Why Is It So Hard for New Musical Instruments to Catch On?

The turntable, invented 36 years ago, ranks as the most recently created music-making device with staying power. Have computers replaced the need for the next guitar?

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Composer and inventor Tod Machover poses with a Beatbug, a percussive instrument, in a 2003 AP photo.

For the musically daring, it's hard to beat the Guthman Musical Instrument Competition, which takes place later this month at Georgia Institute of Technology. One previous winning entry turned whisks and garlic presses into music makers. Another, the Double Slide Controller, borrowed the trombone's slide mechanism—a 15th-century innovation—to shape digitally produced tones into an otherworldly drone.

Events like these would seem to signal a golden age for the adventurous musician. New instruments have come to market at a steady clip in recent years, offering novel and occasionally fanciful ways to perform music. Maybe you've heard of the the Eigenharp, the Tenori-on, or the Harpejji?

I've talked to a number of instrument makers, and frankly, it seems like a really hard way to make a living.

Or maybe not. Good luck hearing any of these contraptions on the recordings of prominent modern artists. You're more likely to come across Tibetan singing bowls (Fleet Foxes), 17th-century Indonesian angklung (Okkervil River), or the zither (P.J. Harvey). In other words, established pop and rock musicians seem more inclined to try just about any instrument other than a new one. The turntable might be the last new implement to break into pop music; there's even debate over whether that qualifies as an instrument, despite having its own form of notation and a course at Berklee College of Music. According to hip-hop lore, Grand Wizzard Theodore invented scratching 36 years ago. Suddenly, the turntable became a device used not just for listening to music, but performing it. And like the guitar, it turned into a focal point in live performances.

Now consider some of the instrumental developments in the 36 years prior: the solid-body electric guitar, the pedal-steel guitar, the steel drum, the electric bass, the synthesizer, and the drum machine.

Music technology in general has charged forward, and computers, digital sampling and MIDI have dramatically shaped music. But no one mimes to music on the "air sampler" and the idea of a "Software Hero" video game, with its own simulated laptop, is a little glum. Will a brand-new instrument ever capture hearts, minds, and speaker systems again?

THE PROBLEM WITH NEWNESS

It's hard to overstate the importance of new musical instruments in history. The piano's dynamic range allowed for a subtlety in composition previously unimagined. The modern drum set paved the way for jazz. Rock and roll would not have happened without the electric guitar. As composer Edgard Varese put it in 1936, "It is because new instruments have been constantly added to the old ones that Western music has such a rich and varied patrimony."

So what happened? Why has there been such a drought of new instruments—especially in rock and pop, which thrive on novelty?

Inventor Aaron Andrew Hunt blames it in part on the "music industrial complex." He created the Tonal Plexus in 2001 and has since sold, by his count, "not many." With 1,266 keys, the instrument is designed especially for microtonal composition, so it would be a tough sell at just about any time. But Hunt said the deck is particularly stacked against new instruments now that a standard repertoire has been locked in, as has the popular idea of what a proper instrument is.

"The biggest barrier is the institutionalization of Western music and the mass marketing of all the instruments," he says. "The problem is that no one can break though this marketing barrier and this education barrier because it's become this machine."

In the past, support from the establishment has made a difference in whether new instruments find a market. The research and backing of universities and corporations like RCA helped make the synthesizer happen. In Hector Berlioz, the saxophone got a major boost from a major composer. But many instruments have risen from very humble origins. The steel drum evolved from frying pans and oil cans after the Trinidadian government banned other musical instruments. Folks of limited means also turned household objects into music makers with washboards and turntables.

It might just be a symptom of modern life. We don't have as much leisure time as we once did to learn a new musical instrument. And why would parents invest years and thousands of dollars into lessons for some newfangled instrument for which no music has been written, when the violin is right there? Even if so inclined, who would they find to teach it?

One of the most successful instruments of the 20th century skirted that problem when Robert Moog outfitted his synthesizer with a piano-style keyboard, giving the radical a touch of the familiar. Donald Buchla also developed his own modular synth at about the same time, but instead used pressure-sensitive touch plates on the principle that a new instrument should sport a new interface. Moog's synths took off immediately; Buchla's did not.

I've talked to a number of instrument makers, and frankly, it seems like a really hard way to make a living. Bankruptcy and years of strife are recurring themes in their tales. John Lambert, inventor of the Eigenharp—an elaborate device with a grid of keys and a breath controller that he spent eight years and millions of dollars developing—told me he keeps in his home a small museum of others' failed musical instruments to remind him of the hard road he has chosen. Even successful instruments don't always pay off for their creators. Bogged down by competitors' bogus patent infringement claims on the saxophone, the destitute Adolphe Sax declared bankruptcy three times and appealed to the Belgium government for a stipend to live on. He did, however, survive two assassination attempts by rival instrument dealers.

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William Weir is a writer living in New Haven, Conn. His articles have appeared in Slate and other publications.

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