Organology and the Question of Change


Musicology is a vast study that encompasses many disciplines that go beyond the basics of music history. One of these disciplines is Organology, which is the study of musical instruments. This study includes the history of instruments in certain parts of the world, musical eras, and their function in a social or performance setting. One particular topic of organology caught my attention: the construction of musical instruments. It is obvious that musical instruments have changed throughout time, with some changing more than others. So, why have musical instruments changed so much?

It is a common belief that instruments undergo change when the music changes to make the job of the performer easier and for the music to sound better. But after reading Musicology, from Duckles et al., I’ve found that this isn’t necessarily the case. Contrary to common belief, instruments would change right before the musical style. According to the article, the changing of the instrument would allow for a new exploration of different abilities on these instruments. With this information, I started thinking of the all too common and frequently asked question: what came first, the chicken or the egg? But in this case, what came first, the change of construction on instruments or the change in musical style?

Throughout my education, I have always thought that a musical instrument would change to better play the music at hand. Looking at this from a different perspective, what if the instrument changed and allowed for different music to be written for said instrument? If we take a look at the history of the flute, it is easy to see the extreme difference in musical abilities from the Baroque Era, or earlier, to the 21st Century and modern-day playing. From playing simple rhythms, and step wise or close intervals in a Telemann piece, flute playing was beautiful yet simplistic. In a piece today by Ian Clarke, the whole range of the instrument is used with wide leaps and the use of extended techniques present throughout. So how did this drastic change happen? Was it the composer, or the flute?

The construction of flute has changed drastically from first playing similar to a recorder, to playing transversely. Starting with no keys, the Baroque flute was limited on what notes could be played and the distance between the tone holes caused intonation problems. Once certain keys and adjustments were made, the flute was able to play with a more expanded range, faster and more accessible notes in terms of hand positions, and more in tune. This huge change would allow the flute to be able to play at a higher demand from composers. So essentially, composers could have adapted their musical style and explored the new, the improved, model of the flute.

When comparing the music in different musical eras, one can easily see a huge difference in rhythms, dynamics, harmonies and style. Consequently, when comparing the different models of instruments from the different eras, the change can easily be seen as well. The progress of instruments and music throughout time go together hand in hand but when deciding which was the driving factor of change to the other depends on the perspective one has. Just as the progress of  change instruments and music coincide, Musicology and Organology do as well, obviously, and when used together, the question of what came first, the change of instrument or the change of music, can be solved.

Caitlyn Collette



Carroll, Paul. Baroque Woodwind Instruments: A Guide to Their History, Repertoire and Basic Technique. New York, NY: Rutledge, 2016.

Duckles, Vincent, Jann Pasler, Glenn Stanley, Thomas Christensen, Barbara H. Haggh, Robert Balchin, Laurence Libin, Tilman Seebass, Janet K. Page, Lydia Goehr, Bojan Bujic, Eric F. Clarke, Susan McClary, Jean Gribenski, Carolyn Gianturco, Pamela M. Potter, David Fallows, Miloš Velimirović, Gary Tomlinson, Gerard Béhague, Masakata Kanazawa, and Peter Platt. “Musicology.” Grove Music Online. 18 Jan. 2018.

Oler, Wesley M., Jeremy P. S. Montagu, and Friedemann Hellwig. “Definition of Organology.” The Galpin Society Journal 23 (1970): 170-74. doi:10.2307/842101.

Tresch, John, and Emily I. Dolan. “Toward a New Organology: Instruments of Music and Science.” Osiris 28, no. 1 (2013): 278-98. doi:10.1086/671381.




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