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Found and Prepared Instruments in Modern Music

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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Found Instruments are objects that make music despite being created for something else, and Prepared Instruments are those designed for musical purposes. See the use of each type of instrument in modern music. Updated: 10/15/2021

Experimental Music

Bwahahaha! The maniacal laughter rolls from the tower, mixing with crack of lightning and howl of wolves. There, a madman appears in the window and screams to the heavens, 'It plaaaaaays!' Wait, it plays? Not it lives? What kind of experiments are they doing up there? Well, actually, they're experimenting with music.

Since the mid-20th century, the genre of experimental music has been growing in popularity. It's characterized by a lack of predictability and reliance on unexpected or untraditional techniques. This can lead to some pretty crazy experiments when it comes to instruments. Not re-animating a dead corpse crazy, but still, it's the work of mad geniuses.

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  • 0:01 Experimental Music
  • 0:55 Found Instruments
  • 2:35 Prepared Instruments
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Found Instruments

Throughout the 20th century, musicians experimented with new instruments and tried to find ways to make their old instruments sound new. The experimental musicians said 'why use instruments at all?' A found instrument is an object that is used to create music that is not made for that purpose. Take this for example. This is a bicycle bell. I ring it to signal that my bike…actually I don't really know what it signals, but it's for a bicycle. Now, if we take that and suddenly put it into the percussion section of an orchestra--voila! Found instrument. Does the bell work as part of this ensemble? You bet--it adds a unique sound that traditional instruments may not produce. That's the goal of using found instruments--to explore a wider range of sound possibilities by incorporating objects not traditionally used in a musical setting.

So, what other sorts of found instruments have we seen since the mid-20th century? Baseball bats beating against trash cans to create a percussion effect. Sounds like a home run. Using pots and pans instead of drums, pulling that off takes some real skillet. Breaking glass in a specific rhythm. What a shattering effect that has. Found objects challenge the traditional assumptions about music but ironically are probably as old as music itself. Most researchers agree that the first instruments ever created were found objects, from shells to rocks, that early humans learned to appreciate for their acoustic qualities.

Prepared Instruments

Experimental musicians also challenge the sound possibilities of music by altering existing instruments. An instrument that has been altered to change its sound is called a prepared instrument. That's a very basic and broad definition, and this concept has a wide range of applications. Some experimental musicians crack their cymbals to change the way they reverberate. Others incorporate found objects into an existing instrument, like using a sock as the mute for a trumpet to create a unique muffled sound. Those with technical know-how may also incorporate electronics into traditionally non-electronic instruments to try and alter the sound that way.

Prepared Piano

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