New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments

    -- edited by Stanley Sadie London: Macmillan Press Ltd. & New York: Grove's Dictionaries of Music, 1984. Encyclopedia in three volumes of 805, 982 and 921 pages

The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments is the most comprehensive resource on musical instruments of the world. According to the publisher, it is “a definitive guide to the history, construction and performing practice of over 12,000 instruments from every culture, past and present—including 10,000 non-Western and folk instruments.” It is extensively illustrated with over 1,600 black & white photos, charts and diagrams. The articles are written by leading musicologists and ethnomusicologists, and bibliographies are included with major articles.

Arranged alphabetically, entries range in length from a few sentences to many pages, depending on the relative importance of an instrument and how much was known about it at the time of publication. In the ensuing 18 years, much more information has become known about non-Western instruments, so the information and bibliographies are not up-to-date. Nevertheless, it remains a primary starting point for researching instruments. For many of them, the aspects discussed include manufacture, history, performance use, and social context. Modern instruments such as the synthesizer (“modern” up to 20 years ago) are also described, including some considered “experimental” and not widely known.

The same publishers also produce the much larger general music encyclopedia called The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (the current edition has 29 volumes). The two encyclopedias do have some articles in common, but the 3-volume Instruments set has much additional specialized material that is not included in the general set, especially information related to non-Western instruments.

When I was studying ethnomusicology at graduate school, this was my favorite set of books to browse. Look yourself and be boggled at the creativity of people around the world who want to make interesting sounds. Now out of print, the Dictionary is even more expensive than it used to be; used sets are listed for sale on the Web for up to $750. If you’re interested in organology, live in a city that has a good library (though there are occasional great bargains on the Web).

It’s hard to beat the accolades of previous reviewers, so we will close with a compilation of some of their praises of the book: “a staggering achievement... masterful in presentation... the scope is breathtaking, the scholarship impressive, and the sheer quantity of information daunting.” As Jeremy Montagu put it, “Never has there been such a Dictionary of Instruments, nor, in our time, is there likely to ever be another to compare with it for all its excellencies.”

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.1, No.4 of

Published by
Artists in Christian Testimony