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New Worlds: Strings and Winds

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If singing and drumming are simultaneously honored and deeply suspect, the kinds of instruments we’re looking at this week often waltz across the line into elegant respectability. (But not always.)

Our two remaining big categories are strings and winds. The former, as you might guess, involve making noise by manipulating strings under tension; the latter involve blowing air through the instrument — usually via your own lung power, but not necessarily (say hello to bagpipes, accordions, and pipe organs).

Winds first, because they’re older. The simplest forms of these are flutes, which are old enough that they probably predate crafted drums, though not us smacking any ol’ thing that can make a pleasing noise. Whistles — which as near as I can tell are a very poorly defined sub-category of flutes — have in fact served many of the same signaling functions as drums, e.g. for starting and stopping action or keeping rowers in time. Flutes can be subdivided into transverse and end-blown, based on whether you hold it sideways or straight in front of your face; of the latter, some are fipple flutes, meaning that instead of blowing across an opening to make noise, you direct your breath into a mouthpiece with a narrow duct inside.

Mouthpieces lead us toward the other categories of winds. Reed instruments, whether single or double, use lamellae — traditionally cut from reeds — to create sound via vibration. These are grouped with flutes as “woodwinds,” a perennially confusing term for non-musicians, since both concert flutes and saxophones (a reed instrument) are generally made of metal. Meanwhile, even though saxophones are usually brass, they are not brass instruments, a category referring to pieces that rely on the vibration of the player’s lips for their sound production — hence their more technical name of labrophones. Other instruments belonging in that category, without being made of brass, include digeridoos, vuvuzelas, and the hollow animal horns that (along with conch shells) probably gave us the idea of labrophones in the first place.

Turning now to strings, we once again have a variety of variables to play with. Are the strings generally struck/hammered, plucked, strummed, or scraped with some kind of bow? If hammered or plucked, is this done directly, or does the musician play via a keyboard, with a mechanism inside transmitting that to the strings? If the instrument is played directly, are there frets — thin strips of material running perpendicular to the strings — to guide the musician toward predetermined notes, or does the string offer completely a free run for them to choose from?

Don’t worry, the technical dive is almost over. The final category I want to mention stands out because it’s the one truly new innovation in music in the last several thousand years: electrophones, i.e. instruments that produce sound by means of electricity. For obvious reasons, the history of such devices overlaps heavily with the development of sound recording and reproduction, starting in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but it was about eighty or ninety years later that they truly began to make their mark in popular music. And we should give a special shout-out here to the theremin, famous for being an instrument you play without touching it: just moving your hands within its electrical field allows you to control the pitch and volume. Unsurprisingly, its high-tech nature has given it a strong association with science-fiction media.

All these instruments share in common the ability to create pitches, i.e. defined notes. Some of them can create more than one pitch at a time! Because of this, strings, winds, and (more recently) electronic instruments very much lend themselves to use in polyphonic ensembles. In contrast with monophonic choirs where everyone is singing the same note, polyphony makes use of contrasting notes played simultaneously. (Music theorists, please keep your hats on; I know I’m simplifying enormously.) Combine that with the differing timbres or tonal qualities of these various instruments, and you can build marvelously complex aural edifices, playing with every tool in the musicological box.

These groups can come in any size, from two to “what’s in the Guinness Book of World Records?” But there are usually standard configurations, whether that’s a string trio, a jazz quartet, a brass quintet, or the fifty-five instruments and singers of a Javanese gamelan ageng ensemble. As a rule, the bigger the group, the more likely it is that their performances are an elite pastime, simply because of scale — and as with other elite pastimes, a great many traditions may spring up around how such music is to be performed and received.

You don’t need an ensemble, though, to get elite factors into play. Certain kinds of strings and flutes have a strong association with culture and the cultivation of personal accomplishment, such that you’re not a properly refined young man or woman until you know how to sing or play at least one instrument. But note the limited subset here; desirable instruments are ones that can be played in a small room at a civilized volume. Flute, zither, or piano: good. Trumpet, kettledrums, or (god forbid) bagpipes: bad. The more frequently your instrument has appeared on a battlefield for the purpose of signaling troops, the less welcome it is in the parlor.

Does this serve any practical purpose? Insofar as you can view it as a tactic for attracting a good mate, certainly. And it’s a way of maintaining hierarchy, separating those who can afford music tutors and the leisure to practice their art from those who cannot. Ideologically, many cultures have more generally assigned virtue to the act of studying music, claiming beneficial effects for the mind and soul. Modern research backs this up: practicing an instrument, especially in childhood, can improve everything from motor coordination to spatial intelligence to language development.

All too often, though, we still treat music as a luxury for elites. When schools struggle for funding, music is often one of the first items on the chopping block. We assume it’s the garnish on the educational dish, pretty to look at (or rather, listen to), but ultimately not very important. The truth might be quite the reverse. The art of singing or or playing beautifully is indeed a core part of making ourselves into fully rounded humans.

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