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Which is the best musical instrument?

Five writers make their case for which is king

May/June 2012

An introduction by Richard Morrison

I once asked Anne-Sophie Mutter, the great violinist, what had made her choose the fiddle. “I didn’t,” she replied. “It chose me.” That’s how it is with prodigies. At the age of three or thereabouts they connect with an instrument in a way that seems beyond intuition. It’s as if everything about them—temperament, intelligence, physique, upbringing—catapults them towards mastering a musical tool in astonishingly little time. Typically, an infant prodigy on the violin or piano will go from zero to concerto in two years.

But they are the one-in-a-million kids. What about the rest of us? What draws us to play, or to love hearing, some instruments above all others? Why are 40m children in China learning the piano, a European instrument that has scant connection with Eastern culture? What accounts for the guitar’s dominance in Western popular music? Why do composers express their most melancholy thoughts on cellos?

These questions go beyond music. They touch on the essence of identity, aspiration, expression, history and politics, as well as what Jung called our collective unconscious. And science plays a huge part as well. When we describe a quiet flute as “soothing”, we are really commenting on the sine-wave purity of its vibrations. Similarly, the “rousing” or “joyous” timbre of a trumpet attests to its jagged array of harmonics.

In any case, does that necessarily convey joy, or a call to action? How you interpret any sound depends on its context and your knowledge. In Mahler’s symphonies and song cycles a trumpet fanfare often signifies death, grief or tragedy—but only if you know that for Mahler (whose miserable childhood was spent near an army barracks) a bugle-call was a reminder of the eight siblings who died in his youth.

What complicates matters further is the sheer variety of instruments. We began creating them ridiculously early (the earliest extant flute is 67,000 years old) and have never stopped. Recently I’ve been to concerts featuring virtuosi on both a six-stringed electric violin and the hang, a Swiss-invented steel drum of beguiling sensuality. Neither existed 20 years ago.

Take a look, if you have the strength, at the 12,000 entries in the “New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments” (1985). Then consider that the next edition will have 20,000. The standard symphony orchestra, parading a mere 14 or 15 varieties of instrument, begins to look as limited as a supermarket cheese counter.

Most of the 20,000 instruments are local riffs on universal archetypes. Almost every culture has its version of the flute, drum, guitar/lute and fiddle family. There are wide variations in the way they are tuned, constructed or played. But the biggest differences come in the social functions they fulfil. Many instruments, particularly in Eastern cultures, have religious roles. Others are associated with an elite craft, passed down from master to pupil like a trade secret.

Sometimes the same instrument can fulfil totally different roles in different cultures or ages. In Western art music, the violin is the instrument that the greatest composers—Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky—often entrusted with their deepest thoughts. But in the folk cultures of America, Ireland and eastern Europe, it is a wild invitation to a knees-up.

Similarly, in many countries—particularly under totalitarian regimes—the oom-pah of massed brass instruments is a sinister sound, linked to military might and political oppression. But in Britain the cornets and euphoniums of brass bands are aural badges of pride for the embattled working class: the instruments on which miners and mill-workers let off steam, almost literally, after their 14-hour shifts. Though the mines and mills have gone, those associations linger.

What’s fascinating today is how the popularity of certain instruments mirrors the cultural differences between West and East. In the United States and western Europe, guitar is the instrument of choice for most youngsters, and there are obvious reasons for that. Its most famous exponents enjoy iconic status as entertainers, balladeers, individualists, rebels or folk-heroes as well as (or, in some cases, instead of) being good musicians. The guitar is a good traveller across musical styles in a way that, for instance, the oboe isn’t. It’s an easy instrument to learn—at least, if you need just three chords to satisfy your musical urges. And you can buy a reasonable guitar for one-tenth of the cost of a reasonable violin.

Yet in the Far East the violin and piano are the instruments most likely to be thrust at a toddler by any self-respecting tiger-mother. Why? Precisely because neither can be truly mastered without putting in hours of disciplined, repetitive practice each day for years—a discipline that seems beyond the channel-flicking attention-spans of most Western children now. But isn’t there also something very symbolic about this? By striving to become the world’s foremost exponents of Western instruments, aren’t these Asians saying something significant about their general ambitions for themselves and their nations?

Ultimately, nominating the best musical instrument is like nominating the best position for sex. There’s no “best”. It all depends on who’s performing and how inspired they are. I was once moved to tears by a tuba—played by an autistic teenager who communicated more through this tangle of silver piping than he could ever achieve with words. In his poem “Snow”, Louis MacNeice mused that the world is “crazier and more of it than we think, incorrigibly plural”. Nothing demonstrates that better than the array of 20,000 instruments that humanity has found reasons to invent. We should cherish them all. Yes, even a world without bagpipes would be a poorer place.

The Piano

Michael Berkeley

It’s true that you cannot pack it in your hand luggage as you can a guitar, fiddle or flute. But the piano opens up the whole world of music because, uniquely, it can translate into sound the full range of harmony of orchestral and choral scores. There is no substitute for the visceral quality of a Steinway or Bösendorfer in full flow, with its ability to move instantly from the highly percussive to the warmly lyrical.

Most composers see a piano as the best means of trying out ideas as they commit them to paper. Stravinsky always needed a keyboard so that he had some sound coming back at him. He was not interested in the quality—in fact he put a blanket inside his piano to muffle it. These days, he would have had a Yamaha, a real boon for musicians who are short of space or cash.

There is a more extensive solo repertoire for the piano than for any other instrument. Composers like Messiaen, Debussy and Ravel have shown how it can conjure up birdsong, a mysteriously sunken cathedral or glistening sunlight playing on burbling water. When I am stuck in my work, I play Bach, the perfect marriage of mind and heart, and order is restored.

Then there is the quite staggering compass—eight octaves, to take you from the deep waters inhabited by double basses and contra-bassoons to the stratosphere of piccolos and violin harmonics. A piano is, in essence, a harp in a wooden box, but instead of fingers plucking the strings, hammers hit them. Modern composers often ask the player to lean into the frame of the piano and pluck the strings or strike them with a stick. Putting coins, screwdrivers and paper between or over the strings can give a wonderful metallic or rattling sound. The technique, known as prepared piano, is loathed by piano technicians and tuners, who cannot bear to see their children being violated in this way. But, along with the continued use of the piano in rock and jazz, it shows that this is an instrument that still has the potential to evolve.

The Guitar

Laura Barton

This spring a musician friend sent me a link to a video of a man busking by a kerb in Botswana (http://youtu.be/Tx4cRw6TIIg). On his lap rested a cheap guitar, its belly felt-tipped with an ad for pineapples at five pula each. As he played, his right hand strummed, and his left hand spiralled up and down the fret, as if he was alternately pressing the keys of a piano and operating a loom. The sound was irresistible, run through with a high, looping giddiness.

A few days later there was a media playback of Jack White’s album “Blunderbuss” at County Hall in London. White is one of the world’s finest guitarists, famed for his potent, scrawling style, and this is his first solo album. In the quiet of the debating chamber, the air was suddenly filled with a guitar that was deliciously ferocious, stalking and slavering and snarling its way around the room.

Together, the two moments made a glorious illustration of the reach of those six strings—not only their variety and versatility, but their extraordinary articulacy. I love the roar of a guitar, the screech and the rush of it, loud, electric, charged. But I love it lonely too — the strange, twisting quality of Blind Willie Johnson playing “Dark Was the Night”, speaking to the spine as much as the ear. Or the sweet steel guitar of Bon Iver’s “Flume”, a sound so fine, so taut, it seems to play on the veins, the blood, the heart.

And perhaps this is the essence of the guitar: its sheer physicality. Over the 4,000 years that it has shadowed man, from the tanburs of ancient Egypt to the Fenders of today, it has evolved breath and voice, sinews and muscle, to become an instrument that is not so much heard, appreciated and appraised, as felt on the skin and in the guts.

The Hammond Organs

Richard Williams

There is something so exultant, so heart-lifting, so human about the sound of the Hammond organ that it is difficult to believe such a noise can come from so synthetic a source. Unlike its ancestor, the church organ, it has no pipes in which air vibrates to create a note. The Hammond is an assembly of bits and pieces, of drawbars and tone-wheels, dressed up in something that looks like a piece of mahogany furniture from a Victorian drawing room—a reminder of its target market, which included wedding chapels and funeral parlours. But in the hands of an accomplished practitioner, it can make a noise that defines the term “soul”.

Produced from 1955 to 1974, a pretty fertile era for popular music, the Hammond B-3 and C-3 models were almost identical (one is slightly more robust). By giving a single player the ability to reproduce the amplitude of a big band at a time when bandleaders had become reluctant to pay the salaries of a dozen trumpeters, trombonists and saxophonists, the Hammond quickly found its niche. It could add colour and texture, or seize the spotlight and set the joint on fire.

It has a sound all of its own, ranging from a whisper to a scream. A generation of converted jazz pianists—including Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff—made it a staple of clubs in Harlem, Watts and Chicago’s South Side before Booker T and the MGs took it into the charts in 1962 with “Green Onions”, which became the Mod anthem. Others followed, in legions. Listen to almost any of Aretha Franklin’s Sixties classics to hear Spooner Oldham at the Hammond, helping to create the piano-and-organ interplay that underpinned so much gospel music.

In my youth I spent many nights getting as close as possible to the stages of various clubs, aiming at proximity to the device into which many organists plugged their B-3 or C-3: the Leslie speaker, another example of the furniture-maker’s art, through which vibrato was added to the sound by horns spinning inside a ventilated cabinet. Georgie Fame had one, and so did Graham Bond, Steve Winwood and Zoot Money. The whole Hammond set-up was a roadie’s nightmare (because of the spare parts) and a listener’s dream. They have suitcase-sized digital versions now, but nothing matches the surge and wail of the real thing.

The French Horn

Jasper Rees

Soon after I began on the French horn as a ten-year-old—the earliest, for dental reasons, that anyone should grapple with that narrow mouthpiece—I read that it is the joint hardest instrument to learn. (Alongside the oboe.) I went through phases of boasting, then moping, about what turned out to be all too true. All horn players who put in the hours and years earn membership of an exclusive society, the musical equivalent of the Alpine Club. Why? Because mistakes in exposed places are easy to make and tend to be costly, and yet there’s a matchless thrill that comes with mastery.

And then of course there is the profound, all but prelapsarian beauty of the sound. More than with any other instrument, those who choose to learn the French horn are making a direct link to music’s very beginnings, when man first blew through a conical horn. Even now its uniquely natural sound is embedded in our collective DNA: it’s the instrument, a wise man once said, of primitive alarm, but also of honeyed repose. The staple tunes a good young learner attempts will include a Mozart concerto which links friskily back to the hunt.

When he or she joins an ensemble, the horn will have to do some heavy lifting. But, unlike several coevals in the wind section, it will get a tune to play too. Not that there’s much need for horn players to mingle. Such is its prodigious range—up to four octaves in the right hands—that the horn is the only orchestral instrument whose players can club together, form an eight-part ensemble and leave everyone else out. To see how delicious this can be, go to YouTube and type in “Handel Messiah 8 horns”.

There’s no room for busking it on an instrument which refuses to suffer fools gladly and exposes the dilettante without mercy. It explains why, even if (like me) you never quite conquer it, the horn is an excellent primer for the skills that are essential elsewhere: humility, teamwork, an appreciation that effort brings fulfilment.

The Voice

Edward Carr

The best instrument is the one we all carry around all of the time—the human voice.

Some years ago, on the windswept Atlantic coast of Ireland, a couple of old farmers came up to my family’s cottage. There was tea and whiskey and turf was blazing in the grate. Late in the evening, when it was cold and dark outside, one of the old men suddenly started to sing. Just his voice in the silence, high and reedy, mournfully intoning the ballad of Banna Strand.

At moments like that, song becomes the soundtrack of our lives. It all starts with our first music—our mother’s voice. Around the world, every Saturday in the stands and every Sunday in the pews, people join together in song. Birthdays, marriages and deaths are solemnised when people open their mouths and sing.

When music involves a voice, whether you love Callas or Adele or Queen, the instruments are all second fiddle. The voice is a fingerprint, a personal stamp capable of endless variety. Borrowing the plosives and fricatives of spoken language, it imparts a feeling, a mood or a story—of a faithless lover, or a shipment of guns meant for Ireland’s Easter Rising that never made it to Banna Strand.

Nearly all music bears the mark of the voice. When you hear the sinuous melody of a Chopin prelude, you are hearing the piano imitate the voice. When you hear a string quartet, you are hearing the soprano, alto, tenor and bass of a choir. When my violin teacher, Clarence Myerscough, wanted me to understand how to phrase a melody, he wouldn’t play it on his exquisite 17th-century Maggini, he would sing it in his ordinary 20th-century baritone.

Singing is good for us. Exertion and concentration fortifies the mind and invigorates the body. All that breathing clears out our airways and staves off coughs and colds. All that noise-making helps get things off our chests.

Why not see if it works for you? If you cannot muster the confidence to join the local choral society, wait until the coast is clear, shut yourself safely behind the bathroom door and get under the shower. Then open your mouth, fill up your lungs, and launch into a stonking good tune. The music is there inside you. You just need to find your voice. 

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