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In a lot of fantasy world's the instruments used are the same or very similar to our own, the real reason why is obvious: the creators would have to create a music system from the down up which is very difficult. However I would like to know if there is a good reason why they tend to be similar, and whether I am going to have to either just have similar instruments or rebuild the music system (I don't want to do that)?

I would like to clarify that the reason I haven't disclosed specifics of the world I am creating is that I am just asking in general but as it has been asked I will share the materials. The most important factor is the general rarity of wood but abundance of Bamboo like materials and, for the characters, for now they can just be humans.

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    $\begingroup$ It would help if you clarify some key characteristics of the audience (and players, if different.) I'll presume they live in an atmosphere and can 'hear' vibrations in some frequencies. Is their hearing like ours, or different somehow? And IMHO, key for instrument design is what they have for manipulation -- hands, tentacles, elephant-like trunks, something else entirely?? The mechanical structures that are good for making vibrations in air are mainly dictated by physics (e.g. the wave equation) and available materials: no wood (or wood equivalent) and probably no woodwind equivalents. $\endgroup$ – Catalyst Jan 6 '17 at 14:57
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    $\begingroup$ When you ask in the body about a "music system" do you want to include all the baggage that comes with it besides instruments - a different music writing system, different dynamics, time signatures, articulations, melodies / harmonies / relationships, organization & groups (bands, orchestras), key signatures, ways of expression, musical phrasing? Or do you just want instruments, as the title implies? If so music system is a bit broad of a term. $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Jan 6 '17 at 22:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Zxyrra I'll keep it to instruments then $\endgroup$ – Mendeleev Jan 6 '17 at 23:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Catalyst I'll keep it the same as the question if read in full specifies. $\endgroup$ – Mendeleev Jan 6 '17 at 23:49
  • $\begingroup$ If you keep humans as we know them in your world, and it doesn't bother you that evolution/creator went two times the same way, having second thoughts about musical instruments seems odd. $\endgroup$ – Borsunho Jan 7 '17 at 13:24

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If you're assuming an atmosphere anywhere like ours (so basically the same acoustics), ears anywhere like ours (20 -- 20,000 Hz.) and hands like ours, then yes, you would probably see considerable convergent evolution of musical instruments, based on a few key mechanical oscillators or resonators, namely, vibrating membranes, air columns or strings:

  • drums: An enclosed air volume in a thin-walled container; energy from being struck by something else. Often with a vibrating membrane covering an opening. The vibrating membrane or thin walls transfer their vibrations to the air. (Gongs or cymbals are similar, a semirigid membrane, by itself.)

  • whistles: A long, thin column of air is excited by air blown into a reed or across an opening. The column (and its container) may be flared at one end to better couple the vibrations into the outer air.

  • vibrating strings: Strummed, bowed, plucked or struck strings, if under sufficient tension, will sustain vibration. These can be bare (old lyres and harps), coupled to a resonating volume and/or a resonating membrane (banjo.)

Note: The above isn't meant to be all inclusive.

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    $\begingroup$ Actually, in marked contrast to the shape of a phonograph or loudspeaker horn, the flare on wind instruments is not usually there so much to couple, but rather to retain energy to support resonance, and specifically do so at an effective position that varies with frequency. Without a flare or conical taper, a one-end-closed pipe does not produce the desired harmonic series, but only odd multiples. The cylindrical clarinet is a bit of an exception with a relatively fixed point of reflection its first interval is a 12th, unlike the octave of the oboe, saxophone, and brasses. $\endgroup$ – Chris Stratton Jan 7 '17 at 18:57
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisStratton: Your general reasoning for the flare is correct, but what distinguishes full-harmomic-series instruments (like an pipe organ's open flue pipe) or a bugle) from odd-harmonic-series instruments (like a closed flue pipe or clarinet) is the polarity of the reflections at each end. If the two reflections have matching polarity, each round trip will generate a full wave. If they have opposite polarity, each round trip will generate half a wave, and the second half of the wave will mirror the first. $\endgroup$ – supercat Jan 7 '17 at 19:58
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisStratton: [see above]. If a positive pressure wave reaches an open pipe end, it will reflect a negative wave back; if it hit a closed pipe end a positive wave would reflect back. If negative wave reaches the mouth of a flue pipe or a trumpeter's mouthpiece, it will cause more air to be drawn in, sending a positive wave back. If it reaches a clarinet mouthpiece it will draw the reed shut, sending a negative wave back. I haven't quite figured out what's going with a saxophone, though. $\endgroup$ – supercat Jan 7 '17 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ @supercat - like many who first try to apply physics to instruments, you get it a bit wrong. An oboe reed, a clarinet reed, and a trumpeter's lips all function in the same way and are "closed" ends, while a flute's mouthpiece is an open one. In all cases the far end is an open end. The mystery is then why most wind instruments with one closed and one open end have the series of resonance intervals you would expect from a two open ends flute, and the answer is that the taper and flare makes their effective length a function of frequency. $\endgroup$ – Chris Stratton Jan 7 '17 at 20:09
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    $\begingroup$ The exception is the clarinet, which being essentially cylindrical actually does behave as one would expect a pipe with one closed and and one open end, to do. But the difference is not only apparent in overblowing at the 12th instead of the octave - the clarinet's output has the unique sound of missing even harmonics, having only the odd ones you would expect, while that of the other winds has both even and odd, even for the one closed and one open ended cases where you would not expect that (until accounting for the taper and flare). See A.H. Benade "Horns, Strings, and Harmony" $\endgroup$ – Chris Stratton Jan 7 '17 at 20:10
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If you take a string and vibrate it, and then take a string identical to the first but half its length, you will notice it makes a sound exactly one octave higher than the original.

Many key concepts to primitive music are very simple and likely to be discovered by any culture with a creative instinct. Even the piano isn't so complicated: all it does at its most basic level is strike a string with a hammer when a key is pressed.

You may want to preserve some of the original instruments like the flute and lyre, but maybe expand based on your people's tastes or preferences. A culture that doesn't value individualism all that much would probably focus on many small instruments each playing their part. A culture that does would probably develop something like the piano that has a wide range and can play solo music easily.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nice answer saml welcome to the site. Check out the help center when you have a chance. $\endgroup$ – James Jan 6 '17 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ Though note that the piano (and other "solo" instruments) can also be played as the focal point of quite large ensembles, e.g. all those piano concerti. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 7 '17 at 6:07
  • $\begingroup$ Don't overlook that the "do it yourself orchestra simulator" aspect of an instrument like a harpsichord or fortepiano is important to developing the skills to compose for an orchestra - without it you might still get the occasional Mozart, but they probably would not have as rich an organized ensemble culture sustained by lesser talents to operate in - things would be probably be quite different. $\endgroup$ – Chris Stratton Jan 7 '17 at 18:51
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I think that the broad categories of instruments would remain, as they are simply ways of making a pleasant noise. Strings, percussion and wind are likely to evolve whatever happens.

Past that though, who knows what will happen? The drum is pretty likely to occur, but who knows what might turn up in the strings or wind sections? The more complex the instrument, the less likely it is to turn up in a parallel universe - so a recorder or flute is quite likely, a piano much less so.

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    $\begingroup$ Particularly if the world has magic, instruments might take on a more theremin approach very early. $\endgroup$ – SRM - Reinstate Monica Jan 6 '17 at 15:33
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Music is the mathematics of sound, an A 440 is going to be an A 440 cycles per second. An octave above is going to be 880, and an octave below is going to be 220.

Since math and physics don't change, the required design of musical instruments is going to have to adhere to the physics behind producing sound. The length, tension, and thickness of strings is going to be consistent, as will the distance between holes on flutes and other similar instruments. Same thing with percussion, skins on drums will have to conform, as will shapes, and other designs.

The math and physics of sound are constant, and will therefore restrict the design of instruments.

The exception would be as with some instruments in Asia which follow different musical rules and don't use the octal or chromatic scales, so if you had music that followed different rules, the instruments may take on a slightly different appearance, but the basic rules would still apply. Regardless of the tone, the only thing that would change from a microtone string instrument, would be the length and tension on the strings, and perhaps the number of strings, however, the limitations on the human body would also dictate the design.

For example, a guitar could not exceed the length for a human to play it. A keyboard would retain the same basic design, as it would have to accommodate the reach of a human hand, Schumann tried to extend his reach, but ended up crippling himself.

The same applies for amplification, you need an opening or openings behind the strings to amplify the sound.

Then of course different materials make different sounds based on their materials, and the materials are also restricted by physics. Glass is rarely used due to it's fragility and the difficulties that resonance brings to the table. (ever see an opera singer shatter a glass?)

Math, physics, and the limitations of the human body are constants and will severely limit what musical instruments can look like.

Now, if you had an alien physiology, then some interesting designs could occur, and that would overcome the limitations of the human body, but the same physical limitations would apply to what actually makes the sound, and amplification of the sound (assuming no power to amplify by other means)

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    $\begingroup$ I'm downvoting this because it makes a fundamental flawed assumption -- that the pentatonic scale is somehow key to music. It isn't. We have plenty of cultures in our own history who use vastly different scales and they sound very dissonant to Western ears. Google "microtonals" for one example. What a culture uses for music can have nothing to do with our desired tones, and therefore the instruments can diverge greatly. Compare with @MattBowyer answer below, which goes broader. $\endgroup$ – SRM - Reinstate Monica Jan 6 '17 at 15:31
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    $\begingroup$ @SRM You missed the part where I mentioned Asian systems, eh? $\endgroup$ – Richard U Jan 6 '17 at 15:41
  • $\begingroup$ I saw that part, but the implication I got from your post overall was that there was still a finite number of sounds that constitute music such that there would be a push toward instruments that look much like the instruments we have among real world cultures. The "basic rules would still apply" was the problem phrase for me -- I don't see any basic rules even among Earth cultures. $\endgroup$ – SRM - Reinstate Monica Jan 6 '17 at 19:08
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    $\begingroup$ @SRM no, not a finite number of sounds, just a finite number of designs to get any given sound. the designs will be limited by what is required to generate however many cycles per second a tone will be. A string will be a different length to generate 435 cycles per second than it will be to generate 440 cycles per second, but the physics remain the same and so the same basic rules would apply. The same thing with any other instruments, the physics would dictate the design. acoustics would not change, so a microtone guitar would still need to be hollow, for example $\endgroup$ – Richard U Jan 6 '17 at 19:26
  • $\begingroup$ Are you sure a person's stature limits the size of a guitar? youtube.com/watch?v=QVeES2VTBiM [Red Hands] might suggest otherwise. $\endgroup$ – supercat Jan 7 '17 at 20:08
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If your fantady world is roughly like our own, you get the answers provided previously, which make this implicit assumption.

But if they're underwater sound has some different qualities and different building methods are available.

If they are in a supercritical fluid, a vacuum, a nonlinear medium etc. you will also have differences, as we noted above in a noncompressible medium.

In a two dimensional world A. K. Dewdney notes the construction of several possible instruments and also alludes to the fact that air vibrations will distort with distance, changing the nature of the music.

But you said this is a fantasy world,so we are not limited by physics. You can have completely novel instruments that rely on magic to function. You can have made-up rulee for how sound interacts with magical objects and even the air itself around holy sites.

You ask, however, why similar instruments would develop, not whether different instruments would (also) develop. So a fantasy world may have unique magical instruments, but does the presence of a recognisable lyre or flute need to be explained? They will develop (also) if they are possible. If the physics and environment allow such instruments to work, and suitable materials are available, then you will have convergent development of the families of instruments we recognise.

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Well, in terms of differences, to start, the octave would probably be divided into a different number of basic parts. We use 12 here in America, but what's to stop them from using less or more? The frequencies of notes would also be different, since these are arbitrary (so it would probably sound exotic and/or out of tune with music we hear). Strings vibrating, Membranes vibrating, air columns vibrating are all good general types of instruments. Vocals would also probably be somewhat replicated, as long as whatever the species communicates with uses sound. The rhythms too would be different. We tend to like 4s for beats, but this is arbitrary. There might be, say, 17 beats per measure. And just imagine all the crazy scales! Minor may sound sad to us, but with so many other variables, anything could happen. I'd say try to be creative in not conforming too closely with human musical trends.

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Think of the evolution of music as an abstract expression of language and biology. You've got the rhythmic - heartbeats, sex, breathing - and the melodic - language, and tonal communication like grunts, yelps, etc. And less important today, but probably very central in primitive societies - sound effects, for story telling - rattles, rainsticks, stylised and simulated animal and bird calls

So when we discovered music, it was because something in it connected with us - the plinks of water in this cave sounded like it was talking to us; or hitting something in time as a sexual frustration. It's very primal stuff, of course it matured and was refined, and nowadays all the variations of it are purely cultural. We like what we are brought up with and are used to - tuning systems can get weird, time signatures can be complicated, but the roots of sex and communication remain. In terms of pre-electronic instrument design, they're always going to conform to the fairly limited methods of producing percussive and melodic sounds, which others have run through far better than me. But in terms of the musical system, overall anything human is going to be roughly similar in the same way that human language is roughly similar. For an alien species, their music is going to be inspired by their biology and their language and communication. So probably won't sound anything like the Mos Eisley band. But totally plausible that aliens may like listening to subtle variations of white noise, or painful shrill droning. It's pretty much infinite

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Assuming similar environmental conditions for a fantasy world (not an underwater or vacuum atmosphere, for example) and a similar physics system, the basic methods of making sound (and thus music) will remain the same.

There is a short movie created by Disney in 1953 titled 'Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom' That talks about how all music instruments are based on brass (toot), woodwinds (whistle), stringed, (plunk), or percussion (boom). In other words, to make a vibration you can hear in the air, you can cause a tube of air to vibrate (brass such as trumpet or tuba), a vibration due to a constriction of a flow of air (a whistle or woodwind), a vibrating string under tension (guitar, piano, violins, or human vocal chords), or cause an object to vibrate by striking it (drums, bells, or rattles).

Since humans have experimented with many variations of these four basic sound producing methods, any fantasy world will probably have musical instruments similar to if not identical to a historical human instrument.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't think any of that dictates instrument design. A violin and a glass celestial are all "plunk". A drum set, marraccas, and a xylophone are all "boom". A trumpet and a theremin are all "toot". For "whistle", think bagpipe and accordion. ANYTHING in the world that makes a sound can become an instrument. Therefore instruments may be as diverse as any two found or manufactured objects. $\endgroup$ – SRM - Reinstate Monica Jan 7 '17 at 13:30
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For completeness, I add the somewhat obvious (but not mentioned yet) conjecture that any human society with our or a similar level of technology will develop electronic music (and whatever you would like to call the "instruments" (computers) that produce such music).

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I agree with other authors here. Music itself will emerge from the physics of sound, and running humanity over again from backup will result in something roughly the same. However, it all depends on human physiology and our atmosphere: change our bodies (to hear differently, broader ranges of frequencies for instance, or give us fins instead of arms?) and the sky's the limit.

Different bodies in different media (air, water, space gas) will cause a different set of 'rules and requirements' for musical instrument design, I'd think.

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  • $\begingroup$ The rules wouldn't change, just the speed of sound through the medium.. $\endgroup$ – Richard U Jan 6 '17 at 21:11

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