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Humans have been crafting and playing musical instruments for thousands of years, most likely originating with different types of percussion instruments. Slit drums, in which a log is hollowed and played with a mallet to create deep tones, and stretched animal hide drums were among early instruments likely used to accompany dance or for ceremonial functions. Trumpets made from animal horns, flutes made from reeds, and harps strung with sinew are found throughout the archaeological record.
Musical traditions developed all cultures, and trade routes brought new innovations and styles of instruments. In Southeast Asia, Indian influences brought xylophones and gongs. In the Byzantine Empire, the forefather of the violin was introduced. Bagpipes and organs spread through Europe during the Middle Ages. Chinese military excursions brought back lutes and viols from as far as the Middle East. South American cultures developed shell trumpets and melodic flutes.
Later, with industrialization, musical instruments could be manufactured en masse. Some instruments became more standardized as a result. Society also demanded instruments that could produce louder sounds to fill concert halls, and provide reliable tuning to fit into a large orchestra.
The 20th century saw the introduction of new electronic instruments and amplifiers or synthesizers that mimicked or enhanced traditional instrument sounds.
Today, in all corners of the world, musical traditions have continued to develop and countless instruments have evolved to serve many purposes, evoking beauty, accompanying ceremonies and rites, or telling stories.
Instruments are generally divided into four categories: strings, percussion, brass and woodwind:
Of course, a brass instrument may not necessarily be made of brass, but they all produce sound in the same way. The player’s lips cause a tube to resonate, whose sound may then be modified with valves, slides or keys. Woodwinds may be made from materials other than wood, but all produce sound when the air flowing through the instrument is split by a reed or sharp edge.
Some instruments span categories. Pianos, for example, are considered to be both string and percussion instruments.
Human ingenuity has resulted in some truly amazing instruments. For example, the hydraulophone is a contraption that looks like a cross between a piano and a water fountain. To produce notes, the player blocks particular holes through which water is flowing. A second unusual instrument is the glass harmonica, invented by Benjamin Franklin. It consists of a series of glass bowls rotating around a shaft. To produce sound, a musician dips their fingers in water and then touches the rims of the glasses as they spin. One of the strangest and most dangerous instruments, however, must be the pyrophone. Invented around 1870 in France, it resembles a pipe organ, only it produces sound through small hydrogen explosions inside glass tubes.
The highest price paid for a musical instrument was $15.8 million in 2011 for the ‘Lady Blunt’ Stradivarius violin. In fact, string instruments crafted by the Stradivari family during the 17th and 18th centuries crowd the top ranks of most expensive instruments lists. Many modern string instruments are sometimes labeled with the name Stradivari or Guarneri (another famous maker), but don't get too excited, it’s almost certainly a copy of an original.
Other record-breaking prices for musical instruments include Kurt Cobain’s 1959 Martin guitar, which recently sold for just over $6 million at auction, and John Lennon’s Steinway piano, which went for $2.37 million.
Musical Instruments are valued according to several metrics, including quality of workmanship, condition, rarity, provenance and manufacturer.
A highly-valued instrument will generally be clear of blemishes, stains, scratches, and broken or missing parts. Details such as fine seams between parts of the instrument are an important indicator of workmanship. Warped wood or dented metal will likely detract from the price of an instrument.
Many long-standing brands have models that are more unusual than others, and sometimes these models are more valuable. In some cases, previous ownership by a well-known musician is a factor in the price of an instrument.
A valuable instrument usually has at least one of these traits: high quality workmanship, rarity, brand name or provenance (record of previous ownership). Many instruments also increase in value with age. As the wood in a violin or guitar matures, it will generally produce a more resonant sound. Look out for dents, scratches or missing parts, which may diminish the sound of the instrument or decrease its aesthetic value.
Leah Illingworth is a content specialist here at Mearto. She loves learning and writing about art and antiques each day in addition to exploring the history and stories behind art movements and objects.