The frequencies of pitches produced by a musical instrument are determined by the physical properties of the instrument. Consequently, by measuring the frequency of a pitch, one can infer information about the instrument’s physical properties. By modifying a musical instrument to contain a sample and then analyzing the instrument’s pitch, one can make precision measurements of the physical properties of the sample.
Researchers used the mbira, a 3000-year-old African instrument that consists of metal tines attached to a wooden board; these tines are plucked to play musical pitches. By replacing the mbira’s tines with bent steel tubing, filling the tubing with a sample, using a smartphone to record the sound while plucking the tubing, and measuring the frequency of the sound using a free software tool available on their website, they could measure the density of the sample with a resolution of about 0.012 g/mL.
To demonstrate the mbira sensor’s capabilities, they used it to successfully distinguish diethylene glycol and glycerol, two similar chemicals that are sometimes mistaken for each other in pharmaceutical manufacturing (leading to hundreds of deaths).
Unlike existing tools for measuring density, the mbira sensor can be made and used by virtually anyone in the world with access to a smartphone and the free software tool posted on the Internet. Among many possible applications, consumers could use mbira sensors to detect counterfeit and adulterated medications (which represent around 10% of all medications in low- and middle-income countries).
This according to “Musical instruments as sensors” by Heran C. Bhakta, Vamsi K. Choday, and William H. Grover (ACS omega III  11026–32; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2018-95175). Many thanks to Improbable Research for bringing this article to our attention!
Above, (A, left to right) a conventional mbira, the same instrument with the tines replaced by a length of stainless steel tubing bent into a U shape, and an example easily made from scrap lumber and hardware; (B) the method of using an mbira sensor; and (C) a waveform plot of a sound recording of plucking an mbira sensor, obtained using a smartphone’s voice recorder app and the free online software tool.
It was this annual celebration that brought the chapel to the attention of the Berlin artist and musician Carsten Nicolai, who was scouting for a location for an installation for the project 500 Kirchen—500 Ideen, which sought proposals for rescuing some of the many more or less abandoned Protestant churches in central Germany (2000 in Thuringia alone).
The resulting work, installed in 2017, is a sculptural piece entitled organ. A pyrophone built by Frank Fietzek in which gas flames generate sound by disturbing the airflow in 25 glass cylinders, the work/instrument is programmed to play a 12-minute piece composed for it by Nicolai. It has also been used for improvisation, and its presence has made the church a popular venue for various activities organized by both community members and visitors.
This according to “Klang-, Licht- und Wärmespender: Die Feuerorgel von Carsten Nicolai in der St. Annen-Kapelle Krobitz, Thüringen” by Elisa Wrobel (Organ: Journal für die Orgel XXV/4  34–36; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2022-15515).
The medieval German town Hann. Münden was home to Johann Andreas Eisenbarth (1663–1727), a colorful figure who became a subject of folklore to the extent that fact and fiction are now difficult to untangle.
A celebrated surgeon who was bestowed with privileges by various members of German royalty, Eisenbarth had no formal medical credentials, nor was he ever officially awarded the title “Doctor”. Nevertheless, his skill and medical innovations are matters of historical record, not least his pioneering contributions to the development of cataract surgery.
Reputed to have traveled with an entourage of up to 120 attendants including musicians, acrobats, and clowns, he is said to have plied his trade in a carnival-like atmosphere. The loud music and revelry served both to attract large crowds—potential customers for Eisenbarth’s services and bottled remedies—and to drown out the cries of his patients, who underwent procedures including tooth extractions and amputations in an era before the advent of anesthetics.
In honor of this now semi-legendary resident, a mechanical clock was installed in the upper story of Hann. Münden’s Rathaus in 1980. After the stroke of noon and a brief pause, an automatic carillon plays the tune of the comical song Ich bin der Doktor Eisenbart as automata depict the doctor extracting a huge, bloody tooth from the mouth of a terrified, gesticulating patient restrained by a hammer-wielding attendant. In addition to these central figures, a juggler, an acrobat, and a flag-bearer suggest the festive nature of Eisenbarth’s medical procedures.
This according to “Dr Eisenbarth’s automated musical clock in Hann. Münden” by Mark Singleton and Sven Heinmann (The music box: An international journal of mechanical music XXVIII/5 [spring 2018] pp. 185–87; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2018-52039).
Today is Eisenbarth’s 360th birthday! Above and below, the good doctor in action.
Today a growing number of Mexican-American musicians in the United States perform on Indigenous Mesoamerican instruments and archaeological replicas in what is widely referred to as Aztec music.
For example, contemporary musicians in Los Angeles draw on legacies of Mexican nationalist music research and integrate applied anthropological and archeological models, showing how musical and cultural frameworks that once served to unite post-revolutionary Mexico have gained new significance in countering Mexican Indigenous erasure in the United States.
This according to “Forging Aztecness: Twentieth-century Mexican musical nationalism in twenty-first century Los Angeles/Forjando el Aztecanismo: Nacionalismo musical mexicano del siglo XX en el siglo XXI en Los Ángeles” by Kristina F. Nielsen (Yearbook for traditional music LII  127–46; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2020-69466).
Cassandre Balosso-Bardin Associate Professor, University of Lincoln Senior Fellow, Metropolitan Museum of Art
In 1888 Mary Elizabeth Brown sent out copies of her new catalogue, Musical instruments and their homes, to her many missionary friends across the world; they had helped her to collect instruments from around the globe, leading to an impressive collection of approximately 270 instruments, which she donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1889 (Brown 2014).
The subtitle of the catalogue reads: With two hundred and seventy illustrations in pen and ink by Wm. Adams Brown, the whole forming a complete catalogue of the collection of musical instruments now in the possession of Mrs. J. Crosby Brown of New York. As suggested in this lengthy description, the catalogue was beautifully illustrated by Brown’s son, William Adams Brown, with line drawings for each instrument, alongside short descriptions with minimal measurements. W.A. Brown’s contribution is significant: It gives unique pictorial insight into the breadth of the collection, and it adds myriad details that are usually forgotten or glossed over in textual descriptions. His drawings give us a much better understanding of the instruments collected, and may point to unwitting mistakes that, in turn, give us insights into the collecting world of the late 19th century.
As an ethnomusicologist with a specialty in bagpipes, I was particularly fascinated to identify the five examples of this instrument in the catalogue, and to unravel the stories they told. Their wide geographical spread demonstrates the breadth of contacts Mary Elizabeth Brown had, as well as her interest in collecting instruments from around the world, no matter how obscure they might have seemed. The five instruments hail from Scotland, India, Russia, Turkey, and Sclavonia, the latter possibly referring to a region now found in North Eastern Croatia or a former region in the Hungarian territory, or even just Slavic countries in general. If we detail each instrument alongside their illustrations, some discrepancies become clear, and an understanding of the 19th-century collector’s challenges starts to emerge.
The Scottish highland bagpipe listed in the catalogue (p. 335) was obviously well-known enough to not warrant any kind of description beyond its origin (“Scotch”), the fact that it was “modern”’, and the measurement of its bag (1 foot, 3 inches) and longest pipe (3 feet). This instrument (acquisition number 89.4.863) was made by Robert MacKinnon, a Scottish maker active in Glasgow between 1875 and 1902 (a detail omitted by the Browns in the catalogue, possibly because of its contemporary association). This might have made the instrument slightly less attractive than other items hailing from further afield and of rarer provenance.
The other European bagpipe illustrated on the same page presents more of a mystery. It is presented as a bagpipe from Sclavonia: “a very old specimen. The pipes of wood, inlaid with lead. The bag of leather. L. of the longest pipe 45 in. of bag 24 in.” Upon inspection of the illustration, however, the instrument strongly resembles a bagpipe from Central France. This large type of bagpipe, inlaid with pewter, is known to be from the Nivernais region, and its dimensions correspond to one of the grandes cornemuses du Nivernais currently in the Museum’s collection (89.4.860). These types of instruments were older, often made in the 18th century or very early 19th century. Upon closer inspection, one notices that the inlaid pewter is not filed, and that the instrument has not been played, unlike its sister instrument in the collection. Bernard Blanc, a French bagpipe maker specializing in instruments from this region, speculated during his visit to the collection in 1987 that this instrument was probably a copy of an older instrument, made in the 19th century specifically for the collector’s market (Metropolitan Museum Musical Instrument Archives).
A stunning instrument collected by Brown is the bagpipe illustrated in the Russian section of the catalogue (p. 347). This instrument takes up a significant amount of textual space in the catalogue, with a lengthy description enveloping the drawing, speaking to its aesthetic value:
The bag made of white skin, undressed. Three pipes, one for the breath, and the other two furnished, one with six and the other with three fingerholes. The extremities of the two latter covered with a cap of wood bound with brass, which is held in place by a leather strap. The pipes and movable cap decorated with imitations of precious stones, and the latter with nineteen small hanging chains. Bag 18x13 in. L. of pipe and cap 17 in.
This instrument is currently in the collection (89.4.318) and it is just as beautiful as the description suggests. The blue, green, and red glass jewels inserted along the finely stamped metallic straps that wrap around the double pipes, along with the small paisley-shaped ornaments hanging from delicate chains at the end of the wooden horn, all contribute to the impression of a fine instrument. While Mary Elizabeth Brown named it simply “bagpipe”, it is currently described as a volynka, a generic Russian term that means “bagpipe”, giving little indication about its regional origin. The instrument’s file notes that in 1977 “a Georgian visitor recognized this instrument as Georgian”. Indeed, the instrument presents all the characteristics of a gudastviri, a Georgian bagpipe, as illustrated on a USSR stamp from 1990 (Figure 3). It is possible that this instrument arrived in the collection among many other Russian instruments, with little attention paid to its actual origin. Brown’s correspondence shows regular contact with a dealer based in Moscow, although this instrument isn’t specifically identified (Brown Correspondence, Metropolitan Museum Musical Instrument Archives).
The Turkish bagpipe in the catalogue (p. 209) also presents a few mysteries. The instrument illustrated resembles more a bagpipe that might have been found in Iran (ney-anbān) or the Gulf States rather than in Turkey. Turkey’s two main types of bagpipes in the 19th century were the gaida (or ghaida), a Balkan-type instrument close to the Bulgarian or Macedonian bagpipe, and the tulum, a Mediterranean-type instrument found in a specific region by the Black Sea. While this particular instrument was catalogued as a “ghaida”, it does not resemble either of these instruments. Still in the collection today (89.4.362), its provenance remains a mystery. Could it be that an instrument from a different part of the world made its way to Turkey and was collected as such by Brown’s missionary friends? Brown’s correspondent in Turkey recognized that she did not know much about musical instruments (Brown Correspondence, Metropolitan Museum Musical Instrument Archives), which may have contributed to such confusion.
The final bagpipe in Brown’s collection is a bagpipe from Madras (now Chennai), India (p. 87). While it is called a zitty (or titthi) in the catalogue, it is also known as a sruti upanga. This instrument is commonly depicted in nautch performances within a larger group of musicians (see below). Most likely bought in 1886 through Reverend Canklin, who sent a range of instruments from Madras (Metropolitan Museum Musical Instrument Archive), it is still part of the collection (89.4.264). It is material evidence of a bagpipe that was mainly used for accompaniment rather than melody. According to the instrument’s file and further iconographic evidence, the sruti panga was traditionally used to supply drone accompaniment; the fingerholes were not for playing melodies, but were stopped with wax to create different drone pitches.
Brown’s illustrated catalogue is a remarkable document that gives fascinating insights into the collecting world of the late 19th century. William Adam Brown’s drawings allow us to understand both the wide range of instruments collected and the limitations of knowledge at the time, when individuals relied on third-party information to collate instrument files. Often bought and sent by individuals who had little knowledge about instruments, they regularly fell victim to misidentification, at times remaining unidentified for decades until visitors with specific regional knowledge were able to set the records straight.
The catalogue images also reveal the inconsistencies of the 19th-century market, and how collectors might have been taken advantage of by dealers misrepresenting instruments, passing them off as ancient when they were contemporary, most likely to fetch a better price as they played into the collectors’ fascination for antiques.
This unique document shows Brown’s strong will to collect all manner of instruments, no matter how humble or unassuming, providing us with a real global snapshot of the instruments played in the second half of the 19th century. It also highlights the value of accurate illustrations alongside the catalogue entries: Not only do they bring the objects to life, they also enable a much more detailed and in-depth analysis of them, allowing us to re-evaluate the textual descriptions passed down through the years, correcting discrepancies, and providing insights into the work undertaken by 19th-century collectors.
This article was written and published to mark International Bagpipe Day, which is celebrated on 10 March every year. International Bagpipe Day was co-founded by Cassandre Balosso-Bardin in 2012 and is now celebrated across the world. Dr. Balosso-Bardin is the founding director of the International Bagpipe Organisation and is an Associate Professor in Music at University of Lincoln, where she lectures in ethnomusicology. This research was made possible thanks to a Chester Dale Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2022–23).
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Joseph Holbrooke’s The bells, op. 50(a), a “dramatic poem” scored for large orchestra and chorus and inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s poem by the same name, is highly onomatopoeic and describes the sound, function, and effect of four types of bells: sleigh bells, wedding bells, alarm bells, and funeral bells. A concertina is heard in two sections of the piece: the prelude (section 1) and Iron bells (section 5).
The composer, who had a “lifelong affection for concertinas”, recalled how the instrument was almost cut from the work’s 1906 premiere:
“While I was having my Poem for Orchestra and Chorus, The bells, performed in London under Hans Richter, the eminent conductor noticed that there was a part written for a concertina. ‘Concertina! Concertina!’ said Richter, ‘What is that?’ I explained to him that it was a peculiar instrument like a bellows, played by hand. ‘We cannot have that’ said Richter. ‘There is no instrument like that here.’ I found one, however, and Conductor Richter placed it away back where it could not possibly be heard. But at the concert I saw to it that the concertina player sat directly in front of the conductor.”
This according to “The concertina and The bells” by Eric Matusewitch (Concertina world 488 [December 2021] 17–24). Below, the work’s first movement.
These articles form the output of academic and artistic research in the areas of history, musicology, sociology, anthropology, historically informed performance practice, heritage, cultural sciences, and campanology. Although the main focus is on the Low Countries, contributions on carillon and bell culture in other countries will also be considered for publication.
On this day 100 years ago, a British excavation team exploring Egypt’s Valley of the Kings discovered a step that proved to be the beginning of a descending staircase. Thus began the opening of the first known largely intact royal burial from ancient Egypt— Tut’ankhamūn’s tomb.
Among the “wonderful things” that Howard Carter saw when he entered inner chamber were two trumpets—one made of silver, and one made of bronze.
Seeing the potential for an extraordinary recording, in 1939 the BBC persuaded the Matḥaf al-Miṣrī (Museum of Egyptian Antiquities) to schedule a world broadcast. The British Army bandsman James Tappern was engaged to perform on the historic instruments.
In what some people saw as the notorious “curse of King Tut”, five minutes before the live broadcast was to begin the watchmen’s lanterns failed and the museum was plunged into darkness; but candlelight saved the day, and enthralled listeners heard what were presumably sounds last heard more than 3,000 years earlier.
In 2022 Libreria Musicale Italiana launched Acusfere: Suoni_culture_musicologie, a multilingual, annually published, peer-reviewed print and online journal with abstracts in English. The journal’s scope is purposely broad; however, there are several general elements around which it coheres, including emphases on:
Research from the fields of musicology and anthropology
Musical writing, invention, improvisation, and composition in the contemporary world
Local and peripheral music traditions
Relationships between music and many other artistic and expressive activities
Musical instruments and technologies
Vocal expression as manifested in individual and polyphonic contexts
The processes of thought, theories, aesthetics, and structures that shape musical meanings
The multifarious behaviors detectable in the music-making of diverse cultures
The spaces and places of music, stable and concrete, but also mobile and ephemeral
Projections of music in media, rapidly changing and integrated into multiple perspectives
The journal’s tripartite subtitle—suoni (sounds), culture (cultures), and musicologie (musicologies)—reflects the pluralities and variabilities of viewpoints, processes, scenarios, contexts, and knowledges at the center of the critical reflection of music making.
Below, Marco Tomassi performs on his reconstruction of the 17th-century sordellina, the subject of an article in the journal’s inaugural issue.
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In 1950 a pipe organ built to the specifications of Adriaan Fokker (1887–1972) with octaves divided into 31 steps was inaugurated at Teylers Museum in Haarlem. The instrument originally enjoyed considerable fame, and a lively circle of composers and performers developed around it.
Since 1942 Fokker, a physicist who had studied with Einstein, had been occupied almost exclusively with music-theoretical subjects. His interest was particularly captured by the writings of Christiaan Huygens (1629–95), who advocated the adoption of just intonation. This theme became the backbone of nearly all Fokker’s music-theoretical publications.
To turn his theories into sounds, Fokker had a small organ built in 1943. This instrument was the prelude to the realization of his greatest dream: a pipe organ with 31 tones per octave. This instrument was built starting in 1945 in close cooperation between Fokker and the organ builder Bernard J.A. Pels (1921–96).
Then for years the organ was forgotten; it was even dismantled and placed in storage. But since 2009 the instrument sounds again, in the Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ in Amsterdam. And again composers are inspired by the Fokker organ and its intriguing microtonal system.
This according to “Microtonaliteit van het Spaarne naar ’t IJ. Zestig jaar 31-toons orgel” by Cees van der Poel (Het orgel, 107/3  pp. 4–10; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-1372).
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