Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Grove Music Online. Grove is a registered trademark. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Subscriber: null; date: 18 October 2021

Musical instrument.locked

Musical instrument.locked

  • Laurence Libin

Vehicle for exploring and expressing musical ideas and feelings through sound. Practically anything that is used to make sound can be employed in music, so the concept of a musical instrument embraces a very broad range of things, including, for purposes of this dictionary, the human body. Conventionally the term refers to implements specially designed for producing sound, but this definition is inadequate because unaltered natural objects as well as utensils meant for other tasks (nowadays including electronic communication devices) have been put to musical use since prehistoric times. It can be difficult to distinguish an ‘instrument’ from a practice of music-making; for example, on some islands in the north of Vanuatu and south of the Solomons, women standing in water hit the surface with their hands in various ways to produce different sounds and rhythms, a practice called seritit (‘water music’). The composer Tan Dun similarly employs large bowls of water whose surfaces are beaten, flicked, and slapped by percussionists in his Water Concerto (1998). Such practices, no less than the use of computer programs and interactive software applications to manipulate sound, cannot be overlooked in a general consideration of musical instruments.

Some living cultures have no concept of music as a distinct pursuit, but all peoples employ objects to modulate sound for communication and entertainment, and in hunting, worship, and other activities. Various noisemakers, such as children’s toys, voice modifiers, and animal decoys, are included here for comprehensiveness and comparison, as are examples of playback equipment (e.g. musical boxes, player pianos, turntables) occasionally used to originate music, not only reproduce it. The proliferation of electronic instruments of all kinds and their growing capabilities (e.g. through the Internet and brain-computer music interfacing) carry unfathomable implications for the future of music and for the meaning of ‘musical instrument’.

This catholic approach brings up the question of what constitutes music. Answers are multifarious and culturally determined. However, music is widely understood as a conscious, often artful combination of sounds and silence into patterns capable of evoking an aesthetic response in a listener. Such patterning (normally nonreferential, unlike language) is recognized in a listener’s mind and need not have been previously composed. Many listeners perceive natural sounds such as bird songs or random environmental noise as musical. Indeed, songbirds taught to repeat tunes might be considered in a sense instrumental; but for present purposes naturally occurring sound sources (except the human body) are excluded, no matter that they might please or awe human listeners.

Whether animals other than Homo sapiens possess an aesthetic sense is an open question, but certain species do employ instrumental means to aid sound production. Orangutans in Borneo have been observed to lower the pitch of ‘kiss-squeaks’ by holding bundles of leaves before their mouths, a learned behaviour. However, although many animal studies have detected remarkable capabilities such as refined absolute pitch, discrimination of pitch intervals, recognition of octave equivalence, and precise rhythmic regularity, no instance is known of a nonhuman animal being trained to move in synchrony with an auditory beat, commonly considered a precursor of music making.

Because no definition of music is universally accepted, musical instruments also elude categorical identification; what one society considers merely a noisemaker might have highly evolved expressive uses elsewhere. The general notion of an instrument adopted in this dictionary arises from the word’s Latin root. Struere (whence construe, construct, structure, instruct, instrument) means to ‘pile up’ or ‘build’, but unlike tools, instruments of all types—musical, scientific, medical, navigational, chronometric, computational, etc.—do not have as their primary function the moving or changing of material objects, though they can do so incidentally (e.g. by moving an indicator or causing substances to vibrate). Rather, instruments basically help to build knowledge and insight. It has been said that as telescopes extend vision to outer space, so musical instruments assist in exploring the inner, psychological realm of feelings and thoughts, and then help express the results of these discoveries audibly in ways that words alone cannot do.

Within limits imposed by available materials and technologies, different kinds of musical instruments have been developed to probe different areas of the psyche. The most primitive sounding utensils were probably found objects or simple artifacts whose incidental sound effects intrigued or pleased their handlers. The twang of a taut dragline or the resonance of a stretched hide, for example, might eventually have led inquisitive users to alter the tension of the material intentionally to change the sound. Such trials could have resulted in gradual development of implements specialized for sound production. This process could have emerged spontaneously wherever conditions permitted, but in the absence of archaeological evidence the origin and early development of sounding utensils remains speculative. In fact, excavated remains of primal instruments, if insufficiently differentiated from other objects, might go unrecognized today.

One view of instrument innovation in modern societies holds that novel types seldom originate in direct response to compositional demands; more often they arise for other reasons (e.g. to gain commercial advantage, to simplify playing, to exploit new technologies) and, once generally accepted, open fresh vistas for composers to explore. Arguably, for example, the development of the medieval organ keyboard to improve its mechanics had a leading role in the evolution of Western harmony by making chords and multiple lines easier to play. Another view asserts that instrument design and composers’ desires progress in disequilibrium, with makers or composers exerting a stronger impulse for change at different times. Especially in the 20th century, a few composers, notably Harry Partch, created novel varieties of instruments for performance of their own works, but such novelties seldom become widespread. More likely to achieve popularity are innovations that simplify playing technique, reduce cost, improve durability, and extend the expressive range of existing types. Some instruments (e.g. the theremin) seem to have originated as it were by accident or as byproducts of extramusical experiments. Virtually all music-making devices, from simple rattles to synthesizers, draw on preexisting technologies or principles introduced for nonmusical purposes.

Innumerable performers make their own, often ephemeral instruments and improvise music for them, thus combining the roles of player, composer, and instrument maker. Singers, whistlers, and others who use their bodies as instruments blur any distinction between performer and instrument. Increasingly sophisticated control systems, such as computerized sound sources governed directly by brain activity unmediated by hands or breath, promise further to expand instrumental applications of multipurpose electronic devices and to render music-making more accessible, for example to paralysed persons.

In any case, an instrument’s invention and acceptance by players must necessarily precede the emergence of its distinctive idiom, if any. For example, the piano must have come into use before a pianistic idiom could arise. All types of instruments have latent potential, subject to continual discovery and extending far beyond their inventors’ immediate objectives. A type might become unfashionable, only to be revived as new ways are found to play it or as musical taste changes to favour again its known capabilities and repertoire; consequently, it is incorrect to regard obsolete instruments as extinct. Some popular instruments (e.g. the ubiquitous 19th-century American reed organ) fail to generate distinctive idioms, and idioms can develop without their instruments having to change (as occurred with 20th-century piano music). Instruments can develop through simplification yet still engender new uses (e.g. the Indian śruti box, a simplified reed organ that offers greater scope for drones than the tambūrā).

Composers constitute only a small fraction of the market for instruments and tend to react to instrument innovation rather than initiate it. However, performers (most of whom are amateurs) exert a strong influence on commercial instrument producers, who typically strive to differentiate and improve their products in order to attract customers as well as to express their own creative impulses. Most efforts at innovation fail, but those that become accepted in the mainstream (e.g. piano, saxophone, electric guitar) can change musical style. At least since the 18th century, instrumentation of Western popular music, including opera and, latterly, film scores, has on the whole been more adventurous than that of so-called classical or ‘serious’ genres such as chamber and church music, which nowadays tend to appeal to relatively conservative audiences. However, the elite establishment often adopts features of instruments initially intended for popular entertainment; for example, some early 20th-century theatre organ console improvements found their way into church and concert hall organs. The recording studio, telecommunications industry, and information-processing technology have also generated instrument innovations, sometimes unintentionally.

The issue of how instruments can be improved is complicated. Listeners can learn to appreciate almost any kind of tone; witness the great variety of voice qualities enjoyed throughout the world. Tonal preferences are therefore largely a matter of taste and familiarity. However, instruments that are unresponsive or do not work well frustrate their players. Inefficient, unreliable instruments, especially those that are mechanized, can often be made to work better; and durability, tuning stability, touch response, and related properties can often be improved. But in general it is wrong to assert that modern instruments sound better than their predecessors, or vice versa; they only sound different. Musical effectiveness must be judged in light of an instrument’s intended purpose (including its repertoire, appropriate playing techniques, acoustic setting, etc.) and such judgment often cannot be divorced from consideration of the player’s skill.

In addition to their primary use in making music (itself a force for social change), musical instruments serve many other purposes that must be considered for their development and cultural roles to be comprehended. Among other functions they can mark time and punctuate activity (e.g. church and ship bells); convey messages (‘talking’ drums, military bugles); symbolize status (an instrument can dignify its owner even when it is not played); signify gender, class, and cultural aspirations (phallic flutes and bagpipes; feminine harps), and taste (elegant and refined; lowbrow; traditional or avant-garde); exert social control (through taboos or by imposing certain behaviours); represent nationality (the emblematic Irish harp) and civic pride (19th-century municipal organs); advance imperialism (British instruments as well as warships projected force across the Commonwealth); and demonstrate cultural superiority (use of ivory and other exotic materials in European instruments can indicate colonial subjugation; highly mechanized instruments represent technological prowess).

Further, musical instruments provide employment (making, playing, selling, repairing, tuning, and ancillary occupations) and embody the personal creative impulses of their designers and owners (idiosyncratic folk instruments; distinctive pipe organ façades; ‘designer’ guitars; art-case pianos). They also serve as instructional devices (engaging children in learning); are collected for investment (valuable violins) and displayed as decorative art (elaborately decorated harpsichords in museums); are handled as ritual paraphernalia and worn as talismans or regalia (Benin chieftains’ bells); or ward off evil or attract good spirits (church bells; Tibetan thighbone trumpets). They can be regarded as the abode of gods or be infused with divinity in their own right (numerous African drums). They can inspire acoustical and physical research (e.g. by the Catgut Acoustical Society, Edinburgh University Acoustics and Fluid Dynamics Research Group, Göteborg Organ Art Center); embody evidence of performance practices (patterns of wear can reveal playing techniques); and express a society’s taste and beliefs through their often intricate and symbolic decoration as well as their sounds.

The foregoing selective survey indicates the potential of organology (the scientific study of musical instruments) to illuminate many aspects of culture.


  • C. Sachs: Geist und Werden der Musikinstrumente (Berlin, 1929/R1965)
  • A. Schaeffner: Origine des Instruments de Musique: Introduction ethnologique à l’histoire de la musique instrumentale (Paris, 1936/R1968)
  • C. Sachs: The History of Musical Instruments (New York, 1940)
  • L. Williams: The Dancing Chimpanzee: a Study of the Origins of Primitive Music (London, 1967)
  • M.J. Kartomi: On Concepts and Classification of Musical Instruments (Chicago, 1990)
  • L. Libin: ‘Progress, Adaptation, and the Evolution of Musical Instruments’, Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society, vol.26 (2000), 187–213
  • N. Wallin, B. Merker, and S. Brown, eds: The Origins of Music (Cambridge, MA, 2000)
  • L. Libin: ‘Storia, simbolismi e funzioni degli strumenti occidentali’, Enciclopedia della musica V: L’unità della musica, ed. J.-J. Nattiez (Turin, 2005), 874–85
  • J. Montagu: Origins and Development of Musical Instruments (Lanham, MD, 2007)