The World of Musical Instruments

Experimental instruments

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.

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.

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.

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.