Antonio De Lisa- Lines of a symbolic history of musical instruments

One of the most important myths concerning musical instruments is that of the competition in which Apollo, with his zither, a stringed instrument, defeats Marsyas, player of aulós, a wind instrument – a reed piva, identifiable on the basis of various literary and visual testimonies with an oboe (not with the flute, as was mistakenly believed for many years), since it was equipped with a double-reed tube. Another myth related to another victory of Apollo’s strings over the syringe of the “god with legs” goat “, Pan. But the victory over Marsyas has a tragic content unknown to the other. Apollodorus, Ovid in the Metamorphoses, Plutarch (Alcibiades II), Philostratus the Younger (Imagines 2) provide us with different versions, but the mythical substance, according to Emanuel Winternitz, is very suggestive: “the story of Marsyas does not show only the punished hybris , also contains a special essence and message. It is the poetic distillation of an eternal conflict, the antagonism between two musical realms, that of stringed instruments and that of wind instruments. This means not only the difference between the serene and Argentine sound of plucked strings and the whining, shrill, guttural, exciting sound of a reed piva, even if this difference alone has been sufficiently impregnated with symbolic meanings, since the most ancient civilizations; it also means, in the rationalization of myths made by the Greeks, the realm of inhibition, reason, measure – in the literal Pythagorean meaning of measuring chords and intervals, and in the metaphorical sense of not exceeding re the measure-opposed to the realm of blind passion: in short, the rivalry between Apollo and Dionysus ” [ Winternitz 1982, p.125].

Perhaps a mythical-symbolic interpretation of the instruments would lead us too far from the problem of the relationship between compositional thought and new executive techniques, which we propose briefly to outline, albeit briefly, but these deeds covered with myth are spies of a ” circumstantial paradigm “, in the words of Carlo Ginzburg, which concern the instruments in their micro-historical materiality [Ginzburg 1992, p.158]. It is as if the instruments spoke their own language, which myth is capable of interpreting, and which philosophy is suspicious of.

“If the goddess (Athena, N. d. A.) threw away the aulós, – writes Aristotle in Politics (1341b, 5) – she did it not only because it deformed her face, but also because playing the aulós did not it has no effect on intelligence. ” Where, given the Aristotelian contempt for an instrument that does not possess even the lowest level of a degree of spirituality, it is not even counterbalanced by the grace of the goddess’s face movement. Blowing into a tube implies, in fact, a certain effort that risks disfiguring the features of a lady without favoring her spirituality.

Stringed instruments, symbolized by the monochord archetype, have enjoyed since Pythagoras the status of privileged instruments, representative of a complete mathematical proportionality, of the perfect measure of things of which music would be a reflection, mirrored in the myth of Apollo quoted . Their history is intertwined with the establishment and stabilization of the theory and practice of modern orchestration, which is defined in the last quarter of the seventeenth century with the works of Alessandro Scarlatti (1659-1725) and Henry Purcell (1659-1695), which sanction the passage from the origins of modern orchestration – represented by the works of Cavalieri, Peri, Monteverdi, Gagliano, Landi, Rossi, Cavalli, Cesti, Legrenzi, Carissimi, Stradella, Lulli, Schütz, Albert, Tunder, Hammerschmidt – to the period mature of Bach and Handel, before flowing into the classical orchestra of Haydn and Mozart. Its spearhead is the violin, the sonic heart of the orchestral organism, almost the composer’s “voice” in a phenomenon that will be accentuated as we move into the nineteenth century and which will split at the beginning of our century into a double process: on the one hand the sound of the string mass will be investigated in a perspective that we could define “spectral” ante-litteram; on the other hand it will undergo severe questioning, as a symbol of an irrevocable past. Edgard Varèse will accuse them of “pastism”. “Stringed instruments (…) are still the rulers of the orchestra, despite the fact that the violin’s heyday dates back to the early 18th century. Why should we expect an instrument so typical of its period to still be the main support of the expression of what is contemporary? The rest of the traditional orchestra does not allow us to explore the possibilities of different timbres and registers ” [Varèse 1985, p.51]. It is no coincidence that Varèse preferred wind instruments in his works, in particular brass, and percussion, which represent a material index of his utopian tension, in the wake of Hoëne Wronski, according to whom “le beau spécial (…) qui se manifests for the corporification of the intelligence dans le sons est l’object de la musique “. What is this “putting into matter” (corporation) of intelligence in sound? Debated question, which we will be careful not to mention. Let’s reverse the question: what is the material identity that allows this process? Varèse had intuited and partially practiced the new electronic techniques of sound production, but his universe remains legible only through the traditional ones, albeit deeply renewed, produced by instruments full of tradition. It will be necessary to insist – following our lead – on the tradition and memory of the instruments. “The musical instrument – Berio wrote recently – is a machine useful to man. But it is not only useful for producing notes and is not neutral at all; with its techniques, it is the concrete depositary of the choices made in continuity (or discontinuity) Like all tools and like buildings, it has a memory. The sounds, produced by keyboards, strings and pipes, are instruments of knowledge and contribute to the development of the idea itself. Verbum caro factum est, con tempo and effort ” [Berio 1994, p.56]. This is an important concept: it is the tool (of work, produced by a work) that allows the realization of an idea, from which it cannot be detached. In a certain sense, it could be said that “the medium is its message”, to take up a famous concept of McLuhan, the communication theorist. It is evident that from this point of view, from which an important part of modern and contemporary compositional thought has arisen, the problem of musical “communication” can be read in completely different terms.

Let’s go back to the old for a moment, in the wake of that “circumstantial paradigm” we were talking about, let’s follow its tracks. Where are they taking us? In the fifteenth-century Studiolo in marquetry by Federigo da Montefeltro in Gubbio, a magnificent example of the science of perspective, on the basis of an important statement by Leonardo: “The practice must always be built on the theoretical good; of which the Prespettivo is a guide and door, and without this, nothing is done well in the cases of Painting “(Code G, 8 r). There are depicted: a tambourine and a small drum, two lutes, a citole, a harp, a rebeca, two cornets, a hunting horn, a fife, a portative organ. “In the Renaissance – writes Winternitz – a no less surprising bridge was built between the realm of the visible and that of sound. From Vitruvius to Palladio’s last followers, theorists have always urged architects to take the rules of harmonic proportions from musicians, masters in this field. Leonardo, who in his research on perspective discovered the harmonic proportions with which a body that moves away from the eye seems to diminish, considered music as the ‘sister of painting’ ” [Winternitz 1982, p.49].

The intersections are numerous between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, up to Borromini who projects a harmonic conception into space with surprising effects. In the mature Baroque the sound will become materialized. In the vertigo of the folds, curves and wavy lines it will become something else, dividing the shape of its instrumentality, as it was still conceivable in the Studiolo of Gubbio: “The musical instruments depicted in the study have a greater importance than that of a simple decoration ; they are the tools of an ‘art-science’ worthy of veneration to the highest degree. The citole mentioned above is represented together with two compasses and an hourglass, that is, the instruments for measuring space and time which, it is true, are common accessories in a Renaissance study, but which, placed side by side, and above all together with a musical instrument, they constitute a composition that cannot be accidental: they are certainly the symbols by which, according to the Renaissance theory, the mathematical foundation of music is indicated ” [Winternitz 1982, p.50].

It must be said, on the other hand, that the track we are following is not a linear one. On the one hand, on the firm basis of the founding ratio, it opens up a scenario of acoustic perfectibility linked to beautiful sound. The very inventions of the instruments – through a process of continuous discoveries and technical improvements, which are intertwined with the theory and compositional thought – follow this imperative, to tell in a great epochal narrative, the conquest of harmony. On the other hand, the instruments are affected by a sometimes confused nostalgia, on the part of some theorists and composers, for the mythical Greek-ancient enharmonic system whose sound testimony had disappeared, and by a desire to enlarge the sound space that will have direct consequences on the stability of the temperate system.

“When Nicola Vicentino – Giacomo Manzoni writes – around 1560 conceived his archicembalo and archiorgano, instruments equipped with numerous keyboards capable of obtaining a subdivision of the octave into thirty-one parts instead of twelve, when in 1606 the Venetian Vito Trasuntino perfected the invention del Vicentino by building a ‘clavemusicum omnitonum’, in which the division of the octave in turn went far beyond the traditional one, at the time it was already a matter of experiments aimed at restoring – even with an eye to the problematic chromatism of ancient Greek music – a different elasticity and richness to the musical scale. And if Alois Hába, with his quarter and sixth tone pianos, tended above all to reproduce the characteristics of certain Bohemian popular music, it is clear that at the same time he also expressed – both in still rudimentary way – a widespread need to broaden the sound base. A need that Busoni had already felt in his Aesthetics of music (with a proposal to widen the octave division up to thirty-six intervals) and Arnold Schoenberg in the Treatise on Harmony, and which had made the former look with sympathy and very keen interest at the electronic instrument conceived in the early twentieth century by the American Thaddeus Cahill; a requirement that led Teremin between 1910 and 1920 to devise an improved electronic instrument and many musicians of forty years ago to use it in their compositions ” [Manzoni 1994, pp.85-6].

As one could easily see, the polysemic figure of the musical instrument rotates – from the myth of Marsyas to the modernism of Varèse, passing through Renaissance experimentalism, through the seventeenth-century problematic of Borromini’s sound-space and the Enlightenment of the equal temperature of the harpsichord – on bipolar dynamics: discrete vs continuous. In the field of the “discrete”, an order and a control that is denied in the field of the “continuous” is possible. It is probable that the conceptual value of the arsscientia binomial, which finds metaphorically privileged ground in music, has never really been revoked in doubt – not even by Varèse. What emerges as the latency of a long-lasting myth in the Western mentality is the utopian effort towards the exploration of the “continuous”, below or on the sidelines of a rationalistic practice that has found, in the theorization of the “discrete” – of which example probative is Werckmeister’s “equal temperament”, with its artificial division of the eighth way of imparting a conceptual order to the phenomena of reality. Varèse in the thirties of the twentieth century did not deny that the “continuum” could be explored through the rationality of science (“One thing I would like to see realized is the creation of acoustic laboratories where composers and physicists collaborated”), he denied that it could to rely on traditional musical instruments. This is actually a knot, perhaps still not resolved, between an attempt to produce sound electronically (or electronically) and the loss of material-formal (not to say symbolic) memory of historical instruments. Maybe we need to give time to time. No one could have imagined the appearance of the gravicembalo with piano and fort, built by Bartolomei Cristofori in 1709 in Florence, the role that the piano would play in the nineteenth century.

The twentieth century is the century of attempts and compromises. The most knowledgeable instrument teachers (especially those of wind, wood and brass, and string, bow and plucked; and serious problems also arise for singers), who have had to learn how to produce unusual sounds themselves, report a real difficulty in explaining to students the composer’s need to write strange symbols to mean, for example, slap, double tonguing, multiphonic, “broken” sound, ascending-descending glissato, which is a way of exploring unusual acoustic portions for musical. Increased difficulty when bodily effort is involved, which requires considerable control and technique, as in the case of “circular breathing”. Let’s take the example of the trombone: “circular breathing – wrote a master of this instrument, Michele Lomuto – is in any case constituted by the alternation of inspiration and inspiration, so the expressions ‘circular breathing’ or ‘continuous breathing’ are not are that two of the numerous movements within which the trombone is immersed. (…) The main limit of circular breathing depends on the fact that the deflation of the cheeks cannot ensure the same levels of breath pressure that can be reached with the action of the diaphragm ” [Lomuto 1991, p.80].

As can be seen, from these and similar cases, the human body and sensitivity are one with the instrument. It is a “challenge”, rather than an “interpretation” in the classical sense, where the measure of the virtuoso combines musicality with the opening of a different, more difficult and risky, sound space. In other cases the new techniques are linked to the secular problem of the temperate system. Let’s take another example, relating to the flute: “There is (…) a category that is placed in a substantially different perspective – wrote the well-known flutist Annamaria Morini – and it is about non-tempered pitches, when, raised to a system, presuppose an ‘other’ subdivision of the frequency space. It is evident, in fact, how this implies some basic linguistic choices, which can start from even distant assumptions and arrive at equally diversified results. Just think on the one hand of a Scelsi and on the other to a Xenakis, passing through Nono (A Carlo Scarpa architect, to his infinitives, for orchestra at micro intervals, 1984) ” [Morini 1990, p.56].

In the best cases it is taught approximately how to produce certain effects, but not why it is done, which with a little good will it is not difficult to explain, at least in general, if there is someone who wants to know. The reasons lie on the one hand in the tension between discrete and continuous of the sound space – something that affects the choice and the need to dynamically use a portion of the spectrum, ie by acting on the so-called “critical band” which relativizes the importance of the frequencies used (” discrete “by definition in the temperate system of the twelve sounds of the chromatic total); to give an example: frequencies in close position generate beats or chorus effects that produce an enrichment of the sound textures; when they move away a little one crosses an area of dissonance, while if they move further away one finds a sensation of consonance. In this way, in the dynamic conquest of the continuum, the tension between dissonance and consonance on which the Western musical system was built, practically and theoretically, is also relativized.

Dissonance and consonance are on the same axis, from this conceptual and compositional point of view. There is nothing “brainy” or “intellectualistic”, the phenomenon arises from the great potential that sound (and its way of perceiving it) has in itself.

However, try to ask the orchestra players to follow and carry out this process, at least as far as possible, and you will see that there is still a long way to go between theory and practice. On the other hand, the reasons lie in the tension between linear and non-linear phenomena, which presupposes the choice of placing timbre before frequencies, which become unpredictable in a chaotic design, and in the relative difficulty of modeling timbre.

Let’s produce another example: the reed and the air column of a wind instrument such as the flute, oboe, clarinet or bassoon can vibrate simultaneously at frequencies that are not simply related. By employing certain unusual fingerings it is possible to displace the resonances of the air column so that the column can vibrate at two unrelated frequencies, so that the higher frequency is not an integer multiple of the lower frequency. These vibrations can be sustained by the reed, which vibrates at the same frequencies. The result is a sound of a different quality than usual.

There can be two or more components that can be distinguished by the ear as different heights or a feeling of “roughness”, full of beats, can be produced. These sounds have been called multi-phonic. The difficulty, in this case, consists in the correspondence between imagination and internal auscultation on the part of the composer – before leading to writing and sign coding – and in the control of the procedure by the performer who, in a practice not regulated by precise rules – especially with regard to fingering – it is assumed that he must have the mentality of an accurate experimenter, as well as an excellent ear. The school often does not teach to listen, but to perform with more or less speed of the notes written, so that things get damned complicated. They are only partially resolved by cases of real collaboration between composer and interpreter; this explains why certain works would not even have been conceived without the particular relationship between that composer and that performer, a phenomenon that has grown exponentially in the field of new music.

More generally, it can be said that today’s semiographic notation is forced into the straitjacket of another sound-conceptual system, that linked to the late-romantic and early- twentieth-century instrumentation treatises, starting from that of Berlioz, which do not allow to note fundamental practices of contemporary timbre research, such as those examined and many others that could be mentioned. Rimsky-Korsakov prescribed in 1891 that: 1) there must be no harsh or unpleasant timbre qualities or sounds in the orchestra; 2) orchestral writing should be easy to perform; the work of a composer gets the best result if the parts are well written. A. Glazunov has expressed very well the various degrees of goodness of a score, which he divides into three classes: 1) when the orchestra plays well by performing a piece at first sight and very well after a few rehearsals; 2) when the orchestral effects cannot be brought out except with great care by the conductor and the orchestral players; 3) when the orchestra never plays well. “With Glazunov’s mentality, scores that belong to another conceptual and historical universe are still faced today. The willing reader is left to imagine with what results.

Certain timbral-instrumental researches can be read in the context of the influence of new technological means on the sound imagination, as Varèse had predicted in the Thirties. It is as if the computer – a French composer said – had opened our ears and minds, allowing us to delve into an unknown continent made of overlapping waves, phase oscillations, dynamic modulations, beats, white and pink noises. A fascinating continent, which can be traveled with the Nautilus of the sonorous fantasy, which reveals the layers of matter in its nascent state.

From these tools we are enabled to produce matter ourselves. But there is no lack of deceptive aspects – from where the warning memory of the trace reappears – and which reveals itself here and there in the testimonies of the creators. “If I look at the sonogram of a sound produced by a Yamaha synthesizer – Steve Reich recently wrote – I see sawtooth or square wave shaped sounds; while if I look at a violin sound I see a dancing sound wave in motion”. It is a suggestive image and not devoid of truth, perhaps a testimony of the trace.

The past century has seen the enormous expansion of the technique. This influenced musical research much more than it was influenced by the latter. The result of this state of affairs has produced an enrichment where it was the compositional thought that wanted it, much less than the cases in which the machine was imagined as a panacea for the tiredness of creative thinking. An example of the first case could be produced in the interaction between instrumental technique and electroacoustic technology: “The instrument-magnetic tape interaction – wrote the violinist and teacher Enzo Porta – presents a variety of truly extraordinary paths and solutions. Stockhausen, Berio , Maderna, Pousseur implement it without almost altering the instrumental characteristics; Nono, on the other hand, takes a radically different position that aims at a mutual conditioning between electroacoustic and vocal and instrumental means, a path on which Manzoni and Gentilucci take their place, with very particular characteristics. Ligeti and Penderecki apply to the choir and orchestra procedures that give life to electronic atmospheres; other authors, close to the ideas of John Cage, use technology as a further mine of musical events (and the name of Kagel comes to mind spontaneously) ; still others approach electronics episodically without this fact being significant I live for their path ” [Porta 1991, pp. 88-9].

These are very varied experiences, enriched during the Eighties by the experiments with “live electronics” and more generally by the experiments produced at the IR-CAM in Paris, which constituted a kind of guide center for “vagant” musicians from all over the world. But an essential part of the twentieth-century framework would be missing if we did not take into account the fact that – beyond the contact with the world of technology – we are only the latest on a trail that crosses the paths of identity (of us Westerners) and of difference. . In fact, we should not forget that the most warned twentieth-century compositional thought – after the civilization that expressed it practically destroyed them – had the merit, from an anti- Eurocentric perspective, of having opened the doors to the memory of the repressed of popular cultures and non-European civilizations. When we talk about timbre we should not forget that it is the language of corporeality that has taught us to understand its ritual value. Let’s listen to the words of André Schaeffner: “The foot hits the ground. But with which part does it hit it? With the sole, with the heel or with the tip: nuances of timbre which the rhythm is used from time to time and thanks to which one enriches. Even more than the castanets is the dancer’s famous heel strike and the violent beating of the entire foot of the Spanish dancer which allow the rhythm to express itself in an almost static dance – zapateado for example -; from time to time it dies and rises again. as from underground ” [Schaeffner 1987, p.47]. Is it the trace of another myth? Or the variation of an archetypal one older than the Greek one, – whose fragments are scattered throughout all human cultures without distinction – according to which music expresses the dialogue between the body and its shadow on the threshold of darkness? “Sound is the basis of mystical thought and has an almost extraordinary mystical quality – wrote Marius Schneider -. A taut string is a latent and silent force; it begins to play and produce nice (harmonic) sounds which, in emanating from it , are higher than the fundamental sound itself, provided that a force calls them to ‘awaken’ the string when it is touched. In this sense, the string is a paradigmatic model of creation. The high forms derive from the low forms, that is, they evolve from bottom to top, on condition that a force superior to them calls them, that it breathes life into them and that it explains their material possibilities Music is the highest spiritualization of Nature, because it expresses Nature with a minimum of matter. It exalts and ennobles everything it expresses because in it everything is form and substance. But all the mystical traditions agree that to understand this language it is necessary to abandon oneself to the creative rhythm, and not with the aim of exhausting it. , but only to experience it. By doing this, we know what we do, but we don’t know what we do or how we do it. Moreover, abandoning oneself to rhythm proves that very often we can better grasp things, if we do not want to know them with excessive formalistic exactness “[Schneider 1986, p.148].

In our tradition there is a strong call for “formalistic exactness”. But in music there remains a deviation from the norm, a residue that leads from the myth to the ambivalence that Mickail Bachtin told us about and that opens up the space of polysemy, where matter takes its revenge on the logical structures of language. The music of the twentieth century, even within a rationalistic tradition, but with the temptation to get out of it, came across the narrow, anguished ridge where meaning is mixed with nonsense, almost inevitably rediscovering – the archetype from which was born all the music, the polyrhythmic timbre.

But it seems uncertain, torn between the need to follow it through ancient instrumental ways (with musical instruments distilled from tradition) and the desire to adhere to the radio- magnetism of the great breath of the universe, building “instruments” made of pure waves; to be almost “crossed” or “captured” by matter. But we dare to believe that the multi-cultural myth, which speaks the language of the world and not of a single race, which entrusts the destiny of living the struggle of creation to a singing body that plays the destiny of living the struggle of creation, has not completely and perhaps that it is not exhaustible in general.

There we are on the track. Trace of an unpredictable passage.

Antonio De Lisa © 2022 All rights reserved References


[Berio 1994]
L. Berio, “Il suono della memoria fantastica”, in Musicalia, novembre 1994.

[Winternitz 1982]

E. WinternitzGli strumenti musicali e il loro simbolismo nell’arte occidentale, Boringhieri, Torino 1982, p. 125.

[Ginzburg 1992]
C. Ginzburg, “Spie. Radici di un paradigma indiziario”, in Crisi della ragione, a cura di A. Gargani, Einaudi, Torino 1979, pp. 59-106, e ora in  Miti, emblemi, spieMorfologia e storia, Einaudi, Torino 1992, pp. 158-209.

[Varèse 1985]
E. Varèse, Il suono organizzato. Scritti sulla musica, Prefazione di G. Manzoni, Introduzione e cura di L. Hirbour, Ricordi-Unicopli, Milano 1985

[Manzoni 1994]
G.Manzoni, Tradizione e utopia. Scritti di musica e altro, a cura e con un’introduzione di Antonio De Lisa, Feltrinelli, Milano 1994.

[Lomuto 1991]
M.Lomuto, “Percorsi strumentali e lessico sonoro del ‘900: il trombone”, in Sonus – Materiali per la musica contemporanea, Anno 3, N. 1, febbraio 1991, p. 80.

[Morini 1990]
A.Morini, Percorsi strumentali e lessico sonoro del ‘900: il flauto, in  Sonus – Materiali per la musica contemporanea, Anno 2, N. 4, novembre 1990.

[Porta 1991]
E.Porta“Il violino nell’epoca della mutazione sonora”, in Sonus – Materiali per la musica contemporanea, Anno 3, N. 4, novembre 1991.

[Schaeffner 1987]
A.Schaeffner, Origine degli strumenti musicali, Sellerio, Palermo 1987  (1 ed. 1978).

[M.Schneider 1986]
M.Schneider, Gli animali simbolici e la loro origine musicale nella mitologia e nella scultura antiche, Rusconi, Milano 1986.

Categorie:D03- Semiotica degli strumenti musicali - Semiotics of Musical Instruments


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