The Origins of Instruments in History

The origins of musical instruments can be traced to the beginnings of human culture. Musical instruments were born when humans shifted from producing sounds with body parts — by clapping, tapping of the feet, etc — to using objects to create musical sounds. In principle, any object that can produce sound qualifies as a musical instrument, especially, if they were designed for that purpose. Early musical instruments were likely used for ritual. For instance, the use of drum in religious ceremonies or sounding a trumpet to signal a successful hunt. Musical instruments evolved and melodies were eventually composed and performed for entertainment.

Primitive Instruments

Primitive musical instruments were likely designed to simulate natural sounds. Many of them were made from readily available materials such as bone, animal skins, wood, and other non-durable materials. The Divje Babe Flute (with four holes) discovered in Slovenia in July 1995, is said to be between 43,400 and 67,000 years old. This makes it the oldest known musical instrument and the only one with the Neanderthal links.

Although the origin and date of the first musical instrument are not known, there is a consensus on early flutes made from animal bones about 37,000 years ago. However, most historians believe that it is impossible to determine the specific time of musical instrument invention because of the relative instability of materials used to make them and the subjectivity of the definition.

Development of Instruments

Independent development of musical instruments occurred around the world. However, the activities of civilizations led to the spread and adaptation of musical instruments. Although development was slower in the Americas, cultures of South, Central, and North America shared musical instruments. By 1400, the development of musical instrument was dominated by the Occident.

The Renaissance period saw great advancements in musical instruments. Rather than just accompanying singing or dance, they were used as solo instruments. For instance, lutes and keyboards developed as polyphonic instruments. Compositions became increasingly complex, demanding more dynamic sounds. The classical shape of most musical instruments — such as the violin — was introduced in the sixteenth century because of increased emphasis on aesthetic beauty. And instruments became collectibles in homes and museums.

The preference for emotional works and the monophonic style resulted in bowed instruments such as the violin, baryton, viola, and various lutes dominating popular music in the baroque period. Other instruments that were not capable of larger ranges and dynamics like the shawm were abandoned. The lute gave way to the guitar around 1750. The prevalence of string orchestras necessitated the readmittance of wind instruments such as the flute, oboe, and bassoon to counteract the monotony of hearing only strings. Horn and trumpet were transformed and the organ underwent tonal changes.

The classical and romantic period brought musical instruments capable of producing new timbres and higher volume. The average concert pitch also rose from a low of 377 vibrations in 1762 to a high of 457 in 1880 Vienna. New instruments such as the conductor’s baton, the clarinet, saxophone, and tuba became fixtures in orchestras.

The sheer variety of 20th-century instruments overshadow any prior period. The modern proliferation electricity computers and microchips gave rise to electrophones such as the Hammond organs and electric guitars, radio electric instruments like the theremin, the evolution of synthesizers and electronic musical instruments.