The Big Question: there are 14 or 15 musical instruments in an orchestra, three or four in most rock bands. But which is the king?
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2012
I once asked Anne-Sophie Mutter, the great violinist, what had made her choose the fiddle. “I didn’t,” she replied. “It chose me.” That’s how it is with prodigies. At the age of three or thereabouts they connect with an instrument in a way that seems beyond intuition. It’s as if everything about them—temperament, intelligence, physique, upbringing—catapults them towards mastering a musical tool in astonishingly little time. Typically, an infant prodigy on the violin or piano will go from zero to concerto in two years.
But they are the one-in-a-million kids. What about the rest of us? What draws us to play, or to love hearing, some instruments above all others? Why are 40m children in China learning the piano, a European instrument that has scant connection with Eastern culture? What accounts for the guitar’s dominance in Western popular music? Why do composers express their most melancholy thoughts on cellos?
These questions go beyond music. They touch on the essence of identity, aspiration, expression, history and politics, as well as what Jung called our collective unconscious. And science plays a huge part as well. When we describe a quiet flute as “soothing”, we are really commenting on the sine-wave purity of its vibrations. Similarly, the “rousing” or “joyous” timbre of a trumpet attests to its jagged array of harmonics.
In any case, does that necessarily convey joy, or a call to action? How you interpret any sound depends on its context and your knowledge. In Mahler’s symphonies and song cycles a trumpet fanfare often signifies death, grief or tragedy—but only if you know that for Mahler (whose miserable childhood was spent near an army barracks) a bugle-call was a reminder of the eight siblings who died in his youth.
What complicates matters further is the sheer variety of instruments. We began creating them ridiculously early (the earliest extant flute is 67,000 years old) and have never stopped. Recently I’ve been to concerts featuring virtuosi on both a six-stringed electric violin and the hang, a Swiss-invented steel drum of beguiling sensuality. Neither existed 20 years ago.
Take a look, if you have the strength, at the 12,000 entries in the “New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments” (1985). Then consider that the next edition will have 20,000. The standard symphony orchestra, parading a mere 14 or 15 varieties of instrument, begins to look as limited as a supermarket cheese counter.
Most of the 20,000 instruments are local riffs on universal archetypes. Almost every culture has its version of the flute, drum, guitar/lute and fiddle family. There are wide variations in the way they are tuned, constructed or played. But the biggest differences come in the social functions they fulfil. Many instruments, particularly in Eastern cultures, have religious roles. Others are associated with an elite craft, passed down from master to pupil like a trade secret.
Sometimes the same instrument can fulfil totally different roles in different cultures or ages. In Western art music, the violin is the instrument that the greatest composers—Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky—often entrusted with their deepest thoughts. But in the folk cultures of America, Ireland and eastern Europe, it is a wild invitation to a knees-up.
Similarly, in many countries—particularly under totalitarian regimes—the oom-pah of massed brass instruments is a sinister sound, linked to military might and political oppression. But in Britain the cornets and euphoniums of brass bands are aural badges of pride for the embattled working class: the instruments on which miners and mill-workers let off steam, almost literally, after their 14-hour shifts. Though the mines and mills have gone, those associations linger.
What’s fascinating today is how the popularity of certain instruments mirrors the cultural differences between West and East. In the United States and western Europe, guitar is the instrument of choice for most youngsters, and there are obvious reasons for that. Its most famous exponents enjoy iconic status as entertainers, balladeers, individualists, rebels or folk-heroes as well as (or, in some cases, instead of) being good musicians. The guitar is a good traveller across musical styles in a way that, for instance, the oboe isn’t. It’s an easy instrument to learn—at least, if you need just three chords to satisfy your musical urges. And you can buy a reasonable guitar for one-tenth of the cost of a reasonable violin.
Yet in the Far East the violin and piano are the instruments most likely to be thrust at a toddler by any self-respecting tiger-mother. Why? Precisely because neither can be truly mastered without putting in hours of disciplined, repetitive practice each day for years—a discipline that seems beyond the channel-flicking attention-spans of most Western children now. But isn’t there also something very symbolic about this? By striving to become the world’s foremost exponents of Western instruments, aren’t these Asians saying something significant about their general ambitions for themselves and their nations?
Ultimately, nominating the best musical instrument is like nominating the best position for sex. There’s no “best”. It all depends on who’s performing and how inspired they are. I was once moved to tears by a tuba—played by an autistic teenager who communicated more through this tangle of silver piping than he could ever achieve with words. In his poem “Snow”, Louis MacNeice mused that the world is “crazier and more of it than we think, incorrigibly plural”. Nothing demonstrates that better than the array of 20,000 instruments that humanity has found reasons to invent. We should cherish them all. Yes, even a world without bagpipes would be a poorer place.
Richard Morrison is the chief music critic of the Times. He used to play trombone in his father's brass band; his son plays bass guitar in a punk band
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Picture: "Three Musicians" by Pablo Picasso (1921) (Scala/Succession Picasso/Dacs, London 2012)