Listen Up! “P” is for Piccolo

P The word piccolo means small in Italian, but the piccolo is called an ottavino there – go figure. It’s a half-sized flute and a member of the woodwinds.

Mozart used a piccolo in his opera Idomeneo, and they were seen as early as 1735 in some Parisian opera orchestras. Once made from wood, glass, or ivory, today piccolos are generally manufactured out of brass, silver, or resin.

Here’s the piccolo starring in John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Listen Up! “O” is for Organ


We’re more than halfway through the alphabet, and I hope you’re enjoying these blog posts. As you can see, I’ve tried to keep the reading to a minimum, because these posts really are all about listening – to the sound, to the melody, to the interpretation. A little bit of history, especially for some of the more obscure instruments, is essential.

Anyway, “O” is for organ. It was either that or oboe, and I love them both equally. The word organ is from the Greek ὄργανον organon, meaning instrument or tool. It was played throughout the Greek and Roman world, particularly during races and games. I hear an organ, I think church. Or a baseball game.

Steven Eaklor, of the Chicago Area Theater Organ Enthusiasts, is featured here. Is he The World’s Best Organ Player? You decide.

Listen Up! “N” is for Nyckelharpa


A traditional Swedish instrument, the nyckelharpa is a keyed fiddle, meaning that it a bow is drawn across its strings while keys are fingered to produce different tones. Depictions of the instrument date to the 14th and 15th centuries in Sweden, Denmark, and Germany. There are about 10,000 nyckelharpa players in Sweden today, due to a resurgence of popularity in the 1960s and 70s.

Here is Bach played on the nyckelharpa. The melody is perfectly matched with the instrument:


Listen Up! “M” is for Marimba

MThe official national musical instrument of Guatemala (it originated there), the marimba is a percussion instrument consisting of wooden bars struck with mallets. Much like a xylophone, the name marimba is from Bantu, meaning ‘many single bars.’

Wooden bars produce the best sound, with rosewood the preferred material, but tone and pitch can change with humidity and other changes in temperature, so in some cases, synthetic material is used. The mallets are also usually made of wood, with rubber at the end, generally wrapped with yarn.

Listen to the Berklee Marimba Ensemble:

Listen Up! “L” is for Lyre

LLyres excavated in ancient Mesopotamia date back to 2500 BC. The recitations of ancient Greeks were accompanied by lyre playing. And the earliest picture of a lyre appears in a sarcophagus from a Bronze Age civilization on the island of Crete. So, the lyre’s been around for a long time.

A lyre can be strummed or plucked, and lyres have had different numbers of strings at various times.

I love this video of Andreas Dimetrelis attempting to play a blues scale on a Greek lyre:

Listen Up! “K” is for Kazoo


The lovely, classical kazoo. A mouth instrument, like the jaw harp, but the kazoo is considered a membranophone, because the instrument uses a vibrating membrane to modify the player’s voice. You don’t blow into a kazoo, you hum. Similar instruments have been in Africa for centuries.

Beaufort, South Carolina, has a kazoo museum.

Class it up a little (?) here with a kazoo performance:

Listen Up! “J” is for Jaw Harp


Mouth harp, Ozark harp, Jew’s harp, trump, juice harp. All names for the jaw harp, which falls into the category of plucked idiophones. It’s considered to be one of the oldest instruments in the world, depicted in a Chinese drawing dating back to 4 BC. And despite its name, it has no connection to Jews or Judaism. So why the name? Some say it derived from the word ‘jaw,’ others from a French term: ‘jeu-trompe’ (toy trumpet), and still others claim it was the Jews who first sold these mouth harps in England. For whatever the reason, the jaw harp is played all over the world, like the Austrian jaw harp featured here:

Listen Up! “I” is for Igil


Ah, the igil. Not all that different from the erhu, the igil is a two-stringed instrument (the erhu has only one string). Traditionally, the strings and the strings on the bow are made from horsetail hair, but these days they’re also made from nylon. You’ll usually see a carved horse’s head at the top.

The igil is native to Tuva, located in southern Siberia, and has remained much the same since its earliest days. In western Mongolia, it’s called an ikili, which gives you two for your “I” day today 🙂

Have a listen:

Listen Up! “H” is for Harmonica


The harmonica shows up mostly in blues, jazz, country, and some rock ‘n’ roll music. Also known as a blues harp or mouth organ, harmonicas come in many versions. It was first developed in Europe in the early 1800s and appeared in Vienna around 1824.

Abraham Lincoln carried one in his pocket, and harmonicas provided solace to soldiers during the Civil War. Fast forward to today and listen to the incredible Rachelle Plas:

Listen Up! “G” is for Guitar


The guitar is part of the stringed instrument family, having anywhere from 4 to 18 strings, but usually with just 6. Those strings may be made of nylon or steel, and the sounds from each are distinctively different. Strummed or picked, acoustic or electric, the guitar is used in just about every musical genre.

Just as you have your favorite drummers, it’s hard to choose a favorite guitarist. Certainly counted among the best are Clapton, Harrison, Raitt, Les Paul, Freddy King, Stevie Ray, BB King, Jimi Hendrix.

And this guy, Lawson Rollins. Sit back and enjoy: