Last year, two flutes found in a German cave were dated from between 42,000 and 43,000 years old, making them the oldest musical instruments yet discovered. Made from mammoth ivory and vulture bones, they are thought to have helped stone-age humans communicate and improve social cohesion (reasons for music-making which continue to this day). Presumably, these ancient flutes were pre-dated by another aerophone: the voice.
Aerophones are instruments in which a body of air is made to vibrate, and none is more fundamental than breath in the lungs. The air moves in and out of the lungs because the diaphragm muscle underneath changes their size, and thus their internal air pressure. As air flows through the trachea (windpipe) it can be made to vibrate the larynx (voice box), creating a simple pitch. Subtle changes in lips, teeth, tongue and palate turn this pitch into any one of the vast variety of vocalizations humans can produce. Learning to talk requires great control of breathing, pitch and volume – all vital to singing. In fact, the line between using your voice for talking and singing isn’t always clear. Speakers of tonal languages (Chinese, for example) alter the meaning of a words by changing pitch. Rappers ‘talk’, with heavy emphasis on the rhythm of the words. Having practiced with this instrument daily from birth, the voice is the perfect first musical instrument for children and all should be encouraged to sing. Of course, some will need more encouragement than others. I hated singing because the noises I made never matched those I heard in my head. Dorian, on the other hand, lives life like he’s in a stage musical. A visit to the toilet can be accompanied by an operatic rendition of ’I am going to the toilet’, sung twenty times…loudly. Not all children will be good singers, but all can learn about music through singing. Find some age-appropriate songs, pick up a guitar, dust off your piano or pick out a CD and sing along with them!
Most other aerophones are unsuitable for young children because the required lung capacity and embouchure (use of facial muscles and lips) are too demanding. In fact some instruments, like the clarinet, need a full set of adult teeth. The best place to start is the much-maligned recorder. Popular in medieval and Baroque music, the recorder then dropped out of favor until a revival in the last century. It is perfect for children because it: requires little breath; is already in tune; is inexpensive; is light; and has relatively straightforward fingering. It makes an excellent introduction to wind instruments for students not yet ready for the flute, trumpet or tuba, etc. I suggest putting tape over the thumb hole for younger learners. Encourage your child to pinch as normal, but initial concentration can be on the fingers and not over-blowing (the cause of those ear-splitting squeals that mar the instrument’s reputation) without the extra complication of remembering and correctly positioning the thumb.
Another fun instrument is the Melodica, a piano keyboard with a tube or mouthpiece into which air is blown. It sounds a little like a harmonica (both are reed instruments), but the keyboard layout of the Melodica is far more intuitive than the harmonica (which makes separate notes dependent on whether air is blown in or sucked out).