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date: 21 October 2019

  • Laurence Libin

Class ranking of instruments, high to low, in a society’s estimation. The relative position of a type of instrument must be distinguished from the status accorded a singular example. An ordinary guitar once owned by Elvis Presley would be elevated among his fans for its provenance alone. Usually an instrument’s social status seems inseparable from the status of its players and music. For example, the 18th-century hurdy-gurdy was held in low repute by the elite as a clumsy device for grinding out folk tunes by itinerant beggars, but refined models created for Arcadian ladies were considered fashionable and engendered a charming repertory. Baroque bagpipes display the same dichotomy; brash-sounding folk types with naked bags were portrayed as vulgar, even phallic, while elegant musettes taken up by aristocrats were esteemed accordingly. On the other hand, Baroque trumpets and kettledrums used in the service of persons and institutions of high estate as sounding symbols of their eminence were played by subordinates who were often hardly more than servants. Similarly, the church organ, regarded by Mozart as the ‘king of all instruments’ and often a symbol of civic pride, was commonly played by a humble schoolmaster. Thus, an instrument type does not automatically confer its status on its player and vice versa.

Often an instrument’s intrinsic musical qualities appear incidental to its social functions; these functions generally define its status. Ukuleles, for all their initial exoticism and popularity in America, have hardly been taken seriously there except by amateur devotees; the entertainers Arthur Godfrey and Tiny Tim kept ukuleles in the public eye but gave them a ‘camp’ reputation. In contrast harps have been elevated by biblical and angelic associations and approached with dignity by players ranging in renown from Harpo Marx to anonymous Latin American and Italian street musicians. In medieval Irish society the harp and harper enjoyed high status thanks to the important function the Irish harp played in noble households, where it accompanied the recitation of praise poetry.

Among many factors accounting for differing popular attitudes towards instruments are their appearance, cost, scarcity or commonness, relative difficulty and grace of technique, quality and purpose of repertory, extramusical associations (e.g. symbolic, historical, mythological, religious, gender, and caste), and racism and colonialism. The complex relationship among these factors must be interpreted in cultural context. For example, among the Himalayan Ladakh the sur-na and da-man are virtually indispensable in providing music for social events, yet their Mon and Beda players are of low caste, and the da-man itself is tainted by association with tanning and leather-work. Similarly, the zūrnā of the Arab world, Greece, Cyprus, the Caucasus, and nearby regions is commonly played by members of the lowest social classes (e.g. Roma, barbers), and it is considered insulting in these areas to rank players of the saz and the zūrnā equally.

Conversely, royal drummers (lunsi) in Dagomba (Ghana) enjoy a reciprocal relationship with the chief: the drummers, through their ‘talking’ drums (lunga, gung-gong) convey the chief’s prestige and in turn gain status as important figures at his court, this status arising from the drums’ function in relating stories, ancestries, and history. Elsewhere in Africa, as among the Bon of Tibet, certain drums are venerated in their own right.

Ancient Chinese tradition accorded highest status to instruments made of metal, such as ritual bells, because of metal’s magical properties. In Java, where percussion instruments dominate, the great gong is especially revered. In Thailand and Laos, possession of a bronze drum (mahōra thuek) greatly enhances its owner’s prestige. Some Hindu cosmologies elevated bamboo instruments because of the importance of bamboo pitch pipes in setting propitious, mathematically conceived standards of harmony.

A rattle shaken by an infant might hardly be considered an instrument at all but rather a plaything, whereas a similar noisemaker in the hand of a shaman might be regarded with deep respect or fear. A church bell might function both as a public signalling device and as a venerated liturgical implement regardless of who rings it, but whether its sound constitutes music is debatable. America’s so-called Liberty Bell is worthless as a sounding object but exalted as a symbol of freedom. Celtic harps, Highland bagpipes, Serbian gusle, and other politically charged instruments have been revered by nationalists but despised by their oppressors. The status of the Malay gambus is typically ambiguous; as a national symbol and icon of Islam in Malaysia it plays a role in forming political identity, but Muslim fundamentalists regard it and all instruments as profane.

Because no particular values inhere to instruments except those that people impute to them, their status can change over time; for example, a Cremonese Baroque violin that evoked no special interest when it was new might nowadays have become a rare museum-piece, admired though no longer played. Often an instrument’s value depends on its maker’s reputation rather than on its intrinsic quality; a legendary Stradivari violin can confer status on its owner even though it might be poorly preserved or partly inauthentic. For much of its early history the violin was commonly associated with popular entertainment and therefore considered by the intelligentsia to be inferior to the aristocratic viol, a ranking that was later reversed when viols became obsolete and violins gained status from higher prices. Nevertheless, the viola has become a favourite butt of musicians’ humour thanks to the secondary part it ordinarily plays in ensembles.

In general, though, since antiquity string instruments in Western culture have ranked higher than winds, which in turn have outranked drums, due partly to the bombastic physicality of Western drumming; lesser visible effort commonly confers higher status. Hindu society likewise highly values chordophones (such as the bīṇ associated with Shiva and the Sarasvatī vīṇā beloved of Brahmans) but also holds drums in high regard, as befits the great tonal as well as rhythmic intricacy and fundamental musical role of Indian drumming; the khol, for example, is venerated. In the Western world, the chord-playing capability of ancient lyres and harps and later of keyboard instruments elevated these as symbols of cosmic harmony and intellect, while trumpets, horns, flutes, and bagpipes, expressing different aspects of masculine might, occupied a lower domain, much as temporal power was supposedly subservient to the Church in medieval hierarchy. Exceptions to this broad rule include the exotic ivory oliphant, a precious, elaborately decorated medieval symbol of land tenure, seldom if ever sounded but sometimes preserved as a relic in church treasuries.

The qin, traditionally revered as an instrument of Chinese scholars and philosophers, symbolizes an entire cosmology. Like famous Italian violins, each old qin supposedly possesses a distinct character, and some are individually named. In European culture possibly only the church organ has occupied a similarly august position, but monumental organs stand more for civic and institutional pride than for individual virtue, and with the decline of Christian liturgical worship during the 20th century, organs and their music lost status. Expensive, iconic concert grand pianos inspire widespread admiration, but being practically interchangeable products of industrial technology, they do not enjoy the reverence accorded famous violins, great organs, and antique qins; nevertheless, as the name ‘grand’ indicates, these pianos are generally more prestigious than other piano models.

To a considerable degree age confers status, although neither age nor rarity, nor even an instrument’s excellence, guarantees prestige. Novelty, too, is fickle; many instruments, such as the accordion, were highly regarded when introduced but lost status as they became more popular. Modern mass-produced instruments, even sophisticated synthesizers, have as yet accrued little significant status except among musicians who use them, although some, such as the Hammond B3 electric organ and certain models of electric guitar, have attracted cult followings.

Instrument makers assert their status as individuals or as members of craft guilds by overtly identifying their work. Builders of mechanized instruments such as organs and pianos traditionally align themselves with highly skilled mechanics such as clock makers by prominently displaying their names or trademarks on their products, a habit not ordinarily shared with carpenters and cabinetmakers, who sign their work discreetly if at all.

Clues to the status of an instrument type can be gained by analysis of its iconography, literary references, and other documentary evidence, monetary valuations (such as auction prices), representation in museum collections (excluding large, permanently installed types such as organs and carillons), and intrinsic features such as refinement of design, use of precious materials, and quality of decoration.


  • E. Winternitz: Musical Instruments and their Symbolism in Western Art: Studies in Musical Iconology (London, 1967, 2/1979)
  • W. Salmen, ed.: The Social Status of the Professional Musician from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century, trans. H. Kaufman (New York, NY, 1983)