Arts Blog

A Darwinian Take on Musicology

Evolution. It’s not just about Darwin’s finches and paleontology. Music history can be considered an evolutionary study of sorts: a tracing of where, when, why, and how music was played, written, discussed, or heard, and who was involved in the process. We can study these changes of musical sound over time by examining one branch of this massive evolutionary tree: musical instruments. The “ideal” musical sound is a concept that has shifted dramatically over the years, and the instruments we play reflect these new ideals, which in turn reflect broader social changes in history. Here, we’ll analyze a (relatively) small evolutionary window of two instruments, the flute and the violin, from baroque to modern styles. We’ll see how their physical bodies affect their sonic capabilities, and why they have developed into their familiar forms today.

The flute has one of the longest known histories of all human-crafted musical instruments. Scientists discovered bone flutes in a European cave; these instruments date back to 40,000 years ago. Since technologies have come a long, long way since then, let’s fast-forward to the 1600s when humans and musical performance have migrated from caves into courts and churches. Flutes in the baroque style during this time are made of wood in a conical shape that tapers slightly at the foot, or the open end of the instrument. All the finger holes are uncovered, with the exception of a single metal key located toward the foot of the instrument. The instrument produces a soft, subdued sound with a unique timbre, or tone quality, for each note due to the open holes that create inconsistencies in airflow patterns.

Baroque modern flutes 3

Left: Baroque flute, modeled after flutes by J. W. Oberlender (1681-1745). Right: Boehm flute, 1877.

The flute underwent a serious make-over in the mid-1800s when Theobald Boehm, in search of a “better quality, a purer intonation” and a “greater compass of tones,” revamped the flute. His intense study of physics and acoustics eventually resulted in a sleek new instrument that is the basis for the modern, 21st-century flute that we see (and hear) today. Its metal body, enlarged tone holes, and reverse conical shape (that widens instead of narrows toward the foot) all contribute to an increased volume power for the instrument. The addition of keys to cover some of the holes and a coupling mechanism that uncomplicates fingerings also homogenizes the timbre of the instrument: Boehm boasts, “a player is in a condition to play in all keys with equal purity, certainty, and ease… As compared with the old flute,” and here he refers to the baroque model discussed above, “this one was unquestionably much more perfect.”

Baroque modern violins

Left: baroque; right: modern. Visible here is the difference in fingerboard length and the presence (or absence) of the chin rest.

The violin also underwent similar changes from its baroque to its modern model. In the 17th- and 18th-centuries, baroque violins are strung with gut strings under low tension, creating a soft, mellow sound. Violin bows from this time vary in length, and are shorter and more loosely strung compared to bows today. The low tension of the horsehair makes it easier to manage quick dynamic changes and is “better suited for music created with a sound ideal of constantly shifting variations between strong and weak notes and passages,”* i.e. music in the baroque style. The balance of the bow construction also influences the player’s leverage over the strings. Under these specific physics, downbows on the baroque violin are naturally stronger and louder than upbows, which are weaker and quieter.

The evolution of the violin has been more gradual than that of the flute, but the new design strives for similar aesthetic goals. The violin bow lengthened and shifted its balance, tailored for the newer music styles: “The shift of balance in the modern bow makes it easier for the player to put almost equal pressure on the strings no matter what part of the bow he is using. The modern bow was developed for playing music composed for a sound ideal which called for longer lines and gradual changes in dynamics.”* String tension increased by slight alterations of the violin body: the neck angled lower, the bridge increased in height and curvature, and the standard tuning increased. Combined with a tightening of the bow hair and the outward arc of the bow itself, these characteristics allow a uniformly responsive and louder sound. The fingerboard lengthened, so violinists could play higher notes. The strings changed from gut to steel, which could play louder and withstand higher tensions. Perhaps the most noticeable difference from the baroque to the modern violin is the addition of the chin rest. With this feature, it is easier for a player to grip the instrument between their chin and shoulder, freeing their left hand to move with increasing speed between notes.

Why did musicians and instrument makers want louder, faster, more uniform instruments, anyway? Changes in acoustics, artistic styles, and collaboration practices were making new demands on musicians and their instruments. Performances relocated from royal courts to concert halls, which were much larger in physical size and attracted larger audiences. Projection was necessary to reach listeners in the farthest rows; thus, material changes in the instruments—gut to steel strings, and wooden to metal flutes—helped the instruments to meet the demands of the larger concert hall acoustics. The rise of the virtuoso musician in the 19th-century glamorized flashy, highly technical performance. Longer fingerboards reach higher notes, high-tension strings and bows quicken response time, and keyed flutes increase finger and pitch accuracy; musicians could now raise the bar on their virtuosic performance. In addition to changing performance standards for solo musicians, ensemble dynamics were changing as a result of wider-reaching, more accessible transportation. When playing in larger ensembles with musicians from different parts of the country or the world, a common baseline for sound was necessary. As a result, pitch was gradually standardized, fidelity to the written score grew in significance, and both the violin and flute, as we have seen, strove for a consistent, pure timbre. As our social demands change and our ideal sound qualities evolve, so do our instruments, which record historical, social, and musical trends in their physical forms.

Laurent Bernadac playing the 3dvarius, a 3D-printed instrument that he modeled after a Stradivarius violin.

Although gradual and barely discernible, evolution is never static. In 1994, Eva Kingma introduced a patent for her self-named Kingma system for the flute. This new design facilitates playing quarter-tones and multiphonics, extended techniques that are especially prevalent in 21st-century compositions. The 3dvarius is a minimalist, 3D-printed violin that can be played acoustically or electrically. And with the rise of computers, which can electronically manipulate flute or violin recording samples, our ideals for and the possibilities of sound are infinitely expanding. We are currently experiencing the newest, most modern branches of musical instruments and their social influences. We’re listening to evolution.


*Source: Newman, Bach and the Baroque, p. 226


For a local example of Baroque string playing, check out the Portland Baroque Orchestra playing Vivaldi’s Spring from “The Four Seasons,” under Artistic Director Monica Huggett. Compare this sound to the Classical Chamber Orchestra’s stylistically similar version, but played on modern instruments.

Aside from the contrasting artistic interpretations (tempo, ornamentation, etc.), the difference between the sound of the baroque and modern flutes is easier to discern. Compare recordings of the first movement (Allemande) of J.S. Bach’s Partita in A minor BWV 1013, first on baroque and then modern flute.


Beyond external instrument technologies, our human bodies also influence how we play and the musical sounds we create. How do we shape our bodies to produce our perception of the “ideal” musical sound? Check out what Christina Kobb has to say about her historical investigation of 19th-century Viennese piano technique.



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Intern: Summer 2016


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