Whether it's a clarinet or an accordion, a piano or a trombone, musical instruments are beautiful pieces of engineering, which are lovely to look at but even better to listen to when played by someone who has practiced, practiced, practiced.

Instruments can be divided into general categories such as woodwinds, horns, strings, and percussion, although there is often a lot of crossover. For example, a piano is a percussion instrument with strings, while a saxophone is actually classified as a woodwind even though it is usually part of a band’s horn section.

Flutes are considered the oldest musical instruments, whose hollow-bone forebears have been dated to 40,000 years old. Duct flutes such as recorders feature a mouthpiece on one end, while transverse or side-blown flutes are held horizontally, with air blown by the performer across what’s known as the instrument’s embouchure hole.

Drums may be just as old. Hand drums, which are called membranophones by technical types, feature a solid, cylindrical frame made of wood, earthenware, or dried gourd, plus a drumhead that’s usually fashioned from some sort of dried hide. As with most early instruments, drums were probably used to send signals, herd animals, and celebrate religious rituals. Their application as musical instruments likely came later. The drum kits that are familiar to concertgoers, with their various toms, bass drums, snares, and cymbals, evolved out of instruments played by military bands.

Trumpets also have ancient roots, as in the use of ram’s horns as “shofars.” Metal trumpets appeared beginning around 1500 BC, while the cousin of the trumpet, the trombone, is comparatively new, evolving in the 15th century. Wind instruments such as clarinets came of age in the 17th century, while the saxophone, the invention of a Belgian named Adolphe Sax, is a 19th-century creation.

All the while, people were playing stringed instruments, too. Banjos came to the United States with African slaves as hide-covered gourds affixed to a stick before developing, in the early 19th century, into the instruments we recognize today. Guitars and mandolins evolved during the same period, especially after C.F. Martin was founded in 1833. Ukuleles, in contrast, became popular in the early 1900s, especially after the 1915 Pan-Pacific Expo in San Francisco, where the ukulele and hula-dance demonstrations at the Hawaiian pavilion were a huge hit.

A similarly democratic instrument was the harmonica and its fixed-reed relation, the accordion. Both were used to play the people’s music, from German polkas and Cajun ballads (accordions) to cowboy songs and the blues (harmonicas). At the opposite end of the music-appreciation spectrum is the piano, an early 18th-century creation of Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori, whose pianoforte was embraced by composers such as Bach and Mozart. Eventually the piano would be electrified (Wurlitzer and Rhodes made pianos that were both electric and mechanical) and the keyboard would be repurposed by synthesizer guru Robert Moog, and countless others, to produce other-worldly sounds.


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National Music Museum

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