Why do sound waves cause us to feel emotion? Although our perception of music is influenced by both biology and culture, simple mathematical concepts can help explain why certain tones sound harmonious together. There is even evidence that humans are not the only species who prefer harmonic intervals. In 2014 researchers analyzed the song of the male hermit thrush, and found these songbirds prefer to sing notes from harmonic series (which use the same frequency ratios as many Western and non-Western musical scales). If key aspects of music arise directly from fundamental laws of physics, the old adage of music as a universal language makes sense. So why not join the conversation? To get you started, this article lists several fun musical instruments which are perfect for beginners.
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Fun musical instruments for beginners
Most of us desperately need a break from our modern digital-media-obsessed world. No matter your skill level, playing a musical instrument is a perfect way to exercise your creativity and escape the tedium of mindless scrolling. Of course it takes a fair amount of patience, discipline, and effort to become proficient (like most things worth doing) but the journey of learning and creating songs you love makes it all worth it. There are important aspects to consider when investing in a musical instrument, such as portability, learning curve, and price. Keep reading to learn about some really cool and unique-sounding instruments you may have not yet considered.
A type of “thumb piano”, this African instrument has been around for thousands of years. The earliest versions had tines made from bamboo, and later iterations were constructed with metal tines with the arrival of the iron age around 1300 years ago. In the 1950’s, the English ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey popularized the instrument from the Shona people in southern Africa, where it was originally known as the mbira. By nature, the kalimba is a very soothing and gentle instrument, and is often used in modern music therapy to help relieve stress and anxiety. Listen to some kalimba covers of popular songs to hear for yourself.
The tin whistle (also known as penny whistle) is an icon of traditional music from the British Isles. The instrument has six holes and is often tuned to D major or G major scales, which are popular keys used in Celtic music. The piece “Concerning Hobbits” composed by Howard Shore features a D tin whistle and is said to evoke a strong feeling of “home”. For something with a little more swing, check out Devil’s Dance Floor by Flogging Molly. Sláinte!
In 2001, Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer of PANArt Hangbau AG revealed the Hang – an instrument they created in their workshop in Bern, Switzerland after years of research and development. The Hang is flying saucer-shaped idiophone constructed of two steel hemispheres with indented tone fields, and it acts as a Helmholtz resonator with all sorts of rich overtones and harmonics. The otherworldly sound it produces is amazing – something akin to the Trinidad and Tobago steelpan sound, but more refined, modern, and slightly alien. After the initial creation of the Hang, many similar instruments were released by different makers, and the general term “handpans” was adopted. Today the original Hang is no longer in production, but other handpans such as the Caisa and Spacedrum are affordable alternatives.
Also known as a “mouth organ”, the harmonica has a distinct wailing, gritty, bluesy sound. It works by passing air through small chambers, and inside each air chamber is a thin flat piece of metal (called a reed) which vibrates at a certain frequency when the air passes over it. Originally used as accompaniment for European waltzes, marches, hymns, and folk songs, African American musicians in the 19th and early 20th century completely reinvented the instrument and it became a staple of blues music. One technique they developed is known as bending, which really makes the harmonica cry, holler, and wail.
This instrument exudes a relaxed island vibe. A traditional Hawaiian instrument, the ukulele was originally adapted from earlier Portuguese guitar-like instruments brought to Hawaii in the 19th century. Many of the highest quality ukes are constructed using wood from Acacia koa trees, which are native to the Hawaiian islands. Koa was originally used by ancient Hawaiians to build dugout outrigger canoes and surfboards (koa also means brave, valiant, bold, or fearless in Hawaiian). In modern times, ukulele players are boldly pushing the boundaries of the instrument – check out the truly phenomenal Jake Shimabukuro for example.
The banjo is a another instrument with African origins. Early forms were made from hollowed out gourds and horse hairs, and enslaved people from West Africa fashioned the first semblances of the modern banjo during the 17th century in the Caribbean. The instrument is a staple of American roots music, including African-American traditional music. In the Appalachian region, jigs and reels from English and Irish immigrants played on the banjo eventually developed into the genre of music now known as bluegrass. The banjo has a very distinct sound among stringed instruments with its plunky, bright, bell-like sound. The Nobel Laureate David Politzer (a theoretical physicist) has extensively researched why the banjo sounds the way it does. Essentially it boils down to the fact that the bridge “floats” on a drum membrane, which vibrates and modulates the tension of the strings, producing a bright, metallic timbre. Two great banjo players who come to mind are Earl Scruggs, who played with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys and popularized the three-finger picking technique, and Béla Fleck, probably the most innovative banjo player in history. Check out Béla and his partner Abigail Washburn (also a very talented picker) playing “New South Africa“.
These are only a few highlights from a plethora of fun musical instruments just waiting for beginners to pick up. And we haven’t even touched the modern profusion of electronic MIDI controllers and digital synthesizers available (let us save those for a future post). If any of these instruments catch your fancy, go for it! The world needs more music. Find your sound and join the universal conversation.