The Origins of 7 Musical Instruments

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This article is excerpted from the Mental Floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything

1. Tambourines

Long before the Tambourine Man played a song for Bob Dylan, tambourine-like instruments were being used by Ojibwe and Cree people in what is now Canada, in several Middle Eastern cultures, in South India, China, and in Eastern Europe. In ancient Egypt, tambourines were used by temple dancers, and were used in festivals and processions by the Greeks and Romans.

Over in Western Europe, the tambourine began to gain popularity in the mid-18th century as an orchestral instrument, particularly when that infamous rebel of the classical music world, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, began to employ it in several compositions. Today, while the tambourine is still occasionally used in orchestral music, it's more commonly associated with Western folk music.

2. Kettle Drum

The kettle drum varies greatly across cultures, but the earliest versions may date back to at least 4000 B.C.E. in Mesopotamia. Babylonian artifacts have also been found with instructions for building kettle drums inscribed on them. Used throughout the ancient Middle East and in many Islamic cultures, kettle drums first arrived in western Europe thanks to soldiers returning home from the Crusades. It's no surprise then that in Western cultures, kettle drums have typically been associated with the military: The kettle drum was used in battle as an imposing noise to signal the opposing army's impending doom, as well as to keep their own soldiers marching in time.

3. Guitars

The first guitar was a variation on a lute, a stringed instrument with a curved back, designed in western Europe in the 13th century. A few hundred years later, the Spanish "vihuela" had come into being, and by the mid-16th century, the "guitarre" had become a popular instrument in Spain, and was subsequently introduced into France. Musically-inclined Spanish and Portugese colonists brought their guitars with them on their trips to Africa and the New World. In the Carribean, regional variants on the guitar sprang up, as indigenous people adopted the instruments to fit traditional music: the tres, from Cuba, and the cuatro, from Puerto Rico, are two such instruments. Further south, the charango came into being—an instrument sometimes made out of the shell of an armadillo—and in Mexico, the huge bass guitar known as a guitarron became a mainstay of mariachi music.

The guitar largely remained part of the rhythm section until the birth of the recording industry in the United States. Guitar makers and players "“ as well as the industry execs "“ wanted louder guitars, and a few people began to look at electronic amplification as a means to this end. In 1931, a man named Adolph Rickenbacker collaborated with George Beauchamp to make the first electric guitar pickup: a magnet with a coil of wire wrapped around it, which when electrified by a current amplified the sound produced by the vibration of the guitar strings. By the end of the 30s and into the 40s, the "electric sound" was being pioneered by jazz, country, and blues guitarists like Merle Travis and Muddy Waters.

But it was rock and roll that really popularized the electric guitar—in particular, the new solid-body guitar (as opposed to the "hollow body" of earlier guitars). Several guitar makers had experimented with the solid-body style, but it was Leo Fender, a radio repairman, who would put the style on the map in 1950, and forever changed the course of American pop music. [Image courtesy of Slash's World.]

4. Violin

The European violin—a four stringed instrument played with a bow, and held between the chin and shoulder—was developed in the 16th century to accompany dances or to echo the melody sung by a vocalist. In the 17th century, the full range of the violin was utilized in operas, concertos, and sonatas, and was used as a solo instrument for the first time.

The instrument really took off, however, in the years between 1650 and 1750, when all of Europe was succumbing to the violin craze. The hub of violin-making activity was the town of Cremona in northern Italy, where some estimates place the number of violins produced at 20,000. As home to some of the most famous violin-makers of all time, Cremona boasted the likes of Nicola Amati (who died in1684) and his apprentices, Guarneri del Gesu and Antonio Stradivari. Stradivari, of course, is better known as Stradivarius—the Latin version of his family name being the one he chose to sign his instruments with. Stradivarius was famous for his attention to detail and his experimentation, choosing different types of wood, varnishes, and structural techniques to slightly alter the sound; each Stradivarius violin produced a unique tone, which is part of why they are so prized today. In the last 37 years of his life, Stradivarius cranked out an average of one instrument a week—violins and cellos—which was an astounding feat, considering the amount of attention he devoted to each instrument. There are about 1,000 "Strads" still in existence, which can each fetch up to $2 million.

5. Accordion

Beloved instrument of Steve Urkel and Weird Al Yankovic, the accordion's history lies in the wind instruments of Asian and African societies. In fact, "free reeds," which create the distinctive sound when air passes over them, have been used in Chinese instruments for over 2000 years.

The modern accordion was first designed in Austria in the early 19th century—unlike modern accordions, however, it only featured a keyboard on one side, with the other end was used to operate the bellows. Today, there are three types of accordions: the piano accordion (which has a piano-like keyboard on one end of the instrument); the concertina (a hexagonal instrument which has no keys, only buttons on each end); and the button accordion (which is pretty much what it sounds like). All three types work by expanding and squeezing together the bellows, forcing air over the free reeds inside and causing them to vibrate, with the keys and buttons determining the pitch.

6. Harmonica

In the small town of Trossingen, Germany, in 1857, a clockmaker named Matthias Hohner started producing "mouth organs," based on an earlier design by Christian Buschmann in 1821. While another Trossinger, Christian Messner, had already started manufacturing harmonicas by 1930, Hohner was the first to mass-produce them, and the first to ship them across the Atlantic to the US, in 1868. It wasn't long before the mouth organ, now known as the harmonica, became an essential component of a variety of musical styles in the west, including folk, country-western, and (of course) the blues.

7. Saxophone

The saxophone is the baby of the reed family, brought into the world in 1841 at the Brussels Exhibition by the Belgian inventor Adolphe Sax. Originally made in 14 different sizes and keys, today three or four horns dominate the scene (with the soprano, the tenor, the alto and the baritone are the most prominent). In 1845, Sax organized a "battle of the bands" in which he led a group of musicians playing his new saxophone (as well as other brass instruments) in competition against an ensemble playing the traditional instruments of the French military band. Sax's band was so enthusiastically received by the audience that the French government decided—shockingly—to adopt the saxophone as part of their standard band lineup.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

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10 Fascinating Facts About Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac reading poetry.
Jack Kerouac reading poetry.
Phillip Harrington // Alamy Stock Photo

Around midnight one September evening in 1957, Jack Kerouac and his girlfriend, Joyce Glassman, went to the local newsstand. They were looking for the morning issue of The New York Times and its review of Kerouac’s new book, On the Road. There it was, on page 27: a rave review by critic Gilbert Millstein, who declared that “Its publication is a historical occasion.”

That one review changed Kerouac’s life, making him the most famous Beat Generation member and allowing him to publish numerous novels—many of which would draw from his own life.

1. Jack Kerouac’s childhood nickname was “Memory Babe.”

Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac was born on March 12, 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts. His father, Leo, was an insurance salesman and later owned a print shop; his mother, Gabrielle, was a homemaker. French, not English, was his first language, and throughout his life, he felt a cultural estrangement as a French-speaker in the United States.

As a child, Kerouac had an astounding memory: He could accurately remember scenes and conversations from the past, which caused his friends to call him “Memory Babe.” He would use this talent in his novel The Town and the City to describe the typical New England family life. According to biographer Ann Charters, since his boyhood life wasn’t as idyllic as the story required, he combined elements of his own childhood alongside memories of his friends’ lives.

2. A friend inspired Jack Kerouac to be a writer.

After skipping the sixth grade, Kerouac attended Bartlett Junior High School, where he met Sebastian Sampas. The two shared a love of theater and literature and formed a deep friendship. Thanks to Sampas’s influence, Kerouac joined the school’s Scribbler’s Club. In his Lonesome Traveler, published in 1960, Kerouac wrote, “Decided to become a writer at age 17 under influence of Sebastian Sampas, local young poet who later died at Anzio beach head” in World War II. Kerouac married Sampas’s sister, Stella, in 1966.

3. Jack Kerouac’s poems were influenced by a Japanese poet.

Seventeenth-century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō used Buddhist themes like nature, enlightenment, and the cycle of life, along with plain language, when writing haiku poems. Kerouac loved haiku, writing copious amounts of it and incorporating it into his novels—though he disregarded the syllable count many associate with the form, saying instead that “Pop———American (non-Japanese) Haikus” were “short 3-line poems, or ‘pomes,’ rhyming or non-rhyming, delineating ‘little Samadhis’ if possible, usually of a Buddhist connotation, aiming towards enlightenment.” A sample of his Bashō-inspired work:

In my medicine cabinet
the winter fly
Has died of old age

—Kerouac

As the author’s friend, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, would say, “He’s the only one in the United States who knows how to write haiku… [he] talks that way, thinks that way.”

4. Jack Kerouac got married to escape jail.

In 1944, future Beat writer Lucien Carr murdered his friend David Kammerer. Carr claimed that Kammerer was gay and had been stalking him; Carr also said that Kammerer was continuously making advances at him, even though Carr turned him down. Carr claimed that, to protect himself, he had stabbed Kammerer to death with his Boy Scout knife. (This type of excuse for murder would later come to be known as the “gay panic defense.”) After filling Kammerer’s pockets with rocks, Carr dumped his body into the Hudson River. He then went to see his friends Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs; Carr said he and Kerouac went to a nearby park to dispose of the evidence. Later, Kerouac was arrested and jailed as a material witness to the crime.

Kerouac couldn’t post bail, so he asked his girlfriend, Edie Parker, to borrow the money from her parents. Edie, however, wouldn’t do it unless he promised to marry her, which he did. Kerouac also said they would move to Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where he’d get a job to repay the loan. On August 22, Kerouac married Edie Parker and was soon released. He made good on his promises, but their marriage would soon go downhill and was eventually annulled.

Kerouac later referenced Kammerer’s murder in his autobiographical novel Vanity of Duluoz, writing that he had told the character based on Kammerer where the character based on Carr was going on the night of the murder and had watched “him rush off to his death.”

5. Jack Kerouac didn’t take care of his daughter.

In late 1950, Kerouac married Joan Haverty, and in February 1952, Haverty gave birth to their daughter, Janet Michelle. But the couple separated before Janet was born, and Kerouac denied paternity, refusing to make child support payments.

6. Jack Kerouac and Gore Vidal slept together.

Author Gore Vidal first met Kerouac in 1949 at the Metropolitan Opera, but beyond a little flirting, nothing happened. That would change in 1953, when Kerouac and Vidal met again at New York City's San Remo Cafe. Kerouac had intended to introduce Vidal to Burroughs, but Kerouac flirted relentlessly with Vidal, and Burroughs eventually left. After that, according to Vidal, he and Kerouac went to the nearby Chelsea Hotel, where they had sex. Later, Kerouac would write a fictionalized account of the encounter in The Subterraneans: “[He] is a well-known and perfectly obvious homosexual of the first water, my roaring brain---we go to his suite in some hotel--I wake up in the morning on the couch, filled with the horrible recognition, ‘I didn’t go back to Mardou’s at all.’”

7. Alan Watts wasn’t a fan of Jack Kerouac’s interpretation of Buddhism.

Kerouac published his novel The Dharma Bums, which portrayed his fictional alter ego learning Buddhism, in 1958. Kerouac’s portrayal of Buddhism was popular among the youth of the day, but famous Zen teacher Alan Watts wasn’t a fan.

“Beat Zen is a complex phenomenon,” Watts wrote. “It ranges from a use of Zen for justifying sheer caprice in art, literature, and life to a very forceful social criticism and ‘digging of the universe’ such as one may find in the poetry of Ginsberg and Snyder, and, rather unevenly, in Kerouac. But, as I know it, it is always a shade too self-conscious, too subjective, and too strident to have the flavor of Zen.”

Watts would publish his famous written work, Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen to distinguish between formal Zen and the Beat’s style of Zen. To Watts, formal Zen was liberation from conventional thought, while the Beat’s style of Zen was simply a revolt against culture or social order.

8. Jack Kerouac has been accused of anti-Semitism.

When Kerouac sat down for an interview at New York’s Northport Public Library in 1964, he talked about a wide range of subjects, among them his friend Allen Ginsberg, religion, and race relations. He also discussed his views of Jewish people. According to Paul Maher in Kerouac: The Definitive Biography, the author had a theory “that the strife over civil rights for African Americans was initiated by an ‘invasion’ of Russian Jews into America.” Kerouac reportedly stated, “After they [Jewish people] had established themselves here, they then took the Negro out and flung him at America and hide behind his skirts so that we will forget about anti-Semitism because we’re worried about Negroes now.” These statements led to Kerouac being accused of anti-Semitism—which he vehemently denied.

9. Jack Kerouac liked to paint.

Writing wasn’t Kerouac’s only talent: The author was also an artist. He drew his first self-portrait when he was 9, and created vast amounts of artwork—working in everything from pencil to oils to watercolors—as an adult. Like the characters in his novels, Kerouac often based his artworks on people he met.

10. Jack Kerouac was an influence on Hunter S. Thompson.

As a 21-year-old, future Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson did not have kind words for Kerouac or his work, writing in a letter that “The man is an ass, a mystic boob with intellectual myopia. The Dharma thing was quite as bad as The Subterraneans and they're both withered appendages to On The Road—which isn't even a novel in the first place.” A few years later, Thompson called Kerouac’s Big Sur a “stupid, sh**ty book.” But his opinion seemed to have mellowed with age: In 1994, he reportedly said he “never would have become a writer were it not for On the Road,” and acknowledged four years later that Kerouac “was a great influence on me.”