The History of Musical Instruments

The evolution of 21 musical instruments

Music is a form of art, which derives from the Greek word meaning "art of the Muses." In ancient Greece, the Muses were the goddesses that inspired the arts, such as literature, music and poetry.

Music has been performed since the dawn of human time with instruments and through vocal song. While it is not certain how or when the first musical instrument was invented, most historians point to early flutes made from animal bones that are at least 37,000 years old.  The oldest known written song dates back 4,000 years ago and was written in ancient cuneiform

Instruments were created to make musical sounds. Any object that produces sound can be considered a musical instrument, most particularly, if it was designed for that purpose. Take a look at the various instruments that have cropped up over the centuries from different parts of the world.

Clarinetists and bassoonists performing in orchestra, side view
Michael Blann/ Iconica/ Getty Images

An accordion is an instrument that uses reeds and air to create sound. Reeds are thin strips of material that air passes over to vibrate, which in turn creates a sound. The air is produced by a bellows, which is a device that produces a strong blast of air, such as a compressed bag. The accordion is played by pressing and expanding the air bellows while the musician presses buttons and keys to force the air across reeds of varying pitches and tones. More »

Classical Music Conductor Raising His Arms in an Auditorium
Classical Music Conductor Raising His Arms and Baton in an Auditorium. Getty Images/Digital Vision

In the 1820s, Louis Spohr introduced the conductor's baton. A baton, which is the French word for "stick," ​is a stick that is used by conductors primarily to enlarge and enhance the manual and bodily movements associated with directing an ensemble of musicians. Prior to its invention, conductors would often use a violin bow. More »

bell
Ancient Monasteries Bells. Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

Bells may be categorized as idiophones or instruments sounding by the vibration of resonant solid material, and more broadly as percussion instruments.

The bells at the Agia Triada Monastery in Athens, Greece, are a good example of how bells have been associated with religious rituals over the centuries and are still used today to call communities together for religious services. More »

Clarinet
Clarinet. Getty Images/C Squared Studios

The clarinet's predecessor was the chalumeau, the first true single reed instrument. Johann Christoph Denner, a famous German woodwind instrument maker of the Baroque era, is accredited as the inventor of the clarinet. More »

AndrewKepert/Creative Commons

The double bass goes by many names, the bass, contrabass, bass violin, upright bass, standup bass, to name a few. The earliest known double bass type of instrument dates back to 1516. Domenico Dragonetti was the first great virtuoso of the instrument and was largely responsible for the double bass joining the orchestra. The double bass is the largest and lowest-pitched bowed string instrument in the modern symphony orchestra.  More »

Early Belgian Dulcimer (or Hackebrett) from the Hans Adler collection. Aldercraft/Creative Commons

The name dulcimer comes from the Latin and Greek words dulce and melos, which combine to mean "sweet tune." A dulcimer comes from the zither family of stringed instruments that consist of many strings stretched across a thin, flat body. A hammered dulcimer has many strings struck by handheld hammers. Being a struck string instrument, it is considered to be among the ancestors of the piano. More »

Electric Organ

A custom three-manual Rodgers Trillium organ console installed in a church. Public Domain

The immediate predecessor of the electronic organ was the harmonium, or reed organ, an instrument that was very popular in homes and small churches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In a fashion not totally unlike that of pipe organs, reed organs generated sound by forcing air over a set of reeds by means of a bellows, usually operated by constantly pumping a set of pedals.

Canadian Morse Robb patented the world's first electric organ in 1928, known as the Robb Wave Organ.

A selection of flutes from around the world. Public Domain

The flute is the earliest instrument that we have archeologically found that dates back to the paleolithic time, more than 35,000 years ago. The flute belongs to the woodwind instruments, but unlike other woodwinds that use reeds, the flute is a reedless wind instrument that produces its sounds from the flow of air across an opening.

An early flute, which was found in China, was called a ch'ie. Many ancient cultures have some form of flute passed down through history. More »

Vienna horn. Creative Commons

The modern orchestral brass double French horn was an invention based on early hunting horns. Horns were first used as musical instruments during 16th-century operas. German Fritz Kruspe has been credited most often as being the inventor of the modern double French horn in 1900. More »

Guitar
Guitar. freephotos

The guitar is a fretted string instrument, classified as a chordophone, with anywhere from four to 18 strings, usually having six. The sound is projected acoustically through a hollow wooden or plastic body or through an electrical amplifier and speaker. It is typically played by strumming or plucking the strings with one hand and the other hand presses strings along frets, which are raised strips that can change the tone of a sound.

A 3,000-year-old stone carving shows a Hittite bard playing a stringed chordophone, most likely a predecessor of the modern-day guitar. Other earlier examples of chordophones include the European lute and the four-string oud, brought to the Spanish peninsula by the Moors. The modern guitar most likely originated in medieval Spain. More »

Harpsichord
Harpsichord. C Squared Studios/Getty Images

A harpsichord, the predecessor of the piano, is played by the use of a keyboard, which has levers that a player presses to produce a sound. When the player presses one or more keys, this triggers a mechanism, which plucks one or more strings with a small quill.

The ancestor of the harpsichord was most likely a handheld plucked instrument called the psaltery circa 1300, which later had a keyboard added to it. 

The harpsichord was popular during the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Its popularity diminished with the development of the piano in 1700.  More »

A Wittner mechanical wind-up metronome. Paco from Badajoz, España/Creative Commons

A metronome is a device that produces an audible beat—a click or other sound—at regular intervals that the user can set in beats per minute. Musicians use the device to practice playing to a regular pulse.

In 1696, French musician Etienne Loulie made the first recorded attempt to apply the pendulum to a metronome. Although the first working metronome did not come into existence until 1814. More »

Moog synthesizers. Mark Hyre/Creative Commons

 

 

Robert Moog designed his first electronic synthesizers in collaboration with the composers Herbert A. Deutsch and Walter Carlos. Synthesizers are used to imitate sounds of other instruments like pianos, flutes, organs or make new sounds generated electronically. Moog synthesizers used analog circuits and signals in the 1960s to create a unique sound. More »

Oboe

A modern oboe with a reed (Lorée, Paris). Hustvedt/Creative Commons

 

The oboe, called a hautbois prior to 1770 meaning "loud or high wood" in French, was invented in the 17th century by the French musicians Jean Hotteterre and Michel Danican Philidor. The oboe is a double-reeded wood instrument. It was the main melody instrument in early military bands until it was succeeded by the clarinet. The oboe evolved from the shawm, a double-reed instrument, that most likely originated from the eastern Mediterranean region.

An Asian double chambered ocarina. Public Domain

The ceramic ocarina is a musical wind instrument that is a type of vessel flute, that derived from the ancient wind instruments. Italian inventor Giuseppe Donati developed the modern 10-hole ocarina in 1853. Variations exist, but a typical ocarina is an enclosed space with four to twelve finger holes and a mouthpiece that projects from the body. It is traditionally made from clay or ceramic, but other materials are also used—such as plastic, wood, glass, metal or bone.  More »

Piano
Piano. freephotos

The piano is an acoustic, stringed instrument invented around the year 1700, most likely by Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua, Italy. It is played by using fingers on a keyboard, which then causes hammers within the piano body to strike the strings. The Italian word piano is a shortened form of the Italian word pianoforte, which means both "soft" and "loud," respectively. Its predecessor was the harpsichord. More »

Harald Bode's Multimonica (1940) and Georges Jenny Ondioline (c.1941). Public domain

Hugh Le Caine, Canadian physicist, composer and instrument builder (1914-1977), built the world's first voltage controlled music synthesizer in 1945, called the Electronic Sackbut. The player used the left hand to modify the sound while the right hand was used to play the keyboard. Over his lifetime, he designed 22 musical instruments, including a touch-sensitive keyboard and variable speed multi-track tape recorder.  More »

Saxophone - Adolphe Sax
The saxophone was invented by a Belgian manufacturer, Adolphe Sax. freephotos

The saxophone, also called a sax, belongs to the woodwind family of instruments. It is usually made of brass and is played with a single, wood reed mouthpiece, similar to a clarinet. Like the clarinet, saxophones have holes in the instrument which the player closes using a system of key levers. When the player presses a key, a pad either covers a hole or lifts off a hole, which lowers or raises the pitch.

The saxophone was invented by Belgian Adolphe Sax and exhibited to the world for the first time at the 1841 Brussels exhibition. More »

Wilbur de Paris playing trombone in a jazz ensemble, c.1947. Public Domain

The trombone belongs to the brass family of instruments. Like all brass instruments, sound is produced when the player's vibrating lips cause the air column inside the instrument to vibrate.

Trombones use a telescoping slide mechanism that varies the length of the instrument to change the pitch. 

The word "trombone" comes from the Italian tromba, meaning "trumpet," and the Italian suffix -one, meaning "large," therefore, the instrument name means "large trumpet." In English, the instrument was called a "sackbut." It made its initial appearance in the music in the 15th century. More »

Trumpet

Trumpet
Trumpet. freephotos

Trumpet-like instruments have historically been used as signaling devices in battle or hunting, with examples dating back to at least 1500 BC, using animal horns or conch shells. The modern valve trumpet has evolved more than any other instrument used in modern day. 

Trumpets are brass instruments that began to be used as musical instruments only in the late 14th or early 15th century. Mozart's father, Leopold, and Haydn's brother, Michael, wrote concertos exclusively for the trumpet for in the second half of the eighteenth century. 

Tuba

Tuba with four rotary valves. Public Domain

The tuba is the largest and lowest-pitched musical instrument in the brass family. Like all brass instruments, sound is produced by moving air past the lips, causing them to vibrate into a large cupped mouthpiece.

Modern tubas owe their existence to the joint patent of the valve by two Germans Friedrich Blühmel and Heinrich Stölzel in 1818.