The act of classifying is inherent to human knowledge. As the social and cultural structures of a group become more complex, so do the classifications and cataloguing of the world around them in an attempt to bring order out of chaos. As a result, the social and cultural changes that took place over time generated the need for adjustments, as in the example of some sound instruments, previously used as – or based on – tools for hunting, which gained new functions, names and categories within of a culturally and socially oriented classificatory context.
In fact, the objective of this text is to expose a short path of these classifications of musical instruments that somehow led to the formation of Organology, in the 19th century. The oldest classification system we can relate to is the Chinese pa yin, described in the Zholi (texts of the “Rituals of Zhou”), dating from the 3rd century BCE (“Before the Common Era”, equivalent to “Before Christ”) which defines his instruments based on the material they are made of: stone, skin, metal, wood, clay, bamboo, gourd, silk or leather. Later, in the 4th century, in India, a treatise on dramaturgy written in Sanskrit, the Natya Shastra organizes them into four classes: tata, strings; avanddha, membrane-covered instruments; sushira, puffs; ghana vadhaya, solid material (KARTOMI, 1990 apud BALLESTÉ, ibd.). In Europe, for some centuries, there were objective classifications, but not systematic, which divided musical instruments into strings, wind, percussion and several (VEGA, 1968). However, the first efforts closer to what would become a systematized classification were made by Michael Praetorius who, between 1618 and 1619, published Syntagma Music in which his second volume (Von den instrumenten or Organographia, 248 pages) is dedicated to the musical instruments. In it, the author proposes the division of instruments into two large groups: wind instruments and string instruments.
A few years later, in 1636, Marin Mersenne published L’harmonie Universelle. In this one, the author was more concerned with issues related to the acoustics of musical instruments and categorized them into families. The work is divided into seven books: the first is general; the second, third and fourth, reserved for string instruments; the fifth, to wind instruments; the sixth, to the organs; and the seventh, to percussion instruments (HAYES, 1927 apud id. Ibd: 69). It is considered the first treatise on acoustics related to musical instruments.
In this period, with the growing exploration of overseas lands – inherited from the great navigations of the previous century – and knowledge of other modes of existence, questions about human nature began to effervesce in Europe. Before, the native of other lands was considered “savage” and there weren’t many interests about him. However, at the end of the 18th century, with questions around a “science of man” in vogue, this native started to be incorporated as a “primitive” into the problematic project – and already scientifically obsolete – of a positive humanity in which European civilization would be at the top of a kind of cultural evolutionary line. From there, a positivist scientific impetus is created for a universal cataloguing of human culture. Therefore, travellers sent by a European intellectual began to collect objects and reports of their travels in order to create extensive monographs and the so-called “curiosity cabinets” that, later on, would become more organized collections and, later, would give rise to Anthropology and modern museums (LAPLANTINE, 1988). These movements, in the 19th century, would also result in the appearance of other disciplines of the human sciences, among them, Musicology.
With these upheavals and new musicological and museological concerns, a first institutional classification system emerged from a work done on a vast collection of Indian and European musical instruments, proposed in 1893 by Victor-Charles Mahillon in volume I of the second edition from the catalogue of the Brussels Conservatory Museum.
His father was a wind instrument builder and teacher in Brussels. In his adolescence, in 1874, he published Éléments d’Acoustique musicale et instrumentale and wrote that “the study of acoustics is an indispensable complement to a good musical education” (BALLESTÉ, ibd. & VEGA, ibd. & MAHILLON, 1874, p.1).
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