View Full Version : Musical Instruments

09-21-2006, 11:21 PM
Musical instruments: care and feeding thereof.

Most of the characters in my fantasy novel are more musically inclined than I am. I love listening to music, but the closest I've come to making music is childhood piano lessons (I can play about three songs from memory including Chopsticks). Yet my novel is filled with bards, minstrels, and an entire village of people devoted to making musical instruments.

I was hoping some of the musically inclined out there could answer some questions on musical instruments in specific and music in general. I'm mostly interested in information on instruments made from wood (harps, guitars, flutes, drums, ???) and do not require electricity, but I'd love to hear about any more esoteric instruments, too.

So, what do you play? How do you take care of your instrument? If portable, what do you need to do to protect the instrument during travel? What does it sound like? How difficult is it to learn?

Thanks in advance for any answers, and if anyone else would like to add their questions, please feel free.

09-21-2006, 11:54 PM
Bassoons are considered woodwinds, correct? For reed instruments, what is the reed made of? What's involved in making the mouthpiece? Any idea what sort of wood the bassoon is made from?

Note: please correct me if I use terminology incorrectly. Thanks!

Tsu Dho Nimh
09-22-2006, 12:08 AM
Wooden flutes and clarinets .... AAAAGH!!!! The ideal wood is extremely dense, such as ebony. They sound "warmer" than the metal ones.

You have to keep them oiled, inside and out, and protect them from large temperature swings.

But they sound really good.

09-22-2006, 12:26 AM
The main problem with stringed instuments while traveling is weather, specifically temp and humidity. As the humidity changes, the intrument tends to go out of tune, and in extreme cases, can even crack or warp. (Like going from a hot desert climate to a cool wet mountain environment.) One of the common ways to protect against this is to loosen the strings whenever you travel.

Here are a few links about stringed instuments. You could combine aspects of each and invent your own, but you might want to check with a musician if you intend to talk about how it's to be tuned.


http://www.cs.dartmouth.edu/~wbc/lute/lute.html (http://www.cs.dartmouth.edu/%7Ewbc/lute/lute.html)



09-22-2006, 01:17 AM
A basson is by nature a keyed instrument; you can't actually have a basson without a metal key system and it't not the kind of thing a black smith would do; you would need very exact measurements and casting skills to make the keys out of silver or gold.

You might research instruments that were used pre-1700, and not just in Europe; look at Asia and India and Africa as well.

09-22-2006, 01:27 AM
I somewhat play the guitar (badly) . . . and also have a flute (silver) but about the only thing I can do on it is play the notes while looking at a finger diagram.

09-22-2006, 03:11 AM
If you do decide to have brass instruments in your story, the mouthpieces are separate. And the tubing gets spitty, which is why modern instruments have spit valves. When I used to play the French horn (in middle and high school), every so often I'd actually give my horn a bath in the tub, rinsing it out with plain water, then drying it off and oiling the valves. Probably wasn't good for it, though, now that I think about it.

I think hunting horns were the precursors of the French horn. Hunting horns probably wouldn't have separate mouthpieces, though, since it'd be too easy for them to fall out while riding.

09-22-2006, 03:18 AM
In fact, hunting horns do have separate mouthpieces; it's much much easier to construct them that way.

09-22-2006, 03:39 AM
Hunting horns have no keys or valves, correct?

Soccer Mom
09-22-2006, 06:52 AM
Yup. If you want a more esoteric instrument, you could consider the Zither. It's sort of like a lap harp. It's a flat wooden soundbox with 4 or 5 melody strings and about 35 accompaniment strings stretched. The melody strings are plucked with the left hand by means of a pick attached to the thumb. These would be the strings closest to the player. The accompaniement strings are played with the right hand. It's a more rustic, folk instrument and quality can vary widely as can the number of strings. This can make it a very personal instrument. As always, the wood and stings must be cared for. Heat and drought are the enemies. Cleaning and oiling are a must.

BTW--no, I don't play the zither personally.

09-22-2006, 08:36 AM
You may also want to research the bombard (a medieval oboe), lute, reber ( a medieval form of violin usually depicted being played on the arms or under the chins of angels), and my favorite... the hurly-gurly... which came on the scene around the 11th century. I love this instrument, and it was used a great deal by troubadours.

Soccer Mom
09-22-2006, 08:43 AM
There are many varieties of lute. You could almost invent your own for your "world." I don't know the hurly-gurly. I've heard of the "hurdy-gurdy." Same thing or different?

I just love stringed instruments and I stink at them. Can't play a note worth hearing. But my son studies violin.

09-22-2006, 09:01 AM
Dear God... hurdy-gurdy... thanks, MOM! LOL I'll not explain what I was thinking of when I wrote it earlier...

09-22-2006, 09:11 AM
You may also want to research the bombard (a medieval oboe), lute, reber ( a medieval form of violin usually depicted being played on the arms or under the chins of angels), and my favorite... the hurly-gurly... which came on the scene around the 11th century. I love this instrument, and it was used a great deal by troubadours.

The Breton bombard is still used in traditional Celtic music; it's a b!tch to play, but a lovely thing.

Bagpipes, of various sorts, are reed instruments and medieval in origin; low tech instruments.

That's hurdy-gurdy, a lute with a cranked drone

and that's rebec, a three stringed sort of violin; it's bowed but not fretted. The were other bowed and fretted things.

09-22-2006, 09:56 AM
I used to play the drums. They are not portable, unless you get a special setup that is designed for each drum to nest inside the other drums. Generally, a drum set (or drum kit, as some people call it) consists of a number of different-toned drums called 'Toms' and 'Floor Toms', a big drum that sits on its side called a 'Bass Drum' (you play it with a foot pedal), and a thin little thing called a 'Snare Drum'. The Snare Drum is one of the two basic drums needed for a gigging kit. The other one you need is a Bass Drum. The reason the snare drum (or 'snare', as drummers commonly call it) has such a name, is that it has a metal strap on the bottom that, when the drum is struck, raps against the bottom drum head producing a popping sound.

Most drum kits I have seen have at least four drums (although I have seen smaller kits) and each drum is referred to as a 'piece'. Therefore, a four-drum kit is called a '4-piece'.

Most drummers use cymbals in the keeping of the tempo, as well as the bass and the snare drums. The cymbal most people think of is called a 'Crash'. The reason it has this name is the sound it makes. It is an emphasis cymbal. Other cymbals that are commonly used are a giant cymbal called a 'Ride', which is good for a smooth-sounding, continual slight tapping (you do not hit a ride hard unless you want to punish everyone's ears). The other cymbal that is used for keeping the tempo is actually a pair of cymbals that clap together using a foot pedal. These are commonly called 'Hi-Hats'. (Earlier version of Hi-Hats had the cymbals closer to the floor, and were sometimes referred to as 'Low-Boys'.)

The kit I used to have was a Ludwig brand 4-piece with six cymbals. (The cymbals consisted of my two Hi-Hats, a Ride, two Crashes, and a little tiny cymbal referred to as a 'Splash' cymbal. Again, each cymbal is basically named for the sound it makes or the purpose it serves.)

I would keep my kit in my apartment (I was allowed to play it so long as I kept it quiet and only played during certain hours of the day) and I would generally keep it set up. However, if I needed to take it on a gig, I had a set of cases, each made specifically for one of my pieces. These were black in color and generally made of a very hard paperboard, riveted together.

General maintenance that I performed on my drum kit included continually tuning the drum heads (or skins, as some people call them) and basic dusting. To give the outer surface (covered with a vinyl covering called a 'wrap', in the case of my kit--some other drum kits have lacquered finishes.) a good, clean shine, I generally used car wax (Turtle Wax was my preferred brand). When I did not have any Turtle Wax, I found Mop'n'Glo to be almost as good.

The bass drum generally has such a loud 'boom' that many drummers use a pillow inside it to muffle the drum. When applied correctly, this muffle can still produce a decent 'Thump' without drowning out the rest of the band.

The bass drum, like I said before, is played using a foot pedal with a thick felt beater on the end of it (some have wood or plastic, as well, and sometimes all on the same shaft so as to be easily interchangeable).

The main tool that drummers use to tune and otherwise adjust the drums and their equipment is called a 'Drum Key'. It is a wrench with either a screw-slot tab (Sonor brand makes their drums and keys like this) or a square hole at one end (Ludwig, Tama, and Pearl are among some of the brands that use this design). The Drum Key (or just 'Key') is used like a screwdriver or a socket wrench to turn Tension Rods for tuning, or make equipment adjustments, just like one would with a regular bolt. Drum Keys are generally one-size-fits-all, and are not proprietary to the drum set's brand, for the most part (in other words, a Pearl drum key will work on a Ludwig drum set). There are a couple of exceptions, including the brand Sonor, as I mentioned above.

This is basically what I remember of the purposes and upkeep of the drums I used to have. I hope this helps with your research, TheIT. I wish you well.

09-22-2006, 01:29 PM
I am a professional harper. I play small metal-strung harps, which sound very, very different from the nylon-strung, "Celtic" harps you may have heard. Contraray to popular belief, the harp was never a folk instrument: only modern folklore has made the harp a folk instrument. However, there were itinerant harpers in Ireland and the highlands of Scotland who travelled around and played harps in the big houses up into the first third of the 19th century or so: the last harp school in Ireland closed in eighteen twenty-something. Most of these musicians would have played harps that were resident in the big houses, although many of them also travelled with their own smaller instruments.

Metal-strung harps are strung with brass, silver or gold (yes, real silver and gold) wire, and they have a sound that can be compared to bells. They are played with the fingernails, which means players must take care of their nails. In fact, there used to be fines to pay in Ireland if you were responsible for breaking a harper's nail(s). Traditionally, small metal-strung harps had their soundboxes hollowed out from a single piece of wood. The oldest surviving example of the metal-strung harp is the Trinity College Harp, fancifully known as the Brian Boru harp. It lives in Trinity College, Dublin, in a plexiglass case, and it's also featured on most Irish coins. This harp would have been small enough to travel with.

My smallest harp has twenty-four strings. The five bottom strings are made from silver, and the rest are yellow brass. I carry it in a backpack case, and it's really easy to carry around that way. My case is made of canvas and nylon and other modern materials, but in Fantasyland, leather would probably do as well. I own two other wire harps, but they are quite a bit larger; they're pictured prominently on my web site (link in my .sig). Carried along with the harp, in the same case, is a string kit, which consists of coils of brass and silver wire, metal or wooden toggles to hold strings beneath the soundboard, something capable of cutting wire (I use a pair of needlenose pliers with a wirecutter), something to polish the strings with (I use fine grade steel wood to clean and a jeweller's cloth to polish), a tuning wrench (more romantically called 'key', but it's really a wrench), and for me, something to colour the strings with. Harp strings are traditionally coloured red (for Cs) and blue (for Fs) to help players find their place on the strings, but wires don't come coloured, so I add a dot of colour to the appropriate strings so I can navigate.

Harp strings are only changed when they break, and strings made of precious metals are always carefully coiled away when they break. When I tell people there are silver strings on my harp and that I know people who have gold strings on their harps, I'm often met with disbelief. Yes, the sound really is different; silver strings keep a good sound a lower tension, for example, which lets me pitch my bass strings a little bit lower without them sounding sour or thuddy.

Harps need to be tuned and played every day, not just to keep the player's hands in shape but to keep the harp's tuning consistent and keep it sounding 'live'. A harp that's been sitting on a shalf for years in a quiet room will not sound the same as one that's been played every day for the same amount of time. There are plenty of fanciful ways to explain this phenomenon, but the actual reason is that the harp's soundboard responds well to frequent vibrating; a harp that's been kept near a loud stereo will also sound live even if it hasn't been played for awhile, although just sitting your harp in front of a good pair of speakers will not tune it up!

You asked about the way the instrument sounds. As I said, many people compare the sound of the wire harp to bells. There are some song mp3s linked from my web site, but here is a link to a march I put up on my website for students to listen to:http://www.gwenknighton.com/mp3/mackenziesfarewell.mp3. Actually hearing the music will tell you more than any discussion here will do.

How difficult is the harp to learn? Honestly, I found the harp very simple to learn, but the harp is my fifteenth instrument. It is currently my primary instrument, and the only other two instruments I am learning at present (mountain dulcimer, melodeon) were both started after I became proficient on the wire harp. I can tell you what my students have difficulty with. First, wire strings ring a lot longer than nylon/gut ones, so they must be damped as other strings are played, which means the fingers do double duty: the nails pluck and the pads damp. Otherwise, you have muddy music, like you'd have if you played a piano with the sustain pedal down and never released the pedal to damp the strings. You don't see this problem on a guitar or other fretted instrument with metal strings, because a guitar has a stringboard and frets, and each string can sound several different notes. On a harp, one string equals one note, and the strings are only stopped when they must be, if that makes any sense. My students typically have trouble with learning to damp and play at the same time, and with damping properly so that the strings left to ring are the consonant ones and not tones dissonant with the harmony of the piece being played. Elegant and intelligent fingering is always a struggle, as is the initial learning of what ornamentation works and how to make ornamentation sound natural and not overdone.

Wow, this is long. Please let me know if you have further questions about harps!

09-22-2006, 07:30 PM
As the humidity changes, the [stringed] instrument tends to go out of tune
With a violin (can’t speak for other stringed things), this is even more likely with gut strings, especially right after you put them on. Unless your characters are using strings from nylon, metal, or some fantasy material, I’d assume they’d be using gut.

On learning, my violin teacher said pianists eventually stop improving, but violinists can play 'til they're 105 years old and still improve a little each year. This said by a lady with 20 years' teaching experience, so she probably knows.

Expanding on the idea of inventing instruments, you could even invent a type of tree, the wood of which makes a unique sound. I’m thinking of how they say duduks should be made only from apricot wood and not just any apricot wood at that.

I’m not a drummer, but reading Sean’s very good post about modern drums, I thought I’d put in a word for old time drums, too. If your characters want portable drums, the dumbek is very portable and fun at parties :D, the dhol and davul are also portable, but they’re bigger and harder to carry around. African music (I know, wide variety there) also uses a lot of drums and the few I know of look pretty portable. Unfortunately, I have no idea about the maintenance of these things. The Armenian instruments link below will give you an idea of how they're played, though, if you're interested.

Just thinking, if you want less common instruments that are portable, try exploring the music of Central Asia and the Caucasus. A lot of formerly nomadic nations there and some really gorgeous music. For starters, here are some pages on traditional instruments of Kazakhstan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_of_Kazakhstan), Chechnya (http://www.chechnyafree.ru/index.php?lng=eng&section=cmuschecheng&row=0), Bulgaria (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_of_Bulgaria), and Armenia (http://www.parev.net/armenian-culture-instruments.shtml). (Two links are Wikis, so reader beware.)

Keep in mind that with tuning you don't have to limit yourself to the Western scale (A, B/H, C, D, ect.). For instance, Arabic (and some other) music uses maquams, which involve notes that "western" instruments, except for the violin and trombone, can't make.

I'd bet in a village of musicians there would be at least some playful teasing of players of certain instruments, if not actual stereotypes and cliqueishness (is "cliqueishness" a word?). We have this on Earth, after all.


09-22-2006, 10:43 PM
Thanks, everyone! This helps.

I need to pick out a few instruments for a couple of characters, otherwise I can leave it pretty vague.

Zisel, oh, yes, there are cliques in this village, but not among the bards. I'm imagining rival instrument makers. One specializes in stringed instruments, the other in woodwinds, and both are in direct competition for the local wood. The village is in a forest. Types of trees to be determined, though there will at least be redwood and pine, and probably some other trees I'll make up.

One of the characters who needs instruments is a sailor who is learning to be a bard. He has a leg injury which prevents him from captaining a ship, so he's changing direction and becoming a storyteller instead. He's come to the village to purchase instruments. He'll need instruments which are portable and are played just with the hands, i.e. as background music to catch people's attention while he tells stories. I was thinking a hand drum and something with strings like a guitar or maybe a small harp like Gwenzilla describes.

09-22-2006, 11:24 PM
Couple of thoughts: humidity and extreme temp changes affect various instruments; something to keep in mind when your characters are traveling and storing their instruments.

Weather can affect tuning in stringed instruments (hubby has a terrible time keeping his guitar, mandolin and banjo tuned when it's really humid), and damp weather/extremely dry, hot weather can cause various problems, too. You'll also need to come up with suitable instrument cases to protect them and make them easier to carry.

One more thing that might be fun--certain types of picks such those made from tortoise shell are highly prized and difficult to get--maybe you could tweak this somehow if you have stringed instrument players?

Sorry to be so brief and scattered; thunderstorms and tornado warnings are smacking us. I'll check back later. :)

ETA: Sorry if I duplicated anyone's responses. Oh, and I play (not too skillfully) guitar, mandolin, and dulcimer. :)

09-22-2006, 11:46 PM
What a fascinating thread!
I have Harpers in my fantasy world, too, so all the information about the strings will come in very useful.

I have a special interest in medieval Wales, so I thought I'd mention the crwth here (said "crooth"). It's sort of similar to a violin - at least, it's played with a bow, and has a very distinctive sound which requires a special technique to sing with it.
It was fascinating last year, listening to a Jamaican lady on BBC Radio 3 (the classical music station, basically), as she shifted seamlessly from Caribbean accent to medieval Welsh that went with the odd buzzing notes of the crwth.

09-23-2006, 12:13 AM
Question on storage - a couple of posts have mentioned the problems with humidity. What about extreme dryness? Would a storage case which contains a magical item to absorb water help?

For the problems with tuning - is the difficulty that humidity or jostling the instrument affects the tension of the strings?

09-23-2006, 01:11 AM
For the problems with tuning - is the difficulty that humidity or jostling the instrument affects the tension of the strings?
The problem is not so much with the strings as it is the wood of the instrument. Varnishes help, but as the wood absorbs water or dries out, it swells and shrinks, changing the tension of the strings and thus their pitch. If it swells and shrinks enough times, the wood can develop cracks, ruining the resonance.

Perhaps your bards could magically travel into the future and pick up a few packs of dessicants.

Seriously, most dessicants are silica based (I think) so you could temper any magical solutions with some low tech ones, created by clever artisans, to impart a sense of reality and place to your world.

09-23-2006, 01:11 AM
I play the flute and the Bodhran.

The bodhran (the 'd' is silent) is an Irish frame-drum, usually played with a wooden beater. It's actually NOT a period Irish instrument, even though everyone thinks it is. IIRC, the first Bodhrans evolved out of tambourines sometime in the 1920s. But of course, the concept of the frame drum dates back to forever, and there's nothing inherantly technological about them.

Like most non-metal instruments, Bodhrans are sensetive to temperature and humidity changes. There are tunable drums that employ small metal parts to make the skin's tautness adjustable, but non-tunables are popular too (I hear that players in the UK and the Republic of Ireland make fun of Americans for 'needing their drums just so.' They can come chill out in Maryland for a year and then come talk to me-- Ireland's got nothin' on our mad humidity swings). With non-tunables, people do a veriety of different things to warm and moisten their drum skins when they're too tight. Warm water, hand-warmers, blow dryers... some people use beer. That's a very bad idea. I don't think there's much you can do when it's too loose, though (due to high humidity). Ice water might help a bit.

My flute is a pretty standard silver one. The important thing is to keep it clean. Most flutes these days are sold with 'cleaning rods.' They look kind of like knitting needles with a big eye at one end. to clean a flute, you pull its three sections apart, feed a rag through the eye of the cleaning rod, and run it through the flute several times.

Reed flutes are another matter (refferring here to a keyless instrument that looks rather like a recorder. They're usually made out of wood or bamboo). I don't even bother keeping my reed flutes in cases, because any case I got for them would probably cost more than they do. They're very low-maintanance and wonderfully easy to learn-- great starter instruments for beginners.

09-23-2006, 02:10 AM
You know, I just thought about the recorder. I can't believe I forgot it; I've played it (rather badly) for decades. I have a lovely little pearwood one my mother gave me when I was 15 or 16. It's a simple wooden instrument something like a clarinet with holes you stop with your fingers instead of keys. Here's the Wiki link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recorder
The recorder is an easy instrument to learn, so maybe your sailor-turned-storyteller would take it up to feel like he's accomplished something in his new career.

09-23-2006, 02:30 AM
Recorders and wooden flutes are definitely going to have some place in this world (mostly because I like how they sound ;) ), but I'm not sure whether my sailor would choose one immediately since he figures he'll need to talk to earn his keep. I'll have to think about it. He's changing his life direction, so he'll look to the future, too, and music would definitely be in his future. The drum, definitely. LeeFlower, thanks for the Bodhran info, that sounds about right. I'll have to investigate it further. For a storyteller, I figure he could use a drum as emphasis or to set a mood.

And rugcat? Dessicants they can do :D . This ties in nicely with my MC who is a artist who sculpts magical clay. One of the items she can make is something to absorb water, so that gives her something she can sell to the local bards and instrument makers. See my "Magical Items" thread in the Science Fiction and Fantasy forum for more info. She'll also be able to make decorative inlays out of clay with colors like moonlight and sunshine.

Let me throw the question out here, too. I've asked it in "Horse Sense" and "Magical Items", so now let me poll the musicians. If you had access to magic, what sort of spell or item would be useful to you to as a musician? Something to keep instruments in repair, like a dessicant? Something to help with tuning?

09-23-2006, 03:28 AM
Tuning--and something to keep strings from breaking.

09-23-2006, 03:41 AM
If you had access to magic, what sort of spell or item would be useful to you to as a musician?
First choice - Something that would magically remove wrong notes and replace them with the right ones, or add timbre, luster and proper pitch to my singing voice. Oh, thatís right, we already have that; itís called a recording engineer.

Second choice - Something to keep my strings alive and bright indefinitely. (Acoustically speaking) Strings go dead very quickly. I have to put on new strings before every gig to sound my best - I need all the help I can get. And itís a bore changing strings all the time. And itís expensive.

09-23-2006, 03:47 AM
First choice - Something that would magically remove wrong notes and replace them with the right ones, or add timbre, luster and proper pitch to my singing voice. Oh, thatís right, we already have that; itís called a recording engineer.

Not sure whether the magic in my world could help you with this one. I'm not giving them ways to record sound, but I think they'd have "repeaters" which could repeat the sound at a distance. Might be useful for the people on the fringes of the audience to hear clearly.

Second choice - Something to keep my strings alive and bright indefinitely. (Acoustically speaking) Strings go dead very quickly. I have to put on new strings before every gig to sound my best - I need all the help I can get. And itís a bore changing strings all the time. And itís expensive.

Expand on this, please? Strings for what instrument, and what are they made of? Is there any way to revitalize an acoustically dead string?

09-23-2006, 04:26 AM
Not sure whether the magic in my world could help you with this one. I'm not giving them ways to record sound, but I think they'd have "repeaters" which could repeat the sound at a distance. Might be useful for the people on the fringes of the audience to hear clearly.

Sorry. Musician joke:)

Iím a guitar player, but I think this will hold true for most stringed instruments. Modern strings are steel, nylon, or metal filament wound around a core of some other material. For your purposes I imagine you would be talking gut strings, or some similar but invented material. In any case, all strings lose their elasticity over time from being stretched and donít vibrate as well. Also, more typically, they get dirty over time from oils on the fingers and the general collection of dirt, which makes them sound less ďbright.Ē.

You can restore some of the tone by simply cleaning them with mild soapy water. Or denatured alcohol. There are some impoverished musicians who boil them, but I think that only works with metal strings, and its efficacy is uncertain.

09-23-2006, 04:38 AM
I've heard that boiling strings can revive them, particularly extremely expensive bass strings. I don't know if this is true or not.

But what you're looking at are probably animal gut strings. On my classical guitar (which is closer to the stringed instruments you're probably thinking of using), I don't need to change the strings nearly as much. I notice more of a need to change the strings with steel strings, though nowadays I don't worry about that as much, since I'm into a warmer sound anyway.

These are terribly simple instruments, and I have a hard time thinking of anything that magic would be necessary for. The biggest issue I can see is for keeping the neck from warping. Tuning isn't a big deal at all, neither is string wear. But a warped neck is a gigantic pain. Probably the biggest pain there is, short of the instrument actually breaking.

Speaking of that, keeping the correct neck relief is important. Classical guitars (and I'll assume, lutes) usually have no relief at all and are perfectly straight. In an electric guitar, you have a metal rod which adjust how straight the neck is, and there's a certain amount of bow to go for, though it does come down to personal preference. Classical guitars (ones that use gut/nylon strings, more like medieval instruments) don't have these rods because the strings don't have enough tension to bend the neck like they do on steel string guitars.

Refretting is a pain too. So something to keep the frets from wearing would be good.

Then there are sustain issues, especially with acoustic instruments. Then again, on the other hand, that's what tremolo is for. Though, I suppose it would be neat to have a magical version of a Fernandez sustainer on a lute or classical guitar.

For me, playability issues are much more important than minor things like string wear.

ETA- I guess Rugcat beat me to most of the points I made. Ah well.

09-23-2006, 07:42 AM
Question on storage - a couple of posts have mentioned the problems with humidity. What about extreme dryness? Would a storage case which contains a magical item to absorb water help?

I have heard of some guitar cases that have humidor-like qualities to keep the guitar 'fresh', if I may use that term. This is mostly used for hollowbody guitars, which generally have no finish on the inside.

Also, I have heard of people using special heating devices inside instrument cases to keep the instruments from breaking under conditions of extreme cold.

10-05-2006, 10:29 PM
Thanks for all the replies so far!

Another question. One of my other characters is an aging bard who has arthritis in his hands, so I'm trying to figure out if there are any instruments he'd be able to play. I'd imagine most stringed instruments would be too painful for him to attempt. Would someone with arthritis be able to play a wooden flute?

10-05-2006, 10:46 PM
I used to work with an ex-policeman whose beat, in London, had included a pitch for a busker who played the violin. This old chap had terribly deformed hands, from arthritis, and had been thrown out of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (or another orchestra of similar prestige). He could still play like a dream, though - just not at the same pace as everyone else in the string section.

10-05-2006, 11:04 PM
The easiest would be a brass intrument, specifically a slide trombone, but I doubt it would fit into the world you're creating.

But here's an idea: your bard can have been a brilliant technical virtuoso in his youth. (Any instrument you like.) As he ages and his arthritis progresses, he is forced to constantly simplify and refine his music. His hands have betrayed him but not his talent. Finally, everything he plays is of ultimate simplicity, but now with a depth and feeling that stamps him as a true master, not just a virtuoso.

This is not so far from what actually happens to some jazz musicians as they age.

10-05-2006, 11:13 PM
I've played the flute for about 30 years. I am starting to get arthritis in my hands, but I don't find that it affects my proficiency too much. Not much pressure is required on the keys to hold them down, if the pads are maintained well, and even when fingering speed is required, there's not any pain involved. I don't know anything about wooden flutes, though.

10-05-2006, 11:58 PM
Rugcat, I love your suggestion, but unfortunately it fits my story better if my aging bard can't play anymore. Here's the scenario:

In his youth, Cameron was celebrated both as composer and as musician, but in the last few years arthritis has been crippling his hands. His last public performance was last winter, and it ended in disaster. <insert feasible reason here. Perhaps he chose music which was too intricate or an instrument he could no longer handle?> In any case, his hands could not keep up with the music within him. Humiliated, he left the stage and has been target for the village gossips ever since.

He went into seclusion for a while, then during spring he suddenly began a composing frenzy. New songs and music recapturing the glory of his youth, always for other bards to play, though rumor has it the healers have stumbled upon a "miracle cure" which has given him back dexterity in his hands. The story is set in the autumn when another performance is scheduled which will feature his new compositions, and rumors are flying that Cameron will take the stage once again.

My story is focusing on the "miracle cure" and its consequences, but does what I've suggested sound feasible from a performer's standpoint?

10-06-2006, 12:05 AM
does what I've suggested sound feasible from a performer's standpoint?

Yes. More likely for a stringed instrument or a piano.

10-06-2006, 12:17 AM
Boiling the strings works. Always keep your hands as clean as possible. It's the dirt and oil from your hands that effect the playability of the strings. There is no way around the fact that the strings will go bad at some point unless you come up with a way never to touch them.

If you can, store your guitar in the same humidity and temperature that it was constructed in. My guitar case has a de-humidifier because I live close to the beach.

Fretting a guitar at home is tough. Any guitar shop should be able to perform this task. It's not just a matter of removing the frets and installing new ones. One must flatten the frets to each other and adjust the truss rod for the correct amount of relief.

10-06-2006, 01:53 AM
My story is focusing on the "miracle cure" and its consequences, but does what I've suggested sound feasible from a performer's standpoint?
Absolutely. I'm a guitarist who has had serious problems with the index finger of my fret hand. Due to the "miracle cure" of a cortisone shot, I'm performing again.

For purposes of your story, I think a stringed instrument would be your best bet. The dexterity required to play is, I believe, more of an issue with strings than it would be for wind instruments.

10-06-2006, 04:22 PM
Can one play a stringed instrument with arthritis? Sure, just not as well or with as much facility. I think your scenario is perfectly reasonable, particularly if your bard was a real virtuoso on his instrument. While he might still sound wonderful to other people, it is his own inner critic he will be responding to if he finds he can't play what he wants to play. Completely believable from a harper's pov, just so you know.

10-08-2006, 01:02 PM
Muscians tend to be terribly protective of their instruments for good reason. Ask a muscian if your child can hold their instrument and snap their picture.
It can be a cheap two hundred dollar guitar and you'll get the same look.
Mothers worry less.

10-10-2006, 07:35 PM
Another question. One of my other characters is an aging bard who has arthritis in his hands, so I'm trying to figure out if there are any instruments he'd be able to play. I'd imagine most stringed instruments would be too painful for him to attempt. Would someone with arthritis be able to play a wooden flute?
If you want to know about playing an instrument with fooked-up hands, just message me. I'm almost a thousand years old and have been playing music of one type or another since your great grandparents were in their teens.

I know a lot about various types of instruments and play at least one instrument from every category. If I spilled my guts about playing music and instruments here, it would be a horribly long, self-aggrandizing (not that there's anything wrong with that) post that no one would want to read. So-- feel free to message me with specific questions you may have, I'll be glad to answer them.

10-13-2006, 06:50 AM
My story is focusing on the "miracle cure" and its consequences, but does what I've suggested sound feasible from a performer's standpoint?
I'm late to this party, but as a musician, your story is like a musical fountain of youth to me. I could dream up quite a few physical consequences for you. Here's some off the top of my head:

1.) Your bard begins to feel guilty because he suspects this "miracle" has done more than just restore his hard earned ability. It seems that the cure has taken him beyond anything he should be able to do. If this is true, is it really his performance, or the performance of some other sinister agent through him?

2.) Your bard uses the cure to regain his playing ability, but is warned by the village healers who concocted the cure to use it sparingly. Prolonged or extensive use has some other physical/spiritual/emotional/mental consequence. Your bard, caring more for the lime light than his health disregards their advice. He becomes addicted to the cure (or to the results of the cure: the ability to play) and must suffer the debilitating consequences of his choice.

3.) Far fetched, but here your bard discovers that the "miracle cure" is actually allowing him to leech the talents of his rivals away like a type of musical incubus. Does he continue knowing he is harming his rivals, or does he stop in an effort to not destroy the lives of those around him.

Hope this spurs something for you. I know others have offered, but if you wish I could help you with musical question. I have a degree in music, have been a high school band director in the past, and am currently a church music minister (choirs and praise bands and all that). I've played most woodwinds, I'm also an intermediate level percussionist, and I've been playing guitar for a little over three years now. To top it all off, my wife is a classically trained pianist, and teaches piano from our home.

(Sheesh! All that bragging to say, feel free to shoot me some musical questions.)

10-13-2006, 08:20 AM
Thanks again for all the replies. Joymark, the consequences I have in mind for my aging bard are similar to your second suggestion. He doesn't know what's making his pain go away. All he knows is that he feels the best he's ever felt in years and is using the time to create as much music as possible. It's his assistant who has the guilty conscience. ;)

Which brings up another question. I know little of playing music as part of a group. My bard is going to write some ensemble pieces, instruments to be decided, but I'm open to suggestions. Flute, harp, and drum are definite on the list. Anything else? For a group performance, does each individual go off and learn their parts on their own? About how much time is reasonable to put together a performance?

10-13-2006, 09:30 AM
I personally think those three instruments would be good for a small ensemble. If you wanted something to add to the mix, you could throw a lyre to play counterpoint against the harp, or maybe an oboe/English horn type double reed instrument to compliment the flute.

A group of this nature, if your world has musical notation and these players can read, would likely practice separately for a while and then meet together at a predetermined time.

If no notation, or they cannot read, then they would learn either by ear or by rote, in which case they might practice altogether. This might also be true if they are making up their parts on the spot (notation readers or not). They might rehearse together to flesh out their parts.

As an example, your flute and harpist might be note readers, in which case they practice their parts separately and then rehearse together. Once they are basically secure in their parts, they might invite the drummer in who may not be a note reader, or there may not have ever been drum music notated. In this case, the drummer might listen to the piece a few times, then make up his own rhythms. Your trio would then fit themselves together from there.

Also, in some barding/mistrel traditions, I've read that there are only a few general drum rhythms played. In this case, the drummer would only have to know which style to play (ie. ballad, waltz, jig, etc.). The drummer could then pretty much go on automatic pilot.

As far as time frame from practice to rehearsal to performance, it would mainly depend on your musician's skills. If they are highly skilled musicians, it would not be a stretch to go from practice to performance in one day. The lower the skill set, the longer until performance.

A slight twist to this might be how demanding your players are of their quality. Where they might be able to easily play the piece in public after only one day, they might not allow it because it didn't measure up to their personal standards of excellence.

Hope this helps.

10-14-2006, 12:10 AM
Good, this should work, then. Yes, they have a musical notation. All important musical works are transcribed and kept in the Archives as well as in the private library of the noble house which is the patron of bards. It's a great honor to be asked to add your music to the Archives.

My aging bard will have lots of music he'll give to other bards to play, but he's got one masterwork which he's been saving. When he learns the new liege lord of the noble house will be attending the fair, he rounds up some other bards so they can debut the new piece. They'll have about a week to put it together.

What I'm imagining is something a la "Peter and the Wolf" where each instrument/musician portrays a different character. The "story" within the piece is a capsule history of the head family of the noble house. Three male parts (previous liege lord, son & heir who becomes the new liege lord, second son), and three female parts (lady, two daughters). I'd like the three males to be woodwinds (deep tone, mid-range, higher), and the three females could be strings (harps and lutes?).

It's interesting trying to convey music through words. I can't really describe the music (I'm not sure what it sounds like myself), but I can describe the effect on the audience. My POV character will be able to figure out the story behind the music, plus she'll be sitting next to the new liege lord whose story is being portrayed so she'll see his reaction, too.

10-14-2006, 01:05 AM
Cornetto! Have someone play a cornetto!

It is sort of like a metal oboe with a trumpet mouthpiece. It's completely open-holed. And it has a fun name.

The problem with deep toned woodwinds is that, like someone else said, a deep instrument is a big instrument, and it requires a complex set of keys to play.

Have you considered having anyone play the natural horn (I'm a bit partial, as it's the forerunner to my instrument)?

10-14-2006, 01:12 AM
Have you considered having anyone play the natural horn (I'm a bit partial, as it's the forerunner to my instrument)?

What's a natural horn?

I've been focusing on wood based instruments because the village in question is in a forest, but I'm sure they'd have metal instruments made elsewhere. Music is very important to this culture.

10-14-2006, 01:42 AM
A natural horn looks like a modern horn (what's usually called a French horn, but is not. Ever.) without all the tubing. Notes were played by moving the hand within the bell to change pitch. There were also crooks (a slide which came in different lengths) which were used to play in different keys. If a piece changed keys, horn players would have to remove one crook and put in a different one--that's why the horn part in classical music will often have some rest right before or after a key change, to allow the players time to make the switch.

It was a very complicated instrument to play, but also so versatile that it was worth it. The horn is still the only instrument to play in both a brass and woodwind quintet. It can portray emotions more subtly than anything else. Oh, and if it's made of brass, the player's right hand often turns green until it's washed.

Zane Curtis
10-14-2006, 01:47 AM
I've heard that boiling strings can revive them, particularly extremely expensive bass strings. I don't know if this is true or not.

I've done it.

It kinda, sorta works. But it certainly doesn't restore them to new.

Zane Curtis
10-14-2006, 02:11 AM
Volume level is another thing you might want to keep in mind. Acoustic stringed instruments are rather quiet compared to horns, bagpipes, etc -- especially with gut strings. A guitar or a lute will be used for a more intimate performance indoors, and won't often be seen playing alongside trumpets and so on.

Of course, orchestras overcome the volume problem by adding more players, but then, I tend to think of orchestras as more of a modern thing.

If the music thing is going to be a big part of your fantasy story, you could go for something more exotic, like this: harp guitars (http://www.piperharp.com/Harpguitars.html). Or perhaps something with sympathetic strings (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sympathetic_strings). I've always thought that whole sympathetic string sound (kind of echoey and haunting) makes the perfect soundtrack for fantasy.

10-14-2006, 02:32 AM
Weren't trumpets also kind of worthless in an ensemble setting before the invention of valves?

10-14-2006, 03:14 AM
I'd agree with the above posts. A natural horn or something like it would add a new element of color. However, as Zane pointed out, you run into severe volume problems. I think you can safely say that woodwinds (especially the smaller ones) would have an easier time controlling their dynamics in relation to the strings than a horn would.

Something to consider.

(Of course, if your world has elements of magic, you could explain volume inequalities away with some good ol' "acoustic magic". Magical PA systems with no feedback. Think of it!)

10-14-2006, 03:15 AM
A natural horn is very quiet, though--all notes except the ones in the harmonic series thing are produced by essentially stifling the horn. That's why there are eight horns in an orchestra.

ETA: grrrr...eight horns in a band (if humanly possible), five or so horns in an orchestra. In any case, plenty o' horns.

10-14-2006, 09:16 AM
Ahhhh...didn't know that about the natural horn. Thanks for the info there.

10-14-2006, 10:04 AM
Good points about volume; I hadn't been taking it into consideration. The performance is going to be outside.

Given the magic system, they don't have a device to record sound, but I think they'll be able to create "repeaters" which can be placed on the stage and around the audience. When sound strikes one repeater, it will be emitted from another. With appropriate placement, everyone in the audience should be able to hear properly.

Of the instruments already mentioned, what are the relative volumes? When putting together an ensemble piece, how do you make sure everyone is heard?

10-14-2006, 01:44 PM
I'm probably a bit late to add something, but I'll go right ahead if you don't mind.

I myself play the guitar, and I'll stick to acoustic since it is what you asked for - I play electric as well.
The type of music I play is "Mariachi" music (more in-depth about that here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mariachi) which I believe is very difficult to master. What I need for it is basically, long fingernails on my right hand and trimmed fingernails on the left one. (This is true if you're right handed). To move around with my guitar I use a guitar case, I've had one made of wood with soft interior once, which could fit a fantasy setting.
This type of style is great to use if you want a character that moves from town to town to make a living out of his music.

10-14-2006, 04:18 PM
IT, it depends on the instrument, and the "precursor" instruments are a lot different from our own. Higher woodwinds are naturally going to be more easily heard than low instruments (a fife vs. a bass clarinet, for extreme example).

Brass instruments' timbre will be a bit darker, because of the lack of laquer (lack of laquer, say that ten times fast).

Sorry, no more time, must go to work.

10-14-2006, 05:13 PM
I'm a little late here, but other instruments you might want to take a look at are

Bowed Psaltery. It looks like it might be a harp or a hammer dulcimer, but it's bowed, not strummed or picked. There is no fingering because it has multiple strings (one for each note) set in a frame. The issue is to move the bow to a different angle to play each note.

Hammered and Mountain Dulcimers. Mountain dulcimers are simple 3-4 stringed instruments that can be held in the lap and strummed or picked or held up against the body (sort of like a guitar). Hammered dulcimers have multiple strings like harps, but are set on a frame and mallets (one in each hand) are used to sound each string. Similar, but far more developed and less "homey" is the cimbalom from Hungary.