Necessary Fictophones
March 5, 2014 10:22 PM   Subscribe

Since the taxonomical work of Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs* in the early twentieth century, organologists have classified musical instruments into four major categories, each distinguished by its primary sound-producing mechanism: idiophones (vibrating body), membranophones (vibrating membrane), chordophones (vibrating strings) and aerophones (vibrating air columns). Beyond these basic divisions, scholars have proposed such logically consistent additions as electrophones (for electronic instruments) and corpophones (for the human body as a source of sound). We propose a seventh category: fictophones, for imaginary musical instruments. Existing as diagrams, drawings or written descriptions, these devices never produce a sound. Yet they are no less a part of musical culture for that. Indeed, fictophones represent an essential if hitherto unrecognized domain of musical thought and activity, and it is in order to catalog these conceptual artifacts that we have established the first institution of its kind: The Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments.
posted by carsonb (19 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
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posted by carsonb at 10:26 PM on March 5, 2014

There may need to be a sub/lateral catagory for electrophones, which is a virtual but modeled instrument.

I saw a Robert Henke panel about this, and it isn't just about modelling existing instruments in a virtual space, like, say, a piano in an acoustically accurate or interesting way.

You could also accurately model an instrument that cannot exist, because in a virtual acoustic environment youcould have, say, a trumpet with N number of bell horns, where N is an axis of modulation, and where you can model 1 horn, or 12, or 2.411 horns, or even less than 1 horns.

Or an instrument that physically morphs between a clarinet and a flute, and you can modulate that modelled physical shape between clarinet and flute in real time as a performance modulation axis or parameter. You could build a harp-piano, or even perhaps a flute-steel drum, or invent entirely new instruments.

The distinction is that virtually modelled instruments are not actually synthesis. Synthesis is its own thing and is directly rooted in electronics engineering and frequency manipulation and mixing, not unlike radio electronics at all, because they're directly related.

Modelled instruments are also not sampling, nor musique concrete/machine noises

Modelled instruments behave according to laws of their environment, whether real or arbitrary, but they behave like physical instruments.

Except in Henke's twisted imagination, you get things like an instrument like a flute-trumpet that can physically change shape while you're playing it. During his demo and talk he was using a high end breath controller to play of his morphing, modelled instruments and the results were incredibly cool and weird,and you could hear the shape of the instrument changing.
posted by loquacious at 1:32 AM on March 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

You could build a harp-piano, or even perhaps a flute-steel drum, or invent entirely new instruments.

Or you could just skip all of that and go right to Direct Mind Access.

"No longer will you have to put up with the elitist attitude that it takes years of boring practice and study to get access to high-quality drugs, hot groupies, and expensive hotel rooms to trash. Whether your inspiration is the 1910 Fruitgum Company or the virtual post-metal of Deathmøle, DMA will ensure that even a total and utter lack of talent will never hold you back. And isn’t that what America is all about?”"
posted by three blind mice at 1:41 AM on March 6, 2014

Which is also to say that all those fictophones could be made into non-fiction, if you'd care to create them with modelling and then figure out how to play them with a musical interface.
posted by loquacious at 1:41 AM on March 6, 2014

Nah, direct mind access is a zedonkey of a different stripe. People have vivid imaginations, but it would take a savant to accurately model an instrument with any detail or consistency.

And you'd still need talent to make music with your mind. Hell, mine gets stuck in really boring loops quite often, and the concentration required to not have an earworm suddenly start playing in the middle of your DMA performance would be excruciating.
posted by loquacious at 1:48 AM on March 6, 2014

My problem with fictophones is that all the fictophones are one (or more) of the other categories. You have fictoideophones, fictoaerophones, etc.

There may need to be a sub/lateral catagory for electrophones, which is a virtual but modeled instrument.

Sure, just like aerophones are commonly subdivided -- example: woodwinds and brass in the western orchestra.

Nah, direct mind access is a zedonkey of a different stripe

Hmm. I'd call it the only pure fictophone. All actual instruments create sound. Fictophones do not -- though most fictophones, if they existed, would create sound. But direct mind access never creates the sound, it just creates something that make you think you've heard it.
posted by eriko at 3:24 AM on March 6, 2014

Wow, I never thought I'd see Sachs and Hornbostel cited in an FPP. I had to fucking memorize that once.
posted by spitbull at 4:10 AM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Any fan of Jack Vance could add dozens of instruments to a list of fictophones. From a discussion of the stimic: The inventiveness of Vance is inexhaustable; the zachinko, the krodatch, the hymerkin - the list of instruments goes on. There's a picture showing some , from a review of Humayoun Ibrahim’s graphic-novel adaptation of Vance's short story "The Moon Moth" on this page. Some appear, in that picture, to be regular, known instruments, but others are clearly not. That's just from one short story. In other works, Vance creates whole travelling bands of fictophones.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:40 AM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

My favorite ficticious instrument is the Visi-Sonor from Foundation and Empire.
posted by foobaz at 4:51 AM on March 6, 2014

Next, forty men in yellow, playing gossiwors. The gossiwor, played only in the king's presence, produces a preposterous disconsolate bellow. Forty of them played together shake one's reason, shake the towers of Erhenrang, shake down a last splatter of rain from the windy clouds. If this is the Royal Music no wonder all kings of Karhide are mad.
posted by Segundus at 5:00 AM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

No holophonor? No Muppaphone?
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:11 AM on March 6, 2014

Metal tongued instruments like the mbira are lamellaphones.
posted by umbú at 6:19 AM on March 6, 2014

As far as instrument categories go, let's not forget the very real singulariphone.
posted by happyroach at 6:42 AM on March 6, 2014

Once a sci-fi prop, now made real--Time for some Max Rebo cosplay!

Actual website.
posted by sourwookie at 7:25 AM on March 6, 2014

Ah, finally a place to popularize the dogoon, an instrument devised by a bored friend and myself in a very boring chemistry class back in high school but never actually built and played.

The dogoon is a reed instrument consisting of a small, very flatulent dog with the reed stretched across its anus. The dog is held under the arm and squeezed to produce a clear, steady tone.

I imagined a rather fat French Bulldog when conceiving of the instrument, but other small dogs would work as well, or even larger breeds depending on the size of the dogoonist. I look forward to hearing the results of your experiments.

(Also, for the many who have asked, this should make it abundantly clear why I am not a chemist.)
posted by Naberius at 8:30 AM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Tangential, but while we're getting our Sachs on: 2000 Jahre Musik auf der Schallplatte
posted by in278s at 8:41 AM on March 6, 2014

loquacious: There may need to be a sub/lateral catagory for electrophones, which is a virtual but modeled instrument.

The museum definitely includes modeled instruments and hypothetical extensions/alterations of existing instruments under the 'fictophones' banner. From the Hypobells page:
Some of the hypothetical bells have idealized overtone series — where each overtone is the same pure multiple of the one below it. Other hypobells explore reversals or suspensions of some physical laws: what would happen if the highest partials lasted longest? What if the lowest notes were the first to speak, and the higher partials appeared later? What would a large bell made entirely of glass sound like? What if the first chaotic milliseconds of a bell’s ring could be extended over minutes? What if a bell became a drone?
Like any early outline of a (potentially) large categorization, fictophones is ripe for subdivision. There's the Historical subset of instruments described in words or pictures in drawings that only eventually found practical realization once technology caught up. You have the virtually-possible but reality-impractical or -impossible modeled instruments, which is a fascinating category: How does a thing vibrate against a reality that it cannot exist within? What others?

I hope they keep adding instruments and further classifications. I didn't know I needed organology in my life before last night, but this morning I can't imagine my day without it. (Busy imagining other things.)
posted by carsonb at 11:26 AM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

So I guess the Left-Handed Sewer Flute and the Tromboon don't qualify here...
posted by MtDewd at 12:22 PM on March 6, 2014

I propose adding an eighth category to the seven in Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs's taxonomy: the parodies of musical instruments created by the hilarously brilliant Argentine musical group Les Luthiers.
Here's their Paean to the bathroon
and an introduction to their Nomeolbidet (a play on "don't forget me" and "bidet"). Both videos are in Spanish. Lamentably, I couldn't find any Les Luthiers videos with reliable English subtitles.
posted by abakua at 9:38 PM on March 7, 2014

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