Drums, strings, brass and more – all you need to know about Latin music’s instruments
ACCORDION TO ZITHER - THE WORLD'S MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS
- 06 Dec 19
Imagine Deliverance’s banjo and you’re already thinking, ‘Americana’. The sound of the sitar transports you to India. And what would Australian music be without the didgeridoo? The World Lifestyle Series features a host of unique indigenous instruments, giving each region’s music its own distinctive sound – find out which has six different sizes and what instrument is recommended as a potential cure for asthma…
The balalaika is a Russian stringed instrument, developed in the 18th century, from a three-stringed lute played in Russia and Central Asia. The instrument is made in six sizes (from piccolo to double bass) and it has a distinctive flat back and triangular body, tapering to a fretted neck. Its three strings are usually plucked with the fingers – though metal strings are also plucked with a leather plectrum.
Often used for Russian folk music and dancing, you may be most familiar with the sound of the balalaika from the score of David Lean’s film Doctor Zhivago, where it featured prominently.
Hear the balalaika on our Europe playlist, together with Hardanger fiddle, bouzouki and accordion.
The sitar, popular in northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, typically measures about 1.2 metres (4 feet), with a deep pear-shaped gourd body, a long, wide, hollow wooden neck, strings, both front and side tuning pegs and 20 arched movable frets. Sitar players hold the instrument at a 45° angle on their laps while seated, plucking the strings with a wire plectrum worn on the right forefinger while the left hand manipulates the strings with subtle pressure on or between the frets and with sideways pulls of the strings.
An interesting feature of classical Japanese music is its sparse rhythm and absence of regular chords. All of the rhythms are ‘ma’-based and silence is an important part of the songs. The focus is on creating music that flows, in an attempt to mirror the behaviour of nature. The key instruments used to play Japanese music are: shamisen, shakuhachi and koto.
The shamisen resembles a guitar, with a long, thin neck and a small rectangular body covered with skin. It has three strings, with the pitch adjusted by tuning pegs on the head, like a guitar or violin. It’s played with a large triangular plectrum that’s used to strike the strings.
The shakuhachi is a flute made of bamboo that’s played by blowing on one end. Sometimes called a ‘five-holed bamboo flute’ in English, it has four holes on the front, and one on the back, and is characterised by its distinctively poignant tone.
Historians think the koto was invented around the fifth to the third century BC in China, with the 13-stringed version coming to Japan during the Nara period (710-794). This large, wooden instrument is played with picks worn on the fingers, and uses movable bridges placed under each string to change the pitch.
Other featured instruments on the Asia playlist include the dizi flute, pipa guitar, guzheng, hulusi flute, zither, gamelan and tabla.
One of Australia’s most distinctive instruments is surely the didgeridoo. Developed by the country’s indigenous peoples, it’s a wooden trumpet ‘drone pipe’, classified by musicologists as a ‘brass aerophone’. A didgeridoo can measure anywhere from 1-3 metres (3 to 10 feet) long – generally, the longer the instrument, the lower its pitch or key, and is usually made from hardwood, especially eucalyptus.
Playing a didgeridoo involves continuously vibrating your lips to produce the drone, while using a special breathing technique – circular breathing. You have to breathe in through the nose, whilst simultaneously expelling stored air out of the mouth using the tongue and cheeks.
A study by Australian scientists from the University of Southern Queensland found that regularly playing the didgeridoo, with its ‘circular breathing’ technique, helped to improve respiratory function – and could be a new way to help to relieve the symptoms of asthma. And according to the British Medical Journal, it can also be used as a treatment for snoring and sleep apnoea!
Fancy mastering it yourself? Here’s a great explainer video:
The Australia playlist also features Aboriginal flute, mandolin, slide guitar and accordion.
One of Latin American music’s iconic instruments is the bandoneon – a type of concertina that’s particularly popular in Argentina and Uruguay. It’s an essential instrument in most tango ensembles and was brought to Argentina by German and Italian emigrants and sailors around 1870.
Unlike a piano accordion, a given bandoneon button produces different notes on the push and the pull, meaning that each keyboard actually has two layouts: one for opening notes, and one for closing notes. Since the right and left hand layouts are also different, a musician must learn four different keyboard layouts to play the instrument.
Explore other instruments on the Latin America playlist, such as the Spanish guitar and Latin guitar, accordion and brass.
The oud, the lute and the guitar all belong to the same family. The oud is considered to be ‘the king of instruments’ in the region, and came to Europe through North Africa. The oud’s sound vibrates within a hollow body, made of a rounded back, made of 15-25 strips of wood, enclosed with a soundboard. The instrument’s distinctive features include its fretless neck, and string arrangement - ten strings are paired together, with the lowest string remaining single.
Played with a pick, with different tuning for Turkish and Arabic ouds, the music played on an oud is based on the ‘makam system’, a very rich, complex modal system, and the instrument’s long history has seen it used in a huge variety of genres, from classical to songs, dance music to sufi hymns.
Other featured instruments on the Middle East playlist are the Arabic flute, Arab perc, ney flute, saz and duduk.
The harmonica, also known as the mouth organ or French harp, is used in many musical genres, but is particularly popular in American folk music, the blues, jazz and country rock. There are various different types of harmonica – diatonic, which only contains the notes of a specific scale, and which is mainly used in blues, rock, country and pop, and chromatic, which can play all the notes in the chromatic scale, which are used for jazz and classical. Behind each of the instrument’s holes is a chamber containing at least one reed, pre-tuned to individual pitches.
Think playing the harmonica is easy? Improve your technique with these tips:
Other featured instruments on the America playlist are: slide and blues guitar, fiddle, banjo, Hammond, dobro, horns and mandolin.
Africa’s marimba is a percussion instrument that resembles a xylophone. A set of wooden bars are struck with mallets – anywhere between two and eight – which enable the performer to play chords. The bars are arranged like a piano’s keys, with groups of two and three accidentals raised vertically, overlapping the natural bars to aid the performer. Resonators or pipes (usually made from aluminium) suspended underneath the bars serve to amplify their sound.
Marimba bars produce their fullest sound when struck just off-centre, whilst striking the bar in the centre produces a more articulate tone.
Check this out for an impressive display of mallet techniques – you won’t believe the speed at the end!
Discover other African instruments, including kalimba, balafon, Afro perc and mallet on the Africa playlist.
The World Lifestyle Series is a truly global view of culture, moods and emotions. Whether you’re looking for music for lifestyle content such as travel and cookery, documentary, sport or drama, start your musical travels now by listening to one of our playlists.
Composer Terry Devine-King writes about the first album he created with Audio Network...
Our Latin Series brings you the very best of Latin music, from samba to bachata, Latin pop to tango