Category Archives: Instruments

The world’s oldest musical instrument

Ever wonder what a 40,000-year-old instrument might sound like?

Experimental archaeologist Wulf Hein was part of a 1992 excavation team that explored southwestern Germany — in particular, the Geißenklösterle cave. In Werner Herzog’s The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Hein (dressed in reindeer fur and leather) explains what they discovered:

“One of the most important finds we made in this cave was a very tiny flute made out of the radius of a vulture. [It is} astonishing that this flute is pentatonic. This is the same tonality that we are used to hearing today.”

Hear a demonstration of the flute (including an excerpt of a well-known tune) in the clip below, courtesy of Hein.

Learning about brass instruments

How brass instruments work (YouTube screengrab)
How brass instruments work (YouTube screengrab)

What gives the trumpet its clarion ring and the tuba its gut shaking oom-pah-pah?

In a recent Ted-Ed video, teacher Al Cannon describes how sound is made in the brass family of instruments — from the air in the lungs of the musician, to the lips buzzing in the mouthpiece, to the bell of the instrument.

Watch the TedEd video below to learn more about brass instruments and see the entire lesson on Ted-Ed’s website.


Related stories:

Class Notes: The Brass Family

Audio Backpack: Brass

Happy birthday to electronic music pioneer Clara Rockmore

Today's Google Doodle honoring Clara Rockmore
Today’s Google Doodle honoring Clara Rockmore

On this day in 1911, electronic music pioneer Clara Rockmore was born. Her birthday has been commemorated with a Google Doodle, which offers an interactive lesson on playing the theremin (using your mouse to hover over pitches and play a melody).

From a very early age, it was clear that Rockmore was musically gifted. By age two, she already had perfect pitch and could pick out melodies on the piano. She was on her way to a promising career as a violinist, but developed debilitating arthritis in her bowing arm as a teenager. Not long after that, she met Léon Theremin, and switched to the theremin as her primary instrument — and eventually becoming its most prominent and respected performer.

“I was fascinated by the aesthetic part of it, the visual beauty, the idea of playing in the air,” Clara recalled in an interview, “and I loved the sound. I tried it, and apparently showed some kind of immediate ability to manipulate it. Soon Lev Sergeyevich gave me, for a present, the RCA model theremin.”

Here is Rockmore performing “The Swan” from The Carnival of Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns.

Hear the largest musical instrument in the world

Organist Otto Pebworth performing on the Great Stalacpipe Organ (YouTube screengrab)
Organist Otto Pebworth performing on the Great Stalacpipe Organ (YouTube screengrab)

Have you ever wondered what the largest instrument in the world is?

Well, you can find it deep in the Luray Caverns, located in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. In 1954, mathematician and scientist Leland Sprinkle built a gigantic pipe organ there — The Great Stalacpipe Organ.

While it first appears to be a standard pipe organ, it actually uses the cavern’s stalactites to deliver the sounds instead of pipes.

In a recent episode of “Great Big Story,” organist Otto Pebworth demonstrates the instrument and explains how it works:

“When I press a key, it sends an electrical pulse up to a rubber-tipped mallet, which strikes the stalactite, causing it to vibrate and produce an incredibly beautiful, musical tone.”

The stalactites chosen to make sound cover a range of more than 3.5 acres, making it the largest musical instrument in the world.

Hear the organ in action in the video below, as Pebworth performs a bit of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”

Hear a 1679 Stradivarius guitar — The Sabionari

Rolf Lislevand plays "The Sabionari" (YouTube screengrab)
Rolf Lislevand plays “The Sabionari” (YouTube screengrab)

When you hear the name Antonio Stradivari, you most likely think of the finest violins in the world, selling for millions of dollars. However, the legendary luthier also produced a handful of guitars — only one of which remains playable today.

The “Sabionari” guitar was produced by Stradivari in 1679. It was slightly modified around the turn of the nineteenth century (to follow the style of other instruments of the time), but was recently restored to its original Baroque configuration by Daniel Sinier and Francoise de Ridder. The instrument has four double-sets of catgut strings (tuned A-D-G-B) and one single string (tuned to E).

In the video below, Rolf Lislevand performs Santiago de Murcia’s Tarentela on the Sabionari. Learn more about the guitar here.