Musical Instruments

There are four branches of the musical heritage in India. They are

  1. The lakshana granthas expounding the science of music and written by her sangita smritikaras (musical low-givers).
  2. The rich compositions left as a lefavy by her vaggeyakaras (composers).
  3. The variety of musical instruments that have been developed.
  4. The wealth of Musical and Dance Icnography in her temples.

Musical instruments constitute an important item of a nation's cultural wealth.

Making of musical instruments is one of the most ancient of arts. It is also one of the ancient musical careers. jya is the bowstring of the vedic period and jyakara was the maker of bow strings. An analytical study of the musical instruments of the ancient medieval and modern periods shows how the musical instruments of the ancient period were simple in character and how they gradually grew in complexity and attained perfection in technique of play and kept pace with the developments in music. The medieval and modern periods witnessed the birth of new instruments and improved types of older instruments.

Musical instruments may be classified into

  1. those whose make and manufacture were revealed to man by nature
  2. those which were developed and manufactured through man's inventive genius and cleverness.

Musical instruments have existed from the dawn of human history. The earliest instruments were time keeping instruments. When the early man danced in ecstasy, he kept time either by clapping his hands or by striking two sticks.

The flute is an example of an instrument revealed to man by nature. This is one of the reasons for the ubiquitous occurrence of the flute. During his sojourn in forests in the course of hunting, the early man heard sweet musical notes emanating from bamboo stems. Closer observations revealed to him the fact that those notes emanated from the holes drilled on the sides of bamboo stems by beetles and chafers in their innocent quest after food. The grains and flour inside the bamboo stems offered a wholesome food to the insects. The currents of winds which dashed against these holes made the air column inside to vibrate and musical notes resulted. The idea of making a flute by boring holes on the side of a cut stem of bamboo suggested itself to man. The earlier flute were direct flutes and sideblown flutes came at a later stage. Thus the earliest resonant wood to come to the notice of man is the bamboo.

Strips of bamboo giving notes of different pitch are used in Xylophones in South East Asian countries. In the Bamboolin or the Bamboo violin, excepting for the strings and the silken hairs of the bow, the entire instrument inclusive of the body, finger-board, pegs, bridge, tail-piece, button and bow is made of bamboo.

The phenomenon of hollow bodies giving resounding notes was also notived by early man. Birds with strong beaks and claws while sitting over hollow trunks of trees or while scratching them with their beaks and claws produced a peculiar sound. That a hollow body with air enclosed inside gave an amplified sound was notived by him. The idea of preparing drums naturally suggested itself to him. The Bhumi dundubhi referred to in the vedas is only a pit dug in the ground and covered with a stretched skin. It was beaten with long sticks by people standing around.

The early man also found that when he shot an arrow, the string of the bow gave a musical note. He noticed that a string in a state of tension when pulled and released gave a musical note. The inventive instinct worked within him. He tied strings of different lengths to the same bow and noticed that notes of different pitch resulted. This discovery paved the way for the development of the harp ie., the jya of the vedas, and the yazh of South India. By attaching a hollow boat-shaped resonator to a section of the bow, the tone was found to increase in volume. It is the string lengths of the harp and the finger holes bored on the wall of the flute at progressively incresing distances from the mouth hole that suggested the development of the fretted finger board on the vina, the former the speaking length of the wire and the latter the disposition of the fret positions.

Thus it will be seen that the main principles underlying the construction and manufacture of stringed, wind and percussion instruments were revealed to man thousands of years ago by Nature herself. The conch is one of the instruments of nature. A hole is bored on the top of the spiral of the conch and blown.

Life of a Musical Instrument

An interesting point about musical instruments may be mentioned here. The voice of a person dies with him. We have no idea now about the lustrous and ringing voices of illustrious singers and composers of the last century like Tyagaraja and Maha Vaidyanath Ayyar. But musical instruments when carefully preserved and used can have a long life. There are vinas in some musical families which have been used for over 7 generations and which are still giving a magnifivent and delightful tone.

Making of musical instruments

The subject of Making of Musical instruments in general may be studied under the following heads

  1. Wood and other material used in making the instruments and their parts.
  2. Seasoning of the wood used for the Resonator.
  3. Mode of manufacture and the assembling of parts.
  4. Tools and implements required to make these instruments and parts.
  5. Testing the concert worthiness of the instruments made.


Seasoning of the wood in making musical instruments is very important. The raw wood, if used will not give a sustained and beautiful tone. It is common experience that green flutes ie., flutes newly made will not produce certain graces by cross-fingering devices. Such graces can be played with ease on used flutes. Used flutes are highly responsive. Thus the resonating wood in a musical instrument acquires a certain responsiveness and excellence in tone quality by long use. Seasoning results in a fixed conditioin in the structure of the wood. Seasoned wood gives a good tone.

If a musical instrument is made of green (raw) wood, the quality of growth which still persists there may result in the instrument developing a crack.

The purposes of seasoning the wood are many. Some of them may be mentioned here:

  1. To give stability and firmness to the wood so that it may withstand the tension of strings. In vinas made of unseasoned wood, it will be found that they become a prey to seasonal variations and warp. The pegs in such instruments often get loose and do not stick on. Unseasoned wood sometimes results even in the change of the original shape, much to the annoyance of the owner of the instrument.
  2. To free the wood of fat, oily matter, dust, germs all unnecessary matter embedded in it, so that the wood as a homogeneous body will become sensitive and highly responsive.
  3. To prevent it from becoming a prey to insects and vermins.
  4. To remove the innate molsture in the wood.

Materials used

The materials used in the manufacture of musical instruments may be studied under the heads of:

  1. Materials used in making the body.
  2. Materials used for making parts and accessories, like frets, finger-board, bridge, sound-post, bassbar, pegs, peg-box, end-pin, tall-piece, bow, bamboo nails, braces, etc.
  3. Materials used for decorative work.
  4. Glue used for pasting the parts.
  5. Materials used for manufacturing strings.
  6. Materials used in devices for exciting the strings ie., to set them in vibration like the wire plectrum, horn, plectrum, striker and the bow.
  7. Materials used for making stands, cases and cloth covers.
  8. Materials used for preparing the black paste on the right head of the Mridangam and Suddha maddalam.

In South India, jackwood (Artocarpus Integrifolia) is used extensively for making vina, tambura, gottuvadyam, mridangam, tavil, suddha maddalam, kanjira, jamidika, tuntina, timila and chenda. Even in jackwood, it is the variety that it is known as ten pala that is useful for making musical instruments. Rosewood is sometimes used for the top plank of the vina and gottuvadyam. It is also used for making pegs in stringed instruments. The teak is not useful as a resonant wood, since during the rainy season, it absorbs moisture and swells slightly and as a consequence gives a dull tone. It is however used for the top plank of the sitar and in making sruti boxes. Blackwood is used for making the bowl of the vina. Sometimes Redwood is used for making the mridangam, castanets, and bow of sarangi. The wood of margosa tree is also used for making the shells of some drums. The core of the cocunut and palmyra tree is used sometimes for making the shell of the mridangam.

Gourds are used for making the bowl of the tambura, sitar, ektar, dotar and magudi. Three gourds are suspended frin tge sten ub jubbaru, The Rudra vina has two large gourds. The batta bin also has two large gourds. A violin made with a gourd resonator also sounds well.

Blackwood (Dalbergia latifolla) is used in the swaramandali and in making castanets. Stems of bamboo are used in the ektar, dotar, tuntina, Ravanstra, Kinnari and Sursota. The bamboo flute is very common in India. But flutes may also be made of Ivory, Sandal wood, Ebony (Diopyros ebenum), Rakta chandana (Pterocarpus santallinus red variety of sandal wood), Iron, Bell metal, Silver and Gold. The bamboo is used in making the shepherd's flute (break flute), and the long flute (Nedunkuzhal). The Nagaswaram and ottu are made of a kind of ebony called Achchamaram in tamil ie., Diospyros enenaster. The mouth pieve Narukku of the Nagaswaram is made from a reed called Korukkanthattai in tamil.. The wood Tanakku (morinda umbellata) was used for making the Yazh in ancient times. An Ivory violin made in Trivandrum in 1834 can still be seen in Tanjore. A nagaswaram made of ivory is used in the temple at Tiruvarur. A stone nagaswaram can be seen in the temple at Azhvar tirunagari. The piece of cylindricao or barrel shaped wood used to glide over the strings of the gottuvadyam is made of the core of the tamarind tree (Tamarindus Indica) and also of buffalo horn, ivory and ebony. In the chinese flute, there is a special hole between the mouth hole and the first finger hole. This hole is covered with a thin membranous tissue from a plant. When blown, this tissue vibrates and gives a reed like sound which is pleasant to hear. Reeds (phagmites) are used in the magudi (snake-charmer's pipe) and in Reed dulcimer or Panpipes. The spathe of arecanut (Areca catechu) is used in the instrument, villukottu of malabar. In making the violin, Pine (pinus), Maple (Acer soccharum), Sycamore, Silver oak (Grovellicar obusta), Silver wood, tree are used. In the circular drum, Kanaka tappattai the ring is of bamboo. This is a variety of bamboo in which the wall is thicker and the hollow is half filled up. In violin, the stick of the bow is made of Pernambuco or Brazil wood. Horse hair is used for the hair of the bow. The stick of calotropis plant is used to strike the semakkalam. Cane and bamboo sticks are used to strike the Jalatarangam cups. In the drum called Urumi, the milky juice of a plant is applied and rubbed over the central part of the right head. This head when stroked, gives that characteristic tone. Hempen hoops are used for the Tavil.

Cheap vinas are made of Morinda umbellata. This kind of vina may serve as a practice instrument. It cannot supersede the vina made of jack wood and become a concert instrument.

The resonator of sitar made in Kashmir is of wallnut and mulberry. Deal wood is used in making sruti boxes.

Assembling of parts

In the assembling of parts in musical instruments, man has exercised the greatest intelligence. The setting of the sound post in the proper position in the violin, the placing of the silken thread in the correct position on the bridge of the tambura, the correct weight of the bow used to play the violin, the correct gauges of the strings used in the Gottuvadyam and the veena are all vital factors. In the gottuvadyam, the strings are kept in full tension. The weight of the sliding wood or the stopper has to be such, that it will not cause the strings normally to bend perceptibly. The correctness of the mittu and chapu is one of the important factors in the Mridangam, shining as an ideal rhythmic accompaniment.

Care of Musical Instruments

If musical instruments are to give a good, sustained and faithful performance for all time, adequate care should be taken of them. Whereas brass wind instruments, cymbals and castanets may not need as much attention instruments of the stringed, wood-wind and drum class should be taken care of. They are delicate and sensitive instruments.

  1. Musical instruments should be kept in cases which are lined inside with silk, velvet, flannel or other cloth. This will ensure immunity against climatic changes.
  2. Musical instruments should not be kept in moist places. Not should they be kept in places which are subject to extremes of head and cold.
  3. After use, instruments should be kept back in cases or stands as the case may be.
  4. Steel strings get rusty and especially so, in places situated near the sea-coast. A thin application of cocunut oil or ghee periodically will prevent the string from rusting. This problem will not arise, when stainless steel strings are used.
  5. A weekly or fortnightly check up of the soundness of parts like the Nagapasam (attachment), Langer, Bridge Pegs, Button, Gut of the Tail-piece, Sound-post and Strings is necessary. A stitch in time, saves nine. For instance, if the gut of the tail piece shows signs of wearing out, remove it forthwith and replace it by a new one. Do not wait for the gut to snap, causing the tall piece and the strings to come away and the bridge to fall down. If strands come off from a gut string, replace the string by a new one.
  6. Care should be taken to maintain the correct bend of the violin bow. By overscrewing, the bend of the bow may get altered.
  7. When a bridge in the violin, has to be replaced by a new one, see that the feet of the new bridge are in perfect contact with the top plank of the violin. Otherwise a nasal sound will result. The feet of the bridge and the middle points of the f-holes should be in a straight line. In the violin bridge, care should be taken to see that the side with closed grains faces the finger-board.
  8. Taking into consideration the pitch to which the instrument is to be tuned, use strings of appropriate guages, so that the frame of the instrument will not be subjected to an undue tension.

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