A musical instrument is a device designed, created or adapted for the purpose of making musical sounds.
They can be divided into four basic categories: string instruments, wind instruments, brass instruments and percussion instruments.
Within each category there are numerous instruments of varying shapes and sizes, all producing different sounds, but each sharing a basic design and manner in which the instrument is played.
Many people collect musical instruments due to the wide range of historical and regional variations available, as well as models from different manufacturers.
Instruments which pre-date the 20th century can be classed as antiques, and many are highly valuable due to their level of craftsmanship and historical significance.
Violins hand-made in the 17th and 18th centuries by master luthiers such as Antonio Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesù are considered works of art in their own right, due to both their appearance and quality of sound, and can fetch millions of dollars at auction. Antique violins are one of the most popular areas of instrument collecting, as they are also viewed as investments likely to increase in value.
Many instruments owned or played by famous musicians are collected as part of a wider music memorabilia collection.
This can include almost any instrument, but the most popular area is guitars played by celebrated artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash or George Harrison.
Instruments owned by famous guitarists, or played at notable concerts such as Woodstock, are some of the most highly sought-after items of music memorabilia on the market and often sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Many collectors collect a specific instrument such as guitars or trumpets and look for significant designs and models within their field.
Others choose to focus their collection on the instruments of a particular country or region, such as African tribal drums, or on a specific manufacturer such as the Buescher Band Instrument Company.
The history of musical instruments is difficult to determine as most primitive cultures across the planet developed some form of instrument such as rattles and drums early in their development.
Early musical instruments
The earliest confirmed instruments ever found are flutes made from mammoth and swan bones, discovered in the Swabian Alps of Germany and dated between 30,000 and 37,000 years old.
Ancient Babylonian and Sumerian cultures saw a developing divide between instruments used by laymen and those played by highly skilled musicians, and images of professional musicians can be seen on artefacts from around 2000 B.C onwards.
These Mesopotamian societies were influential in the development of instruments in Egyptian culture, and the New Kingdom of Egypt saw the use of oboes, trumpets, lyres, lutes, castanets, and cymbals.
Ancient Roman and Greek instruments
The instruments of ancient Rome and Greece were borrowed from other cultures, and both cultures produced few developments of their own.
A great importance was placed on the stringed-instrument known as a lyre, and wind instruments made from reeds were also common.
Among the other instruments played were vertical harps derived from those of the Orient, lutes of Egyptian design, various pipes and organs, and clappers which were played primarily by women.
During the middle ages Europe saw the continuing development of stringed instruments such as lutes, various harps and the lyra, which was played with a bow and is the ancestor of most European bowed instruments, including the violin.
The construction of pneumatic organs developed in Spain during the 5th century, and by the 9th century bagpipes had spread across the continent.
The Renaissance period brought a wave of developments to the world of music, as music began to be played for its own sake rather than as the accompaniment to a singer or dance.
Composers began to arrange more complex pieces and write music for specific instruments, and orchestration was developed.
The aesthetic appeal of musical instruments began to be appreciated as much as their tone, and as craftsmen paid special attention to materials and workmanship instruments became collectibles in homes and museums.
The first modern trumpets also appeared during this time, and the increasingly complex arrangements written by composers led to instruments developing to match them.
The 1700s saw lutes begin to vanish and be replaced by guitars which became increasingly popular, and bowed instruments came to dominate music.
The century also saw master Italian luthiers such as Antonio Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesù create their best work, creating violins considered today as the greatest ever made.
During the Romantic period, lasting from roughly 1750 to 1900, a great deal of musical instruments capable of producing new timbres were developed and introduced into popular music.
New instruments such as the clarinet, saxophone, and tuba became fixtures in orchestras.
Instruments such as the clarinet also grew into entire ‘families’ of instruments capable of different ranges, such as small clarinets, normal clarinets and bass clarinets.
The most important development of the 20th century and one which helped shape both musical and popular culture was the electric guitar.
The first was developed in 1931 by George Beauchamp and the Electro-Patent-Instrument Company Los Angeles, later known as the Rickenbacker Electro Stringed Instrument Company.
In 1936 the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar company produced their Electric Spanish model, recognised as the first commercially successful electric guitar and in the 1950s worked with guitarist Les Paul to produce their first solid-body electric guitar known as the Gibson Les Paul.
Their main competition was the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, whose own electric guitars such as the Fender Telecaster, Stratocaster and Precision Bass were all highly popular.
The rivalry between these companies continues today, and designs and forms of electric guitars have remained virtually unchanged since the 1950s.
The world’s most expensive musical instrument
The world’s most expensive musical instrument is the Vieuxtemps Guarneri violin, made by the Italian master luthier Guarneri del Gesù in 1741.
One of only 140 surviving Guarneri models, it was made just three years before his death in 1744 and has been played throughout its 269 year history by some of the world’s greatest violin virtuosi.
In 2010 it was offered for sale by notable antique instrument dealers Bein & Fushi of Chicago, valued at $18m.
The bookmarklet lets you save things you find to your collections.
Note: Make sure your bookmarks are visible.
Click and drag the Collect It button to your browser's Bookmark Bar.