The sound of wood hitting wood was one of the first musical sounds to emerge. The availability of the material and the fact that the mere operation of a primitive tool would have produced sound meant that this would have been used as a means of ‘entertainment’ long before anyone experimented with blowing down a pipe. The sound is still distinctive if unusual in western orchestras, with the closest we get to it being the modern xylophone.
An Irish percussion instrument made of wood that is used to play Irish traditional music is the bodhrán. This is a Celtic drum with a light circular wooden frame. Two sticks that cross at right angles are used by the player to hold the bodhrán and they also help to keep its shape. The frame is covered with a tightly stretched goat skin and the instrument is played by hitting both the skin and the frame with a wooden stick.
The earliest woodwind instruments were tubes in a horn shape. They were blown directly down and were probably discovered by accident with bamboo. Reeds appeared quite early on, with the first known record being a wall painting in a columbarium (a subterranean sepulchre) on the Appian Way, which was dated to 312 BC. All of the woodwind instruments produce sound by vibrating air very rapidly in a tube. They fall into one of three categories. In the clarinets, a single reed vibrates against the player’s lip; with the oboes, a double reed vibrates the air; and with the flutes, the air is blown across a special lip in the sidewall of the pipe. Woodwind instruments do not play just the single note one ‘hears’, but rather a complex series of harmonics, many at sub-audible levels, which are caused by the shape of the air column, the type of reed and the type of wood used in the construction of the instrument. As western music evolved, the harmonies within an orchestra became more complex. As a result, more complicated instruments have developed to make it easier for the musicians to create the sounds needed.
The uilleann pipes are the characteristic national bagpipe of Ireland. Developed at the beginning of the 18th century from pastoral pipes they became popular with the Anglo Irish community and its gentlemen pipers. Today the uilleann pipes often feature as one of the musical instruments played by traditional Irish bands such as the Chieftains.
Catguts, Scrapers, Men of Rosin, Squeaker’s or scurvy thrashing scraping mongrels. That is how the travelling fiddlers of the 17th century were described, suggesting that fiddlers were not always considered to be respectable! The violins are a comparatively recent addition to the bowed lute group of instruments which includes the cellos, basses and violas. These instruments are made by specialists. Violin makers use purposely grown sycamore for the back, the linings, the head, neck and the ribs; Swiss pine for the table and the belly; maple for the bridge; and rosewood or ebony for the chinrest. More than any other instrument, it is the strings which set the tone of the modern orchestra and stringed instrument makers are among the finest craftspeople working in wood.
The name ‘harp’ probably comes from the old English word ‘hearp’, meaning talon, nail or plectrum. In Anglo-Saxon times, the instrument was plucked. The harp is believed to have its origins in the hunting bow. The first harps had no forepillar and were called bow-harps. These have been known for three or four thousand years. There is a considerable wealth of pictorial evidence of the early existence of the harp in the Middle East, Scandinavia, Ireland and other parts of the British Isles. There are still gaps and puzzles in the story, one of them being the date and place of the introduction of the forepillar, creating what is termed the frame harp. The modern concert harp generally relies upon a willow soundbox inside which three pedal mechanisms alter the key in which the instrument plays.
The appearance of the guitar has changed little in three centuries, although the body has become larger, deeper and more waisted. Also, the number of strings has, in the main, been standardised to six or twelve. The most important part of the guitar in relation to the timber of the instrument is the soundboard which comprises two layers resting beneath and connected to the strings via the bridge. It is made up of two pieces of pine, spruce, cedar or redwood which are glued together and then cut and shaped. It is also sometimes made from plywood. To strengthen the soundboard, struts are glued across the inside surface in a pattern which is crucial to the tone of the guitar. The sides of the guitar are made from two strips of rosewood, walnut, mahogany, maple or sycamore. The strips are first heated and then shaped in a mould. Wooden blocks and linings are fixed to the inside to enable good joints to be made. The neck is usually made of mahogany. The fingerboard and bridge are made of ebony, which mother of pearl inserts in the former.