How Instruments Get Voiced?

  August 16, 2021   Read time 5 min
How Instruments Get Voiced?
There are a few instruments that have their own voice. Most instruments need to be played, but these need merely to be moved or stroked, and of themselves they will speak.

One of our great frustrations in all studies of ancient times is to wonder how anybody could have discovered that doing something would produce a beneficial or useful result. Some actions and their results are obvious enough—pick and eat a fruit from a tree and the result is either pleasant or unpleasant and perhaps fatal. But how did someone discover that tying a string through a hole in the end of a piece of wood or bone, or around the end, and swinging it around their head on the end of the string, would produce a sound? This is an elaborate process: it must be swung in a circle and it must spin on its axis. The wrong cord, the wrong shape, the wrong size, even the wrong surfaces of the piece of wood or bone render it ineffective. It is difficult to conceive of the action that might accidentally have led to this discovery. And yet the use of the bull-roarer is widespread around the world—even, so far as we know, a universal that no culture, no people, has been without at some stage in its development.

The bull-roarer is commonly an elongated oval in shape, sometimes described as fish shape, though rectangular and other shapes are also seen (see figure 1.1). Often one or both faces are carved with decorative patterns, and it has been suggested that it spins better if one face is flatter than the other, or more deeply carved, so as to present greater or lesser resistance to the air than the other face, although the large number whose two faces appear to be identical suggests that this may be unnecessary. What is certain is that the sound is produced in this way and that both rotary motions are necessary, suggesting that some of the sound is due to the passage of the string and the bull-roarer through the air, and some to the perturbation of the air as the bull-roarer spins. The sound varies according to the size of the bull-roarer, the length of the string, and the speed of rotation. Larger roarers, slower rotation, and longer strings produce a low muttering sound, threatening like distant thunder—hence one of its names, the “thunder stick,” and its association, as the rhombos, with Zeus, the ancient Greek god of thunder. Smaller bull-roarers, rotating faster, bellow like a bull, hence the common name in English, while bull-roarers that are even smaller and faster scream like a demon.

It is not surprising that the bull-roarer was so widely used as a ritual instrument, a spirit voice, one that in many areas was secret and known only to initiates. Nobody, unless initiated and shown, could imagine that so simple an object could produce such a sound. So it was used in the Dionysian mysteries in ancient Greece, and as the voice of an ancestor, a spirit, a god, in the initiation rites of cultures in New Guinea, Australia, Africa, and South America. It was also used in Paleolithic times in Europe, for examples have been found in Magdalenean sites in the Dordogne of southern France, at Laugerie-Basse and elsewhere. It must surely be of equal or greater antiquity elsewhere—our knowledge of the Stone Ages is badly skewed by the accidents of where archaeological work has been done and discoveries made. The fact that the caves of central and southern France have been well explored is not evidence that objects found there did not exist in, were not used in, or are earlier than in other parts of the world whose remains have yet to be investigated.

The bull-roarer had in many areas a smaller relative, called by André Schaeffner le diable, “the devil.”10 This is a disc, often with dentations around the rim, with two holes each side of the center, or sometimes a bone such as a knuckle bone with a hole across the center of its length, on a loop of string (see figure 1.1). There is no single name in English, for “buzzing disc” excludes the phalange or knuckle bone, and many other things might be called a “buzzer.” Cajsa Lund advocated the Swedish term snorra (or more properly snörra),11 and this, with its almost onomatopoeic sound, seems a better choice. One end of the loop is held in each hand, and the snorra is swung like a skipping rope to twist the string. An outward pull by the hands spins the snorra and, by relaxing the pull at the right instant, allows it to twist the loop again in the opposite sense. Repeated pull and release motions produce a shrill buzzing, whirring sound that was again regarded in some areas as a voice, ancestral or spiritual, protective or menacing.

Few mysteries, few rituals, are eternal. Things once secret become known, that which was sacred mundane. So it has been with the bull-roarer and the snorra. People in many areas use the bull-roarer to scare birds, using its sound and perhaps its hovering flight, which some birds might mistake as that of a hawk, to frighten birds and animals from the crops. This is a task that is often relegated to children, and so it became a child’s toy, as has the snorra. Many of us have, as children, swung a ruler on a piece of string or made a snorra from a coat button or a piece of card. This has long been recognized as a classic cycle: the progression from ritual through mundane to toy. As Curt Sachs observed, many children’s toys had an origin in ritual or magic; that is why many of us study and collect musical toys, and why others collect and record children’s rhymes, songs, and games.

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