Musical Instruments: The Tangible Aspects of Intangible Heritage

About Eritrea - History & Culture

A musical instrument is a device created by human creative capacity with the aim of producing musical sounds. In general, those objects that produce meaningful musical sounds by some kinds of waves may be considered as musical instruments. Nature is the first naturally existing musician. The wind sighs from giant trees and ferns, insects hum, birds sing, rain falls upon rocks and leaves, waves gurgle and splash on beaches, thunder booms across the sky – all are nature’s musical devices that turn the earth into a lively planet.

The human body is another naturally existing musical device. It can produce variety of sounds, like whistling, clapping, tapping, clicking, stamping, among others.

Once humans moved from making sounds with their bodies, they began using objects to make sounds and musical instruments came into existence. The history of musical instruments goes back to centuries. Early musical instruments are believed to have been made for ritual purposes rather than entertainment. For example, a shaman might use drums in religious events, or a hunter might blow a horn to announce a success or the start of hunting. Generally, the composing of melodies for entertainment was unknown to earlier people.

When and where the first musical device appeared or made is debatable. However, many scholars consider that a bone-flute dating back 67,000 years as the oldest musical instrument. Another flute dates back 37,000 years. As explained by some historians, it is not easy to determine the specific time of the invention of musical devices. This is mainly due to the subjectivity of the definition of musical instruments and the relative instability of materials used in their construction.

While music constitutes a part of intangible heritage its tools (i.e. musical instruments ) represent the tangible aspect of the intangible heritage. The richness and variety of musical instruments that we see in our planet today are evidence of how people make music meaningful and useful in their lives. Cultural elements or heritage that can be expressed through musical means are deposited or preserved in instruments and they reflect various cultures.

The function of musical instruments should not be limited solely to the production of sound. They may also communicate the deepest cultural, spiritual, and aesthetic values of people. They are different from other objects by being tools that both produce sound and convey meaning. Thus, they have an extra-musical dimension that is determined by the functional and symbolic role they play in society. When people design and craft instruments, they both express cultural values and make practice  through them. Therefore, musical instruments are items of expressive culture (as works of art), material culture, technological inventions, and tools for earning a livelihood. They are also the source of knowledge and serve as the medium of transmitting that knowledge to many other realms.

Musical heritage is the source of cultural identity for many people. It is one of the simplest and most powerful means of bringing different groups of people and culture together. It is impossible to come across civilizations, cultures, or societies without musical instruments and it is believed that they are among the last tangible cultural materials to vanish in the process of disappearance and transformation.

People interact with musical instruments in some way to produce meaningful sound. The countless and varied musical instruments that have existed are evidence of how people make music meaningful and useful in their lives. They are used in a variety of situations, such as in war or to signify hazards, for entertainment, as items for trade, as gifts, mechanisms of cultural diffusion. In some cultures, musical instruments are also played to heal illnesses.

Many societies associate musical instruments with various social or cultural situations and they acquire more meaning and value than as simple instruments. The extra-musical meanings associated to various musical instruments vary from culture to culture, although meanings sometimes overlap. Some of the extra-musical dimensions or associations are spiritual association, where instruments give voice to a sacred spirit and are the main tools for accompanying the sacred voice in a spiritual world. In many cultures, holy messages are conveyed through music, as music may be the most trusted medium of communication between believers and a higher power or being.

Instruments may also be related with cultural status and prestige. The prestige of musical instruments may be associated with sound quality, materials or accessibility of the instrument, and the role the instrument plays in a certain group or band. Additionally, some instruments may have more symbolic or cultural importance than others at state, ethnic, or tribal level. Notably, many countries have national instruments which, although not in use, have highly symbolic importance or promote national identity. For example, in the West the piano has long had high status, while in China the guqin (a zither with seven strings) is perceived to be an instrument of wisdom and intellectuality. The guqin is not a frequently used instrument, but it still holds high cultural status. As well, the begana (a ten-stringed box-lyre played only for religious purposes) has a special respect within the Orthodox faith, while the first violin is considered to be the queen of an orchestra.

Musicians often think that certain instruments have more importance than others in a given performing group. For example, many think that a keyboard has a “better” role than a saxophone or a trumpet in a band. Moreover, drums and bass (rhythmic instruments) are believed to have a supportive role, while keyboards and strings (melodic instruments) are perceived to have main role in many societies.

There is often also a gender and sexuality association where gender dictates who may or may not play an instrument and which instruments are considered as appropriate for females or males. Although the English language does not specify gender upon calling the names of instruments or nouns in general, this is not the case in other languages (e.g. Italian and French). In many African societies, drums are considered as female in gender, while musical instruments are perceived as female in gender in Eritrea. For example, in Tigrigna, kirar, kebero, wata, shambko (and others) are specified as female. Similarly,in the Tigre ethnic group, instruments such as mesonko, negaret, tisho, and hnuna are female in gender and some musical instruments have the same proper names (saleha and mensura) as women. The Kunama and Nara ethnic groups also have two drums (big and small) which they refer to as “mother and daughter.”

If looking at aesthetic values of instruments, those found in museums or private homes are treated as objects of aesthetic value apart from their musical capacity. They possess tremendous history, artistic beauty, and cultural expression. Instruments, such as Arabian lutes and African drums, are embellished with attractive artwork that communicates the cultural heritage of owners.

As well, musical instruments are used as precious gifts and items for cultural exchange. In Eritrea, it is common to see visitors buying musical instruments as presents for their friends. One may also see old instruments hung on the walls or suspended on ceilings of homes, hotels, bars, or other establishments. This helps creates a classic or traditional mood or atmosphere.

The classification of instruments dates back to the fourth century BC, and throughout history many different systems of classification have been used. Musical instruments may be classified according to various criteria including their construction materials or the effective range or techniques of sound production. For example, the ancient Chinese classification system shows the value that culture puts on nature. They classified instruments according to the natural material that produced each instrument’s sound. The eight sounds were metal, stone, skin, vegetables, bamboo, wood, silk, and earth. When musicians played specific instruments, the eight sounds were incorporated into significant rituals, not to provide musical variety but to manifest a link that they have with nature.

In ancient India people also had a systematic method of classifying musical instruments. They classified and devised a variety of exhaustive categorizations from character types in drama to physical positions in lovemaking.

The European classification system groups instruments into strings, winds, percussion, and keyboards. However, the most commonly used system is Hornbostel- Sachs, which classifies musical instruments through their primary sound-producing medium: the vibrating of instruments itself, (idiophone), a vibrating membrane (membranophone), a vibrating string (cordophone), and a vibrating column of air (aerophone).

The categorization of musical instruments in Africa is often according to the sound produced, such as beating, strumming, blowing, plucking, and others. Eritrean traditional musical instruments can be classified by the techniques used to produce sound. For example, tewekaeti/ teharemti (beaten) instruments such as keberotat (drums), metqea (metallophone), tenefahti (blowing) instruments like emblta, hnuna, meleket, gila, shambko, tegerefti (strumming) devices like mesenko, tegoteyti (plucking) like bgena, and tewateyti (bowing) such as wata. The terms teharemti or tewekaeti are commonly used names and can replace all the mentioned ways (tenefahti, tegerefti, tewateyti, and tegoteyti) of producing sound. There are also various sub-divisions or sub-categories within those groups of instruments. For example, percussion instruments can be sub-divided into categories according to quality of sound or pitch ranges.

A column prepared in collaboration with the Eritrea’s culture and sports commission