How Instruments Are Built
Early musical instruments were designed in the same manner as many other great inventions: by accident. After realizing that ordinary objects could create fascinating melodies, our earliest innovators began testing, shaping, and playing the tangible world around us. Their historic creations have evolved into the unique medleys of science, engineering, and art that exist today.
Below, we’ll peel back the curtain and explore how several of these modern instruments are made!
Grand pianos are known for producing a rich, layered sound, and the physical instruments themselves are no different. Building a grand piano begins with eighteen layers of wood, which are dried for up to 2 years, bent, and glued together to create the frame’s iconic curvature. Meanwhile, hundreds of pins are nailed onto the soundboard, a “diaphragm” that amplifies vibration, to hold the steel strings in place. All together, these strings carry about 20 tons of tension, equivalent to the weight of 14 cars. This tension is manually applied with a tuning wrench.
Although ivory was once used to make the 52 white piano keys, all 88 keys are now sourced from either wood or plastic. When a key is pressed, a hammer strikes the corresponding string from below to produce sound. Strings in the lower range of the piano are heavier, which produces a lower pitch. Technicians carefully balance the keys with counterweights to ensure that the keyboard will feel comfortable for a future pianist. Finally, these components are assembled and painted. Every grand piano takes over a year to complete, but the resulting decades of joy and musicianship are well worth the challenge. Watch these steps come together at Steinway & Sons in the video below.
Making a Model B Grand Piano, Courtesy of Steinway
Looking for the tuba section in any orchestra, you’ll find that it’s hard to miss. These brass instruments are characterized by their large size, deep sounds, and shiny surfaces. Yet as heavy as tubas appear to be, these instruments are only about 25 to 30 pounds, a result of their light copper and zinc alloy composition. The valves, mouthpiece, bell, and main body are all manufactured in this metal separately. To construct the body, a tube of brass is heated, molded by machinery, and periodically soaked in acid to remove oxide formed by the heating process. The brass is bent in a design that helps establish its classic tone. Spinning and hammering methods are used to flare the bell.
Then, valves and pistons are connected. When these valves are opened, the flow of air through the horn changes, and the pitch shifts. The mouthpiece is made from molten metal cooled under pressure. A tubist uses both their mouth and instrument valves to switch from note to note. At last, the finished tuba is cleaned, polished, and electroplated with a silver or gold alloy to add individualization and personality. Wessex Tubas presents their manufacturing process in the following video.
Making a Tuba, Courtesy of Wessex Tubas
Clarinets come in different shapes and sizes, but the most common B-flat soprano clarinet includes five parts: the mouthpiece, barrel, upper joint, lower joint, and bell. The mouthpiece is produced from a hard rubber called ebonite. Although the bodies of student instruments are typically made of artificial resin, professional instruments are shaped from heavy African blackwood.
After this wood is harvested, a log is sawed and dried in a kiln. This log, called a billet, is placed on a borer. A hole is drilled lengthwise through the center. The hole’s diameter is crucial in determining the tone of the instrument. After the hole is drilled, the billet is turned on a lathe and smoothed into round cylinders, which are then cut into joints. A machine standardizes the diameters of tone holes at specific distances apart. Keys are stamped out from molten alloy and fitted with pads. Then, workers glue the pads hand by hand into each key and fit the keys with springs. Pads are adjusted carefully to create a perfectly airtight closure.
Because they are temporary, surviving only for several weeks, reeds are bought and manufactured separately. A cane plant is sliced and shaved to a precise shape. The reed is clamped to the mouthpiece and vibrates when the clarinetist pushes air between the two components. At the end of the process, the clarinet will have the largest range of any wind instrument. See the “Birth of a Clarinet” at the Henri Selmer Paris factory in the video below.
Making a Clarinet, Courtesy of Henri Selmer Paris
Last but certainly not least, the violin section is the core of the symphony. Carrying the melody in many orchestral works, violins often outnumber any other section.
Violin makers are called Luthiers, which originated from the French word luth, referring to the lute instrument. The first step is to select pieces of plywood. Luthiers generally favor spruce or maple; both are dense, light, and easy to shape without compromising sturdiness. Strips of wood are softened with steam and bent around a template to form the sides. The top and bottom surfaces are cut in a pattern, and channels are gouged in a border around the edge. Purfling, a narrow 3-ply strip of wood, is inlaid into the gouge for decorative purposes and to prevent cracking. Sound holes are placed strategically, letting the wood breathe as it vibrates.
Next, the wood frame is varnished, polished, and dried. The fingerboard, bridge, and four strings are installed, with notches holding the strings in place. Finally, a tailpiece is installed to anchor the other end of the strings. The following video from Glanville & Co. illustrates how violins are built at their factory in Australia.
Making a Violin, Courtesy of Glanville & Co.
As we consider the brilliant minds that make classical music possible, we can’t forget to credit the creative builders behind the scenes. Explore the processes in greater depth with the sources below, or learn how to create your own family orchestra through our International Children’s Arts Network blog, “Make Your Own Musical Instruments!”
“How a Violin Is Made: Varnishing, Assembly, and Then Some.” How a Violin Is Made:Varnishing, Assembly, and Then Some – Musical Instrument Guide – Yamaha Corporation, www.yamaha.com/en/musical_instrument_guide/violin/manufacturing/manufacturing003.html.
“The Making of a Steinway: A Steinway & Sons Factory Tour Narrated by John Steinway.” YouTube, Steinway & Sons, 22 Sept. 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAInt7hIZlU
“How a Tuba Is Made: Making the Body.” Musical Instrument Guide – Yamaha Corporation, Yamaha, www.yamaha.com/en/musical_instrument_guide/tuba/manufacturing/.
“Development of the Clarinet: Clarinet Study with Greg Barrett.” Northern Illinois University, www.niu.edu/gbarrett/resources/development.shtml.