10 Surprising Innovations for Musical Instruments Over the Centuries

Do you ever wonder how different life might be if certain things hadn't been invented?

We're surrounded every day by innovations that we take for granted. Many of these things build upon previous models and ideas from generations past. The cars today barely resemble those that first drove more than a century ago - but we wouldn't have them without the older models to build upon.

The same is true of music. You're probably familiar with a wide range of musical instruments. But did you know that there are thousands of instruments that are now obsolete? What's made modern instruments endure until today? How different would the music we hear be without some of these inventions?

Not only are the instruments themselves vital, but the accessories and sound-changing add-ons as well. In fact, if we didn't have certain electric accessories or digital programs, entire genres wouldn't even exist today.

What's interesting is how you can find patterns throughout history. Today, most innovations have to do with digital technology. Over the past three decades or so, innovations were related to electric instruments. Most classical and orchestral instruments came into being more than a century ago.

But the inventors all have things in common. They want to create new sounds, explore new possibilities, and push the envelope to create something great.

I've put together a list of ten innovations that have had an impact on the way we listen to music. You might not have realized how impactful each of these inventions is. Some came into being in the 1800s, some in the 1980s, and some just a few years ago. All have changed the face of modern music in some way or another.

1. High Gain Amps

High gain amps began to hit the market in the 1980s, and they became an immediate game changer for the metal scene.

This amplifying technology made it possible to get heavier metal sounds with an electric guitar or bass guitar than had ever been possible before. Some modern amps can even be attached to acoustic guitar configurations.

10 Surprising Innovations for Musical Instruments Over the Centuries

But the history leading up to the amps starts well before the 80s. To understand the hype, we have to go back a bit.

Jim Marshall and the 1960s

Jim Marshall was the pioneer of high-gain amps. His JTM-45 amp was developed and released in 1962. This amp allowed for heavier, more intense guitar sounds. In fact, it spawned an entire genre: hard rock. The JTM-45 was an essential staple of hard rock for the 1960s and most of the 1970s.

The allure of the amp was that it had advanced distortion capabilities. Rather than producing clear sound, it created loud and raucous banging. Many musicians wanted to make their music as loud, distorted, and rough as they could manage.

Competition in the 1970s

Throughout the 60s and 70s, Marshall's amps were used by front runners in the field of British rock. But the more famous Marshall's company became, the more competition there was.

10 Surprising Innovations for Musical Instruments Over the Centuries

Multiple inventors in the UK and the US opened up their own amp stores, aiming to sell new amps that offered deeper distortion and loudness.

In 1978, California-based competitor Mesa/Boogie released the Mark II. This amp changed modern guitars as we know them. Many guitarists today don't realize that this single amp is what gave us now-commonplace features like:

  • Independent lead channel volume control.
  • Channel switching.
  • Push-pull potentiometers.
  • Ability to boost treble or gain across all channels.

But the amp also came with flaws. The reverb was too noisy and impeded the sound quality. Switching between channels also caused a "popping" noise.

Marshall and the 1980s

At the beginning of the 1980s, Marshall once again dominated the game. First, he repackaged his high-gain amp from the 60s, which became hugely successful. He then released a series of slightly different versions of the amp, each tweaked to highlight different features.

Heavy metal wouldn't exist without these amps. Neither would a great deal of the hard rock genre.

Today, two of these amps are still circulated widely for use, even though it's been thirty years. The JCM800 and JMP2203 are both used by heavy metal guitarists, and they've made their place in history with well-known bands like Slash.

2. Direct-Recording Boxes

Direct-recording boxes are another invention that changed the modern musical game. They function similarly to microphones, but they're designed to record the sounds of musical instruments. Today, these essential components are called DI boxes.

10 Surprising Innovations for Musical Instruments Over the Centuries

Have you ever wondered how much work has gone into broadcasting music? Not only did humankind need to figure out how to harness radio waves, but we also needed to learn how to transmit a musical signal that would come across clear.

A direct recording box records a signal from an instrument and balances the tones. That lets the sound be sent over thousands of miles without losing the signal. Without the box, there would be too much interference to reach a wide audience.

The Creation of Passive Boxes

Passive direct-recording boxes began seeing use in the 1960s, although the use wasn't widespread. Some recording studios and radio stations used them, as did a few remote recording trucks.

All early DIs were customized by engineers. The goal was to fix issues with broadcasting electric instruments. Before this, broadcasting electric guitars tended to lead to an unbalanced, static-filled, and interference-jammed signal.

Passive direct boxes were excellent for the majority of electric instruments. But there was one big problem: Classical instruments and weaker electric instruments would have their signals dampened rather than balanced.

The Answer of Active Boxes

Two electric instruments whose signals were harmed by passive boxes were the Fender Precision Basses and Fender Rhodes pianos. Active input boxes were created specifically because of this issue.

Active boxes had extra electronic circuitry inside. This allowed them to both balance and amplify the electric signal. So for softer, weaker-signaled instruments, the active boxes did project their signals properly.

In 1975, the circuitry of an active box was published in a sound engineering magazine called dB. In 1977, a company called Tycobrahe put the first mass-produced direct box up for sale. Since then, they've become a staple in all recording studios, radio stations, and other recording areas.

3. DJ Stems

Stems is one of the newest pieces of technology to hit the airwaves, particularly when compared to the centuries of musical history. And yet it's having a historical impact on the DJ scene. You don't need a thousand dollar turntable or a state-of-the-art DJ controller to use the tech to mix new music on the fly.

10 Surprising Innovations for Musical Instruments Over the Centuries

Traditional DJ Setups

DJs are people who host and play music for larger audiences. Dances, concerts, weddings, and various events often have one. They do more than simply pressing a button and playing a track, though. DJs are responsible for mixing different sounds and creating new auditory experiences.

To do everything that needs doing - and add some creativity along the way - traditional turntable DJs need the following equipment:

  • Two turntables.
  • A DJ mixer.
  • DJ cartridges.
  • DJ headphones.
  • Cables to connect equipment to speakers.
  • Mats to cushion electronics.
  • Vinyl records.

Depending on what a person is planning to play and what kind of event they're DJing, they might have a slightly different setup. But these are the basics.

How Stem Files Change Mixing

Historically, you have to have access to great tech if you want to make creative mixes. To get turntables and software that separate tracks, you might have to spend well over a thousand dollars.

But Stems changes that, not through new software or equipment, but through a new file format.

10 Surprising Innovations for Musical Instruments Over the Centuries

Stem files can contain all the music you've ever thought about playing. Each one has a single audio track. And here's the big deal: Within that track, there's a four-element split. Most often, the elements include:

  • Vocals.
  • Bass.
  • Drums.
  • Guitar.

Before this, you'd have to painstakingly isolate each element on your own. Equipment to do it easily is expensive; doing it by hand is time-consuming and difficult.

Creativity for the Masses

Some of the most impactful inventions throughout history have been those that make things accessible. Common people can suddenly access previously-luxurious items and knowledge, which leads to more social freedom.

That's exactly what's happening with the Stem file. Even though it's a relatively new invention, it immediately makes audio mixing accessible to anyone. There's no barrier to creativity anymore, which means thousands more people will create showstopping mixes that couldn't exist before.

4. Voice Amplifiers

Audio amplifiers have a history that dates back more than a century, although today's models are very different from the originals!

10 Surprising Innovations for Musical Instruments Over the Centuries

An audio amplifier helps increase a sound's volume through a low power source. This allows the sound to be broadcast over a loudspeaker. Chances are, your life is impacted by modern amplifiers. Not only are they vital for concerts and public speeches, but they're also used to control the volume of your television and computer.

1906 and the Triode Vacuum Tube

The inventor of the first audio amplifier was Lee De Forest. His design improved upon one of his earlier attempts. In 1906, he released the triode vacuum tube, which used three different elements to amplify sound waves.

A little later that year, there was the invention of the triode. This device allowed for sound to be modulated through the moving of electrons. Why does that matter? Because the first AM radio couldn't have broadcast without it.

After World War II

World War II saw the development of many advanced technologies. When the war ended, this tech was used to create inventions like vacuum audio amplifiers. These were created out of valves and vacuum tubes.

Though today's amplifiers have much better sound quality, the vacuum amplifiers were a big deal at the time. They offered the best sound on the market. Many people wanted amplifiers for their radios and concerts, which meant vacuum models were affordable.

As the 1960s hit, televisions and gramophones both caused the demand for audio amplifiers to skyrocket.

Transistors in the 1970s

The 1970s saw the invention of silicon transistors, which improved upon vacuum tech. They provided better sound quality with higher amplification, less distortion, and cheaper materials.

Today, voice amplifiers are mostly solid state transistors. These use three elements to conduct and amplify sound. You might use them to boost your quiet voice, like with microphone technology. That wouldn't be possible without the inventions from decades past.

5. Metal Harmonica Reeds

You may hear that the first harmonica was invented in 1820. But that isn't quite true. Harmonicas were actually in use by Chinese people more than two thousand years ago. The first models were made from bamboo reeds and had a strong impact on traditional Chinese music.

10 Surprising Innovations for Musical Instruments Over the Centuries

The instrument, called the Sheng, entered European awareness in the late 1700s. It became very popular. The popularity led to European instrument makers attempting their own versions. They used metal reeds rather than bamboo.

Metal Harmonicas in the 1800s

1820 was when Christian Friedrich Buschmann pioneered the first metal harmonica. But it was far from today's harmonious instrument. There were only blow notes rather than distinct pitches.

In 1825, inventor Richter created a new metal model. This used two reed plates containing ten metal reeds, and it had ten holes to blow through. The dual-reed setup created the diatonic sounds still used in today's harmonicas.

1829 was when harmonicas began to be mass produced. Multiple competing companies offered different models and musical innovations. Harmonica music continued to grow in popularity throughout the rest of the century.

The Blues in the 1930s

Throughout the early 1900s, the harmonica became known as a blues instrument. It gained even more popularity in the 1930s thanks to Sonny Boy Williamson, a well-known musician who combined the two.

Following WWII, Chicago became the heart of the blues genre. The harmonica was central to the music up through the 1960s.

In the 1960s, the harmonica became associated with folk music in addition to blues, mostly because of Bob Dylan's influence. But modern musicians continue to carry on the blues tradition. Others have created unique harmonica styles that suit other genres.

Much of the blues and folk music you know today wouldn't be possible without the metal harmonica.

6. Electric Piano Keyboard

You're probably familiar with electronic keyboards that plug into the wall. Even if you're not a musician, you've likely seen them in high school band rooms or concert stages.

But it might surprise you to learn that this instrument's history dates back almost one hundred years! Electric keyboards aren't an invention of the late 1900s. The first one was built all the way back in 1929.

10 Surprising Innovations for Musical Instruments Over the Centuries

The Earliest Electric Piano Models

The first model was the Neo-Bechstein electric piano, which was created in 1929. The next electric piano to make the news was the Vierlang-Forster, which first debuted in 1937.

In 1939, RCA and Story & Clark worked together to build the RCA Storytone piano. That piano's case was created by industrial designer John Vassos. It was first unveiled at the World's Fair in 1939.

This piano's sound was amplified using speakers, circuitry, and electromagnetic technology. That meant that it was the first electric piano available for commercial purchase.

Today's Keyboard Accessibility

Acoustic pianos are some of the most popular instruments to learn, but they have many drawbacks. They're large, unwieldy, heavy, loud, and most of all expensive.

Today's digital keyboards often come in portable, affordable setups. Some are designed to mimic the feeling of acoustic keys. The available technology and sound varies depending on the model.

Electric keyboards have made piano music accessible to the non-wealthy through:

  • Mass production with inexpensive materials.
  • Ability to control volume and use headphones.
  • Portability for smaller spaces.
  • Varied sound systems and presets.
  • Reflecting all the function of a traditional acoustic model.

7. Electronic Drum Sets

Drum sets are a great instrument if you enjoy rhythm, improvisation, and rocking out with passion. But they're also very well-known for being, well, loud.

There are a lot of benefits to an electronic drum set, but the biggest is the volume control. By using headphones, you can eliminate the reverb, which means you can play in shared living spaces.

10 Surprising Innovations for Musical Instruments Over the Centuries

This means that, like electric keyboards, this instrument makes drumming accessible to tons of people who otherwise couldn't enjoy it. But unlike the electric piano, drum sets have a much more recent history.

The 1970s and the Earliest Drum Kit

It wasn't until early in the 1970s that the first electronic drum was invented. The creator was drummer Graeme Edge, who collaborated with Professor Brian Groves from Sussex University.

The kit wasn't made available for commercial purchase. Instead, it was used in the recordings of the band The Moody Blues, which Graeme Edge drummed for.

The first known recording of the drum was released in 1971. It was used in the track "Procession" on the album the band released that year.

Drum Kits Gone Commercial in 1976

1976 was when the first electronic drum kit became available for commercial purchase. This model, the Pollard Syndrum, was pioneered by Pollard Industries. Rather than being a complex set of drums, the kit included at least one drum pad and an electric sound generator.

Although several prolific musicians became interested in the device, the Syndrum didn't make enough money to stay afloat. The company ended up going under after a few years.

10 Surprising Innovations for Musical Instruments Over the Centuries

The Simmons company began producing commercial drum sets in 1978, though its most notable product didn't debut until 1981. The SDS-5 had hexagonal pads and attracted the attention of many high-profile musicians.

It also had a polarizing effect on audiences. Some people said that the kit sounded like trash can lids or jarring noise. But big-name rock and pop bands used them throughout the 1980s regardless.

Competition in the 80s and 90s

Multiple manufacturers competed to release the best drum kits throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The most important innovations occurred with the TD-10 model in 1997:

  • Noises were provided to be triggered by the drums.
  • More sounds were available than acoustic drum noises.
  • Tones were generated with mathematical codes.
  • Mesh pads were used rather than rubber to mimic acoustic drums.

These drums were much more "realistic"-feeling than prior models, and many of the innovations are still used in today's kits.

8. Clarinets from Chalumeau Designs

So many of today's inventions are an upgraded design that replaces an older model. Such is the case with the clarinet. Though this is a classical instrument, it's younger than many of the other traditional orchestra instruments. Today's clarinet came from an instrument called the chalumeau.

10 Surprising Innovations for Musical Instruments Over the Centuries

Clarinets use engineering and design principles that have been around since ancient times. The earliest use of this technology was in single-reed instruments found in many ancient cultures.

The Chalumeau and Its Flaws

The chalumeau was a Baroque single-reed instrument that was constructed similarly to the modern recorder. But the design had some significant drawbacks:

  • There was no register key to shift the pitches.
  • It could only play about 1.5 octaves.
  • The reed pressed against the upper lip when played.

To address some of these issues, inventor Johann Christoph Denner replaced one key with a register key. This allowed for a greater range of pitches and a louder volume.

The Demise of the Chalumeau

The first clarinets created weren't good at playing lower pitches. They didn't provide consistent, clear, loud tone. Because of this, musicians used the chalumeau when they needed to play lower-pitched pieces.

But over the years, clarinet models became more stable and pitch-focused. They gained the ability to play both low and high pitches. This removed any advantage the chalumeau had.

Because the clarinet was more versatile and produced better quality sound, the chalumeau became obsolete.

9. Modern Saxophone Styles

The saxophone has an illustrious history that dates back more than a century. But did you know that the modern incarnation of the instrument was designed in the 1930s? That design has endured for decades, but it's very different from the original Saxophone model.

10 Surprising Innovations for Musical Instruments Over the Centuries

Invention of the Saxophone

The inventor of the saxophone was an instrument maker and musician named Adolphe Sax. The saxophone was the most successful of many attempted inventions, several of which were instruments that fell by the wayside.

He began designing the saxophone as part of another project, in which he was trying to improve the bass clarinet design. His goal was to make an instrument as agile as a woodwind but as forceful, loud, and projection-heavy as a brass instrument.

The instrument was invented in 1840. Sax then secured a fifteen-year patent for fourteen alternate saxophone designs, which had different ranges. He tried to improve the pitches and ranges over the years, but after his patent expired, several other manufacturers did what he couldn't.

Small-Time Use

The saxophone wasn't a smash hit right away. It was a complicated invention that didn't fit neatly into predetermined instrument categories. Musicians had a hard time placing the sound in their work.

But throughout the 1840s and 1850s, some small classical ensembles began incorporating the design. Soloists also used the saxophone, as did some British and French military bands. Books and methodologies on the playing of the instrument were published.

As the century progressed, though, the instrument fell out of common use in the UK. Toward the end of the 1800s, it was rarely used at all, which led to universities suspending the teaching of the instrument.

10 Surprising Innovations for Musical Instruments Over the Centuries

Taking Root in the US

As the saxophone became unpopular in the UK, it was simultaneously increasing in popularity in the US. This was mostly due to the passion of a few select musicians.

Some saxophone players made an effort to teach the public about the instrument so that it would continue being used. This led to American companies becoming interested in producing saxophones for the public.

In the 1900s, the saxophone was rarely used by classical musicians anywhere. But it became a staple of ragtime bands and Vaudeville acts in the US. From there, it became essential to the jazz genre.

Today's Models

The modern saxophone design used today was pioneered in the 1930s. It still uses the same principles as the original saxophone, but it changes the layout of the keys and the left-hand table.

Over the following decades, different models were released with innovations made to make playing easier. These were mostly related to the positioning of the right and left hand keys.

Without these upgraded designs, the saxophone probably would have become obsolete and forgotten due to its unwieldy nature.

10. Electric Violins

Like many classical instruments, there are electric designs for violins. These connect to electric power sources and amplifiers. The majority of electric violins on the market are built to be electronic by default. But you can also attach a pickup to a classic acoustic violin to connect it to electricity.

10 Surprising Innovations for Musical Instruments Over the Centuries

In terms of history, the instrument falls somewhere between the electric piano and drum kit. Like the piano, the first versions were pioneered in the 1920s and 1930s. But the instrument didn't enter widespread usage until the mid-1960s.

Original Electric Violin Designs

The 1920s was when the first electric violins were used, most commonly seen in blues and jazz music. The musician Stuff Smith is known as one of the first musicians to use amplifiers and pickups for his violins.

Electric violins began to be commercially sold by several companies throughout the 1930s and 1940s, but most stopped producing models by 1950. Fender created a small number of violins around 1958 and then reissued them several years later.

Modern Electric Violin Designs

The company Barcus Berry began creating electric violins in the 1960s and continues producing them today. Max Mathews started working on a design for a new violin in the early 1970s, but it took until 1984 to complete.

The 1980s saw a surge in companies creating their own electric violin brands. But the 1990s was when the industry really boomed, in part due to the increase in digital technology.

Final Thoughts

Throughout all of human history, people have been innovating and improving upon previous designs. That's true with music as much as anything else. Music is a discipline with a great deal of math and engineering involved, so it's no surprise that many inventors doubled as musicians.

Innovations more than a century ago created the basis for some of the most commonly used instruments today. The clarinet is a relatively new instrument as far as classics go, and it was invented as an improvement upon a now-obsolete instrument.

With the rise of digital technology, there have been tons of new inventions for digital and electric music. You can get electric versions of nearly any instrument, not to mention the ability to create music using digital sound alone.

The one thing that all of these inventions have in common is a desire to improve. They all allowed humans to create sounds that hadn't been heard before, and to access musical education that had previously been inaccessible.

Technology is extremely cool, and so is the history of invention. We owe a lot to both the modern innovators and the long-past inventors who have helped shape so much of today's musical culture.


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