5 Chapter 2: Musical Instrurnents and Ensernblesl




Instruments: A World View

Though one could say that the human Volce was the first lnstrument, most cultures haVe deVeloped other dlstlnctlVe ways of creatlng muslcal sound, from somethlng as slmple as two stlcks struck together to the most complex plpe organ or syntheslzer. Learnlng about muslcal lnstruments can teach you much about a culture’s hlstory and aesthetlcs, and there are a few general questlons that are useful to ask, especlally lf an lnstrument ls unfamlllar.

What material is it made of?

The physlcal composltlon of an lnstrument wlll often reflect the area ln whlch lt was deVeloped; for example, certaln types of wood or ceramlcs could lndlcate a speclfic geographlcal reglon. In addltlon, the lnstrument may be made of materlals consldered sacred by lts culture, or be decorated ln such a way that reflects lts slgnlficance to the people who play lt.

How is sound produced?

As seen below, there are a Varlety of ways ln whlch an lnstrument can create sound. How is the instrument viewed by the culture that created it?

Although ln some cultures lnstruments are slmply Vlewed as objects used ln a muslcal performance, ln others

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lnstruments are Vlewed as sacred or as part of a dlstlnctlVe cultural rltual. Performance technique.

As Varled as are the shapes, slzes, and materlals of muslcal lnstruments throughout the world ls the manner ln whlch they are played, whether struck, blown, bowed, shaken, etc. Often one lnstrument can be played ln a Varlety of ways: For example, a Vlolln can be bowed, plucked, struck, or eVen strummed llke a gultar. Tone color/timbre.

Related to an lnstrument’s physlcal makeup and performance technlque ls the quallty of lts sound: It may be harsh and rough, or smooth and rlch. Often an lnstrument’s tlmbre wlll brlng to mlnd colors or sensatlons that are dlfficult to descrlbe.


An lnstrument’s range has to do wlth the dlstance between the lowest note and the hlghest note lt can produce. As wlth the human Volce, many lnstruments haVe a partlcular part of the range that ls preferred for lts pleaslng qualltles, and one part of an lnstrument’s range may sound Very dlfferent from another (for example, the low range of the clarlnet has an entlrely dlfferent tlmbre than the upper reglster).

How is the instrument used?

An lnstrument may be used alone, or gathered wlth other lnstruments ln ensembles.

Ethnomuslcologlsts haVe deVlsed a serles of categorles to classlfy lnstruments throughout the world, based on the ways ln whlch they produce sound. Each of these words ends wlth the suffix “phone,” the Greek word for sound. The followlng are just the most general categorles; each can be dlVlded lnto subcategorles, but we won’t be worrylng about those ln thls class.


Sound produced by alr. Aerophones use many mechanlsms to make the alr ln the lnstrument Vlbrate, thus creatlng sound waVes. If you haVe eVer blown across the top of a soda bottle, you’Ve created an aerophone. Blowlng across the bottle’s openlng spllts the alr so some goes across the openlng and some goes lnto the bottle, thus creatlng Vlbratlons. If you fill the bottle partlally wlth water, the sound ls hlgher, because the column of alr ln the bottle ls shorter. In a trumpet, the Vlbratlon of alr ls created by the buzzlng of the llps lnto a mouthplece. Many lnstruments also use reeds-small, thln pleces of wood or bamboo-that Vlbrate as the alr passes them, thus creatlng another dlstlnctlVe sound.


Sound produced by strlngs. Both a rubber band stretched oVer a shoe box and a Vlolln could be consldered chordophones, as sound ls produced by the Vlbratlon of a chord (or strlng). As mentloned aboVe, chordo- phones can be played ln a Varlety of ways: They can be plucked, struck, strummed, or played wlth a deVlce known as a bow.


Sound produced by a stretched membrane (plastlc, anlmal skln, fiberglass, etc.). The most famlllar mem- branophones are the nearly lnfinlte Varletles of drums found throughout the world.


Sound produced by the body of the lnstrument ltself. The word “ldlophone” comes from the Greek “ld” or “self.” When you clap your hands together, you are essentlally uslng them as ldlophones, as lt ls the hands themselVes that create the sound. Two stlcks knocked together could be consldered an ldlophone, as well as any number of types of bells, where the entlre lnstrument ls struck and Vlbrates. A gourd filled wlth beads or seeds (or a maraca) would also be consldered an ldlophone, because lt ls the lnterlor materlal hlttlng the sldes of the lnstrument that create the sound.


Sound produced by electrlc or electronlc means. Thls ls a relatlVely new category that lncludes lnstruments such as syntheslzers, computers, etc.


Human Voice as Instrument

The human Volce ls a natural muslcal lnstrument and slnglng by people of all ages, alone or ln groups, ls an actlVlty ln all human cultures. The human Volce ls essentlally a wlnd lnstrument, wlth the lungs supplylng



the alr, the Vocal cords settlng up the Vlbratlons, and the caVltles of the upper throat, mouth, and nose formlng a resonatlng chamber. Dlfferent pltches are obtalned by Varylng the tenslon of the openlng between the Vocal cords.

In the Western tradltlon, Volces are classlfied accordlng to thelr place ln the pltch spectrum, soprano, mezzo soprano, and alto belng the respectlVe deslgnatlons for the hlgh, mlddle, and low ranges of women’s Volces, and tenor, barltone, and bass for men’s. A counter tenor or contra tenor ls a male slnger wlth the range of an alto. These terms are applled not only to Volces and slngers but also to the parts they slng.

The range of an lndlVldual’s Volce ls determlned by the physlology of the Vocal cords. HoweVer, because the Vocal cords are muscles, eVen the most modest slnglng actlVlty can lncrease thelr flexlblllty and elastlclty, and serlous tralnlng can do so to a remarkable degree. Slngers also work to extend the power of thelr Volces, control pltch, and quallty at all dynamlc leVels, and deVelop speed and aglllty.

Vocal quallty and slnglng technlque are other lmportant crlterla ln the classlficatlon of Volces. A slnger’s tone color ls determlned ln part by anatomlcal features, whlch lnclude the mouth, nose, and throat as well as the Vocal cords. But the cultlVatlon of a partlcular Vocal tlmbre ls also strongly lnfluenced by aesthetlc conVentlons and personal taste. A tlght, nasal tone ls assoclated wlth many Aslan and Arablc tradltlons, whereas opera and gospel slngers employ a chest Volce wlth pronounced Vlbrato. EVen wlthln a slngle muslcal tradltlon there may be fine dlstlnctlons based on the character and color of the Volce. For example, among operatlc Volces, a lyrlc soprano has a llght, refined quallty and a dramatlc soprano a powerful, emotlonal tone.

Most muslc for the Volce lnVolVes the dellVery of words. Indeed, speech ltself, whlch ls characterlzed by both up and down pltch lnflectlons and duratlonal Varlatlons of lndlVldual sounds, could be consldered a prlmltlVe form of melody. The pltches of normal speech are relatlVely narrow ln range, nelther a robot-llke monotone nor extremes of hlgh and low, but eVen these modest fluctuatlons are lmportant ln punctuatlng the flow of ldeas and communlcatlng emotlon. The settlng of words to muslc lnVolVes the purposeful shaplng of melodlc and other muslcal elements and can lnVest a text wlth remarkable expresslVe power.

Vocal muslc ls often ldentlfied as sacred or secular on the basls of lts text. Sacred muslc may be based on a scrlptural text, the words of a rellglous ceremony, or deal wlth a rellglous subject. The words ln secular muslc may express feellngs, narrate a story, descrlbe actlVltles assoclated wlth work or play, comment on soclal or polltlcal sltuatlons, conVey a natlonallstlc message, and so on.


Western Categories of Instruments

Instruments are commonly classlfied ln famllles, accordlng to thelr method of generatlng sounds. The most famlllar deslgnatlons for these grouplngs are strlngs (sound produced by Vlbratlng strlngs), wlnds (by a Vlbratlng column of alr), and percusslon (by an object shaken or struck).

The members of the strlng famlly of the Western orchestra are Vlolln, Vlola, cello (or Vloloncello), and bass (or double bass). All are slmllar ln structure and appearance and also qulte homogeneous ln tone color, although of dlfferent pltch ranges because of dlfferences ln the length and dlameter of thelr strlngs. Sound ls produced by drawlng a horsehalr bow across the strlngs, less often by plucklng wlth the fingertlps (called plzzlcato). The harp ls a plucked strlng lnstrument often found ln the orchestra after 1830.

In wlnd lnstruments, the player blows through a mouthplece that ls attached to a conlcal or cyllndrlcal tube filled wlth alr. The wlnds are subdlVlded lnto woodwlnds and brass. The nomenclature of the orchestral wlnds can be both confuslng and mlsleadlng. For example, the modern flute, classlfied as a woodwlnd, ls made of metal whlle ancestors of some modern brass lnstruments were made of wood; the French horn ls a brass lnstrument, but the Engllsh horn ls a woodwlnd; and the saxophone, a relatlVely new lnstrument assoclated prlnclpally wlth jazz and bands, ls classlfied as a woodwlnd because lts mouthplece ls slmllar to that of the clarlnet, although lts body ls metal.

The maln orchestral woodwlnds are flute, clarlnet, oboe, and bassoon. Thelr Very dlstlnctlVe tone colors are due ln part to the dlfferent ways ln whlch the alr ln the body of the lnstrument ls set ln Vlbratlon. In the flute (and the plccolo) the player blows lnto the mouthplece at a sharp angle, ln the clarlnet lnto a mouthplece wlth a slngle reed, and ln the oboe and bassoon (also the less common Engllsh horn) through



two reeds bound together. In all woodwlnds, pltch ls determlned by Varylng the pressure of the breath ln conjunctlon wlth openlng and closlng holes along the slde of the lnstrument, elther wlth the fingers or by keys and pads actlVated by the fingers.

The members of the brass famlly are wound lengths of metal tublng wlth a cup-shaped mouthplece at one end and a flared bell at the other. Pltch ls controlled ln part by the pressure of the llps and amount of alr, and also by alterlng the length of tublng elther by ValVes (trumpet, French horn, tuba) or by a slldlng sectlon of tube (trombone).

The percusslon famlly encompasses a large and dlVerse group of lnstruments, whlch ln the Western system of classlficatlon are dlVlded lnto pltched and nonpltched. The nucleus of the orchestral percusslon sectlon conslsts of two, three, or four tlmpanl, or kettledrums. Tlmpanl are tuned to speclfic pltches by Varylng the tenslon on the head that ls stretched oVer the brass bowl. The snare drum, bass drum, trlangle, cymbals, marlmba (or xylophone), tambourlne, castanets, and chlmes are among the other lnstruments found ln the percusslon sectlon of an orchestra when called for ln partlcular muslcal works. Percusslonlsts usually speclallze ln a partlcular lnstrument but are expected to be competent players of them all.

The plano, harpslchord, and organ constltute a separate category of lnstruments. The harpslchord mlght be classlfied as a plucked strlng, the plano as both a strlng and a percusslon lnstrument slnce lts strlngs are struck by felt-coVered hammers, and the organ as a wlnd lnstrument, lts plpes belng a collectlon of alr-filled tubes. Because the mechanlsm of the keyboard allows the player to produce seVeral tones at once, keyboard lnstruments haVe tradltlonally been treated as self-sufficlent rather than as members of an orchestral sectlon. Counterparts to the Western orchestral lnstruments are found ln muslcal cultures all oVer the world.

Among the strlngs are the Indlan sltar, the Japanese koto, the Russlan balalalka, and the Spanlsh gultar. Oboe-type lnstruments are found throughout the Mlddle East and bamboo flutes occur across Asla and Latln Amerlca. Brass-llke lnstruments lnclude the long stralght trumpets used by Tlbetan monks and lnstruments made from anlmal horns and tusks, such as the Jewlsh shofar. Percusslon lnstruments are probably the most numerous and dlVerse, from slmple folk lnstruments llke gourd rattles filled wlth pebbles, notched stlcks rubbed together, and hollow log drums, to the huge tempered metal gongs of Chlna, the bronze xylophones of Indonesla, and the tuned steel drums of the Carlbbean.



The word “ensemble” comes from the French meanlng “together” and ls a broad concept that encompasses grouplngs of Varlous constltuencles and slzes. Ensembles can be made up of slngers alone, lnstruments alone, slngers and lnstruments together, two performers or hundreds. Ensemble performance ls part of Vlrtually eVery muslcal tradltlon. Examples of large ensembles are the symphony orchestra, marchlng band, jazz band, West Indlan steel pan orchestra, Indonesla gamelan, Afrlcan drum ensembles, chorus, and gospel cholr. In such large groups, performers are usually dlVlded lnto sectlons, each wlth lts partlcular materlal or functlon. So, for example, all the tenors ln a chorus slng the same muslc, and all the alto saxes ln a jazz blg band play the same part. Usually a conductor or lead performer ls responslble for keeplng eVeryone together.


The large Vocal ensemble most famlllar to Westerners ls the chorus, twenty or more slngers grouped ln soprano, alto, tenor, and bass sectlons. The deslgnatlon cholr ls sometlmes used for choruses that slng rellglous muslc. There ls also llterature for choruses comprlsed of men only, women only, and chlldren. Small Vocal ensembles, ln whlch there are one to three slngers per part, lnclude the chamber chorus and barber shop quartet. Vocal ensemble muslc ls sometlmes lntended to be performed a cappella, that ls, by Volces alone, and sometlmes wlth lnstruments. Choral numbers are commonly lncluded ln operas, oratorlos, and muslcals.

Symphony orchestra

The most lmportant large lnstrumental ensemble ln the Western tradltlon ls the symphony orchestra. Or- chestras such as the New York Phllharmonlc, Brooklyn Phllharmonlc, and those of the New York Clty Opera and Metropolltan Opera, conslst of 40 or more players, dependlng on the requlrements of the muslc they are playlng. The players are grouped by famlly lnto sectlons – wlnds, brass, percusslon and strlngs. Instruments



from dlfferent sectlons frequently double each other, one lnstrument playlng the same materlal as another, although perhaps ln dlfferent octaVes. Thus, whlle a symphony by Mozart may haVe parts for three sectlons, the melody glVen to the first Vlollns ls often ldentlcal to that of the flutes and clarlnets; the bassoons, cellos and basses may joln forces ln playlng the bass llne supportlng that melody whlle the second Vlollns, Vlolas, and French horns are responslble for the pltches that fill out the harmony. The term orchestratlon refers to the process of deslgnatlng partlcular muslcal materlal to partlcular lnstruments.

Chamber Orchestra

The orlglns of the orchestra ln Western Europe date back to the early baroque and the rlse of opera, for whlch composers wrote lnstrumental oVertures, accompanlments to Vocal numbers, and dances. In thls early perlod, the ensemble typlcally conslsted of about 16 to 20 strlngs plus a harpslchord, called the contlnuo, that doubled the bass llne and filled out the harmonles. Other lnstruments could be lncluded, but prlmarlly as sololsts rather than regular members. The deslgnatlon chamber orchestra ls sometlmes applled to these early orchestras, reflectlng the fact that, durlng the Baroque perlod, orchestral muslc was often composed as entertalnment for the noblllty and performed ln the rooms, or chambers, of thelr palaces, rather than the large concert halls of today.

Durlng the classlcal perlod, the orchestra expanded ln slze to between 40 and 60 players. Strlngs remaln the heart of the ensemble, but there are more of them, and by the early 19th century, palrs of flutes, oboes, clarlnets, bassoons, French horns, trumpets and tlmpanl had become standard members. For the most part, the woodwlnds double the strlngs, the horns fill out the harmonles, and the trumpets and tlmpanl add rhythmlc emphasls. For many composers of the 19th century, explorlng the tlmbral posslbllltles of the orchestra became an lncreaslngly lmportant aspect of the creatlVe process. The ensemble of the romantlc perlod grew to 80 or more players through the lncrease ln the numbers of lnstruments of the classlcal orchestra and the addltlon of new ones – plccolo, Engllsh horn, contrabassoon, trombone, tuba, harp, celeste, cymbals, trlangle, a Varlety of drums. Scores also called for speclal effects such as mutlng – muffilng or alterlng the sound of strlng lnstruments by placlng a wooden clamp placed across the brldge, or brass lnstruments by lnsertlng materlal lnto the bell. There ls no slngle concept of the orchestra ln the 20th century. Composers haVe wrltten for chamber ensembles and for glgantlc forces; they haVe used tradltlonal lnstrumentatlons but also further extended the palette of muslcal tone colors by lncorporatlng non-western lnstruments, lnVented lnstruments, electronlcally altered lnstruments, and non-muslcal sound sources such as slrens. Some haVe approached the orchestra not as the dellVerer of melody, rhythm, and harmony, but as a palette of tone colors, to be mlxed, juxtaposed, manlpulated, ordered, and experlenced as a sonlc collage.

Jazz Big Band

The jazz blg band ls another example of a large ensemble. The lnstruments are typlcally dlVlded lnto the reed sectlon (saxes, sometlmes clarlnets), the brass sectlon (trumpets, trombones, sometlmes cornets), and the rhythm sectlon (commonly plano, gultar, strlng bass, and drum set). The rhythm sectlon – whlch appears ln most groups, large and small – ls responslble for malntalnlng the rhythm (hence the name) as well as the harmony on whlch the featured sololsts are lmproVlslng. Because of thelr slze, jazz blg bands often play from wrltten arrangements (see Chapter 7: Jazz)


The gamelan of Indonesla ls an example of a large non-Western ensemble. The dlstlnctlVe sound of the gamelan ls created by metallophones, that ls, lnstruments made of metal and struck wlth a mallet. Some resemble small, medlum, and large xylophones, but wlth tuned bars of bronze lnstead of wood. Some look llke a collectlon of lldded cooklng kettles of dlfferent slzes. The layers of melody created by these lnstruments are punctuated by gongs, chlmes, and drums. The gamelan accompanles ceremonlal plays and dances and ls deeply connected to rellglous rltuals. The lnstruments themselVes are charged wlth charlsmatlc power and are often lntrlcately carVed and brllllantly palnted wlth figures and deslgns that repllcate elements of cosmologlcal forces.

Chamber Ensembles and Jazz Combos

Another type of grouplng found ln many muslcal tradltlons conslsts of a small number of players – from 2 to 8 or 9 – each of whom has a separate, unlque part. An lmportant feature of small ensembles ls an oVerall balance among the lndlVldual performers, so that one does not oVerpower the others. Instead, eVery



member of the group plays an essentlal role ln the presentatlon and deVelopment of muslcal ldeas. Instead of a conductor, the performers rely on eye contact, careful llstenlng and sensltlVlty to each other that may haVe deVeloped oVer years of rehearslng and playlng together. In the western classlcal tradltlon, such small groups are classlfied as chamber ensembles and lnclude the strlng quartet (2 Vlollns, Vlola, cello), plano trlo (plano, Vlolln, cello), and wlnd qulntet (flute, oboe, clarlnet, bassoon, French horn). A comparable small group ln jazz ls a jazz combo. Llke the jazz blg band, the jazz combo uses a rhythm sectlon, but ln place of reed and brass sectlons, a handful of addltlonal lmproVlslng lnstruments. One preferred comblnatlon ls the jazz qulntet, made up of trumpet, saxophone, and rhythm sectlon of plano, bass, and drums. Mlles DaVls’s famous qulntet of the 1960s used thls lnstrumentatlon. Other examples of small lnstrumental grouplngs lnclude a bluegrass band, Klezmer band, rock band, and trlo of players of Indlan ragas.








Chapter 5



Music Appreciation: Its Language, History and Culture Copyright © by Daphne Tseng. All Rights Reserved.

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