Musical Languages

Well today I had two trains of thought going through my brain, one emotional and one more intellectual. So I have chosen to tackle the more intellectual this morning as I am just not up to writing about the other on a Monday.

This weekend, I began building a musical instrument for myself. Now this sounds much more impressive than it actually is, as I was constructing a diddley bow. For those who don’t know, a diddley bow is basically two screws, a metal wire, a plank of wood, a glass jar and a wood block. You play it with a bottle neck while plucking the wire. Anyway, while making the diddley bow I began thinking about music history and the general loss of traditional forms/ of musical language. Before I begin, forgive me if I use inappropriate terms, I am definitely no expert in this, merely a casual observer.

We have lost a lot of these languages mainly due to the dominance of the European developed variation forms (think particularly classical music – Bach, Handel, etc…). This particular means of composing/ playing allows a wide range of key changes and harmony combinations absent from earlier forms of music. It has actually become so dominant that many folk music styles have been subsumed or irrevocably changed by it- Romani music for instance was mutated dramatically by the introduction of the accordion, so much so it is hard to conceive of it without it. The only system that seems to retain some of the “purity” of its ancestry is traditional Chinese and Japanese music which operates on an entirely different system from more Western musics- more in line with Greek music of Pythagoras -based off natural sounds, i.e. individual notes/ keys set in square root of 2 proportions- than anything now prevalent in Europe.

Anyway, our auditory landscape has been simultaneously enriched by this historic trend as well as limited. We are able to pull off my complexity and harmonics, but at the same time we tend to not “hear” the atonal, alternative forms of music as music. I have become increasingly fascinated lately with the making of music with a limited sound palate- like the diddley bow and other instruments (ektara, musical saw, shakuhachi, etc…) provide. There is a purity there that sometimes is missing from more complex instruments.

Eric in a Word: attercop
Book of the Day: Heidegger- Jonathan Ree
Song of the Day:Please Don't Forget Me- Witchcraft
Sketch Medium: graphite on paper (actual size: 5.5" x 4.5")


M said...

Do you play the musial saw and all those other instruments you mentioned?
I don't know most of the instruments you refer to. I only know the musical saw, and I am a bit puzzled - you said it is one of the instruments which have a limited sound palate. I have heard all types of music played on a saw - classical, contemporary, pop, religious, rock, etc. Please take a listen to some of the samples on
You bring the unusual instruments to be in opposition to European music standatds. But the saw can play Bach, Handel, etc...

Eric Giles said...

M- thanks for your comment. I 'm not sure if I mis-wrote or if I'm just wrong. I didn't mean to insinuate that certain instruments were in opposition to European music,you're right they can play Bach, etc... What I meant that instruments like the saw, ektara, and other earlier instruments are keyed ( to G,C, etc...) or like the human voice (soprano, tenor, bass). Later instruments like th piano, guitar, accordian can traverse the key sets withrelative ease. I think,and again I am no expert, this is one reason why earlier music (not icluding vocal) tended to consist of rhythm and a progression (sometimes rapid and complex) of single notes within a specific key set.