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Music, Technology, Culture Sample Lecture

The following is an example of an online lecture students are asked to read in the semester-long introductory music appreciation course led by Dr. Sharon Graf and Mr. Bryan Pryor. Additional information on assignments and lecture topics can be found in the sample syllabus (PDF).

Week 5: Why Can’t I Play Violin in Band Class?

Perhaps when you were in elementary school you were introduced to a series of band instruments and given a chance to choose and play one or more of them. The choices probably included: flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, baritone, and percussion. We know there are many other instruments out there in addition to these, including guitar, organ, and violins, but they do not belong to the school band family.

Even so, we probably never stopped to think where these specified instruments come from, and why some belong to the band and others do not. The answers connect us to instrument making techniques, cultural contexts, and historical situations, so let’s take some time to explore this question.

The Flute

Modern FluteFirst, let’s take a look at one school band instrument to start with, as each has a history of its own. The flute, as your text points out, is probably one of the oldest and most wide spread instruments around the world. Though they don’t all have the exact same form as what we play in band, the instrument type is actually the same—usually a hollow tube with some sort of edge against which a stream of air is directed to produce a pitch. Examples from around the world include the Japanese syakuhati (see Figure 2.8 page 39, and track 15), the Peruvian sikuri or “panpipe” (see Figure 2.12 page 47, and track 22), and the Australian didjeridu (track 13).

The earliest flutes that we have physical evidence of are those found in the Geissenklosterle Cave near Blaubern in southern Germany and dating back 37,000 years. (This PDF showcases a photo of a flute made of swan’s bone.) Two of these flutes were discovered in the 1970s.

Even more recently, in 2004, a flute carved out of mammoth ivory (PDF) was discovered in the same place. The technology for building this kind of flute was much more sophisticated—the ivory had to be cut in half so it could be hollowed out, and then carefully glued back together. So we can see that for a very long time folks have been tinkering with materials they find around them, experimenting with the sounds they can get out of them.

In 17th century Europe, flutes were hand crafted from wood and ivory (like this 17th century flute). These were much larger than their prehistoric ancestors, but the idea was the same—a tube to blow in with finger holes to produce different notes.

The modern flute is made out of metal, which requires a completely different manufacturing process than hand carving. This shift represents the interest in stability of pitch and mass manufacture that has been developed over the last 300 or so years.

As you may know, keys were added to the modern flute so that more notes could be played on one instrument, and mechanically operated pads now cover the variety of holes instead of the fingers. The modern day flute is shown above. Here we see a family of flutes, which can play a complete range of notes from very low to very high.

Reed Instruments

A clarinet or saxophone uses air to vibrate a reed, and this is also a pretty old concept for making musical sound. While clarinets and saxophones are “single” reed instruments, another fascinating category consists of “free” reed instruments. You have played this type of instrument if you have ever played a harmonica.

Accordions and pipe organs in church also push air through sets of reeds fastened inside the instrument, causing them to vibrate freely and produce sound. Each of these instruments has a different method of pushing the air—the harmonica player blows into the instrument, the accordion player manually pushes the bellows back and for to provide air, and most modern organs have blowers that operate with electricity to provide airflow.

One of the oldest known free reed instruments is the Chinese sheng, whose ancestors date back to the 14th century BCE (Before the Common Era). I think you will enjoy the modern performances of three traditional sheng pieces. (It’s interesting to note that the performer has a myspace friend named “Harmonica.”)

A Southeast Asian folk version of this instrument type is the Khaen of Laos and NE Thailand. We’ll see an example of this instrument first hand in class, and you can listen to khaen music here.

Dr. Sharon Graf explains how the khaen plays musicWhile at first these instruments may seem relatively similar, if you listen closely you will notice that there are other instruments playing with the sheng, providing a thicker texture. The music is fairly slow on the whole, contemplative, and draws from a large selection of notes. In contrast, the khaen player creates great energy with repeated rhythmic patterns and accents with only five basic notes available (“pentatonic” scale). Both are mesmerizing to listen to, but in very different ways. This is certainly understandable, since both of these musics and instruments come from totally different geographical and socioeconomic contexts.

The Band

The band at UIS performs its spring showcaseOkay, now let’s get back to the band example. We have seen that the qualities of flutes, clarinets, and organs relate to other instruments around the world by using the system devised by scholars based on how the sound is actually physically produced. There is a great chart in our text that maps these families of instruments on pages 34-35, Figure 2.7, and we encourage you to study it and become familiar with the main categories in the center of the circle and at least a few specific examples for each category around the outside edges. With all of these possibilities for musical instruments, how did we end up with the standard school band instrumentation that most of us grew up with?

In fact, the band as an ensemble is a result of the technical refinement of early wind instruments (like our flute example) so that they would be easier for people to play in tune with one another and sturdy enough for everyday use including military functions and community gatherings. Small mixed bands had been serving these purposes in America since colonial times, but by the time of the Civil War, super-organized brass bands had become popular because the instruments could easily be played outside for marching cadences, ceremonial functions, and entertainment.

Note that it was not very easy to march with stringed instruments, and even if it were, the violin family would have been hard to hear in this kind of context. Furthermore, it was much easier for the ensemble to play in tune with one another with wind instruments because they featured keys that would produce pre-determined pitches. While bands remained popular after the civil war, the favor for brass bands faded as a particular band director, Patrick Gilmore, became popular.

The Saxophone

A saxophone player performsGilmore’s band consisted of brass and woodwinds, including a brand new instrument, the saxophone, invented by instrument manufacturer Adolf Sax (1814-1891) in Paris in 1846. (Read about Sax’s inventing career in the Oxford Music Online, available through Brookens Library Online Databases.) Sax’s invention combined a brass body with a single reed mouthpiece in an effort to combine the best characteristics of existing brass and woodwind instruments.

When Patrick Gilmore died in 1892, John Philip Sousa seized the opportunity to fill the void left by Gilmore. He hired the best members of his band, adding them to his own personnel, and set up the most extensive touring schedule of any musical entertainment group ever. Sousa became the first popular music star, and the crowds waited to great him and his band in every train station, nationwide, and in ports around the world.

Before radio and recordings, the band was the only musical source in a community besides church musicians and square dance fiddlers, and Patrick Gilmore’s band provided a model to which communities could aspire. City Bands played a variety of music from familiar church hymns to “cultured” string symphonies transcribed for band. Techniques for mass manufacturing band instruments had been perfected along with many improvements to the instrument so that most people could learn to play them.

This meant that instruments were readily available and accessible to the community members available to perform in the band. The training for playing these band instruments was often included in school curriculums, and this is the system we have historically inherited. Those of you who may have seen the movie “The Music Man” will recognize the themes of community pride and musical training issues. If you haven’t seen it, go rent it and enjoy.

String Instruments Today

A student plays a violin in a concert at UISOpportunities to study stringed instruments seem to be fewer in public schools, including in the Springfield area where there is currently no public string instrument instruction. The reasons are for the most part similar to the historic reasons given above—demand for ceremonial music in schools, especially in the area of athletics and parades, that wind instruments are more appropriate acoustically for, is higher than it is for more elegant and refined string music, which is harder to learn how to perform.

We’ve presented this example simply to get you thinking about how some instruments accommodate certain cultural and practical needs, and how traditions evolve from practice. Today with the appropriate amplification means, an electric violin could out blast any unamplified acoustic wind instrument.

The way we think about playing stringed instruments has changed too, as demonstrated by this clip of the performing group Barrage. Granted, there are still some problems with string playing in motion—there are no cello or bass players dancing around, it’s mainly violinists—this is nonetheless a new way of performing on a stringed instrument, made possible creative players and technology now available in the electronic age.

Homogeneity vs. Heterogeneity

Before we close, we’ll add a word about homogeneity vs. heterogeneity of musical textures, which is discussed in detail in our Wade text. In the band example above, we mentioned that brass bands were popular during the Civil War Era. This is an example of relatively homogenous music, as all the instruments are constructed out of brass and the sound is produced by air passing through the lips causing them to vibrate. We say relatively homogenous because, as explained by Wade, the sound ideal has such a great range the top voices have a different quality than the low range, and often play different musical roles.

In contrast, the mixed wind band which includes woodwinds and brass produces a richer more heterogeneous sound than a brass band, and a full string orchestra including strings, woodwinds, and brass has the richest texture of all (each of these usually include percussion).

In closing, take a look at this video of the World Accordian Orchestra playing a John Philip Sousa composition, “Hands Across the Sea.” It seems incredible that so many accordions could play “as one” or so homogenously, but that’s what they are doing.

In contrast, listen to the Bixby High School mixed wind band perform the march. A wide variety of instruments bring each level of the music to light.

Thinking about the manufacture, tone colors, and socio-cultural roles of instruments should give you some new tools to use in the next weeks as we compare and invent instruments, and create multi-track compositions.

Syllabus (pdf)
Sample Assignments
Sample Grading Criteria