of the electric guitar - see the page - www.danbyrnes.com.au/hotm/techmus2.htm/

Instruments of the ultra-electronic age

More to come



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