Ottu: Providing the Harmonic Background

Light is brighter against a background of darkness, the ottu provides that background for melodies.

The ottu is an interesting instrument with a singular purpose, to provide the background for other instruments. Often played in Hindu temples, for festivals and at special occasions such as weddings, the ottu is an interesting and unique instrument.

What It Is

The ottu is a little-known member of the woodwind family that is native to the Carnatic music that comes out of southern India. Referred to as an otter by some, it is a double-reed wind instrument that is similar to the nagaswaram oboe. It is often used in conjunction with the nadaswaram to provide the drone accompaniment to that instrument.

The ottu is slightly longer than the nagaswaram but similar in construction. It has a long body, often made of rosewood, and a bell at the end that is made of either wood or metal like the shehnai. Unlike the nagaswaram, the holes in an ottu are not fingered during play but rather filled with wax to tune the instrument.

In a Carnatic ensemble, the ottu doesn’t play the melody but merely provides the drone sound that supports it. Thus, the ottu is essential for providing a background for the harmonic melodic line of the remaining instruments.

Carnatic Music

Although there are multiple spellings of the word Carnatic — Karnatak, Karnatic, etc. — it is a singular style of classical Hindu music that comes out of southern India. Unlike Hindustani music, Carnatic music was not influenced by the Iranian and Arabic invasions of the north and retained its links to ancient Hindu traditions.

Fewer instruments are used in Carnatic music and they are utilized in a way that is meant to mimic the vocal range of the human voice. As such, the ottu is an essential component of this form of music. Its ability to provide a low drone-like baritone sets the perfect backdrop for the higher-pitched chatter of other instruments.

The ottu of southern India has a long history in the music of the area. A staple to the classic sounds of Carnatic music, it provides a steady base for the melodies of that genre and several others.

The Ekkalam: Beloved of the Gods

The ekkalam is an aerophone brass instrument native to the Tamil Nadu region of India.

It is a hollow brass or copper tube about 5 feet long, with a large bell on the end, like the bell on a trumpet or trombone. The ekkalam’s resemblance to the trumpet is no accident, as it is one of the ancestors of all modern brass instruments.

The First Brass Instruments

Prior to the ekkalam, instruments were typically made of wood, hollowed out horn, and bone. Then, around 300-500 CE, several long, straight metal aerophones were developed at the same time in different parts of the world, including the Indian ekkalam, the Ancient Greek salpinx, and Tibetan dung-chen. This makes the ekkalam one of the first brass instruments ever created.

The ekkalam and its brothers remained the only brass instrument well into the Middle Ages, when the fanfare trumpet, the buisine, became the model for brass instruments as we know them today. It has been depicted in Indian folk art in throughout the centuries in various settings, with the ekkalam sometimes painted at the head of a grand procession, in the hand of a player dancing merrily at festival. Interestingly, the ekkalam was also historically used by hunters to announce the commencement of a hunt as the hunters departed, and to lead the hunters’ victorious return procession.

In performance, the ekkalam emits a clear, brass tone, with a pitch range dependent on the size of the instrument. A larger ekkalam has a lower range, and a smaller instrument extends into a higher range of pitches. The distinctive sound of the ekkalam is produced by buzzing the lips into a mouthpiece, much like a modern trumpet. The tone and pitch are altered by increasing or reducing tension of the lips and controlling the amount of air entering the instrument.

Tamil Tradition

A traditional Tamil instrument, the ekkalam is still played at Hindu ceremonies, festivals, and other utsavams, typically to the accompaniment of one other ekkalam and a drum. The ekkalam is said to be one of the favored instruments of the Hindu deity Lord Siva or Shiva, who represents the never ending cycle of time, destruction and creation, birth and rebirth. It seems an apt distinction for one of the ancestors of all brass instruments.

The Veena: One of India’s Oldest Instruments

Most often found in classical Carnatic music, the veena is a stringed instrument that is incredibly popular in southern India.

It is one of India’s oldest musical instruments.

FAVORED BY THE HINDU GODDESS OF KNOWLEDGE

The veena is an important instrument in the Hindu religion, often considered a divine instrument.

It is said to be played by several goddesses, including Saraswathi, the goddess of knowledge. She is often painted playing the veena while sitting on a lotus flower.

The cultural importance of this ancient instrument is not surprising — it has existed since at least the first century BCE, where it is referenced in early Vedic texts. The veena also appears in religious sculptures dating all the way back to the second century BCE.

HOW THE VEENA WORKS

The veena is a large stringed instrument made up of a round body — known as the resonator — and a long neck. The resonator is made of a single piece of wood, and the neck is long and hollow, with a large, downward-facing tuning box. The instrument has seven strings, with 24 frets along the neck. Unlike several other popular Indian stringed instruments, the veena only has melody strings — no sympathetic or drone strings.

This instrument can be found in both northern and southern India, with some minor regional differences. The instrument favored in northern Hindustani music is called a Rudra veena, while the popular southern Carnatic instrument is called the Saraswati veena.

PLAYING THE VEENA

To play the veena, the musician sits cross legged with the resonator on their right and the neck extending to their left. The musician then uses their left hand to press down on the strings while plucking with their right hand.

The veena is particularly treasured in Carnatic music because it is considered to be the only instrument that can play every single oscillation in this genre. The warm buzzing sound created by this ancient instrument is incredibly distinctive, and certainly worth a listen.

Appalachian Dulcimers: The Instruments of the Mountains

The Appalachian dulcimer is a small stringed instrument from the early 19th century.

Unlike most of the instruments at the time, the Appalachian dulcimer was actually created in America rather than being imported from Europe, making it the first instrument to be invented by settlers in the United States.

THE FIRST AMERICAN-MADE INSTRUMENT

The Appalachian dulcimer was the first major instrument to be created in the modern United States, as opposed to being imported from Europe. Because of this, the instrument is incredibly important in Appalachian culture and history. As the settlers who created the instrument were mostly English, Scottish, and Irish, you can frequently hear the Appalachian dulcimer in Irish and Scottish music.

This instrument has its roots in a particular type of zither, the scheitholz, which was played by German settlers in Virginia. Scheitholz zithers were often damaged by musicians trying to play them quickly to keep up with popular fiddle tunes.

To alleviate this problem, Appalachian settlers altered the design of the scheitholz, creating what would go on to become known as the Appalachian dulcimer. It was most likely named by settlers familiar with the hammered dulcimer, although the two instruments are distinct from one another.

WHAT DOES “DULCIMER” MEAN?

The name “dulcimer” literally means “sweet song.” Its linguistic roots come from the Greek word “dulce,” meaning “sweet,” and the Latin word “melos,” meaning song.

HOW THE APPALACHIAN DULCIMER WORKS

The original Appalachian dulcimers were made from walnut, poplar, or cherry trees, as these were what was available in the Appalachian region. The Appalachian dulcimer is a simplified version of the scheitholz. It is a long, stringed wooden instrument; while it can take on many shapes, most modern Appalachian dulcimers have an hourglass shape similar to a violin. The dulcimer generally has three strings and a fretted fingerboard.

This instrument has deep roots in mountain culture, and remains a popular, nostalgic choice for playing mountain folk music.

Castanets: Creative Clacking

While the clacking noise of the castanets is most commonly associated with the flamenco, they aren’t actually a core component of flamenco dancing.

Instead, the castanets are integral to folkloric Spanish dancing and feature prominently in classical and baroque scores.

CONSTRUCTING THE CASTANETS

Castanets are made of two, hollowed out pieces of hardwood or ivory. They are generally the shape of a pear and are held together by a cord. The castanets are played in pairs – one in each hand – and each set is hit together to create a clacking noise. The castanets can be different pitches and are attached to the hand in different fashions depending on the type of music they are accompanying.

In classical compositions, the castanets are attached to the thumb of each hand, with the pair on the right hand being a higher pitch. Orchestral castanets are attached to handles or a block of wood and are either shaken or tapped with fingers or drumsticks. The castanets used for folk dancing are attached to one or more fingers and are flicked with the wrists against the palms.

A FAMILIAR SOUND

While castanets are commonly found in Spanish folkloric music, castanets have been featured across a wide span of music, including some popular hits. Listen to the following well-known tracks to hear castanets featured:

  • The opera Carmen, featuring a famous scene where Carmen dances and plays the castanets;
  • The song Under the Boardwalk by the Drifters which features castanets;
  • The Ronettes Be My Baby, known as one of the finest recordings in popular music, highlights the castanets;
  • Supertramp’s the Logical Song, where one of the biggest hurdles for recording was Bob Siebenberg learning to play the castanets correctly.

To experience a piece of music that truly focuses on the beauty of the castanets, check out composer Leonardo Balada’s Three Anecdotes: Concertino for Castanets and Chamber Orchestra.

Clarions: The Medieval Trumpets with the Clearest Sound

Although the word “clarion” is used in modern English to mean a “brilliantly clear” sound, the clarion was originally a trumpet used in the Middle Ages.

THE CLEAREST SOUND

The clarion trumpet got its name from the Latin word clarus, meaning “clear.”

The clarion was used throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; since other trumpets are mentioned in historical documents without being called “clarions,” it is likely that the clarion was differentiated from other trumpets due to its clear sound.

REFERENCES IN MEDIEVAL ART AND LITERATURE

In Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale,” he writes about all of the instruments being played as knights rush into battle. The list includes nakers, pipes, trumpets, and clarions. This indicates that clarions were indeed considered separate from normal trumpets, and also gives us an idea of the ways in which clarions were used during this period.

Medieval artwork from this period also show trumpets of varying sizes. The clarion was most likely smaller than the average trumpet — according to Revolvy, the clarion was even specified to be “70 percent lighter than a trumpet” by a London trade guild.

Clarions were also mentioned in French dictionaries of this time period. The French scholar Jean Nicot indicated in his writings that clarions were frequently used by Portuguese musicians.

MODERN USE OF THE WORD “CLARION”

Although the clarion trumpet itself is no longer in use, the word “clarion” is still used in modern English — in fact, it was Merriam-Webster’s word of the day on August 2, 2019. Although the word specifically referred to a trumpet for many years, it was during the 1800s that parlance began to shift and English speakers began to use the word to describe any sort of clear, trumpet-like sound.

While it began as a medieval trumpet, the word “clarion” has shifted away from trumpets entirely. Now this word can describe any sort of pleasant, clear noise.

How the Tenor Drum Went from the Battlefield to the Orchestra

The tenor drum is a fairly large drum with no snares.

Still used in modern orchestra and military bands, this instrument has its origins in the medieval field drums used throughout Europe.

History of the Tenor Drum

From Tabor to Field Drum

An early descendant of the tenor drum is the tabor — a small drum with two faces that musicians would use as an accompaniment to the pipe.

During the 1400s, this drum began to increase in size to account for the fact that it was being used as a military instrument and needed to be loud enough to be heard throughout the military band. The tabor continued to be used in folk music, but this new field drum grew in size and took on a life of its own.

Precursor to the Modern Tenor Drum

It wasn’t until the late 1700s that the field drum made its way off the battlefield and into the orchestra. Because of their common use as marching instruments, drums in orchestra ensembles were frequently used to inspire a military aesthetic within the performance.

Today’s Tenor Drum

The tenor drum as we know it today appeared in the 1830s, when a drum with no snares gained popularity across Europe. This drum remains popular in military bands from Britain and the United States. It is also used in many orchestral pieces, including Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts and Benjamin Britten’s The Prince of the Pagodas.

How the Tenor Drum Works

This drum measures approximately 18 inches across and 14 inches tall. It is generally made of wood, with a drum head that is affixed to the body with either metal rods or rope. The tenor drum is played with two soft sticks, never struck with the hands.

From its beginnings on raging battlefields to its current use in distinguished orchestra ensembles and military bands, this instrument certainly has a long and exciting history.

Mridangam: The 2,000-Year-Old Drum

A mridangam is a two-headed drum made from wood.

These drums are an essential part of Karnatak music, or vocal music from the southern region of India.

Karnatak music, highlights singing and vocal expression; even the instruments in the music are played to underscore singing or vocal sounds.

Mridangam drums themselves have a wide pitch range, so they can easily follow any music to produce a beautiful-sounding beat. ‘Mridangam’ can also be spelled like ‘mrdangam’ or ‘mrdanga,’ and the drum is called tannumai in Tamil culture.

What Do Mridangam Drums Look Like?

Drummers typically hold mridangams sideways in their laps because both ends are drum heads. The long wooden barrel is hollow and skin is tightly stretched over the ends. While the type of wood that made up the barrel varied across the centuries, today most mridangams use jackfruit tree wood. Strings, cords, and loops hold the skin in place, dowels can be adjusted along either end to tune the drums.

How Do You Play Mridangam?

Players hit either end with their hands and fingers to play complex beats. Hitting either drum head with different amounts of force can change the volume, and hitting different areas on the drum head will produce different pitches of sound. One drum head is also usually tuned to be an octave lower than the other drum to give players an even wider range of notes. The larger bass side is the thoppi and the smaller side with the higher pitch is the valanthalai.

The History of Mridangam

The mridangam has been played for centuries. Originally, the drums accompanied vocals, but today new musical styles can feature the drum prominently or even in single-instrument percussion solos. The first known use of mridangam was in ancient Tamil music. It was popular as early as 500 BCE during the Sangam period. Percussionists played a similar drum, called the Murasu, during festivals and to call people to arms during war.

Morsing: A Mystical Mouth Harp

The morsing is a unique instrument used in the Carnatic music tradition of South India that is also called a jaw harp or Jew’s harp.

Some attribute the Jew’s harp name to the French jeu-trompe for toy trumpet. While the origin for the name isn’t clear, most sources agree that it has no association with the Jewish people and it is not a harp.

A Shapely Instrument

The morsing consists of a metal ring in the shape of a horseshoe and two parallel forks forming the frame. It includes a metal tongue between the forks which is fixed to the metal ring at one end and free at the other. The free end, called the trigger, is bent perpendicular to the ring so that it can be struck and made to vibrate.

The morsing is traditionally made of iron but can also be made from brass, wood, bone, or plastic.

Perfecting the Art of Morsing

While the morsing may look small and unassuming, it takes skill and finesse to play. The instrument is held firmly and placed on the front teeth in between slightly pouted lips. The trigger is struck with the index finger while movement of the tongue and creation of nasal sounds changes the pitch.

The only way to alter the pitch of the instrument is to add beeswax to the trigger, which will lower the pitch.

Playing Second Fiddle

The morsing is most commonly used as an accompaniment for the mridangam or dhol to play classical tāla (temporal cycles). When played as an accompaniment, the morsing must be played so that air passages get blocked and cleared in a pattern called a fern.

The morsing holds the honor of being the only mouth harp afforded classical music status in the South Indian Carnatic music tradition. As part of the Carnatic music tradition, the morsing may also be played in temples, at ritual occasions, and to accompany classical dance.

To get a glimpse of modern day morsing music, you can check out a few of the most famous instrumentalists, Pirashanna Thevarajah, Srirangam Kannan, Bejjanki V Ravi Kiran, and T.S. Nandakumar.

Drone Music: Creating a Mindful State

While today drones are more commonly associated with devices that can take pictures high in the sky or deliver packages to our doorstep, the drone is an important musical concept.

What Is Drone Music?

In music, drone can refer to two related musical concepts:

  1. A low sustained tone that provides the foundation for higher pitch melodies; and
  2. The string or pipe of an instrument that allows the instrument to sustain such a tone.

Numerous instruments from a variety of different cultures have a drone component built-in to them, including the Appalachian dulcimer, the Indian tambura, the five-string banjo, and the vielle fiddle of medieval troubadours.

The drone forms a harmonic base for the music that utilizes it. It is particularly important in Indian classical music and can range from a single note to all the notes of the scale. The number of notes produced by the drone will have a significant impact on the feel of the musical performance.

Meditation Accompaniment

Drone music’s origins are as an accompaniment, providing a solid foundation for musical compositions.  It has, however, become the star of music used primarily for meditation and mindfulness. The pitch and consistency of drone music can be very relaxing and is often used for deep meditation music.

The sound of a drone is often compared to the “Om” meditation mantra that has been around for thousands of years. In the meditation space, good drone music:

  • Is unbroken without stops and starts; and
  • Remains relatively unchanging in pitch.

While less tangible, drone music is also thought to have a texture, such as smooth, soft, or coarse, and a sound that may be celestial or warm.

If you are looking to let go of your worries, consider seeking out a sound-based meditation session near you. You are likely to hear some drone based music, like the music created by the Himalayan singing bowls used by Elizabeth Larson at Heare Remedies.