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Folk traditions (myths, legends and songs) and visual arts are sources of information on the symbolic values connected with musical instruments, as represented by their shape, their ornamentation, and even the material used to make them. Through these symbolic media, human beings communicate their vision of the world and their understanding of the universe.

  French-style ornament French-style ornament painted by Danièle Forget on a Beaupré harpsichord. The bird symbolizes the new life given to the tree that was felled to make the instrument.

As noted earlier, Renaissance and baroque luthiers were familiar with the concept of the "golden mean," a mathematical formula based on the proportions of the human body. But the similarities between musical instruments and the human shape extend far beyond this abstract formula.. The contours of stringed instruments evoke body shapes, as is vividly illustrated in photographer Man Ray's work Violon d'Ingres, in which two fs like those on the soundboard of a violin are superimposed on a woman's naked back.

  Man Ray - Violon d'Ingres
Man Ray - Violon d'Ingres

Interestingly enough, instruments are usually displayed or photographed not in their playing position, but in an upright position like that of a person standing. Some parts of musical instruments are even named after parts of the body, for example, the waist, ribs and neck. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the instrument is not an extension but a representation of the body.

Renaissance luthiers conveyed the notion of harmony between humans and the universe through the motif of two triangles, one inverted and superimposed on the other. This motif forms the basis of numerous rose designs on lutes and other stringed instruments of that era. The roses, often highly elaborate, are sculpted in two main styles, Gothic and Arab. The first is purely decorative and imitates the roses of Gothic cathedrals, while the second encompasses a wealth of symbolic elements.

The use of musical instruments in religious ceremonies, in celebrations, and at important events--not to mention their use by various cultural communities--is indicative of the social significance of the musical instrument. In the Middle Ages, the psaltery, the organ and the harp were associated with religious music. Gregory the Great described the psaltery as soft, delicate, and pointing to the sky. The drum and other percussion instruments along with the rebec (medieval violin) and the horn were in the realm of secular music; Satan is sometimes depicted playing the drum, surrounded by the other instruments. The cymbals, made of bronze (an alloy of copper and tin), and the cornett were symbols of hell and were thus prohibited by the Church.

Traditional musical instruments are often symbols of ethnicity. The Celtic harp is the emblem of Ireland; the panpipe is associated with Romania, the bouzouki with Greece, the steel drums with Trinidad, and so on. These instruments play an important social role in that their shape and the music played on them express a sense of belonging to a culture and a tradition.

This section illustrates some facets of symbolism: symbolism of materials, symbolism of sounds, and symbolic instruments. The reader may also wish to refer to the instruments in preceding sections to explore the secrets in their colours, shapes and decorative motifs.