Musical Instrument Design

    -- by Bart Hopkin, Tuscon: See Sharp Press, 1996. 182 pages

Interested in making your own balloon guitar? Or what about a coffee can cuica? Need a pocketful of idioglottal reeds? Have your heart set on a soda straw oboe? Dreaming at night about the good old days of 31-tone equal temperment?1 Then this is the book for you. There is knowledge galore for newcomers and experienced instrument makers alike. The tone is engaging, with much information on acoustics and theory which leads right into the practicalities. As stated in the introduction, “The beauty of this book is that it gives you a Rosetta stone to understand the tools, resources, and formulas that will equip you to enter the world of instrument construction” (p. iii).

Hopkin has a degree from Harvard with a specialty in ethnomusicology, and has published some of his fieldwork from Jamaica in the journal Ethnomusicology. In this book he uses the standard Sachs-Hornbostel categories, but found that several new categories and terms had to be created when he moved into the lava lamp liquidity of “experimental” musical instruments. These newly created terms include hydrophones, corrugaphones, and membrane or labial reeds.

A number of items can be helpful to the ethnomusicologist. Here are four examples:

  1. He describes and illustrates 14 ways to mount free bars (as in xylophones and chimes) and 7 ways to mount tines on a sanza-type instrument.
  2. If you are dealing with a culture that has a fipple flute, there is a list of six factors that affect their tone quality. These would be relevant to your
    investigations about why there may be a breathy tone, or why it does or does not easily overblow into the second octave.
  3. If you want to learn about the basic manufacturing of tuned gongs before going to Southeast Asia, try your hand at making a set with these instructions.
  4. If you want to become a virtuoso on the musical saw like the performer described on page 8 of this issue, there is enough information to get you started.

To help you correlate theory and practice, there are acoustical experiments to try. And if you’re working with drums, a helpful illustration identifies the acoustic effects of different shapes of drum bodies. If you want to use animal hides for drumheads, there’s a discussion on that topic as well.

The book has extensive graphs and illustrations (by the author), a good bibliography, a glossary, and four appendices.

Whether your interest is ethnomusicology, acoustics, or making instruments, you will find the book to be of great value. There are many books available on making musical instruments, but this is the best one that combines theoretical and practical information, that discusses both traditional and experimental instruments. If you can imagine a new sound, this book can help you build an instrument to create it. Or to make a sound beyond imagining.

Seriously, an equivalent of this tuning was widely popular in Europe prior to the 18th century (p. 160).

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.1, No.4 of

Published by
Artists in Christian Testimony