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Interesting Things About Musical Instruments

They are the key to music all over the world. We have used them since pre-historic times, when we started out with bones and animal horns. Pretty much anything can be used for this purpose if you are creative enough. Today we are talking about musical instruments.

There is an instrument called a sackbut.

Don’t laugh, this is real! The sackbut was invented in the fifteenth century, likely in the Burgundy region. It’s name is Old French, meaning “pull-push.” An early form of the trombone, it has a softer tone and a narrower bell than it’s more modern cousin.

The glass armonica was thought to be a deadly instrument.

Benjamin Franklin invented this instrument in 1761 and it exploded in popularity at concerts around the world, but then the rumors began to spread. Musicians complained that playing the instrument led to muscle spasms, nervousness, cramps, dizziness, and other uncomfortable symptoms. Then one day a child died at a glass armonica concert in Germany and it was banned from several towns. It’s popularity dropped off after this and the glass armonica soon sank into obscurity. To this day, no one knows what caused the strange incidents associated with Ben Franklin’s invention.

Steel drums originated from oil barrels.

This famous percussion instrument was invented on the island of Trinidad in the 1940s. Oil refineries opened on the island in the early twentieth century and 55-gallon oil barrels were all over the place. Local musicians began using them to create music, inventing a drum with twelve distinct tones by hammering out the lids of the oil barrels. Steel drums are now the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago.

Climate change helped create Stradivarius violins.

Not the manmade climate change we hear so much about today. This was due to a different change in weather patterns that took place between the 1300s and the 1800s, which is known as the Little Ice Age. This period of colder temperatures and more intense glacial activity helped condition wood grown in that time that later went into the famous Stradivarius violins. It was this conditioning that helped create the rich resonance for which these instruments are famous.

Nero did not play the fiddle while Rome burned.

There is a simple reason for this: the fiddle was not invented yet. There is no evidence that he played any sort of instrument during the fire, nor did he set it. However, he did use the disaster for his own political gain later. The origin of the story concerning the fiddling scenario can be traced to Shakespeare, who described Nero playing a lute while the city burned. This was later changed to a fiddle by unknown sources, and the legend was born.

Drums were an important part of the Civil War.

Drummer boys were a vital part of a battle scenario. They put themselves in harm’s way to beat out vital battle orders or to pass on other important communications. The job was very dangerous and several drummer boys were killed in the process. The youngest soldier to win a medal of honor was a 13-year-old drummer boy who managed not to lose his drum throughout a rather hairy battle scene, likely saving hundreds of lives.

The catlike instrument so common in Chinese music is called an erhu.

Haven’t you always wondered? I have, so I looked it up. The erhu is a stringed instrument that resembles a fretless violin, though its sound is much more high-pitched with a larger vibrato. This instrument is constructed with a bamboo bow and horsehair strings.

Computers have been used as musical instruments.

Not in the way you think, either. One musician took advantage of the vibrations made by old time disk drives and used one to play all sorts of songs, including the Star Wars Imperial March. Some bored medical technicians have also programmed MRI machines to play symphony music using the electromagnetic vibrations produced by the devices. You can find all sorts of interesting musical videos like these on YouTube.

Cannons have been used as musical instruments.

That’s right, cannons! The best example is from Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, where a cannon fires sixteen shots at the climax of the song. This has led to some creative substitutions on the part of orchestras. Some have used miniature cannons for the same effect. One group fired blanks from a shotgun into a partially filled barrel of sand. Today, however, most who play this song indoors use pre-recorded cannon sounds connected to a computerized drum pad.

There is a world record for number of instruments used in one song.

According to the Guinness World Records, the most instruments used in a single song is 315, not counting duplications. This feat was accomplished by composer Rupam Sarmah in Jorhat, Assam, India on February 24th, 2013. The song employed a total of 476 musicians.

Trust me, I can’t play any musical instruments. Though I come from a family of avid musicians, the most I can do is make sounds like dying geese or fighting cats. That being said, I still laugh at the word sackbut like a twelve-year-old and I enjoy all kinds of music. I regularly confuse my computer with my varied tastes, because they are so broad. It just goes to show, you don’t need to be a musician to enjoy music.



The Franklin Institute-

Calypso Connections-

National Association of Fire Investigators-


National Public Radio-

Florida Orchestra-

Guinness World Records-

My sister, who introduced me to the word “sackbut.”


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