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'Brass' Instruments producing the 3rd harmonic

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‘Brass’ instruments that can play the 3rd harmonic and probably the 2nd also


This blog presents some more exploration of the wide range of instruments that make a sound from the vibrating lips of the player. I found the research really interesting when I did it in 2010. I'm sure there is more to discover . . .


Players of the kakaki of west Africa use a musical style with abrupt rhythms and pitch changes between the 2nd and 3rd harmonics. The interval between these harmonics is often wider than a perfect 5th. The kakaki are made of various metals from brass to the tin from petrol cans according to Anthony Baines in his 1993 publication Brass Instruments: Their History and Development, (see page 76). 


Many instruments in Asia would seem to be played in the same way as the kakaki such as the kombu from the Kerala district of India which is C-shaped and “is treated as a percussion instrument adding to the orchestral clamour” says Reck in his review of “Drumming and Chanting in God's Own Country: The Temple Music of Kerala in South India” 2003, Yearbook for Traditional Music, vol.37, pp181-182. 


There are other names for similar instruments throughout Asia such as karna, plural karnai, or karnāl. Baines suggests the tradition of the kakaki goes back at least to the fifteenth century and probably back to the eleventh century. Edward Tarr’s research shows us that trumpets were only the straight type in the eleventh century and it is assumed that players used one or two notes, the 2nd and 3rd harmonics .(I read this in the translation of his book Die Trompete, published in 1988 as The Trumpet.) In the eleventh century there was little difference between European and Moslem trumpets (see Baines again, pages 79-80), although the trumpet was perhaps better established in Moslem countries, providing music “on a grandiose scale” said Farmer in 1957 in his article ‘The Music of Islam’ from The New Oxford History of Music.  It wasn’t until after the resurrection of the Roman tuba from the tenth to twelfth century in North Italy that trumpets in Europe began their long development and the range increased (again see Baines 1993: 73).


Long trumpets had much the same function in the ancient world of the Mediterranean: they were used as signalling devices and to indicate military strength. Some of the trumpets we know of are the Egyptian šnb; a silver and a bronze trumpet from Tutankamen’s tomb; the Assyrian and Hebrew ḥaṣoṣerah and the Greek salpinx. All of these were straight trumpets between 47 and 58 centimetres long. This info I found in Sarkissian’s article in The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments 1997: 13. The salpinx was also used for musical contests, according to Scott in The New Oxford History of Music 1986: 406-7. 


The interchangeable names lituus and bucina stood for a bronze hooked instrument that came to Rome from the Etruscans before the first century BC, later the name referred to an animal horn instrument. There were two other types of Roman trumpets, the tuba and cornu, also originating from the Etruscans. Thecylindrical tuba was up to 1.3 metres long and sounded the attack and retreat; the bronze, curved cornu sounded the relief for sentries. (Meucci has more on this in the article  ‘Roman Military Instruments and the Lituus’, The Galpin Society Journal.) A surviving bronze lituus in the Vatican is 1.4 metres long. Experiments with replicas show that 6 harmonics can be produced on it as shown by McKinnon (see ‘Lituus’, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians 2001: 11).In the Middle East sometimes a name appears in more than one context and applies to distinctly different instruments. This contrasts with a prior example in which the same instrument has a number of names. Meucci and Ibsen al Faruqi commented that “many Arabic words at various times indicated a straight trumpet” this quote from Sarkissian and Tarr in Grove Music Online, who also provide the next bit of research:. Other names include anfar and būq, the latter more likely to refer to a horn from an animal.


Some African instruments made from the horns of animal such as the sable antelope, the kudu or the gemsbok have an available 1st harmonic as well as the 2nd and 3rd harmonics. Just as the metal or wood instruments have a stretched interval between the 2nd and 3rd harmonics, these animal horn instruments have a stretched octave between the 1st and 2nd harmonics (Baines 1993: 45). 


Shofar is the name for the instrument fashioned from an animal horn by Jewish groups

such as the Yemenites and Ashkenazim. The Yemenites use the horn from the kudu whilst other Jewish groups use the shorter horn from a goat or ram. Many groups play them at any time of rejoicing though the Ashkenazim use them only for ceremonial events. In such cases the shofar player presents the four main calls using two pitches: harmonics 2 and 3.

Montagu acknowledges the interval between the two pitches on any particular horn may be as narrow as a fourth or as wide as a sixth “yet they are always regarded as the 2nd and 3rd harmonics” (The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians Grove 2001).


There is no evidence to suggest that players of long trumpets in Europe ventured higher than the 3rd harmonic before the eleventh century. Sometime after that the first four

harmonics were used. Indications come from current experts’ understanding of the earliest written music and a clear statement to that effect made by Johannes de Grocheo c1300 (Sarkissian 2007 The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments). In the late fourteenth century instrument makers developed the skill of bending and folding metal. The earliest

depiction of an ‘S’ shaped trumpet is thought to be 1379 (Sarkissian 2007). This allowed important changes to trumpet design. Up till then players were confined to holding up straight trumpets with a useable length of around 150 centimetres (see Steele-Perkins’s book The Trumpet 2001: 5-7). With the new craft of metal bending the overall tube length could be greatly extended and players experimented with a larger number of available harmonics. The twice-folded ‘natural’ trumpet was produced early in the fifteenth century

(see Smithers The Music and History of the Baroque Trumpet before 1721, page 35) scarcely changing through to its ‘golden age’ in the baroque period. Also of interest are the trumpets with slides which were being built no later than 1411 (Sarkissian and Tarr) and perhaps as early as 1379 (see Polk’s chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments 1989: 395).


There seems little doubt that the early Renaissance slide trumpet was the direct ancestor of the trombone and no doubt it was used as a bass instrument in ensembles with two shawms (Steele-Perkins 2001: 26; Polk 1997: 42). Late in the fourteen hundreds the more practical trombone with its U-shaped slide took over the bass role in such ensembles. The trombone was closely associated with the cornett for a couple of centuries although the trombone's role was not restricted to one consort (see the Glossary in The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments).


From the eleventh century in Europe the cornett has been played with fingering

holes like a recorder yet blown as a brass instrument. It evolved from a basic animal horn, is conical in bore and made of wood or ivory. Virtuosi of the cornett appeared from 1450 and would have needed at least harmonics 1 to 3 to cover a range of two octaves, whilst production of the 4th harmonic would allow for almost three octaves (see Dickey’s chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments). The curved, treble cornett is about 60 centimetres in length and its lowest note, an A just below middle C, is produced with all finger holes closed and can be lipped lower to a G (Baines & Dickey in Grove Music Online).


The final example in this category is the conch as used in Japan. There it is called the hora by the Buddhist priests who traditionally use harmonics 2, 3 and 4 as well as a falset below the 2nd. This bit of info is in the book by Clark: Sound of the Silk Road: Musical Instruments of Asia.

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