Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Lyres and Lutes

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Culture,  Art & Environment, Models

Ed Hessler

Lee Lawrence, in her third Ingenuity Innovation entry for Aramco World, May / June 2023 asks what the following stringed musical instruments have in common: the Arabian ‘uds and European violins; Chinese pipas, Indian veenas; Indonesian rebabs, West African koras and American electric guitars and banjos—all are descended from lutes, a family of instruments whose shared DNA includes strings that run parallel across a flat soundboard or belly up a distinct pole or neck.

She notes that "there have been countless variations of lute forms over more than 4,000 years as people across the globe adopted, adapted and adjusted instruments to satisfy a preference, meet a need or indulge a curiosity. What if I … added strings? Modified the shape? Made the neck shorter? Longer? On and on—and along the way, some innovations proved as consequential as they were simple."

I'm delighted that she emphasizes the curiosity question: What if... a question routinely asked by inventors, designers, scientists, engineers but it has an added ingredient when it leads to Let's try it out, see what happens when the change is made.

A few highlights

--"At some point, an anonymous luthier doubled each of the four strings of an 'ud" which had effects on the instrument's design.

--In a treatise published in the 11th century BCE, the effects of doubling the number of strings on various parts of the lute was analyzed and recommendations were made on assembly and number of parts.

--"The oldest surviving lute was made around 1490 BCE in Egypt" --its construction is described. "Yet it was itself a descendant from far older instruments ...based on paintings, a cylinder seal.
and texts."

--There is a discussion of drums and stringed instruments, e.g., gourds  become stringed instruments when a "bridge and neck" are added.  This leads to a description of what bridges on stringed instruments do.

--The differences between lutes and lyres is used to shed light on pitches, rules of string length and frets, noticed long ago. This has led "Richard Dumbrill, co-founder of the International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East (ICAANE)" to comment the exact similarity between and fret position over cultures and time to this implication. "It means that from Egypt to central Turkey, and probably in the rest of the Babylonian empire... they had a standard system."

--Innovations do repeat themselves and the example of coming up with the idea of a "floating bridge" after serious injury to a player when the fixed bridge snapped off. This occurred in 1957 but we learn that the musician buried with the oldest surviving lute which had a floating bridge  "around 1490 BCE."

The issue may be read here. The front cover of this issue features a picture of the living musical legend, Lakha Khan holding a hand-carved wooden sarangi.

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