Richard Middleton
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"Inventing Musical Instruments"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, May 2001.

Although most of us rarely think about it, all of the musical instruments that we play and enjoy are inventions, clever contraptions that somebody came up with: the snare drum, the piano, the balalaika, the kazoo. Years ago, someone figured out that, if you stick this thing on that thing and do this, or bang on one of these, or rub two of those together, you get a cool sound.

This inventiveness is as much a part of our musical instinct as music itself. And with each new instrument we create, another facet of our musical soul is revealed, the new sounds resonating within us and drawing out new emotions and spiritual experiences, new forms of expression. I like to imagine that, right now, someone somewhere is creating an instrument that will touch such an essential place in us that it will someday seem as necessary and inevitable as the guitar does today.

Which brings me to my real subject: making musical instruments. It's an ancient folk tradition, and it's one that we can all share in with a minimum of expense and expertise. All you need are simple materials and a willingness to experiment. To get some ideas going, it might be helpful to think about the ways in which familiar instruments produce their characteristic sounds.

Some instruments are just objects that sound cool when we hit them: pieces of metal like gongs and cymbals and cowbells, blocks of wood like claves and temple blocks, hollow vessels and boxes like the udu and the cajon. If you start hitting everyday objects, you find that there's an infinite range of musical possibilities in objects like coffee mugs, radiators, bed frames, car bumpers, and the zillion other things knocking around our kitchens, basements, or the local thrift store. Percussionist Joel Litwin uses an old suitcase as a drum, and it sounds great.

Some objects produce a more definite pitch: bells, triangles, chimes, mixing bowls (which you can tune by filling with water), drinking glasses (ditto), brake drums, terra cotta pots. You can combine several together to form a scale. Some rainy day, get all your drinking glasses and set them out on your dining table. Arrange them by pitch and fine tune them into a scale by filling them with water as needed. Then, using a couple of pencils with rubber bands wrapped around the ends, you can play them much like you would a marimba (though more softly).

You can tune other objects, too, by altering their shape and/or their mass, and you can tune them to any scale you like: pentatonic, equal tempered, just intonation, even micro-tonal scales with dozens of tones to each octave. Sometimes, all of your scale tones can be produced by one object, like the steel drum.

By the way, the steel drum is a great example of the musical potential of junk. It's made from the end of an oil drum that's been cut off, heated over a fire, pounded and rounded, scored with a steel punch, banged further and tuned to produce some of the loveliest musical tones on the planet. Seventy-five years ago, it didn't even exist. If it hadn't been for some enterprising, poor black musicians in Trinidad whose "real" instruments were banned by the white authorities, it would never have been invented. Luckily for us, oppression and necessity aren't the only mothers of invention — fun and curiosity work just fine.

Many drums use a stretched membrane for a playing surface: conga drum, djembe, tympani. If you have a hollow tube, vessel or box, you can stretch some material (animal hide, rubber, plastic) over the top of it to create a drum. Experiment with different materials to see which combinations give you the best tones.

You can make maracas and shakers out of all kinds of household materials: vitamin bottles, soda cans, film canisters. You can fill them with BB's, tiny rocks, rice, kitty litter — anything that makes a dry rattling sound. A ring of keys also makes a great sound when you shake it. You can apply the rattle concept to other instruments, too. If you loosely attach shells or bottle caps to the body of an instrument, they will produce a pleasing, droning buzz when the instrument sounds (the African mbira is a nice example).

Some instruments use stretched strings to produce a tone: harp, piano, kora, bazouki. You can stretch a string between two nails in a board, across the front of a cigar box, or across your living room. You can tune the string(s), and you can change the pitch by altering the playable length or the tension. To sound the string, you can pluck it, strike it, bow it, tickle it, blow on it, pour sand on it, yell at it. If your instrument has a bridge with a flat edge, the string will "zing" against it, much like a sitar. If the face of the instrument's body is a membrane (like the banjo), that will amplify and color the sound.

Some instruments produce tones by resonating the air inside a hollow tube. You can get the air to vibrate by buzzing your lips at one end of the tube (bugle, didgeridoo), or by blowing air across the edge of a hole (flute, recorder). Some wind instruments have a reed, which you must make vibrate in order to get a tone out of the tube (saxophone, bassoon). Some tubes have holes which you can cover and uncover in order to get different pitches (shakuhachi, tin whistle). Some allow you to change pitch by changing the length of the tube itself, with a slide or with valves (trombone, trumpet). Some instruments have multiple tubes, which require a bellows to build up sufficient air pressure (the bagpipe). And some wind-driven instruments have no tube at all, instead directing the air over tuned reeds (accordion, harmonium, pump organ); these usually require a bellows as well.

You can make your own wind instruments out of the homeliest of materials, from beer bottles to leftover PVC tubing to cardboard wrapping paper cores. And kids all over the world know how to "play" a blade of grass by holding it tightly and blowing on it.

Many instruments can be enhanced with a resonator, usually a hollow chamber. This can be incorporated into the instrument itself like the body of a guitar, or it can wrap around the outside of the instrument like the resonating gourd of the mbira. Many instruments with tone bars (marimbas, vibraphones, gamelan, etc.) have vertical tube resonators under the bars.

You can also "crossbreed" different types of instruments and playing techniques. For example, you can use a violin bow to play many different objects, such as cymbals, gongs, bells, bowls, glasses, bars of metal, and most strings.

If you dig electronics, you can play with amplification techniques (contact microphones, pickups, piezo elements, speakers), motors, oscillators, photoelectric cells, filters, modulators, computers — all of which can be combined with the acoustic methods described above.

I hope you're getting the idea that you can make instruments from just about anything that moves, vibrates, or makes an interesting noise: springs, rulers, hair combs, bicycle wheels, gas cans. You can model your instruments on the principles of existing instruments or you can blaze your own trail. There are numerous books on the subject, and there's also a great CD called "Orbitones" (Ellipsis Arts) featuring the work of sixteen musicians and ensembles who invent their own instruments.

I'll leave you with a few examples of what other folks have done, and I hope they inspire you to tinker. One woman made an "organ" out of dozens of car horns, powered by batteries and played from a central console. An Australian fellow created a lovely, high-pitched flute out of a hollow eagle feather. Northwest songwriter and percussionist Linda Severt created an entire drum set out of recycled materials. Another northwesterner, Ela Lamblin (featured on the "Orbitones" CD), creates elaborate instruments that are as beautiful visually as they are musically, which he showcases in performances at his Lelavision Gallery in Seattle.

Enjoy, and let me know what you come up with!

Copyright 2001 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

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Richard Middleton is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm" (Countersine 2018).