The History of Music in Fifty Instruments
The History of Music in Fifty Instruments
The History of Music in Fifty Instruments The History of Music in Fifty Instruments The History of Music in Fifty Instruments The History of Music in Fifty Instruments

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Not Available Online
Publisher: Firefly Books

Edition Notes: Now in Paperback
Author Statement: by Philip Wilkinson
Audience: Trade
Specs: 150 full-color illustrations, further reading, useful websites, index
Pages: 224
Trim Size: 6 3/4" X 9"
Language code 1: eng
Publication Date: 20241015
Price: Select Below

The History of Music in Fifty Instruments

"Although the title makes it sound like a reference book, it is so much more than that. The style of writing is engaging and informative. The layout is attractive, with beautiful illustrations, photos, period paintings, quotes, and interesting inserts on every page. Wilkinson's history unfolds like a symphonic work with instrument makers, composers and virtuosic performers picking up these incredible creations and exposing their beauty and capability. To open it up is to be instantly hooked."
-- Publishers Weekly

The 400-year story of music told by the instruments that make an orchestra.

The History of Music in Fifty Instruments outlines musical history in well-written nuggets of information. Profiling one instrument at a time, it describes the history of music since the 1700s, when orchestras first took the formal shape familiar to us. The concise text explains the role of each instrument in the orchestra and its importance in the development of music in general.

The book lists the 50 instruments chronologically in the woodwind, brass, percussion and string sections of an orchestra. The classic instruments are included -- violin, cello, flute, oboe, clarinet, harp and more. Some instruments reflect the musical period or context in which they were most popular, such as the harpsichord in the Baroque period, and the snare drum in military parades. Among the unusual instruments is the otherworldly theremin.

A wide range of modern and archival photographs and paintings show the instruments. Entries outline their historical and country origins and the era in which they were played (e.g. Classical, Modern). Annotated illustrations explain the instrument's construction, how it is played and tuned, and its musical range. Composers, musical compositions and musicians that highlight the particular instrument are examined. For example, Baroque composer Antonio Vivalidi's contribution to the violin; inventor Adolphe Sax's tenacious promotion of his saxophone in the 1840s; and 20th century pianist Glenn Gould's controversial recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations.

For musicians, teachers and students, and all who enjoy music, this book is a beautiful and informative tour of the orchestra and beyond.


Philip Wilkinson is a freelance writer and an author in a range of subject areas, particularly history, architecture and music. His achievements include the award-winning book Amazing Buildings, What the Romans Did for Us, and several TV tie-ins, including three for the BBC's major series Restoration.



From the serpent to the synthesizer, the piano to the piccolo, Western music has a huge range of instruments to draw on. Most of these instruments have a long history, and they have changed continuously -- and as they have evolved, music has changed, too. This book tells the story of 50 of these instruments, showing how they have developed and how they have had an effect on Western music, from the Medieval period to today.

Players, instruments, and composers
There has always been a complex relationship between musicians and instrument-makers. Craftsmen have been stimulated to make new and better instruments at the request of musicians. Players have honed techniques or found different approaches to playing as they have come across unfamiliar instruments. Composers have found in the latest instruments and the abilities of their players new expressive powers that have encouraged them to write in different and exciting ways.

The story of the violin is a good example. The great violin-makers of early-18th century Cremona, Venice, and other Italian cities made it possible for the talents of a generation of brilliant Italian violinist-composers (such as Corelli and Vivaldi) to blossom, and ultimately for the violin to dominate much of the music of the late Baroque period. Later violin-makers, inspired partly by the dazzling playing of the great virtuosos and partly by the demand for more volume as orchestras grew in size, evolved a modified design to produce a bigger sound. This in turn made possible the spectacular playing of 19th-century virtuosos like Paganini. The louder violin also helped 19th-century composers such as Brahms and Mendelssohn write their outstanding concertos for the instrument. Other instruments with a long history, from the clarinet to the piano, had a similar influence.

Reasons for change
Over the centuries, instruments have evolved in many ways and for many reasons. The changes can be linked to developing technology (as with the valves on brass instruments), to player convenience (as with the appearance of the end pin that helps cellists hold their instrument firmly in one place), to great inventors or craftsmen (as with the saxophone), or to the demands of composers (as with the special tuba that Wagner commissioned for his opera orchestra).

A major factor for change was simply musical or cultural fashion. When a prominent musician or patron took up an idea, it caught on widely and the fashion spread. The violin orchestras at the French court in the 17th and 18th centuries showed the huge potential of groups of stringed instruments playing in multi-part harmony. The advocacy of new piano designs by great pianist-composers such as Beethoven was highly influential. And 19th-century improvements to instruments like the harp made them increasingly popular.

The instruments and their families
This book concentrates on the classical orchestra, together with a few instruments, such as the piano and the guitar, that sometimes appear in or alongside the orchestra. Each instrument is given a key date, which may be the date of its invention, of a major development, or of the moment when it began to make a major musical impact.

The type of the instrument is specified, according to the system of classification devised in the early-20th century by German scholars Erich Mortiz von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs. Based on how instruments work, it divides the majority of instruments into types -- idiophones, membranophones, cordophones, and aerophones. Idiophones produce a sound when the whole body of the instrument vibrates -- for example, gongs and chimes. Membranophones are instruments like drums that make a sound when a membrane vibrates. Cordophones, such as violins, guitars, and pianos, produce their sound by means of vibrating strings. In aerophones, the movement of a column of air produces a sound, as is the case in oboes, flutes, horns, and organs.

Another way of classifying instruments is by grouping them into the sections of the orchestra -- strings, woodwind, brass, and percussion -- and this book gives these groupings too. Again, this system is based on the way in which the instruments work. Brass instruments, for example, are in that group not because of the material they are made of, but because they produce their sound as a result of the vibration of the player's lips.

Instruments and eras
All the groups of instruments have a long history, and this book tells their stories against a background of musical history stretching from the Middle Ages to the present. In the process, it uses the standard terms common in musical history to describe the key phases, from Medieval to Modern.

The Medieval period (roughly 500 to 1400) was a vast era in which musical notation evolved and instruments were used to provide entertainment at festivities and to accompany dancing and singing. Vocal music, which featured a lot in church services, developed through many phases, but in particular from simple single-line chants to polyphony -- complex music in which different vocal parts intermingled and produced the kinds of harmonies that influenced Western music for much of the rest of its history. Medieval instruments included ancestors of many of those played today. They ranged from plucked strings such as the lute and harp, to bowed instruments like the lyra and fiddle, ancestors of the violin, and from wooden pipes resembling flutes, to the sackbut, forebear of the trombone. The Medieval period also saw the development of the first keyboard instrument, the organ.

In the Renaissance period (in music, usually said to be 1400-1600), music shook off the conventions of medieval church music. The idea of tonality -- according to which music is written in a specific key -- became central and remained so until the 20th century. At the same time music tended to become more clearly expressive. As well as being a heyday of vocal music, it was also a boom time for instrumental music. Groups of musicians playing together in bands or consorts became common, and the instruments they played developed too. Valveless trumpets, wooden cornets, and sackbuts dominated the brass; bowed stringed instruments, especially viols, were popular; and reed instruments such as shawms, the ancestors of modern woodwinds, were often heard. In addition, the harpsichord established itself at the heart of much instrumental music-making -- it would keep this central role through the next period, the Baroque era.

The Baroque era (approximately 1600-1750) produced highly ornate music and established some of the major musical forms, such as the concerto, sonata, and opera. This was the time of major composers such as Monteverdi, Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi. The period saw the establishment of the strings (especially the violins) as the foundation of the orchestra, and the improvement of woodwind instruments such as the flute, oboe, and bassoon, so that orchestras made up of strings plus woodwind became common. The harpsichord kept its place both as a solo instrument and within the orchestra, but in the later part of the period the piano was developed and began to inspire composers to produce increasingly expressive keyboard music.

By the time of the Classical period (c.1750-1820), composers such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were writing symphonies, concertos, and other works for an orchestra with strings, horns, oboes, and bassoons. They often used additional wind instruments such as clarinets, trumpets, and trombones. They began to incorporate further percussion instruments, adding the bass drum, triangle, and cymbals to the orchestra, especially when they wanted to produce exotic musical effects. The Classical composers were also the first to exploit fully the expressive potential of the piano, which developed quickly during this period.

The piano was also a key instrument for the composers of the Romantic era (roughly 1820-1910). During this period, composers sought to extend the power and scope of the orchestra still further. They increasingly exploited brass instruments, which were now easier to play because of the introduction of valves in the first part of the period. They also added brand new instruments, many, such as the tuba, in the brass section. All these developments put a wide range of sounds at composers' disposal. From Berlioz to Wagner, they pioneered new ways of writing for these instruments, increased the size of the orchestra, and transformed music.

The story continues
The Modern period (1910 onward) saw an explosion of musical ideas and a technological revolution. Classical composers continued to extend the range of sounds that could be produced with conventional instruments, but some used electronic instruments too, from early examples like the ondes Martenot, which has a distinctive sound, to the synthesizer, which, in theory at least, can make any sound at all. The variety of instruments and sounds available to composers has never been greater, and the number of musical styles in the 20th and 21st centuries is hugely varied too. The sheer number of performers, and the availability of their work through recordings and the internet, means that there has never been a better time to listen to the vast and diverse body of Western music, or to sample the variety of instruments that have transformed this music and brought it to life.



    Double bass
    English horn
    Glass armonica
    Snare drum
    French horn
    Tenor drum
    Bass drum
    Bass clarinet
    Wagner tuba
    Ondes Martenot
    Wood block

Further reading

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