After many years of building, I find that I’ve now made so many instruments that I have trouble keeping track of them. I try to come up with a name for each new instrument I make, but having done so I often forget the names, or forget which name goes with which instrument. To manage this, I recently purchased a Dymo Labelmaker — the kind that creates embossed aluminum or stainless steel labels ready to be affixed to things. There now are name tags on most of the instruments around here, and the labels seem to be helping me and my distracted memory to keep track of what’s what.
“What’s it called?” is indeed one of the first things people say when they see a new instrument. And I have come to think that a good name for an instrument does help define its character, even as it also provides a handle and helps give people something to remember it by. But it’s not always easy to come up with a memorable name. Some of my instruments are unfortunately saddled with forgettable or unpronounceable or pretentious names that I started calling them by long ago without much thought. Then again, for some other instruments I’m happy with the names I’ve given them, especially since recently I’ve been trying harder to come up with good ones.
So then, what constitutes a good name for a musical instrument? Hmmm … well, your thoughts on this are probably as good as mine. I can say that it helps if the name is distinctive, catchy, memorable, sonorous, easy on the tongue and ear, whatever all those things may mean. It’s good if it’s not too long, and also not artificial and contrived-sounding like some new product from the pharmaceutical industry. It’s preferable, in my personal view, not to fall back inevitably on the ***-o-phone suffix. Is it good to have a name that explicitly describes the instrument, like, say, “8-string mahogany zither”? Or is a one-of-a-kind non-descriptive name like “squalsk” better? Descriptive names are easier to remember and keep track of, but may lack color. Sometimes I cheat on this by giving a name which has descriptive associations in my mind but which are not obvious to others. It feels like a name has worked well when it becomes effortlessly attached to the instrument in my mind and in the minds of others … but it’s hard to say what qualities in the name make that more likely to happen.
Here are a few of my favorite instrument names, from various builders: Harry Partch’s Spoils of War, Quadrangularis Reversum, and marimba eroica; the traditional Nordic nyckelharpa and hardanger fiddle; Ivor Darreg’s Hobnailed Newel Post; Arthur Frick’s Beepmobile; Tom Nunn’s Skatchboxes.
New topic: What about appearance? Does it matter if an instrument actually looks nice, or are sound and playability all that matter?
Musical instruments lend themselves to many very different visual aesthetics. They can be folky looking, tribal looking, crude and detritusy looking, refined and elegant looking, ornate or simple, classy or bargain-boxy, traditional, contemporary or just out-there — all of these can work and look good. One very nice thing about newly invented acoustic instruments is that as form follows function, the builder will often come up with forms that are visually engaging, even if that builder gave not a thought to visual aesthetics.
When I first started building, I cared only about sound and functionality; wasn’t concerned with appearance. In more recent years I’ve relented on that. I get pleasure from it if I think what I’ve done looks nice, whatever the aesthetic may be. I get more pleasure still when I see the work of someone who had the skill and the eye to do something truly beautiful. But the beauty that pleases me most is that which is integral to or follows from the acoustic and musical functioning of the instrument, as opposed to decoration or dress-up.