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Posts Tagged ‘musical instruments

“Yes, there are two paths you can go by / But in the long run / There’s still time to change the road you’re on”*…

Chrissie Hynde fronting the Pretenders with a swamp ash Fendar

Every winter and spring, rains across the central U.S. combine with snowmelt along the northern reaches of the Mississippi River to inundate the hardwood-dominated bottomlands of the lower Mississippi. When the floodwaters recede and soils dry up in summer, logging crews harvest species of trees that include green ash. Being partly submerged for months encourages these trees to produce thin-walled cells with large gaps between them, creating a low-density wood prized by musical instrument makers. Since the 1950s, American guitar giant Fender Musical Instruments has used this kind of ash to create its iconic electric guitars. Countless music legends, from bluesman Muddy Waters to rockers Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, have loved their Fenders, and many say this wood gives the instruments a warm but crystal-clear twang. This niche has earned it colloquial labels such as “swamp ash,” “music ash” or “punky ash” in the lumber and music industries (although the names are used for a couple of others species of ash as well).

Once cheap and readily available, swamp ash became an integral part of Fender’s DNA over the decades, says Mike Born, former director of wood technology at the company. But earlier this year an acute shortage forced Fender to announce it would move away from using swamp ash in its famous line of Stratocasters and Telecasters—reserving the wood for vintage models only. Fender blamed the dwindling supply on longer periods of climate-fueled flooding along the lower Mississippi—which is endangering saplings and making it harder for lumber companies to reach standing trees—as well as the looming threat of an invasive tree-boring beetle. Another renowned U.S. manufacturer called Music Man raised similar sourcing concerns in 2019, which the company described as having “one of the worst harvests in recent history.”

The ominous situation shows how climate change consequences can reverberate through all aspects of society—even rock and roll. And the swamp ash supply could soon become still more tenuous because experts expect global warming to continue making floods worse. “The average player just won’t be able to afford it,” Born says…

Flooding and a wood-boring beetle threaten supplies of storied ‘swamp ash’: “Climate Change Hits Rock and Roll as Prized Guitar Wood Shortage Looms.”

(Violin makers have their own version of the same issue…)

* “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin… on which Jimmy Page played the solo on his swamp ash “Dragon Telecaster.”


As we harmonize, we might spare a thought for Leon Theremin; he died on this date in 1993. A Russian inventor, he is best known for his eponymous theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments and the first to be mass produced. While the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” is the example of theremin use that springs first to most folks’ minds, that performance was actually on a knock-off (a similar-sounding instrument invented by Paul Tanner called an Electro-Theremin); still, it had the effect of driving demand– both for the theremin and for electronic instruments more generally.

He is also well-known in more arcane circles as the creator of “The Thing” (the Great Seal bug)– a covert listening device that hung in plain view in the office of the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, and allowed Russian intelligence to eavesdrop on secret conversations for seven years. Concealed inside a replica of the Great Seal of the U.S. gifted by Moscow to Ambassador Averell Harriman in 1945, it was “passive” (relied on energy from nearby sources)– and is thus considered by many to have been the ancestor of RFID technology.

Theramin playing a theramin


“Different musical instruments provide for different music”*…

The German polymath and Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher [see here] had a lifelong fascination with sound and devoted two books to the subject: Musurgia Universalis (1650), on the theoretical (and theological) aspects, and Phonurgia Nova (1673), on the science of acoustics and its practical applications. It’s no surprise then to learn that his famed museum at Rome’s Collegio Romano boasted— in addition to “vomiting statues”, ghost-conjuring mirrors, and other curious wonders — a vast and diverse collection of musical instruments.

Much of what we know of Kircher’s museum today is thanks to his student and fellow Jesuit priest Filippo Buonanni (1638-1725), who succeeded Kircher as both Professor of Mathematics and, upon Kircher’s death, as chief custodian of the museum for which he produced an epic and exhaustive, near-800-page catalogue in 1709. Following in his master’s footsteps, Buonanni too held a dizzying array of interests and specialisms including numismatics, microscopy, spontaneous generation, Chinese laquer, seashells (on which he produced the first monograph), and also, like Kircher, music.

Inspired by the collection of instruments in Kircher’s wunderkammer, and intrigued by the stories behind them, in 1722 Buonanni published his Gabinetto Armonico pieno d’istromenti sonori (or Harmonic cabinet full of sonorous instruments), an attempt to catalogue, for the first time, the musical instruments of the world. While there’s a short and often illuminating text for each instrument it is the 152 engraved plates — executed by Flemish artist and publisher Arnold van Westerhout — which really steal the show. The featured instruments are divided into three sections — wind, string, and percussion — and preceded by thirteen brief discussions of other musical categories, including: military, funeral, used in sacrifices, and, intriguingly, as used at sea: not sirens, but chantying sailors. While some of the instruments gathered in Buonanni’s book are as simple as the bee-keeper banging his tub, or the clacking of shoes against the floor, some are highly crafted, technical machines; the great organ at Palazzo Verospi requires a fold-out page to show it all. We are also treated to what might be considered more incidental instruments, for example, the bell about a bound criminal’s neck and the sound of a soldier’s sword being struck…

Engravings from an ambitious and beautiful attempt to catalogue, for the first time, the musical instruments of the world: “Filippo Buonanni’s Harmonic Cabinet (1722)

Browse the volume on the Internet Archive; see the full collection of drawings on Flickr.

* Amos Oz


As we celebrate sound, we might send melodic birthday greetings to Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti; he was born on this date in 1685. A composer (and keyboardist), he is regularly classified chronologically as part of the Baroque period (along with his famous father, Alessandro Scarlatti); but Domenico’s work– perhaps especially his 555 keyboard sonatas– were richly influential in the development of the Classical style.


“A sandwich and a cup of coffee, and then off to violin-land, where all is sweetness and delicacy and harmony”*…


Before electronic amplification, instrument makers and musicians had to find newer and better ways to make themselves heard among ensembles and orchestras and above the din of crowds. Many of the acoustic instruments we’re familiar with today—guitars, cellos, violas, etc.—are the result of hundreds of years of experimentation into solving just that problem. These hollow wooden resonance chambers amplify the sound of the strings, but that sound must escape, hence the circular sound hole under the strings of an acoustic guitar and the f-holes on either side of a violin…

While it’s true f-holes date from the Renaissance, they are much more than ornamental; their design—whether arrived at by accident or by conscious intent—has had remarkable staying power for very good reason.

As acoustician Nicholas Makris and his colleagues at MIT recently announced in a study published by the Royal Society, a violin’s f-holes serve as the perfect means of delivering its powerful acoustic sound. F-holes have “twice the sonic power,” The Economist reports, “of the circular holes of the fithele” (the violin’s 10th century ancestor and origin of the word “fiddle”). The evolutionary path of this elegant innovation—Clive Thompson at Boing Boing demonstrates with a color-coded chart—takes us from those original round holes, to a half-moon, then to variously-elaborated c-shapes, and finally to the f-hole…

More musical history at “Why Violins Have F-Holes: The Science & History of a Remarkable Renaissance Design.”

* Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes


As we draw our bows boldly, we might send tuneful birthday greetings to Ernst Theodor Amadeus (“E.T.A.”) Hoffmann; he was born on this date in 1776.  A key figure in the German Romantic period, Hoffmann was an author of fantasy and horror, a jurist, composer, music critic, draftsman and caricaturist. While some of his compositions survive in the canon, he is probably better remembered for his stories: they form the basis of Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann, in which Hoffmann appears (heavily fictionalized) as the hero. He is also the author of the novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, on which the famous ballet The Nutcracker is based.  The ballet Coppélia is based on two other stories that Hoffmann wrote, while Schumann’s Kreisleriana is based on Hoffmann’s character Johannes Kreisler.

Hoffmann also influenced 19th century musical opinion through his music criticism. His reviews of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1808) and other important works set new literary standards for writing about music, and encouraged later writers to consider music as “the most Romantic of all the arts.”



Written by LW

January 24, 2016 at 1:01 am

“I play a musical instrument a little, but only for my own amazement”*…


Mr. and Mrs. Karsy, an inventive and original “team” on the variety stage, have created a new and extrodinary musical instrument which is known as the Giant Myriophone (Myriphon). It is the work of a genius and when under full swing produces music similar to that of a full string band. Only two persons are required to produce this immense volume of sound. “The Myriophone has the appearance of a large screen, with a number of wheels fitted on the front. These wheels have strings fitted on them and look much like bicycle wheels. They are set in motion by four lusty stage hands concealed in the rear, and the performers who have a small stick of wood in each hand touch the strings, thus making a note, which can be prolonged to any length. The Myriophone consists of twenty-five discs, each with eighty strings, making 2,000 in all. The sounding boards are made of the same wood as is used in pianos. Regular piano strings are used…

Karsy’s Giant Myriphon

* Fred Allen


As we tinkle the ivories, we might spare a thought for François Couperin; he died on this date in 1733 (though some sources place his passing on the 11th).  An organist, harpsichordist, and composer, he was an important influence on Corelli– thus influencing J. S. Bach.



Written by LW

September 12, 2015 at 1:01 am

Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood…

Consider the case of Gregor Mendel:

You probably know Mendel as the guy who pioneered the science of genetics… Anybody with a high school diploma has filled out those dominant/recessive trait Punnett squares … … though astute readers are probably wondering why that technique is called a Punnett square if it predicts patterns Mendel discovered.

What you probably didn’t know was that before making his revolutionary discovery, Gregor Mendel flunked out of school and resigned himself to a quiet life as the abbot of a monastery. It had an extensive experimental garden and there Mendel patiently spent the next seven years of his life breeding and cross-breeding peas.

He carefully documented his work and developed what would eventually be known as Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance. Then he wrote it up and got it published in an lesser-known journal, the Journal of the Brno Natural History Society in 1866.

His genius was rewarded by … A quiet life of complete anonymity. Mendel’s work was read by about zero people, even after he took it upon himself to contact the highest minds of his time by personally sending them copies of his theory… Why did they ignore him? Because the greatest minds of his time couldn’t understand him. It wasn’t until 16 years after his death that three independent botanists rediscover Mendel’s work and started the genetics ball rolling.

Read a more colorfully-worded version of Mendel’s story, and the tales of four other scientific pioneers, in “5 Famous Scientists Dismissed as Morons in Their Time.”

[Special Holiday Bonus:  The Animals singing this post’s title song]

As we reconsider the advice we got from the wild-eyed gentleman standing in the DMV line this morning, we might recall that it was on this date in 1900 that Nature reported the development of the first fully-electric musical instrument, the Musical Arc (or Singing Arc) developed by English physicist and engineer William Dudell.

Before Edison “invented” the electric light bulb in the United States, electric street lighting was in wide use throughout Europe; the carbon arc lamp generated light by creating a spark between two carbon nodes. But this method of lighting produced an annoying constant humming noise from the electric arc.  Duddell, who was appointed to solve the problem in London in 1899,  found that by varying the voltage supplied to the lamps he could create controllable audible frequencies from a resonant circuit caused by the rate of pulsation of exposed electrical arcs.  He attached a keyboard to the arc lamps– and created the first electronic instrument that was audible without using the yet-to-be-invented amplifier or loudspeaker.

Duddell– who also invented the moving-coil oscillograph (an early oscillator-type device for the photographic monitoring of audio frequency waveforms), the thermo-ammeter, thermo-galvanometer (an instrument for measuring minute currents and potential differences later used for measuring antenna currents and still used in modified form today), and a magnetic standard (used for the calibration of ballistic galvanometers)–  never patented his discovery.



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