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History of Musical Instruments
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History of Musical Instruments

by Curt Sachs

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This first comprehensive history of musical instruments, this book ranges from prehistoric times to the 20th century. It traverses five continents and every stage of evolution, from primitive rattles and bull-roarers to the electric organ. Author Curt Sachs, one of the world's most distinguished musicologists, combines rich scholarship with personal insight in a


This first comprehensive history of musical instruments, this book ranges from prehistoric times to the 20th century. It traverses five continents and every stage of evolution, from primitive rattles and bull-roarers to the electric organ. Author Curt Sachs, one of the world's most distinguished musicologists, combines rich scholarship with personal insight in a remarkable fusion of music, anthropology, and the fine arts.
Beginning with the earliest manifestations of rhythm, Sachs explores the association of sound with primitive rites of fertility, life, death, and rebirth. He traces the evolution of folk and ritual instruments to tools of entertainment and art, the rise of a professional class of singers and musicians, and the musical revolution that flowered during the Renaissance. Sachs chronicles the foundation of the modern orchestra during the baroque period and its subsequent development, concluding with the modern-day rise of electric and jazz instruments.
A pleasure to read as well as a valuable resource, this classic work is enhanced with 24 plates and 167 illustrations.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Books on Music Series
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5.40(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.10(d)

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The History of Musical Instruments

By Curt Sachs

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-17151-7


Early Instruments


MUSIC histories written before the nineteenth century usually start with an account of the mythological invention of the earliest instruments. Cain's descendant, Jubal, is said to be "the father of all such as handle the harp and the organ," Pan is credited with the invention of the pan-pipes, and Mercury is supposed to have devised the lyre when one day he found a dried-out tortoise on the banks of the Nile.

Myth has since been replaced by history, and the invention of musical instruments is no longer attributed to gods and heroes. But people still clamor to know which instruments were invented first, and they hope for the neat answers with which amateur writers so readily supply them—a drum was the earliest instrument, or a flute, or the plucked string of a hunter's bow.

Scholars, however, must disappoint them, because no early instrument was "invented," if we conceive of invention as the ultimate bringing into being of an idea long contemplated and experimented with. The supposition of such a process commits the current fallacy of superimposing modern reasoning upon early man. Actually he was quite unaware, as he stamped on the ground or slapped his body, that in his actions were the seeds of the earliest instruments.

The question of which instruments probably came into being first cannot be answered until a more basic problem is solved: what impulses in man resulted in the development of musical instruments?

All higher creatures express emotion by motion. But man alone, apparently, is able to regulate and co-ordinate his emotional movements; man alone is gifted with conscious rhythm. When he has reached this consciousness, and experienced the stimulation and comfort that rhythm gives, he cannot refrain from rhythmic movement, from dancing, stamping the ground, clapping his hands, slapping his abdomen, his chest, his legs, his buttocks. There are only a few very primitive peoples, such as the Vedda in the interior of Ceylon, or certain Patagonian tribes, that not only do not possess any musical instrument, but do not even clap their hands or stamp the ground.

Most emotional movements are audible. But primitives probably stamped the ground or struck their bodies long before they became aware of the accompanying sound as a separate phenomenon. It must have been a still longer process before they stamped or struck intentionally to obtain a sound and, through it, an augmented stimulus.

They produced various effects from these simple movements: muffled beats with the hollow hands, clear beats with the flat palms, stamping with the heels or the toes, hitting either bony or fleshy parts. All these shades contributed to making an actual preinstru-mental music.

Among the earliest instruments we find the strung rattle, used by modern primitives of a very low cultural standard as well as by paleolithic hunters, as we know from excavations of prehistoric strata. It was made to stress dancing—that is, a complex activity, in which the movements of the head, the arms and the trunk were not audible without an added device.

A RATTLE, in general, is an instrument made of several sounding pieces, the concussion of which results from a shaking motion of the player.

In the so-called strung rattle small hard objects, such as nutshells, seeds, teeth or hooves (fig. I), are strung in cords or tied in bunches (bunch rattles). Suspended from the ankles, knees, waist or neck of a dancer, they respond to his movements with a sharp noise; but their rhythm seldom is accurate, as they sound slightly after the dancer's movement.

Certainly, the exciting noise is not the only quality inherent in the strung rattle; the shells, nuts or teeth of which this rattle is composed, have magic power. Though we do not know whether the sound or the symbolism of the instrument had the priority, the strung rattle must be considered a sounding amulet. Later, the two qualities were separated from each other; old-fashioned bracelets and watch chains with horn-shaped teeth, crosses and other things supposed to bring good luck and to avert evil were a mute survival of chain amulets, while the rattling idea is perpetuated in the disenchanted ankle bells of dancers in modern India and Persia.

Among the numberless later rattles only one will be discussed: the gourd rattle. A calabash, held either by its natural neck or a wooden handle, is filled with pebbles or other small, hard objects; these make a rattling sound when the player shakes his gourd. Here the motor impulse is much more direct and conscious. Still, as the shock of the enclosed objects is complex, the sound cannot yet be exactly simultaneous with the motion. (fig. 2)

Gourd rattles are the essential implements of many shamanic rites; their sharp, exciting noise entrances both the shaman and the listeners. An impressive picture of such a rite was given, some sixty years ago, by Stephen Powers, who attended a secret meeting of the Maidu Indians in California:

There was a silence of some minutes in the impenetrable darkness, then the sacred rattle began a low, ominous quivering close to the ground, in which there was sufficient suggestion of a rattle-snake to make one feel chilly about the scalp.... At the same time the rattle rose up slowly, gaining a little in force, until finally it shot up all at once, and seemed to dart about the top of the room with amazing rapidity, giving forth terrific rattles and low, buzzing quavers, now and then bringing up against the post with a thud of the holder's fist.... When they have sung for about half or three-quarters of an hour without cessation the rattle grows fast and furious, the performer's fist goes tunk, tunk, tunk on the post with great violence ... the singers' voices sink into a long-drawn, dying wail.... The rattle drops to the ground and seems to hover close over it, darting in every direction, and only two of the performers are heard, groveling on the ground and muttering petitions and responses, until finally the rattle dies slowly out, the voices hush, and all is over.

Except in shamanic rituals, the gourd rattle is mostly shaken by women. In some tribes of eastern Africa many hundreds of women stand together and shake gourd rattles as if their life depended on it.

In countries without calabashes, the gourd rattle has been imitated in appropriate materials, such as osier, clay, metal, wood. Basketry and pottery, the products of feminine crafts, have most often been substituted for the natural rattle gourd. As a woman's instrument, the rattling vessel has entered the nursery and lives on as a toy given to babies. (fig. 3)

Rhythmic motor impulse is more accurately reflected if the instrument is a true extension of either the leg or the arm, thus intensifying its stamping or striking action without imperiling its precision; or if the leg and the arm act upon an improved device, as, for instance, the stamped pit.

STAMPERS. The stamped pit is a hole dug in the ground and covered with a rough lid of bark. When the English traveler, Henry B. Guppy, visited Treasury Island in the Solomon Archipelago, he saw as many as forty women and girls dancing round such a pit, while two women stamped on "a board which was fixed in the pit about halfway down, ... producing a dull hollow sound, to which the women of the circle timed their dancing."

In some civilizations the pit is replaced by an artificial device; women stamp on a curved board so that there is a resounding cavity beneath, or upon a pot turned upside down on the ground.

Another group of instruments developed when implements were substituted for the stamping feet, such as stamping sticks, stamping gourds and, most important, stamping tubes: hollow bamboos, or tubes of some suitable wood, closed at one end, were pounded against the ground, producing muffled sounds. (fig. 16)

Stamping tubes are generally played by women, and they are always connected with fertility rites. Priestesses in Borneo pray every morning and evening at the end of the harvest while two tubes are stamped on a mat in a traditional rhythm. In the Celebes, three, or sometimes five, girls walk home the evening of the harvest sacrifice, stamping seed-filled tubes on the ground and singing: "Stamp, oh friends, for we look down, look down at the imploring, the imploring young rice!"

In connection with the rice ceremonials of the western Malayan Islands and of Siam when the fresh rice is peeled, stamping reaches its highest musical effectiveness in the stamped mortar. A series of holes of different shapes are hollowed out of a wooden log lying on the ground, and rice, poured into them as into mortars, is stamped with pestles by a row of women. The sound differs according to the depth of the various holes, and the pounding produces a charming polyrhythmic and polytonic symphony that a native poet describes by the lovely onomatopoeia tingtung tutung-gulan gondang. This music is also played, even if there is no rice to be ground, when marriageable girls and widows gather on moonlight nights.

In a less complicated ritual, taro roots and dried almonds are pounded at wedding feasts in Melanesia. A wooden mortar is set into a hole in the village square, and two men sing the mournful song of the pounding while eight others dance around, grasping and stamping the two long pestles in turn, which are "eventually broken by being forced with a blow against the inside of the mortar."

In the eastern part of New Guinea there was an even simpler ritual of pounding. The aboriginal tribes had a trough of stone which was pounded with a pestle, and the pestle, the natives explained, was the penis of a spirit and the trough a vulva. This symbolism, familiar to primitive civilizations, is one of the main features of an important instrument, spread over this continent, the Pacific Islands, Africa and, in a degenerated form, also Asia—the slit-drum.

THE SLIT-DRUM, in its earliest form, is a tree trunk, hollowed out like a boat, placed over a pit in the ground and stamped upon.

Its prototype is still found in America. The Uitoto Indians in Colombia fell a large tree, hollow out a long groove in the side and paint the whole implement; at one end they decorate it with a woman's head and at the other end with an alligator as a water symbol. A pit is dug in the ground and covered with planks, some logs are placed at either end of them, and the hollowed tree is laid upon the logs so that it does not rest on the planks. While the women dance around the pit, the men stand in the groove of the tree trunk, stamping and teetering, and the elastic trunk strikes rhythmically against the planks. The natives say the significance of this ceremony is that the New Moon is vanquishing the Old Moon. (pl. I a, fig. 4)

The actual slit-drum is a tree trunk as well, but with a cavity hollowed in it from a narrow longitudinal slit. The earliest specimens known are some twenty feet long and six or seven feet wide, and are stamped upon by a row of men. Later types were rammed with a stick instead of being stamped upon, and in still more developed slit-drums the edges of the slit were drummed upon with two shorter sticks. (pl. I b)

Nearly always, instruments which originate in a gigantic size grow smaller and smaller as they develop, until finally they become small enough to be portable. This last, and often degenerate, stage of development is reached in the case of the slit-drum by the light bamboo instrument carried and struck by Malayan watchmen. (fig. 5)

Many travelers, and even some anthropologists, call the slit-drum a "gong." This is an intolerable abuse; the word "gong" cannot designate anything but the bronze disk with turned-down rim which is made in India and the Far East. The name "tom-tom" is also incorrect.

Most instruments determined by motor impulse depend on the striking hands. The first step was replacing the natural struck surface—that is, the body or the ground—by an artificial one, and only the second, replacing the striking hands by some artificial device.

A rare contrivance, related to the stamped pit, is the sand drum, as anthropologists call it. Some have been found among New Guinea pygmies and in the Ethiopian province, Wollo. The pit is in the form of a small tunnel with two uncovered openings, and the sand bridge between them is beaten by the hand.

DRUM in correct terminology, however, means an instrument in which the sound is produced by a membrane stretched over the opening of either a frame or a hollow body of any shape. It was struck upon with the bare hands, until in later times the hands were replaced by sticks. This important change roughly coincides with the change from the skins of water animals, such as snakes, lizards and fish, to the skins of hunted game and big cattle.

Instead of acquainting the reader with the innumerable species and varieties of drums, this chapter may point at the fundamental difference between cut wooden drums and modeled clay drums. Cutting and hollowing wood by tools or by fire is more primitive than pottery, so wooden drums must be the earlier kind.

Tubular drums, in their most archaic species, betray their descent from sections of tree trunks. In some places, Nias and Loango for instance, such drums reach a length of ten feet. They definitely have preserved the upright tendency of the tree, though they are usually too large to stand upright on the ground; they are suspended from the roof or slanted so that they can be played; they have one skin only, and the opposite end is carved to form a foot.

A great many smaller drums are derived from this early footed drum. In some the original upright tendency is given reality; they can be played in vertical position because their smaller size allows the player to reach the skin without inclining the drum. If the ground was sandy, the upright drum had to be sunk in the ground to keep it steady, and this was easier when the base was cut to form three or four large teeth. Drums with teeth can be found in a primitive form on the New Hebrides and all over Africa, and also, more carefully carved, in ancient Mexico. Where the drummer had a hard, even floor, the teeth were replaced by a carved open work (Polynesian type) or a goblet shape with a flat foot, a stem and a cup (Babylonian and East African type), and even a pair of legs in human form on a plinth, both in the eastern Malay Archipelago and in Africa among the Bakundu. (fig. 6, pl. II b)

A second type is due to the tendency to make drums portable. Some drums in Loango, on the Amazon, and in ancient Michoacan, could be ridden by the players like hobby horses, so that the skin, between the thighs, was in a convenient position for the striking hands. Some of the definitely portable drums have cup handles to be carried with the hands (cup-handle drums), as the New Guinean drum. Such a handle is generally carved in a central waist, and the two ends of the drum are symmetrical to maintain the equilibrium. In other portable drums the goblet form is preserved, which proved to be an excellent shape for a drum held under the arm, the slender stem being easily squeezed between the arm and the chest and the foot preventing the drum from dropping. (figs. 7, 8)

In this stage the forms of pottery drums become confused with wood forms. A small goblet is an earthenware, rather than a wood, form, and all civilizations familiar with pottery, especially with pottery on a wheel, will prefer this easier technique to the laborious shaping with a carver's chisel. The angular profile to which the woodworker hews the drum is then replaced by a softly rounded outline.

There is some connection between drum making and the manufacture of earthenware crocks for keeping food; the evolution from a hard fruit shell to a clay jar through all stages of pottery was similar in both cases. An excellent example of the similarity between drums and household pots is the East African kettledrum. The sides of the upper half of the drum are vertical, but they slant inwards to a small flat base at the ground. This cylindroconical drum corresponds exactly to a certain type of jar excavated from late-neolithic strata in Central and East Europe. The African drum is made of wood, not of clay, but that is immaterial; the history of crafts indicates a continual exchange of form and material. (figs. 9, 10)

The same change from clay to wood occurs in the evolution of the double-headed drum, which came considerably later than the one-headed drum and became the ancestor of the modern drum. For straight, cylindrical drums, wood certainly was the original material; but bulging cylinders or barrels were first made of clay though most of them, probably for practical reasons, are made of wood today.


Excerpted from The History of Musical Instruments by Curt Sachs. Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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