Music Teacher's Helper Blog

A Brief History of String Instruments

The following post is from guest blogger, Emily Steves:

Left hand of acoustic guitar playerSome of the most important instruments in the history of music have been stringed instruments, which range from early to modern forms of the violin and the guitar, through to contemporary experiments with amplification and electric or digital recording. Forerunners to current instruments have been found in ancient burial sites, and demonstrate a clear historical progression into the stringed instruments that we use today.

Some of the earliest stringed instruments have been identified in archaeological digs of Ancient Mesopotamian sites, which include artifacts over three thousand years old. Lyre instruments with wooden bodies, and strings used for plucking or playing with a bow represent key instruments that point towards later harps and violin type instruments; moreover, Indian instruments from 500 BC have been discovered with anything from 7 to 21 strings.

During the medieval era, the rate by which string instruments developed arguably varied from country to country – Middle Eastern rebecs represented breakthroughs in terms of shape and strings, with a half a pear shape using three strings. Early versions of the violin and fiddle, by comparison, emerged in Europe through instruments such as the gittern, a four stringed precursor to the guitar, and basic lutes. These instruments typically used catgut and other somewhat unpleasant materials for their strings, with higher end versions featuring silk.

woman playing violinString instrument design was refined during the Renaissance and into the Baroque period of musical history – violins and guitars became more stable in terms of their design changes, and were roughly similar to what we now use – the violins of the Renaissance featured intricate woodwork and stringing, while more elaborate bass instruments such as the bandora were produced alongside quill plucked citterns, and Spanish body guitars.

In the 19th century, string instruments were made more widely available through mass production, with woodwind string instruments a key part of orchestras – cellos, violas, and upright basses, for example, were now standard instruments for chamber and smaller orchestras. At the same time, the 19th century guitar became more typically associated with six string models, rather than traditional five string versions.

Major changes to string instruments in the 20th century primarily involved innovations in amplification and electronic music – electric violins were available by the 1920s, and were an important part of emerging jazz music trends in the United States. Breakthroughs in electric guitar and basses then saw major breakthroughs in pop and rock music through the middle of the 20th century. The ongoing connection of string instruments to electronic amplification added variety to classical performances, and enabled experimentation in the dynamic range of orchestras, bands, and solo performances.

emilyEmily Steves is associated with Mann’s Music , which is a UK specialist musical instrument shop based in Colchester, Essex. She is a young girl, her passion is music, she writes articles on musics and musical instruments. In her free time she loves to do research with different musical instruments.

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4 Comments

  1. Anthony Vanover

    The musical bow is one of the earliest stringed instruments that I know of. It originated in Africa and has been connected to cave painting dated to 13,000 BCE.

  2. Lida

    I have this instrument that looks like a banjo violin with original string very unusually will send picture

  3. Bill Golden

    can someone give me the name of the Norwegian 1 string church instrument?

  4. Harvey Stroud

    Within the last two or three years archeologists discovered a horn made of one of the long bones of a sizeable animal or perhaps a human femur. These hollowed bones had bored into them a row of complimentary holes, that is, the holes were in essence the precursors to a scale’s notes. Creating these instruments reveals uncanny senses of what probably became global, and assuredly Western, music. The finding was Germany. The music instrument was clearly just that, and not some other appliance, weapon, or used for any non-musical purpose.

    One would think that drums would be first. However, to build a drum that’s loud enough to be of any but very nearby use, fairly high level technology, and while many locations possessed an aspect of building a near-drum (in Africa, say, tree stumps would not serve as drums, nor would any other solid material; resonation is key to the value of drum sounds, and resonating is essential to bringing to the fore the tempo and beat of any music, even though it be just a single drain and nothing else. Rhythm is fundamental, yet in much music over the centuries was implicit, with smaller or greater degrees of success, and the only percussion-type instrument was the “well-tuned clavier”, that with a tightly rhythmic keyboardist, could provide the rhythm for a piece, especially one based mostly on melody, whether for singing or for other instruments. While on the surface, the term basso continuo implies low tones, the fairly high-pitched harpsichord fills that function excellently. And Europeans could and did dance to it, the pieces of music written being based on local dances found throughout every country. This includes the jig, in baroque musical, and since, called the French “gigue.” The music is close to identical, with cultural referents differentiating these language-based dance musics, and little else.
    Other small-town dances have passed by for the most part. One rarely if ever hears of a ball in which the courante is features, nor the gavotte. Likely they evolved and renamed, but jigs abound, as do gigues. There are others, but most people in the English speaking world know at least vaguely what an Irish jig is.
    That definitive evidence of human designed music instrument existed at least thirty-seven thousand years erenow is reassuring, and supports the hypothesis that no amount of evidence could sway, my belief that we not only like music, or love it, or despise it, but that it is inherent in us. (There is a not so very farfetched physics basis, the sounds and at this point the harmonics of the tones that are to our ears, given our varied cultures, sonorous and familiar, at least to look at the frequencies on a screen. They are in tune with earth’s denizens, deep connections, profoundest and innermost beingness. Unless stymied, nearly everyone can sing, surely not professionally; beliefs, such as those that are stuck to my larynx, preclude my doing it before others save the rare occaison. Instead, and to the benefit, I feel certain, of many more people, I play electric guitar quite well (though guitarists eventually grow weary of playing music that spurs no growth nor improvement; we begin both to play and to love more esotoric approaches to music, and reach that point of no return, at which no other individual has taste in music that overlaps the advanced guitar artist’s preferred music. Recently, in a guitar magazine, appeared an article, “Why does everyone hate the music I Like ?!?” My explanation, with respect to the most advanced while adequately accessible virtuosi, who are admired by many, three of the four more than the fourth, who, of the four, was second truest to his inner music. One has to be so steeped in exploratory types of jazz, the types too difficult to form a genre’s name other than that of the guitarist (and surely, albeit in my guitar-centric universe, the other instruments themselves. A jazz sax player, perhaps two, warrant their individual genre rather than be in the horde of players of, say, hard bop. John Coltrane certainly warrants that level of esteem, perhaps Charlie Parker or Miles Davis — and I omit far more, many of whom are not ever at the tip of my tongue. Of at least two of these three, probably all, are so estimable, not only for their blinding talents but also for their lasting influences on subsequent players of their instruments, along with players of other instruments. For serious guitarists, also known as unpaid due to lack of a slip of compromise – that being a class of serious guitarists and other musicians; we are people to whom compromise is roughly equivalent to donating a kidney or more than half a liver, or an eye. The instrument that extends us to the degree that poliomylitis constricts extension, are on a large, thick dermal layer, part of us. Mild compromise, fine for a while, but eventually bring forth the less and less compromise in ones playing, conceptualizing, concentrating. Guitars are the most common instruments thus far, though soon to become mere sound effects made by computer synthesis, any month, year now – I will not stop playing, and I will expect people to enjoy it, even though I cannot function as a commercial act. The days of the individual playing as he or she will is gone, and homogeneity, a gaping abyss of people unwilling to pay nearly any price to be oneself entirely, other gimme now factors, with computerization supplanting talent, to the detriment of all, on this basis. When musicians are allowed to ad lib (every genre, certainly baroque and all those of the sort subsequent, had into them built sections for improvisations; that is how orchestral-style music stumbled, fell, and in the public eye, nearly died. Gladly, not a majority of the musicians wouldn’t see it that way, and then played on, re-established themselves but to a much lesser degree. It is also demonstrable that high level training sends more musicians, from, say Julliard and the Berklee College go straight into jazz and have for a few decades prior to this one, rock. Miles Davis learned all Julliard could teach him, his desire to play Miles Davis music, dropped him out of that estimable institution just before his final year. He turned out well enough, and never had to play third or a higher number, chair trumpet. That’s much more than enough said, but music brings me into a state in which there is rhythm but no time as we non-musically understand it. So, three minute songs, every note pre-ordained? forsooth?

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