Making musical instruments as if people mattered

It seems like a random topic but a number of close friends and acquaintances from days gone by made me aware of the plight of people who develop injuries and conditions as a result of the regular playing of musical instruments. The cases I became most aware of were those of clarinet players, whose symptoms were very similar to the problems I get with tweeting or typing too much.

A few years ago I picked up a tenor recorder – I used to play it at primary school and thought that picking it up would be a doddle. But my arms screamed at me. “What the hell are you trying to do!?!?!” While the design (a straight tube with holes in) might be beautifully simple, my arms post too many years of typing really didn’t like what my brain was asking it to do. So now I have a tenor recorder (one of those cheapo ones) gathering dust somewhere in my room.

This made me ponder about the design of traditional classical musical instruments, and why their design has not changed significantly over the past several hundred years. It’s one of the problems I have with my viola – I feel that I have to adjust to it rather than the other way around.

Because of the problems I get with typing on a normal keyboard, I use an ergonomic one – or a ‘space age’ one as some of my former colleagues in the civil service used to say. I liked it so much that I soon bought my own one for home. This was one of the things that made me think about the piano and its very long keyboard. Why the straight lines rather than a curved design such as here?

I wonder if there are any budding designers and entrepreneurs with a musical streak within them who will take on the challenge of redesigning some of our orchestral instruments and design them from the person outwards. Who’s first?


2 thoughts on “Making musical instruments as if people mattered

  1. It’s about timbre and sometimes pitching. If you move the joints of my euphonium around you get “dead” sounding notes because, simplifying, sound is a wave yah? if an important bit of the wave touches the metal at the point where a brace (stay is the technical term) is, it flattens out the wave and sounds poo. every instrument ever made is a compromise, for tone and for pitch.
    Of course my experience is with brass instruments but it’s gonna be essentially the same for any soundmaker. that’s not to say instrument makers couldn’t customise designs but it’d never be pro standard so most people couldn’t justify the cost (for anyone looking, I’d recommend asking small custom-based manufacturers such as Sterling for brass, or anyone involved in Early Music because their market is small enough that most things are made by hand).

    I’ve actually had back problems myself (essentially from growing up playing an instrument too big for me) but tend to find if you’re fit and active otherwise you’re much less likely to have problems stem from the instrument – suspect this is a good reason for the much-vaunted ’rounded individual’ approach. appreciate not much use for disabled folks though 😦
    Also bear in mind many instrument-related injuries come from bad technique or lack of warming up. We forget that playing uses our muscles just like anything else.

    PS for an “ideal” brass instrument check out swiss alphorns 😉 limited to harmonic series rather than chromatic playing, because there are no valves.

    (patched together from tweets, feel free to reply to @sevenhelz)

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