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Instruments of Sound

Instruments of Sound

Music has the ability to elicit a wide variety of reactions and emotions from us. Regardless of our place in life, music is a pervasive element that helps shape our view of the world and our place in it. Music is common to all cultures in all places, and the ability to make music is a universal human trait. Simply put, music is sound, and there is an otherworldly significance behind the sound of music that reverberates within us, that produces in us the urge to sing or dance or hum or whistle. Therefore, music, for all intents and purposes, is sound that is generated deliberately to create emotive actions.

Musical sound can originate from any number of objects, from those found in the natural environment to those made by humans. However, we cannot say that these objects are inherently prone to produce music. It is when these objects are manipulated or played to create a desired sound that they become instruments of sound, or musical instruments.

The thirteen musical instruments on display in this exhibit represent a wide variety of regions from around the world. Although they may look similar, the sounds they produce and the materials from which they are made tell the story of their origin. For example, there are three drums of African origin, but each comes from a different region and ethnic group. The drums are different not only in the sounds they make but also in the story their shapes and designs tell. The Wolof griots (traveling percussionists of Senegal) understand sabar drumming to be a sacred duty that must be kept within their families, but drumming in Uganda is open to anyone who wishes to learn. We can see how each geographical region places its own sense of importance on the music played there. All regions have their own style of making instruments that mixes functionality with innovation, allowing musicians to, for example, play the drums the African way or play the flute the Peruvian way.

As you explore this exhibit, study the instruments carefully and challenge yourself to find a pattern in the way in which instruments are made in Africa or India or North America or any of the countries represented here. Regardless of style, music connects us all. After all, American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, "Music is the universal language of mankind."


Callahan, Alice Anne. The Osage Ceremonial Dance: I’n-Lon-Schka. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.

Fields, Gary S. "American Indian Music Traditions and Contributions." Portland Public Schools Geocultural Baseline Essay Series. Version 1995-07-14; 1993.

Montagu, Jeremy. Origins and Development of Musical Instruments. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2007.

Rault. Lucie. Musical Instruments: Craftsmanship and Traditions from Prehistory to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2000.

Riehecky, Janet. The Osage. Mankato, Minnesota: Bridgestone Books, 2003.

Tang, Patricia. Masters of the Sabar: Wolof Griot Percussionists of Senegal. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007.

Wilson, Terry P. The Osage. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

Related Links

Ugandan Traditional Instruments (Echo Uganda):

African Drums:

Senufo Drums, Ivory Coast:

Onam Festival, Kerala, India:

Thai Drums:

Beat It! Percussion Instruments in the Pacific:

Text by Samantha Hunter
Photos by Chiara Della Cava and Museum Staff
spring 2009


drum - Senegal

Thai drum
Thai Drum

Africa drum



knee bells
Knee Bells

dance apron
Dance Apron





musical bow
Musical Bow