I have never seen Game of Thrones. I couldn’t tell the difference between a Stark and a Lannister. I was struck by an episode that featured Sigur Ros, an Icelandic band, as a group of wedding musicians. It was a few years ago that I noticed. Jonsi Birgisson was the lead singer of the band, and he appeared without any of his instruments, but rather with a small hexagonal wooden squeezebox called concertina, which I also use.
The show’s fictional setting, despite the fact that it featured Starbucks cups, was intended to look like Europe and Western Asia in late Middle Ages. This makes Jonsi’s choice of instrument anachronistic by hundreds of years. Neither the concertina nor any of its Western musical relatives–accordions, harmonicas, reed organs, harmoniums, and so on, collectively known as free-reed instruments–existed before the 19th century, and the concertina’s heyday wasn’t until the early 20th. A concertina appearance would be much more historical in Downton Abbey, which I have seen from beginning to end.
My quarantine hobby has been to play more. It made me wonder how the concertina can be moved from its historical place to another. Concertinas are featured in Game of Thrones as well as in several Renaissance-inspired bands. At least two of these groups performed at the Maryland Renaissance Festival last year. People were always surprised when I took my concertinas out on the streets back in those days. Although I don’t know why, I do have an idea.
Before they arrived in Europe, free-reed instruments were already present in Asia for thousands upon thousands of years. (For more information on free-reed instruments in Eastern and Western countries, please see Jim Cottingham’s article in Physics Today, March 2011, Page 44. They took off like wildfire once they did. The 1820s and 1830s had free-reed instruments that were very similar to the 1990s tech startups. Many inventors tried many innovative ideas. Some of their ideas were so successful that the world can’t imagine it without them. Others failed so spectacularly, it’s difficult to imagine how they ever existed.
Charles Wheatstone, an English scientist and inventor, is probably best known for his work in electricity. The Wheatstone bridge, which is a circuit that measures an unknown electrical resistance, was developed by him and became a popular invention. He also helped to develop the first telegraph. Before all this, he was involved in his family’s business of making and selling musical instruments, where he studied the science of musical acoustics, and also designed new free-reed instruments.
Amazon and Google were the Amazon and Google of free-reed music. The accordion was and is still a popular instrument in many musical styles and traditions. The AltaVistas and the Napsters were at the opposite end of the spectrum. One of Wheatstone’s earliest creations was a mouth-blown instrument known as a symphonium. The modern harmonica has rows of holes in its mouthpiece. The symphonium, on the other hand, only has one mouth hole. There are also a few buttons at each end to control the airflow. As you can see, it’s a small and awkward gadget. However, this is not the case for everyone these days. The clever way Wheatstone organized the keys makes it a little easier. Wheatstone arranged the keys so that the lowest notes were on one side of the instrument, while the highest notes were on the other. This would have made it difficult for players to play multiple notes at once with only one or two fingers, leaving them unable to use the small keyboard. Instead, he placed successive notes of his scale on opposite sides. C on the left, D on right, E on left, F on right. The fingers are less in the way of each other as a result.