Global instruments: oddball designs & tuning methods

 


A sampling of curious instruments from around the world. See what you make of the sitar, santoor, tabla, jaltarang, jaw harp, hang, hardingfele, & kora – plus gamelan gongs, microtonal pianos, & Palaeolithic flutes…


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—Choose an instrument—
  • Sitar: multi-layered sparkle from the Subcontinent (India)
  • Kora: resonant desert harps, and their jali masters (West Africa)
  • Santoor: the hundred-stringed Hindustani mallet-box (India)
  • Hang: alchemical idiophonics of modern metal (Switzerland)
  • Hardingfele: death-legends of the Scandinavian fiddle (Norway)
  • Gamelan: microtonal chimes and gongs of bronze (Indonesia)
  • Tabla: extreme versatility of hammer-tuned hand-drums (India)
  • Jal tarang: china bowls, filled with water, sipped to pitch (India)
  • Well-tuned piano: a mystico-mathematical tuning puzzle (USA)
  • Jaw harp: transcultural iron-tongued buzz-twang (worldwide)
  • Palaeolithic flutes: 40,000-year-old relics of bone (Europe)
  • Human vocal cords: how does singing physiology really work?
  • Honourable mentions: wind-pipes, sea-organs, mistuned roads

red = jump within article

green = article on my site

blue = external hyperlink

• Sitar •

North India’s acrobatic, idiosyncratic sparkle


Full of deep drones, sweeping bends, and intense bursts of speed, the sitar’s many-stringed sparkle has found fame around the world. The instrument’s wide melodic capabilities arise from its intricate design: 20 or so strings are set in two ‘layers’, with different lengths, tensions, and alloys producing various shades of buzz and sparkle, which combine into a hyper-resonant whole.

 

It has roots in Persian folk instruments, having been introduced to India during the Islamic conquests of the 17th and 18th centuries – although the design was likely also influenced by India’s own long lineage of droning lutes. Today, it is the most prominent string instrument in the Hindustani (North Indian) tradition, renowned for its ability to capture the expressive fluidity of the human voice. (n.b. As a sitarist, I’ve written plenty more on it: e.g. a quick taster for Ragatip, a twopart overview for Darbar, and an interview with Shahid Parvez: see him below).

 


  • DESIGN: ~20 strings (brass/steel): 1 for ‘up-and-down’ melodic motions, 6 for drones & percussive emphasis, and 13 which vibrate ‘sympathetically’ with the others. Scale length: ~880mm (about the same as a bass guitar).

  • TUNINGS: Bespoke for each raga, according to its arrangement of sruti (microtones). The main playing string is set to the raga’s perfect 4th (ma), with the support strings typically taking roots/4ths/5ths (Sa/ma/Pa) in various octaves. The sympathetic layer mirrors the raga’s full range of swaras (scale tones).

  • METHOD: Mostly via turning wooden pegs, slotted into the side of the neck with no gearing mechanism – although you can at least fine-tune the main playing strings by sliding small ornamental beads placed near the bridge (my main-string bead is shaped like a swan). This can be awkward (trust me…), but, if carried out with finesse, the instrument’s ambient resonances can sound melodious enough to be mistaken for an actual performance (Ravi Shankar once received a warm ovation from a 1971 Madison Square Garden crowd, just for tuning up…).

  • Shahid Parvez Khan – Raag Pilu (Darbar, 2018):

“What you play spontaneously should be perfect. Whatever comes into your mind, you should be able to play on the sitar. It is now a complete instrument – by which I mean you can replicate any aspect of vocal music on it. If this cannot be done, then it is the limitation of the artist rather than the instrument.” (from my interview with Shahid Parvez)


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• Kora •

Multi-strung lute-harps of the Sahara


Mali covers an area six times larger than Great Britain, spanning forests, rivers, and fertile grasslands to the harsh dunes of the Sahara. The West African nation is fantastically culturally diverse too, with twelve official languages and dozens of overlapping ethnic groups. Malian society is steeped in religious devotion, with up to 98% of the home-born population adhering to blends of Sunni Islam and indigenous folk beliefs, including a colourful array of animist, deist, and ancestor-worship rituals.

 

Unsurprisingly given this eclectic mix, Mali’s music is a limitless source of ideas. Most famous among the region’s instruments is the kora, a 21-stringed harp-like construction played with a hypnotic two-handed fingerstyle – popular in the West of the country as well as in nearby Guinea, Senegal, and the Gambia. Like a classical guitar, most strings on a modern kora are made from nylon, giving a loose, percussive snap on impact. But the resonance that follows is gentle, with a weightless, unchanging balance to the tone. Like a santoor, each note rings indefinitely, fading gradually to silence unless specifically muted – creating a kind of ‘moving average’ of the main melody, smoothing its colours like sunrays refracting through cool water.

 

The sentiments behind kora music are inseparable from West Africa’s jali tradition (also known as griots), a lineage of multi-skilled performers who draw on music, poetry, dance, and other creative forms to fulfill a complex role which combines singing, storytelling, satirism, spiritual mediumship, and several other colourful social functions. Cameroonian composer Francis Bebey describes how the jali functions as “a living archive of the people’s traditions…the virtuoso talents of the griots command universal admiration.”

 


  • DESIGN: Most koras have 21 strings, arranged in two almost-parallel ‘rows’: 11 on the left side, and 10 on the right (although in Senegal’s Casamance region, many artists add extra bass strings too). The instrument is sometimes described as a ‘double-bridge harp-lute’ – with a lute-like ‘neck, bridge, body’ design, and strings suspended in an unfrettable, harp-like manner.
  • However, its origins lie far from these modern anaolgues, with probable ancestor instruments being described by 14th-century Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta (“King Sulayman of Mali…is preceded by his musicians, who carry gold and silver guimbris [2-string lutes], and behind him come 300 armed slaves…Dugha plays an instrument made of reeds, with some small calabashes at its lower end, and chants a poem in praise of the Sultan, recalling his battles and deeds of valour. The women and girls sing along, and play with bows. Accompanying them are about thirty youths…each with a drum slung over his shoulder…”).

  • TUNINGS: Koras are scale-tuned, with tones and transpositions chosen according to the natural range of the player’s voice. As summarised by Kora Workshop, common tunings include Silaba and Suarta – which resemble, respectively, the Major and Lydian modes (or, microtonal tweaks of them). A typical setting of Suarta’s notes is (low>high) as follows, often rooted around the key of F (note the overlap: and if an extra bass string is present, it is usually tuned to the 4th):
  • Left: 1-5-6-7-2-#4-61-3-5-7 (semitones: 7>2>2>3>4>3>3>4>3>4)
  • Right: 1-3-5-72-#4-6-1-2-3 (semitones: 4>3>4>3>4>3>3>2>2)

  • METHOD: Traditionally, kora strings are bound to the neck with leather straps, which can be nudged up and down to adjust the pitch – but in more recent years, this method has largely been supplanted by the convenience of using machine heads from the guitar or zither (or even piano pegs).
  • These generational shifts are also mirrored in the pitches of the note themselves, as detailed on the Kora Historia blog: “African tunings have varied from culture to culture, based on any number of different scales…Most commonly some form of equiheptatonic temperament is employed [i.e. dividing the octave into 7 equal parts, of around 1.7 semitones each: like a 7-frets-to-12 guitar]. But, as colonialization spread across Africa, traditional tunings combined with tunings from nearby cultures, and ultimately with Western tuning. Now tuning is a hodge-podge of the traditional and the equally-tempered“.

  • Toumani Diabaté – Jarabi (Big World Café, 1989):

“We have to continue to reinterpret what ‘griot’ means, [and] innovate in ways that are relevant to challenges in our current society. We are in danger when we allow traditions to be left in the past…What is old was new at some point: there is no such thing as ‘modernising’ the tradition, as far as I am concerned…modernity is just a part of the journey.” (Sona Jobareth)


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• Santoor •

The hundred-stringed Hindustani box


Little more than a wooden box, the Indian santoor is strung with around a hundred strings (mine has 93), which the performer strikes with small hardwood mallets. Many cultures have similar ‘box zither’ instruments: its ancestor, the Kashmiri santur, is used in Sufi music (a mystic strain of Islam which uses trance-like devotional music to attain divine insights), while more distant branches of this family tree include the Greek santooui, the Hungarian cimbalom, and the Chinese yangqin.

 

Despite an ancient lineage, the santoor was only accepted into Hindustani music around the 1950s – adapted from Sufi folk instruments by Pandit Uma Dutt Sharma, who used his expertise in tabla and vocal music to create a fresh musical pathway for his son Shivkumar Sharma. Though initially controversial among purists, Shivkumar eventually gained worldwide adulation for the instrument’s hypnotic fusion of rhythm and melody (in his words: “There were days when I had only an anna [1/16th of a rupee] in my pocket and nothing to eat…Concerts were hard to come by because of the negative criticism of the santoor”).

 

Its unique sound comes from the combination of two textures – a quick, percussive bounce when the mallet hits the string, and a floating, ethereal resonance left by the resulting vibrations. Musicians make sophisticated use of this contrast, mixing sparse passages with rapid flurries of notes. Many describe it as the least ‘vocalistic’ of Hindustani lead instruments, with strings that cannot ordinarily be bent, fretted, or slid along. And in a sense, it’s as if everything you play has been auto-tuned – the only available notes are the precise ones you pre-tune to.

 

However, these apparent limitations are more than balanced by its inherent rhythmic and harmonic possibilities – exponents employ a breathtaking range of gliding techniques, bouncing the mallets across the strings with a slurring sparkle. The sound is instantly captivating, with a strange, perpetual tension. Your mind almost braces itself in anticipation of each sharp mallet strike, but they pass in a flash, always bringing a soothing, even-toned reverberation that fades patiently to silence. Santoor music has plenty of meditative space, but will undoubtedly groove too. (For more, see my Santoor 101 video demo for Ragatip, and longform Seven Days of Santoor article for Darbar).

 


  • DESIGN: Trapezoid-shaped hardwood box, with ~31 bridges and ~93 strings (brass & steel). Many regional variants exist too: e.g. Bhajan Sopori of the ‘Sufiyana’ tradition uses heavier mallets and an expanded set of 123 strings, opening up novel bounce techniques which some liken to the sound of fluttering moths.

  • TUNINGS: Configurations vary by region and individual taste – but in Hindustani classical settings the right-side strings are typically tuned to the microtones of the raga, with those on the left either matching them exactly, or taking all permitted komal (flat) notes: e.g. SrgmPdn/Bhairavi (=1-b2-b3-4-5-b6-b7/Phrygian): this appears to be Shivkumar’s preferred method in recent years. And, while rarely used classically, you can also play on the ‘other sides’ of the bridges: if positioned correctly, they ring a perfect 5th higher than their main string tone.

  • METHOD: Each string winds directly around a screw-like metal peg, which can be turned with a small hand wrench (you can also pitch-shift by sliding the bridges around, although this is generally disfavoured due to introducing slight irregularities of timbre and striking position). It takes ages, and can be very fiddly, but a good tuning usually stays pretty stable once settled in: mainly due to the high tension, and also because you rarely touch or bend the strings directly (I say usually: my santoor is sensitive enough to temperature change that a misplaced window key on a hot day delayed the filming of my Santoor 101 demo video for Ragatip by over half an hour while I nudged all 93 strings back in…well, actually all 92: I broke the very last one while pre-tuning the night before).

  • Shivkumar Sharma – Raag Malkauns (London, 1993):

“Spiritual bliss is the essence of this art. It was my dream to play a kind of music which will make listeners forget to clap, which will make them silent. My dream came true once – I played one raga while the listeners immersed deep into meditation, and I experienced a state of thoughtlessness. This silence was so nourishing, so fulfilling, there was no need to play anything else.” (Shivkumar Sharma)


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• Hang / handpan •

Alchemical, experimental idiophonics


Of all instruments invented in the 21st century, few have captivated the world’s ears quite like the Hang. At the turn of the millennium, Swiss steelpan makers Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer found themselves in conversation with ghatam (South Indian clay pot) artist Reto Weber, who asked them about the feasibility of “an instrument made of sheet metal that could be played with the hands“.

 

The result, released in 2001, joins two steelpan-style half-shells into an enclosed whole, conjuring a shimmering, overtone-rich mist at the slightest touch. In the local Bernese-German dialect, the word ‘hang’ carries double meaning: either ‘hand’ (you use your hands rather than sticks), or ‘hillside’ (it was invented in the foothills of the Alps). Often erroneously described as a ‘Hang drum’, it is in fact a ‘idiophone’: i.e. an instrument which produces sound via the direct vibration of its body (as opposed to a ‘chordophone’ guitar, where the body amplifies string vibration – or an ‘aerophone’ flute, where an air column vibrates rather than the instrument itself – or a ‘membranophone’ snare drum, where a stretched membrane produces the sound).

 

Later designs combined alchemical scientific breakthroughs with a deep sensitivity for the spiritual, social, and emotional properties of sound. In the words of the creators: “We managed to transform common steel into a new kind of material…[and] deepened our knowledge of acoustic instruments from the Near and Far East, and reconstructed them to attain a better understand of how they functioned”. However, the 2010 ‘Free-Tuned Integral Hang’ was the last line ever made, as Rohner and Schärer moved onto their next project, the gubal (spoiler alert: it looks like a UFO mushroom, and sounds even cooler) – but an ever-increasing range of similar ‘handpan’ designs, inspired by the originals, are still available from other craftspeople.

 


  • DESIGN: Two “hemispherical shells of nitrided steel” (plus bronze coating on some models), 50cm diameter. The steel’s high nitrogen content maintains sonorosity and tensile strength, meaning it can be pressed into shape rather than hammered – opening up wider and more precise harmonic possibilities than its Trinidadian steel drum ancestor (which is traditionally made by beating a disused oil drum into shape). PANArt have also built other ‘nitrided steel’ instruments (“the ping, peng, pong, [and] pung…the tubal is gamelan-like, pangglocke is bell-like, orage is cymbal-like…”).

  • TUNINGS: It humbles and inspires me to see the sheer care which has gone into Hang tuning. The 2007 paper History, Development and Tuning of the Hang describes how “PANArt tuners studied “the vibration modes of gongs, bells, all kinds of drums, bars, plates, and shells” and “met with physicists, engineers, metallurgists, and ethnomusicologists…the challenge was to bring the Helmholtz resonator, the central gong-like sound, and the tone circle, into a unified musical conception”. The inventors quote Prof. Anthony Achong (“steelpan tuning is an art, because there are about fifty-seven parameters to consider…”), while agreeing that in the end, “tuning a steel instrument is an intuitive task…Hangbuilders have to follow [their] own vision of a sounding sculpture”.
  • PANArt tuners must learn how to “smooth, to peen, to stretch, and to upset the metal… [and] monitor the process by ear…along with the dance of quartz sand to check symmetry”, while a fine-tune “adjusts symmetrical nodal lines, checks the curvature of the edges” – and setting the gu involves “stretching the area around the gu’s neck with a steel hammer, and smoothing the area with a rounded wooden hammer…”. There is so, so much more here – check out the research paper!
  • Most Hang models offer either 7 or 8 main tones, created from crater-like indentations around the top shell (these ‘dents’ offer different harmonics depending on where they are struck). All designs have a central low tone, pushed out from the central hole in the lower shell. Dozens of note combinations have been trialled at one time or another, ranging from the plain’ ol Aeolian (arranged in ‘zig-zag’ sequence as 5-1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7-8) to the quarter-tones of the Persian Nirz Rast (*=↓50 cents: 5-1-2-*3-4-5-*6-b7-8), the Hindustani Raag Poorvi (5-1-b2-3-#4-5-b6-7-8), and the Pelog gamelan mode. I commend them for taking such a detailed global view here – it’s truly inspiring!

  • METHOD: Here, tuning is no different to manufacturing – unless misshapen, a Hang will retain its tuning indefinitely. Instead, its creators advise performers to look within, and tune their own musical energies: “Yearn for balance and inner peace in a world that can be chaotic and unsettling…Playing with this Hang can lead to a form of freedom, an intimate conversation that can only unfold without pressure and coercion. If individuals are aware of this concept they will be strengthened by this Hang. Thoughtless use can weaken a person”.

  • Manu Delago – Freeze (Kalkkögel Alps, 2017):

“PANArt…was founded in 1993 to give cultural and commercial support to the growing steelband movement in Switzerland. Europeans were fascinated by the ‘sweet sound of steel’ from Trinidad, coming out of refashioned oil drums. The tuners of PANArt…did intense research on different materials. The aim was to get instruments with both a high buckling resistance in the individual notes, and a warm, harmonious sound. This research led to a new material: steel with a high nitrogen content…” (Felix Rohner & Sabina Schärer)


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• Hardingfele •

Norway’s droning folk fiddle tradition


The hardingfele, Norway’s national instrument, is an 8-string fiddle of intriguing design. While it most closely resembles a violin, it also features a sitar-like layer of 4 or so ‘drone strings’, which run underneath the fingerboard and resonate ‘sympathetically’ with the melodies ringing out from above (…I still find it odd that this sort of instrument took firmer root in Norway than India, despite the latter’s long love affair with both violins and drones: South India’s 4-string violin traditions stretch back to before the birth of J.S. Bach, while droning lute instruments have existed since Vedic times).

 

I’ve heard the hardingfele described as ‘louder, cruder, and flatter’ than a violin – in reference to the rough-edged power of its tone (ideal for leading Howard Shore’s Riders of Rohan theme in L.O.T.R.), and at how the fingerboard curves at a gentler angle – designed to enable bowing of three strings at once (impossible on a ‘normal’ violin). This technique utilises open-string tones, drawn from a vast repertoire of different tunings, many of which arrive with dark myths attached (A-E-A-C#: “players can go into a trance, and may have to have the fiddle dragged from their hands…[or] the devil himself may show up at the dance, grab the fiddle, and play until the guests are dead from exhaustion…”).

 


  • DESIGN: Like a violin, but with 4-5 additional drone strings under the fingerboard (and also greater model-to-model variability: older designs used materials such as bone, cowhorn, and applewood, and there are still plenty of regional particularities today). Scale length: ~320mm (=half a Strat).

  • TUNINGS: According to folk fiddlologist Chris Haigh: “There are over 26 different tunings…each of which has a unique voice…Tunings take on a semi-mystical quality, with names such as ‘twilight grey’, ‘light blue’…Examples include ADAE (oppstilt [‘lined-up’]), DDAE (lausbas [‘loose-bass’]), or AEAE (halvt-trollstilt [‘half-troll’]). Be careful with AEAC# (nackastamning): this is the ‘devil’s own tuning!'”. Drones are tuned at will, usually matched to open strings and prominent tones from the song’s melody (more info on HFAA, and in my Tales, Quotes, & Musings).

  • METHOD: Much like a violin in terms of the actual mechanics, but with twice as many strings to handle – plus the demands of having to retune so regularly (traditionally, all by ear…).

  • Mats Edén – Reisaren gangar (Folk et ljydarkiv, 2020):

“The famous Fanitullen (‘Devil’s Melody’): which, according to legend, was conceived on a farm in Hol, in the valley of Hallingdal, in 1724, during a particularly violent and bloody wedding. When one of the participants went to get more mead, he saw the Devil himself sitting on the barrel, playing this tune on his fiddle…” (listen to it here)


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• Gamelan metallophones •

Orchestral, microtonal power from Indonesia


Gamelan refers to the traditional percussion-based ensembles of Indonesia – in particular, the deep-rooted classical traditions of Bali and Java. Each ensemble is known as a ‘gamelan’ – a term which also applies more generally to the music played on their instruments, which principally comprise bronze gongs and chime bars of many shapes, sizes, and tunings (the word derives from the Javanese gamel: ‘to hammer’).

 

In the words of Gamelan Suprabanggo, the origins of the music are “ancient and mysterious…gamelan predates the Hindu-Buddhist culture that dominated Indonesia in its earliest records, and instead represents a native art form”. According to Javanese mythology, it was created by Sang Hyang Guru, “the God who ruled as King of all Java from a palace on the Maendra mountains…He needed a signal to summon [his fellow] gods, and thus invented the gong. For more complex messages, he invented two other gongs…forming the original gamelan set”.

 

Whatever is ultimate foundations, gamelan’s creative ethos stands out amongst South Asian traditions as being relatively untouched by the influence of Indian culture (although some Subcontinental interactions are evident in some of the accompanying instruments: e.g. the similarly-named rebab bowed fiddle and siter plucked zither). Ensemble performances, which often see musicians switch between several different instruments, typically mix part-composed thematic passages with more open sections. The music is primarily cyclical (i.e. based on repeated loops) and rhythmic in focus – while also overflowing with rich melodies and a plethora of distinctive microtonal harmonies. These cycles, which may last anywhere between 20 seconds and 20 minutes, often start and end with an emphatic strike on the gong agung (largest gong).

 

Gamelan has gone truly global over the past century-plus, with well-established ensembles now existing on every inhabited continent. Late 19th-century European composers – notably including Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Oliver Messiaen – were entranced by it, stemming from its showcase at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris (it seems that Debussy just hung out in the music pavilion listening to gamelan throughout the whole expo). Various 20th-century American minimalists and microtonalists also fell under its spell – such as Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, and Steve Reich. (I once wandered 50 meters from my front door in Bristol, S.W. England, past the community Trinity Centre: to find a full-ensemble gamelan session in progress, organised by the city’s Indonesian Society to celebrate Hari Kemerdekaan, 17 Aug independence day). I even got to have a go on the saron…damn, those are some psychedelic xylophones!)

 


  • DESIGN: Gamelan ensembles are centred around the strange ‘metallophone’ resonances of bronze-based percussion instruments: principally, the bonang (kettle gongs), kenong (cradle gongs), and saron (bronze bars). Accompaniment comes from the kendhang (hand drum), suling (bamboo flute), and gambang kayu (wood xylophone). Singers may also feature – e.g. as part of Java’s wayang (stage-theatrical traditions).

  • TUNINGS: Gamelan draws on a wide range of xenharmonic tuning systems, with countless localised tweaks and variances in operation from island to island. Two overarching frameworks are of particular importance: the pentatonic sléndro (which somewhat approximates 5-tet: i.e. dividing the octave into 5 roughly equal parts, with scale tones titled ‘ding’, ‘dong’, ‘deng’, ‘dung’, & ‘dang’) – and pélog (an uneven 7-note sequence loosely drawn from 9-tet). See how they compare to the cent values of the guitar’s 12 ‘equally-tempered’ frets below (courtesy of Objective Harmony) – and find out more about these systems in a concise audiovisual article from Gamelan Bali.


  • METHOD: As with most metallophones, the tuning is set by the construction process itself – gongs and chimes requiring little to no further adjustment if kept in good condition (e.g. if they aren’t dropped, corroded, exposed to extreme heat, etc). While this ‘un-tuneability’ may be convenient for performers, it presents fiendish complexities for those who build their instruments – as an entire gamelan ensemble must be designed ‘as one’: to be precisely in tune ‘with itself’, right from its very first notes. Thus, gamelan’s tuning methods are inseparable from the metallurgical skills involved in making the gongs themselves (a constructive unity I’ve rarely come across outside makers of metallophones, flutes, and experimental sound sculptures).

  • Pelitan Balinese Ensemble – Live Gamelan (Bali, 1985):

“In Balinese music there is a basic rhythmic structure that excites me. It involves creating a continuous pulse by the interlocking of two independent and separate parts, which have rests or silences in between. The interlocking of simple separate parts to produce a flowing continuity is a distinctly Balinese feature: which appears in their gamelan music, at a very, very high speed. This is ensemble virtuosity of a totally different sort than African music…in which you have two different rhythms conflicting and overlaying.” (Steve Reich)


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• Tabla •

India’s divine hammer-tuned hand drums


The tabla – South Asia’s most famous percussion instrument – is the world’s most versatile drum set (I may, through playing them, have a bias…judge for yourselves with Zakir Hussain’s multi-timbre’d solo below). The tabla masters of North India combine ear-melting speed and precision with a playful, mathematical approach to rhythmic improvisation, drawing on everything from Vedic spiritualism (see nada brahma) and Mughal-era myth (see Red Fort Kayda) to mimicry of modern-age machines (several rela compositions of the 1850s explicitly aim to replicate the clacks, whistles, and booms of the new Colonial railway system, playing a unique role in the era before recorded sound – also check out Zakir imitating a cannon, an archer, and a deer looking for food…).

 

Carved from tropical hardwoods such as mango or rosewood, both tabla drums (bass: bayan, treble: dayan) are skinned with a double layer of animal hyde, and finished with a central ‘dot’ of blackened wheat or rice paste (designed to suppress unwanted overtones). The skins are played with the fingertips, palms, and heels of the hand, producing a multitude of textures, likened by some to the sounds of water (splashes, ripples, rain-patters, etc). Tabla exponents are typically able to ‘speak’ any rhythm they play, reciting them with a variety of syllables (known as bol) designed to mirror the drum timbres (e.g. Na, Dhin, Dha, Ka, Te, Ge, Thun).

 

It seems probable that the instrument evolved from Indian folk drums some time in the 18th century, possibly sparked by the infusion of Islamic ideas into existing Hindu aesthetic traditions under the Mughal Empire (although similar instruments are visible in temple carvings dating back to c.500 A.D). Inevitably, colourful origin mythologies also abound: including how a double-headed pakhawaj drum was split into two halves by 13th-century Sufi saint-musician Amir Khusrau (or, alternatively, by a furious percussionist in Emperor Akbar’s 16th-century royal court).

 

For more tabla lore, see my Twelve Days of Tabla overview, Tihai rhythmic breakdown, and interview with Sanju Sahai (for Darbar), and my ‘Tales of the Tabla’ series (for Ragatip) – including Anokhelal Mishra’s rags-to-riches rise, Kishan Maharaj’s globetrotting flamboyance, Ram Sahai’s forest-dwelling isolation, Kale Khan’s animal-charming exploits, Lacchu Maharaj’s chilla-drenched grooves, and Zakir Hussain’s teenage summer living on the Grateful Dead’s ranch – plus a concert demystifier, more instances of mimicry and a quick blog on raga-jungle similarities (from which my site takes its name).

 


  • DESIGN: Two barrel-shaped hand drums, placed directly adjacent to each other, of around 25cm in height (typically, the smaller, higher-pitched dayan drum is on the right, to be played with the dominant hand). The skins are tied to the wooden bases with leather straps, wound tight to maintain enough tension for the drums to resonate with clarity and volume (after all, the instrument came into being many generations before the advent of recorded sound).

  • TUNINGS: In almost all situations, the main resonant stroke (Na) of the right-hand dayan drum is tuned to match the root of the raga (Sa): which will remain constant throughout a performance (Indian classical music avoids modulations). If accompanying sitar, Sa may be around C#, with other Hindustani instruments often being rooted within the span of a few tones above or below (e.g. sarod: ~C, santoor: ~D, khayal singers: ~E). The dayan also emits an overtone-laden ‘ringing’ tone (Thun) if struck halfway towards its centre, which resonates around a whole-tone higher than Na. The left-hand bayan is tuned to a corresponding bass tone, which can be pitch-bent upwards by sliding or pressing the palm along the edge – with the achievable range depending on how taut the skin is (looser = deeper tone, and more slack to bend with).

  • METHOD: Tuning tabla is a fine art. The stretch pattern across the skins must remain even, to strengthen the drums’ distinctive ‘pitched‘ quality, and ensure that overtones remain consonant with each other. Tension is controlled via three methods: firstly, by how the leather straps bind the skin to the base (tighter = higher pitch), and secondly, by the positioning of wooden blocks which the straps run over (halfway up = less tension on the straps: similar to how guitar strings are easier to bend in the middle). To fine-tune, the edges of the main skins are struck with a small metal hammer, allowing the tension in the skin to be micro-adjusted: an idiosyncratic feature of longform tabla concerts (e.g. watch Zakir hammer-tune mid-performance).

  • Pandit Kumar Bose – Benares Tintal Solo (Darbar, 2009):

“Riyaz [immersive practice] should not be forced – if you don’t feel like playing that day then don’t! I want to teach in such a way that my students will get in trouble because they don’t want to stop playing…As children we’re taught to walk, but not to run. We work that out for ourselves.” (from my interview with Sanju Sahai)


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• Jal tarang •

I guess you sip to tune them?


The jal tarang (Sanskrit: ‘waves in water’) is a ring of water-filled china bowls, which are struck with bamboo sticks to produce a bell-like tone. Similar melodic percussion instruments turn up in the ancient records of many different cultures – and even in more recent generations, the jal tarang has enjoyed status far beyond novelty in the Hindustani classical world, with artists such as Shashikala Dani and Ranjana Pradhan performing regularly on All India Radio for decades.

 

However despite its simplicity, few play it on today’s classical stage (with the notable exception of recent revivalist Milind Talunkar). The timbre, though clear, is quiet, and there are no ‘spaces between the notes’, rendering meend (glides) and most other essential alankar (ornamentations) impossible. The design is logistically impractical too, requiring it to be tuned from scratch for each performance. But the jal tarang, cheap and comparatively straightforward, still turns up in kathak dance – and no instrument that resembles a childhood kitchen experiment will ever really go extinct (I hazily recall a similarly-themed drinking game at university, with ever-flattening beer bottle tones…).

 


  • DESIGN: ~15-30 bowls (usually made from bone china), part-filled with water as needed.

  • TUNINGS: Bespoke for the raga, with each swara (tone) having its very own bowl. It requires plenty of ear precision, but the simple design at least makes it mechanically straightforward.

  • METHOD: Just pour in the right amount of water – but, unlike the ‘air chamber‘ vibrational dynamics of a blown beer bottle, adding more liquid will lower the jal tarang’s pitch, somewhat like lengthening/thickening a guitar string (…so I guess you go gradually sharp on a hot day?). The size of the bowls also matters: most jal tarang will utilise some variety here – and more experimental setups can include bowls made of other materials (e.g. metallic objects).

  • Jaltarang Demo @ Doordarshan TV (Delhi, ~1980s):

“What adds to the visual narrative of a ‘jalatarangam’ concert is the performer’s frequent preoccupation with changing the water levels of the bowls. He or she will have to alter the quantity of the liquid…after the end of a piece, [or] even amidst a khayal [Hindustani raga] or a kriti [Carnatic song], when he or she senses a bit of technical imperfection…” (Sreevalsan Thiyyadi: and you can watch Milind Tulankar topping up his bass here)


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• LMY’s ‘well-tuned’ piano •

A mystico-microtonal piano puzzle solved…


Our system of ‘12-tone equal temperament‘ (i.e. the piano’s 12-per-octave note divisions) is a fairly modern convention, only gaining hegemony as the European classical ‘standard’ in the late 18th century. I always feel it’s a shame that virtually all of today’s keyboard music is in ’12-tet’ – for one thing, many great works from the past, such as Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, were actually written to fit other systems (it’s an oft-repeated myth that the work was written to celebrate the advent of equal temperament: in fact, his coverage of all 24 keys was more likely intended to accentuate the differences between them, when set to some variant of the era’s ‘meantone‘ temperament, which prioritises consonant major 3rds).

 

Then again, this uniformity isn’t really so surprising on a practical level, especially when it comes to the standard piano. After all, piano tuning is a highly skilled career path in its own right – when it comes to peg-winding, we guitarists definitely have it easier and cheaper (likewise: how many plectrums can you buy for the price of one violin bow?). And, even if you do have the time and skills to twist things up, it’s not going to be quick – so when you re-tune an acoustic piano, you’re locked within your new framework until you muster up the courage to wind back again.

 

Thankfully, there are works which deviate far from the familiar: such as La Monte Young’s epic 5-hour solo suite The Well-Tuned Piano. Young – an avant-garde colossus who impacted artists from Brian Eno and John Cale to Eric Dolphy and Frank Zappa – has spent decades refining his own complex, mystico-mathematical tuning philosophies, studying under austere North Indian singer Pandit Pran Nath and releasing cult-classic LPs consisting of nothing but his guru’s tanpura drones (read about their cave-dwelling excursions in Divine Indian Drones).

 

For me, few works occupy such a unique listening space, absent of anything resembling rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic cliché. Critic Edward Rothstein describes witnessing a multi-sensory 1981 concert: “The grand performing space was dimly lit with magenta lights. There were no chairs. Listeners wore no shoes, reclining on plush white rugs…Mr. Young’s tuning creates a spacious physical region of sound; the piano dissolves. There is focus and trembling haze, projection and introjection. Musical objects take shape, and quaver and shimmer around the edges with low rumblings, pure bell-tones…”. Alongside all this profundity, Young assigns playful titles to piece’s overlapping, hour-plus sections, including The Magic Chord, The Sunlight Filtering Through the Leaves, Young’s Böse Boogie in G Dorian, and (my favourite): The Shimmering Pool Reflecting the 288/147 Premonition of the Theme from the Opening Chord Recalled in the 189/98 Lost Ancestral Lake Region.

 


  • DESIGN: As well as creating his tuning system, Young needed a piano capable of handling it. His solution was to employ a specially modified Bösendorfer Imperial, fortified with 9 extra semitones at the low end, opening up ultra-bassy zones of dissonance as well as a full 8-octave span. But even on this bespoke, half-ton instrument, keeping the tuning stable enough throughout a run of shows required the use of a “controlled heating and humidifying system” (Rothstein’s review also notes that “a resident tuning assistant will be on hand during the next two months of performances…”).

  • TUNINGS: Young kept the work’s precise tuning secret for nearly 30 years, before finally allowing Kyle Gann to publish his own heroically detailed demystification in 1993 (“with the use of a calculator, a tunable Yamaha DX7, and a CD player with an A-to-B button, I tuned my synthesizer to the Gramavision recording…”). In Gann’s excellent writeup, he notes that “the scale does not uniformly ascend [e.g. G# and C# are lower than G# and C]. This is so that all perfect fifths (3/2 ratios) will be spelled as perfect fifths on the keyboard”:

  • Young describes his system as having “derived from various partials of the overtone series of an inferred low fundamental Eb reference, 10 octaves below the lowest Eb on the Bösendorfer Imperial”. By my reckoning, this would be an oscillation of once every 55 seconds [lowest Bösendorfer Eb=18.624Hz/2^10 octaves=0.01819Hz, and 1/0.01819Hz=54.97 seconds per cycle, rather than cycles per second]. This fundamental tone is inaudible to every living creature – by a very, very long way (as far as we can tell, blue whales have the deepest range, maybe as low as 7Hz: equivalent to the tension and gauge of Strat’s 6str…if the neck was around 7.5m long – whereas La Monte’s inferred tone would need a neck of over 100m!).

  • METHOD: While the tuning itself may be abstruse, the process of re-cranking the piano strings likely took place in much the same manner as it usually would. Techniques used by professional piano tuners typically rely on the ‘harmonic beating’ method – i.e. stopping particular string pairs at precise fractions of their lengths, and then comparing the dissonances produced by the clash of their overtones (although the required ‘beat rates‘ would differ significantly from the norm). Watch a piano-tuning demo here, and go deeper into this zone in my article on James Taylor’s ‘stretch-tuned’ puzzle.

  • La Monte Young – Well-Tuned Piano #3 (Dream House, 1981):

“We used to play at a place called Opus One downtown, [for] a dollar a night, and all the beer we could drink. So they would bring the beer constantly…but we never got the dollar. This is a musician’s life…[Meanwhile] with our guru Pandit Pran Nath: It was said that if you lived with him it was like being in a cage with a lion…He could be nice if he wanted to, but he could be very, very strict.” (two sides of LMY’s mid-century artistic lifestyle: more in RBMA)


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• Jaw harp •

The world’s original metal music?


Though small in size, the sound of the jaw harp is immediately powerful – a timbre that comes in warm, weightless shivers and pronounced syllabic rolls, speaking as much as singing. Though referred to as the ‘Jew’s harp’ in many English-speaking traditions, it is neither Jewish in origin, nor a harp. Rather, it is a ‘lamellophone’ – an instrument which produces sound via the vibration of a plucked ‘tongue’, fixed at one end only.

 

On most jaw harps, a narrow steel tongue is set in motion by the fingers, summoning a sound somewhere between a drone and a drum. The frequencies match the lower handful of overtones in the harmonic series, the mathematically fundamental resonance of the universe. Amplification occurs through the transfer of vibration to the player’s mouth and skull via the front teeth (players of the Indian morsing often use the sensation to aid with pranayama breathing meditation).

 

Variants of the jaw harp are found on all the earth’s inhabited continents – some scholars estimate that it has over a thousand distinct names worldwide. Like the instrument itself, many of these have a pleasing syllabic ring to them – the Indian morsing, Indonesian genggong, Nepalese murchunga, Persian zanboorak, Norwegian munnharpe, Finnish huuliharppu, Lithuanian dambrelis, Central Asian khomus, and Italian marranzano (let’s leave aside the German maultrommel…).

 

Historically, it certainly turns up in some odd places. Abraham Lincoln is said to have played one to mock his opponent’s brass band at a town-hall debate, and rumours circulate that Stalin banned it as a symbol of shamanism. Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, Beethoven’s main teacher, wrote seven curious concerti for jaw harp and orchestra – and 19th-century Austrian society later grew to fear the instrument’s suggestible, corrupting influence. We shouldn’t underestimate it! (And see more in my Singing Sculptures article for Darbar).

 


  • DESIGN: A metal ‘tongue’ (typically steel or iron) is plucked with the fingers, transferring vibration to the head and mouth cavity via the teeth. The non-vibrating frame element is held with the player’s free hand, providing stability and control.

  • TUNINGS: The jaw harp works via manipulating the volume and prominence of different overtones, all of which are based on one fundamental tone (essentially, the main vibration frequency of the metal tongue). In other words – you only have one note, but have unusual freedom to ‘deconstruct’ it into its constituent parts (this ‘overtone manipulation’ principle is also central to wah pedals and global ‘throat singing’ traditions – and to how we produce vowel sounds in everyday speech: try saying ‘A-E-I-O-U’ at a constant pitch, and feel the harmonics moving…).
  • Most designs take a fundamental of between 50-100Hz (~a bass’ lowest G to a guitar’s lowest G), although a much wider range are available. Performers have also experimented with multi-instrument setups, to overcome the inherent melodic limits of a single tongue: way back in 1636, French mathematician Marin Mersenne (of ‘Mersenne primes’ fame) noted in his Harmonie Universelle how if you combine “several Jew’s harps of various sizes, a curious harmony is produced” – and in the early 19th century, Prussian virtuoso Johann Heinrich Scheibler found wide renown for mounting up to 10 of them on a central support disk, each tuned differently to allow for chromatic sequences (the Rahsaan Roland Kirk of his era?).

  • METHOD: The tuning is mostly ‘set’ as part of the manufacturing process – but there are a few ways to nudge the pitch around after that. As explained by the Oberton jaw harp workshop, the fundamental tone arises directly from “the frequency at which the reed vibrates. Imagine a pendulum – how can you change its frequency?”.
  • They lay out three methods to achieve this. Firstly, by changing the tongue’s mass (higher mass = slower vibration = lower tone), for example by melting a small drop of tin onto the tip of the tongue (or, in the case of the South Indian morsing, through adding beeswax or honey). Secondly, by changing the tongue’s length (shorter = faster = higher), which can be done by gently altering the angle of the ‘knee’ (the bend at the tongue’s free end designed to ease plucking). Additionally, on some designs you can “reduce the hardness of the reed by sharpening it as close to the base as possible: it will become softer, slower, the frequency will decrease” (also be warned that “you cannot use magnets…If you magnetize both the frame and the tongue, they begin to influence each other: the sound deteriorates [and] an extraneous buzz appears”).

  • Nadishana – Japanese Jaw Harp (Botmer, 2012):

“So discreet and persuasive the sound of the guimbarde…that female virtue was endangered, and instruments were repeatedly banned by the authorities” (musicologist Anthony Baines describes its devious reputation)


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• Palaeolithic flutes •

How can we determine the earliest instrument?


We will likely never know what form humanity’s first instruments took. And while the archaeological evidence stretches back a surprisingly long way, there is debate as to exactly which artefact qualifies as the ‘oldest musical object’. The most intact prehistoric instrument yet unearthed is a five-holed vulture-bone flute discovered in Hohle Fels, a Stone Age cave in Alpine Germany, fashioned around 40,000 years ago. As described in National Geographic, “the almost complete bird-bone flute, made from the naturally hollow wing bone of a griffon vulture, is just 0.3 inches [0.8cm] wide, and was originally about 13 inches [34cm] long”. Hear what the ‘Hohle Fels flute’ sounds like in a reconstruction from Wulf Hein.

 

Other nearby discoveries, while more physically fragmented, have a strong claim as being older. Pieces of mammoth-ivory flute found just a couple of kilometres away, in Geißenklösterle, were initially estimated as having been made 35,000 years ago – but a subsequent radiocarbon re-dating by an Oxford University team now puts them at between 42,000 to 43,000 years old. Check out their research paper, which discusses the artefacts in the wider context of the ‘Kulturpumpe’ model: a hypothesis “which posits that the Swabian Jura [South German Alps] was an area where crucial behavioural developments took place, and then spread to other parts of Europe…as indicated by early evidence for figurative art, music, and mythical imagery” (and there was me assuming that ‘Kulturpumpe’ must be the name of some Berlin techno night).

 

Others claim the ‘Divje Babe flute’ – a partial cave-bear femur found in Slovenia – as an even earlier example. While its estimated age of 43,100 (±700) years old exceeds both the examples above (albeit only just), it is unclear whether the punctured bone fragment is in fact an instrument at all. Some argue that the texture and spacing of the holes is indicative of deliberate human design (…although more likely by homo neanderthalensis than homo sapiens), while others deem them more likely to be teethmarks from a forceful animal bite. Hear a (somewhat speculative) reconstruction in a demo from the European Music Archaeology Project. Also see my articles on the bansuri (India’s bamboo flute): a Darbar interview with Rupak Kulkarni, and a Ragatip blog on global flute myths.

 


  • DESIGN: While all the flutes above are made of bone, it seems highly likely that wooden models were in use even earlier. But, while bamboo and other fittingly-stemmed plants may have been easier to drill holes in, any such examples will have long since decayed away to invisibility (barring some preservation miracle…). Nevertheless, many of the sturdier bone relics display a high level of craftsmanship – sufficient to recolour our understanding of the era’s human cultural sophistication. From Higham et al’s aforementioned research paper on their re-dating of the Geißenklösterle/Hohle Fels flutes: “The caves of the Swabian Jura document the earliest phase of the Aurignacian [c.43,000 to 26,000 years ago]…in which a variety of cultural innovations, including…mythical images, musical instruments, [and] personal ornaments…are first documented…The Swabian region [made] important contributions to the evolution of complex symbolic behaviour”.

  • TUNINGS: The fragmented nature of these flutes limits our potential to precisely reconstruct their tunings (e.g. the Divje Babe bone only has two clear holes). Nevertheless, modern musicologists have done what they can to replicate their inferred interval sets. Aleksey Nikolsky’s Tonal Organization in Tuning of Paleolithic & Neolithic Pipes discusses several such efforts: “Kunej & Turk (2000) took the simplest case…based on the Divje Babe pipe, and listed all the pitches that could have been produced on its fresh bone replica. This gave the…hexatonic [6-toned] C5-A5 as a nucleus [home range]…Each tone could ‘float’ in tuning within the range of a minor 3rd or major 2nd…very suitable for playing in the [microtonal] ekmelic style”.
  • More recent flutes have been decoded with greater solidity. A fantastic Flutopedia overview mentions (among many other examples) the ‘Silver Double-Flute of Ur’ – a complex design from ‘only’ around 4,500 years ago, discovered in a royal Sumerian tomb. It is tuned to a scale of “roughly equal intervals: 180 cents (±15), or a [perfect] 5th divided into five roughly equal steps” (see ‘tritave’). Listen to its xenharmonic tonal combinations here.

  • METHOD: Flutes function as Helmholtz resonators – i.e. an open-holed chamber which produces sound via ‘spring-like’ oscillations of the air inside it (other examples include blown bottles, acoustic guitars, and the rattling sound when you open the window in a fast-moving car). Thus, their tuning is fixed by the design itself, although performers can still manipulate general pitch with embouchure (lip/mouth position), overblowing, and other techniques – and, unlike mechanised European flutes, open-hole designs can access the ‘spaces between the notes’ by partially covering the holes. Nikolsky speculates that early experiments may have started “by drilling two holes…and then either [trying] to reproduce the distance between these holes symmetrically, or followed a pattern of alternation…Liking certain intervals probably came second, after experimenting.” (I absolutely love that today’s open-holed flute virtuosi are playing instruments which work in pretty much the exact same way as these earliest examples: essentially, all that has changed is human musical culture and imagination…)

  • Werner Herzog speaks (The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 2010):

“Greek legend holds that the flute was fashioned by Pan, god of shepherds and mountains, while the ancient Egyptians believed its pure tones channeled the voice of Isis, goddess of healing and magic. Slavic myths venerate Snegurka, a snow maiden who melted after running into the sunlight to hear her lover’s flute, and German folk tales warn of invisible flautists who cause mischief by hiding in households and launching into song at inappropriate moments. Highland warriors from Papua New Guinea conduct elaborate flute ceremonies to communicate with the spirits of their ancestors – and several Native American traditions worship Kokopelli, a fertility god who visits Earth in the form of an antlered, feathered, and humpbacked flautist.” (from my bansuri overview for Ragatip)


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• Human voice •

The genesis of all melodic instruments


The human voice is at once among the most familiar and the most mysterious of musical sounds. No melodic timbre is more personalised, with everyone possessing a unique tone: an expressive facet which also filters how we perceive someone’s personality, often to a near-eerie degree (…how many people can you think of who markedly ‘don’t fit their voice’? And how often do you really get to know somebody without hearing them speak? Perhaps the voice is to mass-produced instruments as microtonality is to 12-tone equal temperament: the latter categories represent standardised, ‘snapped-to-the-grid’ quantizations of the former’s infinite variety…)

 

But how does it actually work? As explained in Kathleen Masterton’s From Grunting to Gabbing: Why Humans Can Talk: “When we talk or sing, we release controlled puffs of air from our lungs, through our larynx [voice box/Adam’s apple]…Stretched across the top are the vocal cords, two folds of mucous membrane [which] vibrate, making the sound….The surface area [that’s] actually vibrating is probably half of your smallest fingernail! The frequency of this buzzing is what gives sound the pitch. We change the pitch by tightening the vocal cords to make our voice higher, and loosening them to make a lower sound…The vibrating air gets made into a specific sound – like an ‘ee’ or ‘ah’ or ‘tuh’ or ‘puh’ – by how we shape our throat, mouth, tongue and lips”.

 

More detail from the Voice Foundation: “Air is moved out of the lungs and towards the vocal folds, by coordinated action of the diaphragm, abdominal muscles, chest muscles, and rib cage”. This air column then “opens [the] bottom of vocal folds, [and] continues to move upwards…The low pressure created behind the fast-moving air column produces a ‘Bernoulli effect’ [i.e. that slower-moving air has higher effective pressure than faster-moving air: the same phenomenon which allows plane wings to generate lift]…Closure of the vocal folds cuts off the air column and releases a pulse of air. The rapid pulses…produce ‘voiced sound’…which is then amplified and modified by the ‘vocal tract resonators’ [throat, mouth cavity, & nasal passages] – producing the voice as we know it”. Articulation and personalised tones are added with the ‘vocal tract articulators’ [tongue, soft palate, & lips]. (Yeah, despite the fact we act it out it constantly, this process is pretty hard to picture: see it in this video.)

 

The voice is also the natural foundation of all melodic music. Early humankind likely drew structural sonic inspiration from a variety of sources (aside from the influence of our own intuitive biology, I can picture birdsong, rain-drones, animal utterances, whistling forest winds, etc) – but singing surely functioned as the first ‘quasi-instrument’ our ancestors used to explore, capture, and reproduce these patterns: giving them the most direct access to making the shapes their own. (n.b. Despite the fact I was initially drawn to music via learning the guitar, I’d actually recommend the good ol’ DIY duo of ‘singing/vocalising + clapping/tapping’ as the fastest routes to internalising and personalising the structures of sound. Although, naturally, mixing up several methods will work even better…)

 

Today‘s vocal traditions span an astonishing range of approaches, with pronounced cross-cultural variances evident in how different artists conceptualise tone, melody, articulation, projection, breath control, and even basic physiological norms – as well as the many different social, spiritual, and therapeutic roles singing can play in community life. For a varied scattering of oddball global vocalism, check out: Central Asian overtone singing, North Indian Darbhanga Dhrupad, Golden Age hip-hop bars, Inuit katajjaq throat singing, Scandinavian black metal growling, South Indian konnakol rhythm syllables, Alpine mountain yodelling, Mongolian ‘long song’, British beatboxing improv, Irish funeral ‘keening’, European classical opera, Peruvian bird-fusion, Xhosa ‘click consonants’ – and Jeff Buckley. (Also see my quick overviews of India’s Carnatic, dhrupad and khayal singing styles, and longform interviews with vocalists Parveen Sultana, Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande, and Meeta Pandit on the evolution of North Indian classical singing.)

 


  • DESIGN: Evolution, being a process driven by blind variation rather than intentional ‘progress’, has no inherent ‘design’. Nevertheless, we can still marvel at the long, winding lineage of our vocal physiology (to me, all-the-more: isn’t it a greater ‘miracle’ to consider that something as complex as the voice arose through step-by-step randomness and natural selection, rather than through the easy hand of some creator being? To me, the former view makes the voice seem even more like a fundamental ‘echo of nature itself’). From John Colapinto’s book This is the Voice:
  • The voice of every animal…derives from a common ancestor: fish. Around 530 million years ago…ancient fish sustained life by extracting oxygen from the water and expelling CO2 with a specialised membrane: gills. Some of these primordial fish…during droughts, would become stranded on land. Many suffocated, but at least one was lucky enough to undergo…a possible copying error in one of the genes responsible for building gills, rendering the subtly altered membrane capable of pulling a little oxygen from the air. Over hundreds of thousands of years…a new species evolved in these swampy, shallow-water areas – a transitional, hybrid animal that possessed both water-breathing gills and rudimentary air-breathing lungs, which had formed from the hollow swim bladders it used for flotation. These creatures are known as lungfish: our oldest air-breathing, land-dwelling relatives. But the hole in the animal’s throat also left the creature vulnerable to drowning…[so] a valve was evolved to guard the entrance…Our vocal cords are an inheritance from these ancient fish: a valve that opens and closes over the opening to our windpipe.”

  • TUNINGS: If the notes we choose to sing are akin to the frets we choose to press, then the ‘tuning’ of a voice is essentially its range (i.e. ‘what notes are available across its whole expense?’). Human vocal range is largely set by our physiology – although it can be increased with training and good technique. Your natural range is probably wider than you expect – most studies cite an average span of over 3 octaves – in fact, practical range-expansion is much more about gaining strength across your full range, rather than adding too many notes. Male speaking voices tend to have a fundamental tone of about 100-120Hz (roughly 4-7fr on E6str), with female voices around an octave higher – although this principally applies to ‘resonant’ vowel sounds (the less harmonic frequencies we use to pronounce consonants are often over 500Hz).
  • (I often tune my acoustic to match my vocal range, which, on a good day, is about the same as the fret-range of a normal guitar (~3.75 octaves). For example, I might lower the open 6str to match the deepest note I can sing that day, meaning that, in theory, I can sing any melody I play (although matching the highest frets is still too much of a squeak and a stretch to sound very pleasant…). Basically like a ‘negative capo‘ – try it out!)

  • METHOD: Can we ‘retune’ our voice? What would this even mean? To run with the ‘string range’ analogy above, it would entail shifting or expanding our range – or, more practically, our ‘useable range’. Looked at another way, ‘vocal retuning’ is merely the ‘larynx-shaping’ aspect of singing itself: after all, this is the core process by which we control the tones of our vocal utterances. Either way, the best path to progress is to combine basic technique and physiological self-awareness with an open approach to imbibing the melodies you love. (I’m very much just a haphazardly enthusiastic student of singing, not any sort of true expert: but from the resources I’ve come across, Chris Liepe’s instructional channel is the best for building this sort of all-around understanding).

  • Kongar-ol Ondar – Ulug Hem (Letterman Show, 1999):

“It is believed in Tuvan tradition that all things have a soul…The Tuva – indigenous peoples of Siberia and central Asia – developed Khöömei, a sacred throat singing technique, to establish contact with these spiritual entities, and assimilate their power through the imitation of natural sounds…the ethereal two-toned sound is the way the spirits of nature prefer to use to reveal themselves, and to communicate with other living things.” (from Jocelyn Black’s 2018 thesis: Overtone Singing: History, Development, & Influence)


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• Honourable mentions •

Waves, wind, water, roads, & creatures…


  • Zadar sea-organ (Morske Orgulje): “A remarkable piece of urban architecture…polyethylene pipes of different lengths and sizes [are] embedded with ‘labiums’: whistles that play seven chords of five tones…built into perforated marble stairs that stretch 70m along the coast. [It] plays music by way of sea waves…an odd, mournful sound, that somehow evokes sea, wind and sky…the seven ‘sound clusters’ are organized around two major-key chords…to evoke the close harmonies of Dalmatian klapa music.” (Croatia Traveller)


  • Autonomous wind sculptures: A few examples amongst many: the ‘Aeolus Wind Pavilion‘ at Cornwall’s Eden Project (“310 stainless steel tubes that terminate in a double-curved arch…connected to strings, attached to a membrane on their outer end that transmits wind-generated sound into the arch and to listening posts situated nearby”) – the ‘Singing Ringing Tree‘ in Lancashire, England (“galvanised steel pipes of differing lengths…When the wind blows, [it] produces an eerie sound in several octaves”: which, to me, sounds much closer to ringing than singing). And ‘A Sound Garden‘ in Seattle (from which the band took their name): “Twelve steel towers…on the campus of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration…inside of which hang organ pipes of varying lengths, that produce low tones when the wind blows”. (Kaushik Patowary)


  • Water-pressured pipes: The ‘Ontario Science Centre Hydraulophone’ – a “highly expressive musical keyboard-fountain…The FUNtain is a self-cleaning acoustic keyboard instrument for use in public spaces…made entirely out of Type 316 Stainless Steel (the same material used to make surgical instruments) – it has no moving parts…Each key is a water jet, so the keyboard cleans itself, and also allows a much wider range of musical expression than possible with hard plastic or wooden keys…The main focal point of Teluscape is a circular pipe organ that consists of two organ consoles, each of which is a semi-circular hydraulophone (water-pipe organ-flute & fountain), along with two visible ranks of organ pipes…Water [comes] out of the mouths of the organ pipes, as they take turns ‘speaking’, collects in the North Pool and cascades down the back side of the pool.” (Ontario Science Centre)


  • Pig-squealing pianos(a.k.a. the ‘piganino’, ‘hog harmonium’, ‘swineway’, or ’porko forte’): “That brutal monarch, Louis XI of France [reigned 1461-1483], is said to have constructed – with the assistance of the Abbé de Baigne [Master of the Royal Music] – an instrument designated a ‘pig organ’…[with] a very large and varied assortment of swine, embracing specimens of all breeds and ages. These were carefully voiced, and placed in order, according to their several tones and semitones, and so arranged that a keyboard communicated with them, severally and individually – by means of rods ending in sharp spikes. In this way, a player, by touching any note, could instantly sound a corresponding note in nature, and was enabled to produce at will either natural melody or harmony! The result is said to have been striking, but not very grateful to human ears”. (From Colour-Music, by J. Crofts in the Sep 1885 edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine: although, it has to be said, genuine evidence for the existence of any such instrument is scant. Also see the similarly fanciful cat piano: the original ‘keyboard cat’? However, Domenico Scarlatti’s The Cat’s Fugue was, according to later legend, “co-authored by the composer’s cat: the moggy had a little run about on the keys, which suggested the first three measures of the piece – leaving Scarlatti to finish up the rest.”)


  • Surface-(mis)tuned roads: “This is the story of how Honda engineers screwed up a big expensive project with a simple arithmetic mistake, tried to fudge their result with sound editing software…A team of engineers carved some grooves into a highway that were carefully spaced to play the William Tell Overture as you drive over them at a constant speed. Awesome, right? The problem is, it’s spectacularly out of tune…From the video, it looks like the grooves themselves are about 1in wide. Now, suppose you want to make the Bb a 4th above F. A perfect 4th is a frequency ratio of 4/3, so you should multiply the width by a factor of 3/4… But the width of what? The width that really matters is the total width of the spacing plus groove (‘s+g’). That’s the distance over which the…car completes one vibration…I crunched some numbers in Mathematica, and was able to reproduce Honda’s result…some of the intervals you get…are pretty bizarre!” [basically as if Honda had built a guitar, and marked out the fret distances one-by-one…while forgetting that the frets themselves also take up room: thus skewing all the measurements]. (from Caltech/David Simmons-Duffin’s top-notch analysis blog: Honda Needs a Tune-Up, 2008. Hear it all in Tom Scott’s video below – and check out a far more melodious road in the music video for OK Go’s Needing/Getting)

“The last few notes in Honda’s commercial sound OK. That’s because they edited over them! I can prove it…[and] if Honda didn’t doctor the overall pitch of the melody in their commercial, then they were speeding…”


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George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons!

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