Spinett, Bartolomeo Cristofori, Museum für Musikinstrumente der Universität Leipzig, CC BY-NC-SA

Introduction

The art of the instrument maker has always relied on a subtle alliance between respect for tradition and the need for experimentation. Whether related to ergonomics, accuracy of inntonation, dynamics or variety of timbre, research has shaped musical instruments over time, adapting them to the evolution of taste, the imagination of composers and changes in playing style.

While some inventions like the valves of brass instruments or the double escapement action of the piano have been with us for a long time, other experiments have been less successful. In the 19th century, instrument makers began to apply the newly discovered laws of acoustics in their development of innovative instruments but many designs remained at the prototype stage because they did not correspond to a well-established musical practice. The same phenomenon occurred with some twentieth century electronic instruments.

In all cases, these instruments show that the success of innovation in instrument making is a delicate alchemy. The musical qualities of the instrument are, of course, essential criteria, but other factors such as usability, price, durability or ease of manufacture and maintenance can sometimes outweigh these.

Demilune trumpet, early 19th century , Anonymous, [A natural trumpet made in half-moon shape so that the player's hand can be placed in the bell in playing to lower the pitch of the natural notes.], University of Edinburgh, CC BY-NC-SA
Demilune trumpet, early 19th century , Anonymous, [A natural trumpet made in half-moon shape so that the player's hand can be placed in the bell in playing to lower the pitch of the natural notes.], University of Edinburgh, CC BY-NC-SA

Unusual Sizes

The evolution of musical instruments into the forms we know today has come through centuries of craft. If the size of an instrument depends on its pitch and range, other factors such as ergonomics and control of volume have also strongly guided makers when designing their instruments. With the birth of the public concert and the opening of constantly bigger concert halls, makers had to respond to a demand for greater volume. Similarly, exploration of soundscapes ranging from extreme bass to extreme treble led the makers to experiment with instruments of unusual sizes. These spectacular instruments demonstrated the inventiveness of the maker, especially during the great exhibitions of the nineteenth century, where they were made to impress the public. However, these experiments, sometimes constructed without much consideration to the practicalities of playing them, often had a short life.

Octobasse , Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, [This gigantic instrument, almost 3.50m high, is the most spectacular achievement of Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume (1798-1875), whose workshop dominated the development and manufacture of bowed string instruments in the mid nineteenth century. Berlioz was one of the few composers to write for the instrument. Most notably it was used during the performance of his Te Deum at the inaugural concert of the Exposition Universelle, held in Paris in 1855. The octobass didn't descend more than a third below the double bass of the time but it had a much more powerful sound.], Cité de la musique, CC BY-NC-SA
Octobasse , Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, [This gigantic instrument, almost 3.50m high, is the most spectacular achievement of Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume (1798-1875), whose workshop dominated the development and manufacture of bowed string instruments in the mid nineteenth century. Berlioz was one of the few composers to write for the instrument. Most notably it was used during the performance of his Te Deum at the inaugural concert of the Exposition Universelle, held in Paris in 1855. The octobass didn't descend more than a third below the double bass of the time but it had a much more powerful sound.], Cité de la musique, CC BY-NC-SA
Büchsentrompete , Günther Kühnel, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, CC BY-NC-SA
Büchsentrompete , Günther Kühnel, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, CC BY-NC-SA
Trompe de chasse contrebasse, 1900  , Millereau, [The unusual feature of this natural horn is its unbroken tube length of over nine metres. It is pitched in 28-ft D. It was intended to add a deep notes to an ensemble of French hunting horns (trompes de chasse).], University of Edinburgh, CC BY-NC-SA
Trompe de chasse contrebasse, 1900 , Millereau, [The unusual feature of this natural horn is its unbroken tube length of over nine metres. It is pitched in 28-ft D. It was intended to add a deep notes to an ensemble of French hunting horns (trompes de chasse).], University of Edinburgh, CC BY-NC-SA

Strange Shapes

Throughout history, makers have developed ingenious techniques to make musical instruments as ergonomic as possible, whilst taking into account the criteria set by their musical features. The aesthetic has also come into play, with the beauty of an instrument inspiring the musician just as much as the person listening. All these criteria have gradually shaped the musical instruments to the forms we know today. The desire to stand out from the competition, to add extra functionality or explore new sounds, has sometimes led makers to design instruments that take unusual forms, instruments which are now much sought after by collectors.

Violino-Harpa, 1873, Zach Thomas, Cité De La Musique, In Copyright
Violino-Harpa, 1873, Zach Thomas, Cité De La Musique, In Copyright
Spinett, 1693, Bartolomeo Cristofori, [The unique instrument is a fantastic example of the creative powers of Bartolomeo Cristofori and was made a few years before his invention of the pianoforte. It blends ingenious design and technical solutions with virtually unsurpassable craftsmanship. With this instrument, he managed to combine the benefits of the harpsichord (use of a double course, long bass scale) with the more intimate shape of a spinet in a visually pleasing form. Cristofori only built two known models of this type, a harpsichord in 1690 and the instrument described here in 1693. Both instruments were made for Ferdinand de Medici, the eldest son of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III. de Medici.], Museum für Musikinstrumente der Universität Leipzig, CC BY-NC-SA
Spinett, 1693, Bartolomeo Cristofori, [The unique instrument is a fantastic example of the creative powers of Bartolomeo Cristofori and was made a few years before his invention of the pianoforte. It blends ingenious design and technical solutions with virtually unsurpassable craftsmanship. With this instrument, he managed to combine the benefits of the harpsichord (use of a double course, long bass scale) with the more intimate shape of a spinet in a visually pleasing form. Cristofori only built two known models of this type, a harpsichord in 1690 and the instrument described here in 1693. Both instruments were made for Ferdinand de Medici, the eldest son of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III. de Medici.], Museum für Musikinstrumente der Universität Leipzig, CC BY-NC-SA
Double-bell euphonium, 1913, Buescher, [The fifth valve switches the windway to the smaller bell, allowing the player to change from the sound of a euphonium to something like the sound of a trombone.], University of Edinburgh, CC BY-NC-SA
Double-bell euphonium, 1913, Buescher, [The fifth valve switches the windway to the smaller bell, allowing the player to change from the sound of a euphonium to something like the sound of a trombone.], University of Edinburgh, CC BY-NC-SA

Inventive Mechanisms

Musical instruments include a wide variety of mechanisms - to drive air into organ pipes, bring the jacks of a harpsichord or the piano hammers into play, as well as provide fine tuning for guitars or violins. Over time, instrument makers showed great ingenuity in the development of these mechanisms, creating more responsive, better tuned and more tunable instruments. In this way, the family of wind instruments saw a considerable development during the nineteenth century, with the notable invention of the valve for brass winds and the Boehm mechanism for woodwinds. Certain makers, taking into account the newly discovered laws of acoustics, even designed instruments that were highly inventive in terms of engineering. Some of these, however, proved too complex to learn or were too radical in their design and so were not as successful as hoped.

Likembe with pick up element, Kabongo Tshisense, [Electric bass likembe in the tradition of the Luba people (Kasai - DR Congo) and used by the Kasai Allstars, the famous musical collective based in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. The likembe is made from a wooden board to which staggered metal keys are attached.], Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, CC BY-NC-SA
Likembe with pick up element, Kabongo Tshisense, [Electric bass likembe in the tradition of the Luba people (Kasai - DR Congo) and used by the Kasai Allstars, the famous musical collective based in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. The likembe is made from a wooden board to which staggered metal keys are attached.], Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, CC BY-NC-SA
Set of vessel flutes/pigeonpipe, 1905, Unknown, [This odd looking instrument has an even more curious purpose, as it is a pipe that is fastened to a pigeon's back and which produces a whistling sound when the bird flies. The custom originates in ancient China. It is thought that the birds with whistles were used to keep flocks of domestic pigeons together and to deter hawks and other predators.], Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, CC BY-NC-SA
Set of vessel flutes/pigeonpipe, 1905, Unknown, [This odd looking instrument has an even more curious purpose, as it is a pipe that is fastened to a pigeon's back and which produces a whistling sound when the bird flies. The custom originates in ancient China. It is thought that the birds with whistles were used to keep flocks of domestic pigeons together and to deter hawks and other predators.], Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, CC BY-NC-SA
Trombone à pistons, 1876, Adolphe Sax, [The trombone with seven bells, designed by Adolphe Sax, is as much a piece of sculpture as a musical instrument. In fact, it is simply the logical conclusion of applying the principle of one air column for each fundamental note. With Sax's invention, the trombone slide was no longer necessary, as each valve corresponds to a slide position.], Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels, CC BY-NC-SA
Trombone à pistons, 1876, Adolphe Sax, [The trombone with seven bells, designed by Adolphe Sax, is as much a piece of sculpture as a musical instrument. In fact, it is simply the logical conclusion of applying the principle of one air column for each fundamental note. With Sax's invention, the trombone slide was no longer necessary, as each valve corresponds to a slide position.], Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels, CC BY-NC-SA