I'm a drummer, so you can probably guess where I come down in this debate. But Intelligent Life magazine begs to differ.
What complicates matters further is the sheer variety of instruments. We began creating them ridiculously early (the earliest extant flute is 67,000 years old) and have never stopped.
Recently I’ve been to concerts featuring virtuosi on both a six-stringed electric violin and the hang, a Swiss-invented steel drum of beguiling sensuality. Neither existed 20 years ago.
Take a look, if you have the strength, at the 12,000 entries in the “New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments” (1985). Then consider that the next edition will have 20,000.
The standard symphony orchestra, parading a mere 14 or 15 varieties of instrument, begins to look as limited as a supermarket cheese counter.
Most of the 20,000 instruments are local riffs on universal archetypes. Almost every culture has its version of the flute, drum, guitar/lute and fiddle family. There are wide variations in the way they are tuned, constructed or played. But the biggest differences come in the social functions they fulfil. Many instruments, particularly in Eastern cultures, have religious roles. Others are associated with an elite craft, passed down from master to pupil like a trade secret.