I am creating a tundra-nomad inspired culture, but I'm having trouble figuring out how to design instruments that will seem believable for these people and also be unique when compared to the real world. The nomads are primarily herders who control large, yak-like beasts for milk, meat, and wool, and make their money from trading these materials in markets. One of the ways they pass the time is through playing music. I have thought about making a pipe-like instrument made from an animal tusk and stones, but I still have no idea how it would sound or be played on. Any help or suggestions would be great!
Strangely, this solution might best be designed by looking at how we classify all of Earth's many musical instruments. You see, once you get out of middle school's music program, it turns out that there are a multitude of musical instruments throughout history, more than a few of which are unique.
The people who study these want to know how to classify them, and even the traditional European instruments you're familiar with exist in a dazzling variety of modifications. There's not just one saxophone, but an entire spectrum of the things... those are (mostly) classified according to the key they are made to produce.
But what do you do about those instruments that are more exotic? Where does that one-of-a-kind accordion-or-maybe-it's-a-hurdy-gurdy belong?
Eventually, these people got their act together and fashioned a system that should be able to (in theory) describe and classify any musical instrument. Let me introduce to you the Hornbostel–Sachs system.
By being able to describe any plausible musical instrument, it can already describe those you'll design but haven't managed to design yet. And it lets you easily explore the possibilities, out to the very edge of what is plausible. At its most basic, it turns out all musical instruments go into 4 broad categories, based on what is vibrating to create the sound:
The first (idiophones) describes instruments that vibrate themselves to make sound. Bells come to mind, and cymbals. Chordophones vibrate a string, so everything from the guitar to the piano. Aerophones are anything in which a column of air (such as from a pipe organ) vibrate to make the sound.
Some of these you might be able to rule out right away. Do these people have string available to use for musical instruments? It seems to me that even the Inuit might manage that trick, using animal gut. But in many cases, strings need to be stretched out over some chamber (hollow or not), so they'd have to get creative.
Start exploring on the Wikipedia page, and if you need to dig deeper it links to other resources to continue research.
Long bones are well suited for making flutes, like this ancient examples shows
If they happen to find canes they can also make similar instruments with those.
They just need to drill/carve holes at the proper distances in the body of the flute, ensuring that they sound well in tune. As somebody who struggled to properly tune a guitar, this can be tricky.
And with skins and wood they can make various types of drums.
Playing the flute would require the player to blow through it and then close the holes to obtain different sounds. The sound might be not as clean as with a modern instrument, but sometimes that's part of the color of the instrument.
For the drum, well, it's not rocket science, either use hands or sticks.
If it is a nomad-like group, the music will be fairly simple, rhythmical, and probably repetitive. Simple drums could be made from stretching some animal hide over a wooden bowl. Flutes and simple horns could be formed from animal bones. The musical style, of course, would be nothing like modern. Be sure to scale it back from even modern music--that means no major/minor scales. I would imagine the emphasis of the music would be words sung, but not in a choir fashion. Have one person be a 'singer'--they might alternate between their voice and a flute. Drums could be used to double the rhythm of the singer or just supply a steady beat. I would caution you not to make it too complicated, flashy, or intricate. Simple rhythms at a moderato or andantino tempo, accompanied simply, would serve best.
Let's be inauthentic
"Yak-like beasts" implies alien, and alien beasts want alien music.
Posit the hair (wool) of these beasts is convergent to yak hair in function, but not in chemistry. To wit, when it is soaked in an acid, such as the acid found in the stomach of a hungry yak when it is slaughtered, the polymer of the hair readily dissolves. When the water is extracted as it is mixed with salt from an alkali flat in the presence of a little oil to keep a smooth surface, it repolymerizes and rapidly resolidifies.
By making this yak rayon and spinning and winding it deftly around one of the creature's horns, you can create a spiral of a hard, tough polymer that gradually increases in size. Pull it off and play it with a faceted hammerstone (think guitar pick with some heft), and you can make unique noises by banging and stroking the coil. A musical scale is introduced by making a unique pattern of fusions at various lengths along the coil with a bit more yak rayon, creating segments that isolate with a defined harmony. It is also possible to place one of these inside another, playing the one on the inside with the hammer-pick but hearing the sympathetic vibrations on the outer one more clearly.
I have no idea if this works. I ought to catch a yak-like creature and find out. Is Abydos hot this time of year?
Many, many different communities around the world have invented these independently. How they're tuned and whether they have drone pipes will vary, but the basic construction is the same. All you need is animal hide for the bag, wood or bone for the pipes, and animal fat to seal the joints and keep the hide in good condition.
If you want this to be be a bit more funky, perhaps these ones aren't a solo instrument. Instead there's a much larger bag on a frame, a couple of people blowing it up, and a couple of people playing cross-melodies on two chanters. Or four chanters, with some ocarina-like finger layout for each hand.
Rythym is the simplest form to cover, it can be created by something as simple as banging two sticks together, to as sophisticated as something like a snare drum. In your case, one of the main resources in nomadic civilizations would be animal furs and bones, allowing percussive instruments to be made from things like pelts. For portability, these would mostly be made of hide, with a structure made of something like sticks or bones. Bone instruments are extremely valid, as bone is known for having some of the most desirable acoustic properties known to man.
In order to design a unique instrument, you need to first understand music systems. For example, modern western music uses an equal temperament system, which while flawed, is extremely refined compared to more archaic music systems such as just temperament (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equal_temperament) Temprement is dependent exclusively on instrumental harmony, however, so if you want to avoid the rabbit hole that is music math, you could create harmonies and melodies acapella, as opposed to instrumentally.
Tying all this into your pipe-like instrument, the shaft would almost certainly be made of either horn or bone. This would be carved down to a specific length to create the desired pitch.
In order to avoid the aforementioned temperament systems, the pitch of the instrument would be controlled similar to a bugle, almost entirely by the player's mouth. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bugle) If you want to add an extra layer of sophistication, you could add holes at the octave points (1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, etc.) allowing the instrument a much wider pitch range. Keep in mind that each hole before the desired pitch needs to be covered. (like a recorder) so you can't have more octaves than the player has fingers.
(this shouldn't be an issue, most instruments have three to four octaves max)
To give a general idea of how this would look, let's assume we have a tube 67cm long (~26 3/8in) that resonates at middle C. The first hole would be drilled halfway up the tube, the second hole would be 1/4 up the tube, and the third 1/8 of the way. This would allow people to play music sounding somewhere between a horn and a trumpet while being much more resonant since it's made of bone.
Its tone would be described as resonant and warm, while still carrying a similar mood to brass instruments created today.