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Inspirational product design eMagazine

Musical instrument design: Craftsmanship and culture

From the beginning of their long history, musical instruments were crafted from whatever naturally occurring materials existed – animal skins, bones or horn, pieces of wood or stone. It is widely thought that these early instruments might have played a practical role – blowing a horn to signal a successful kill on a hunt perhaps, or beating a drum to communicate across distances. As the human race evolved, so too did the way in which music, and indeed art, developed. The crafting of drums and simple flutes grew ever more sophisticated, and these are thought to have been used in specific rituals; in different parts of the world, communities devised new and traditional instruments independently of each other.

As contact between communities increased, musical instruments spread rapidly, and from the 5th to the 15th century in Europe, the period known as the Middle Ages, Europeans were beginning to play and to make instruments from North Africa, and the maritime region of Southeast Asia was home to instruments from Mesopotamia. Musical development and heritage in the Americas was somewhat slower, though communities in Central, North and South America did share some musical instruments. By 1400, the development of musical instruments had slowed in many areas, and the instruments pertaining to Western culture and heritage dominated.


Crafting instruments with care

Despite mass production of musical instruments, in certain parts of the world the tradition of handcrafting is highly revered. The term “luthier” is used to describe individual skilled instrument makers, especially those that craft stringed ones, often in small workshops. In Northern Ukraine, for example, the Chernihiv Musical Instrument Factory opened in 1933 and employed specialist designers to create blueprints for stringed instruments – balalaikas, banduras, domras, guitars and mandolins. During succeeding decades, many expert craftspeople honed their skills in special workshops here and in Kiev, under the direction of great masters such as Ivan Skliar.


Arguably the most famous and successful of all luthiers was Antonio Stradivari (1644­-1737), who crafted violins and other instruments to the highest standards. He worked throughout his lifetime in his hometown of Cremona, Italy. As time passed, his instrument designs were often adapted to increase their range, but they continue to command a high price. Stringed keyboard instruments, such as harpsichords and organs, were a favorite design and creation of the Ruckers family from Antwerp (present-day Belgium) from the mid-16th century to the late 17th century, and they are still highly prized for their high standard of workmanship and acoustic properties.


Wind instruments also have an interesting history. The ancient vessel flute, the ocarina, is believed to date back more than 12,000 years and was used by the Chinese and in the cultural region of Mesoamerica, where several communities flourished during the 15th and 16th centuries, prior to the Spanish colonization of the Americas. The instrument has between four and 12 finger holes and a mouthpiece, and it remains popular today – a wide range, including the 12-hole ocarina, is available from the product page of specialist suppliers.


Musical instruments continue to develop; today sound synthesizers and computer software can be used to compose and play. Quality handmade musical instruments, however, continue to have cultural significance and an important place in the heritage of communities across the globe.


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