~ Posted by Georgia Grimond, June 18th 2012
In the fifth of our Big Questions we asked, which is the best musical instrument? Richard Morrison, the chief music critic at the Times, introduced the debate, and laid out its complexities. Not only does the question go beyond music—touching on “the essence of identity, aspiration, expression, history and politics”—but there are also just so many instruments to choose from. We’ve been making them for over 67,000 years, and the next edition of the “New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments” will have 20,000 entries. Undeterred, we asked five writers to pen a fanfare to their favourites.
The composer and broadcaster Michael Berkeley went for the piano. It may not be very portable, he wrote, but it outplays the competition with its impressive solo repertoire and its extraordinary range. Anything from birdsong to burbling water is within reach of its ivories. Laura Barton looked for range too, but found it on the guitar, which can evoke “looping giddiness” as well as “stalking and slavering and snarling”—and all with just six strings. The distinctive swell of the Hammond organ—“a roadie’s nightmare…and a listener’s dream”—tugged at Richard Williams’s heartstrings, while Jasper Rees chose “the matchless thrill” of mastering the French horn, which he started when he was ten and wrote a book about many years later. Finally, Edward Carr searched inside himself, and argued for the instrument we all carry around with us—the voice, “a personal stamp capable of endless variety”.
More than 1,000 readers voted in our online poll. The piano proved most resonant, scoring 38%. The guitar was next to hit a chord with 18%, closely followed by the voice with 17%, then the French horn with 7%. The Hammond organ wasn’t quite in tune with readers, scoring just 2%.
One voter, Steve Meikle, found it hard to pick just one instrument and so plumped for an entire symphony orchestra, while others singled out orchestral workhorses like the cello, violin, flute and clarinet. The oboe was popular, with one voter sticking up for its “moody and peculiar” duck-like sound. The drums, said another, were “the foundation of musical expression”. The trumpet attracted some with its “sound of triumph and heroism”. But there were also votes for less familiar instruments, including the flugelhorn, the bandoneón, the shakuhachi and the bayan.
Some readers chose instruments for their similarity to the sound of the human voice. As Edward Carr pointed out, there is music inside us all and, since singing is so good for us, we should all just find our own voice. But even though the piano is the popular favourite, perhaps it doesn’t matter what instrument you choose so long as the music plays on.
Georgia Grimond is letters editor of Intelligent Life