Musical instruments in the shape of creatures have been produced for many centuries. Fish, snakes, birds, mythical beasts and, of course, human beings are all reflected in the various forms and give musical instruments a lively, sometimes mysterious or even frightening expression. When walking through Europe’s great collections you meet these kinds of instruments at every turn: harpsichords with paws, double basses with lions’ heads and wooden drums in the shape of fish, just a few examples of the richness of form. There are many reasons for these unusual designs, not just aesthetic preferences or trend; the use of instruments in ritual ceremonies, e. g. in evoking ghosts, can influence their form. In some instances, such as bird-shaped flutes, the shape of the instrument coincides with its sound but this is not always the case.
In some cases parts of human or animal bodies have been used for musical instruments, such as elephants’ tusks, snake skin, shells of large sea snails or even human skulls! Today animals still supply important material for instrument making, for example the horsehair for violin bows or animal skin (typically calfskin or goatskin) for timpani. Finally, creatures of all kinds can be found in the pictures with which many instruments are artistically decorated.
In instrument making the principle “form follows function” is usually applied. In order to produce pleasing sounds, stringed and percussion instruments need a sound box, built according to acoustic rules; while brass and woodwind instruments generally have some form of a tube (sometimes with a bell, sometimes without) for the same reason. So when a maker deviates from the usual form and builds an instrument in another shape, an anthropomorphic for example, this is motivated by the fact that the instrument is made for a special purpose.
Human shaped instruments are often found in the ritual music of different cultures of Africa and Asia. There, prayer, music and dance are intertwined so it seems natural to give instruments a human form. This means that the instruments, in addition to their musical function, become keepers of symbolic power and give strength to the player in religious ceremonies. In Europe, on the other hand, the appreciation of fine art and the symbolism connected to it is usually responsible for the fact that human beings and other creatures are reflected in instruments. We often find human heads on viols, harps and other instruments of the baroque era. The beautiful heads on stringed instruments are usually female because of the comparison between a viol’s body and a woman’s silhouette.
There is hardly any species of animals that has not been immortalised in the shape of an instrument and the diversity of the animal world means there is no limit to the ingenuity of instrument makers. The phenomenon of instruments in the shape of animals, or with animal-like parts, is found in nearly all cultures. Similar to anthropomorphic shapes, instruments that resemble animals can sometimes owe their form to a religious or mythological symbolism. The well-known “wooden fish” – a slit drum – in Buddhist temples, for example, symbolises alertness. Instruments where the traditional design elements of indigenous populations mixes with the western style of instrument making, such as the recorder that is shown here, are of special interest. On the other hand some instruments resemble animals for a very simple reason – because they are actually made from animals or animals parts. In some instruments you can recognise that at first sight, as in the lamellaphone made from the shell of a tortoise. Other, less obvious, animal parts are used to make music: even today, horsehair is used for the bows of stringed instruments, while the strings themselves are still sometimes made of gut (usually from sheep).
Some musical instruments may sound nice, but look frightening. Large eyes stare at us from strange faces, mouths gaping with sharp teeth to command our respect. On the teeth of the tenor cornet shown here you could even cut yourself! In most cases it is different kinds of dragons that are depicted in those “monstrous” instruments. They combine features of snakes, predators and sometimes birds. In order to understand why dragons are used in music, we have to ask which cultures the come from. In Europe, where we often find dragons’ heads on the wind or stringed instruments of the renaissance and baroque period, the dragon symbolises evil. In many myths and fairy tales – and not least in the bible – it plays the role of the villain.
Apart from a fascination in those scary creatures there also have been practical occasions for dragon-instruments: We know of several courtly festivities where instruments were specially created to impress the guests and to give them goose pimples.
In Asia the dragon has much more positive than negative attributes. It symbolises royal might, it protects and it has magical powers. In Chinese astrology the dragon even is a part of the zodiac. Therefore seeing a dragon-shaped instrument evokes more positive associations in Asia than in Europe – but whether the sound is pleasant or blood curdling depends on the skills of the human player...