Instruments | Chronological Overview

The history of musical instruments has always been very closely linked to the history of music itself. New musical styles often come about because new instruments become available, or improvements to existing ones are made.

Improvements to the design of the piano in the 1770s, for instance, led to its adoption by composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91), who quickly developed a new, individual style of keyboard writing. On the other hand, instrumental developments can come about because composers or performers demand them. In the 1970s, for example, polyphonic synthesizers were developed because monophonic synthesizers, which could only play one note at a time, under-used the abilities of keyboard players.

It is often obvious that a new instrument is needed when existing instruments are forced to use unusual, high-risk techniques to overcome shortcomings in their capabilities. In the eighteenth century, for example the natural horn, was asked to use awkward hand-stopping more and more frequently to provide extra notes, and it was therefore inevitable that it should be given a complete chromatic range as soon as the latest valve technology became available.

When a new instrument is introduced, there is usually quite a lot of interest on the part of musicians and composers, who are eager to find out what it can do. If it offers something unique for which there is a real need, it is fairly likely to survive. If it duplicates an instrument that exists already, it may still survive if it is easier to play, produces a better sound, costs less or is more practical than its rival. Even if it does become obsolete, it may well be resurrected for its curiosity value or for reasons of authenticity.

Western Instruments before 1600

In Western Europe, instrument-making only started to reach a high level of sophistication after about 1500, when more advanced manufacturing techniques were developed and when the impact of the Renaissance movement had raised music to a new level of importance. Before that time, prototypes of most instruments had been developed, but these lacked the refinement necessary for their long-term survival. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, instruments had been loosely categorized into two types. ‘Bas’, or ‘soft’ instruments were used indoors for background music and dancing, and were generally quiet instruments such as bowed and plucked strings, woodwind and portative organs. ‘Haut’, or ‘loud’ instruments were used outdoors, often for processions and outdoor dancing, and included shawms, trombones and slide trumpets. Beyond this loose arrangement, ensembles were formed freely, often just using whatever instruments happened to be available. A much clearer pattern emerges from the Renaissance period (1450–1600) onwards. The Renaissance style was based on polyphony, meaning ‘many voices’, and was dominated by choral music. At that time choirs usually contained between three and five separate parts, each of which spanned a different range of notes. All the parts were melodic and equally important, given the same type of melody and often imitating the melodies of the...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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