The Astonishing World of Musical Instruments

If music is the universal language, then the instruments made to communicate that language are responsible for an extraordinary number of dialects. From silicon chips to vacated sea shells, it's difficult to imagine a material – be it animal, vegetable or mineral – that hasn't been used at some point in the creation of music, and you can find some of the more exotic orators of the universal language at the University of Montreal's, The Astonishing World of Musical Instruments.

Hosted by the Virtual Museum of Canada (an online portal to exhibits from museums across the country), Astonishing World offers a selection from the more than 500 instruments collected by the U of M's Music of the World Research Laboratory. You won't find an electric guitar or grand piano here, but you will find reed flutes, goat hoof jingles, bamboo mouth organs, and if you must have something from the post-industrial age, washboards. Opening into a browser window without a navigation bar to maximize screen space, the exhibit window is still too big for surfers stuck with 640x480 screens, but fortunately for those smaller screens, while the navigation bar is eliminated, the scrollbars remain.

Visitors are first acquainted with the basics of the study of musical instruments, or organology. Instruments are divided into four groups, depending on whether their sound is made by vibrating membranes (eg. drums), air (flutes), strings (harps), or ... "other." These others – or Idiophones – make music by any means not encompassed by the first three groups, and include maracas, gongs, rattles, and the "rain sticks" that recently seem to be the craft and tourist shop instrument of choice. By way of demonstration, a collection of QuickTime videos reveals instruments from each group in action.

After familiarizing yourself with the mechanics, Astonishing World introduces various traditional purposes for musical instruments. A Talking World looks at their role as a way of communicating with gods (as well as a form of long-distance communication between communities). An Exalting World explores instruments as accompaniment to societies' oral traditions, with a special concentration on the Bwiti Ceremonies of Gabon, Africa. Finally, A Diverted World displays the ingenuity of instrument makers around the globe – featuring artifacts made from plant, animal, mineral, and industrial materials. (During the 1920s, it was possible for the true Musical Saw artiste to obtain a saw that spanned three octaves.) You can test your retention with a Shockwave quiz, and if you were particularly intrigued by a specific artifact, a "List of Instruments" page will take you directly to your favorite.

The quality of the images, and the clean bright backgrounds may remind some of the Dorling Kindersly "Eyewitness" books (and the tragically short-lived online versions of same). Most images are linked to larger versions, which open into their own windows, accompanied by further background information. In other cases, "Learn More" links provide facts but no photos, while occasional "More Discoveries" boxes connect to brief photo-and-text treatments of instruments not covered in the main exhibits.

Navigation can be a bit confusing. Forward and back arrows loop you within a given subject, but don't offer the ability to move on to the next. Rather, you must return to the site index page or a section index page or a subsection index page in order to proceed to the next stage. Collections of "Links" on many pages – a term which would normally refer to offsite web addresses – are in fact interactive tables of contents for each chapter. Meanwhile, the navigation bar at the bottom of the page changes, so the link to the admirably lucid Site Map that was accessible in early pages has vanished once you get further into the site. Similarly, the List of Instruments page is only available after entering the various "World" pages.

Having said that, I should also state that the length of the preceeding paragraph is out of proportion with the degree of confusion and/or inconvenience caused by these factors. If navigation was a serious headache, you simply wouldn't be reading about the site here, and this exhibit is well worth a potential moment or two of disorientation. In fact, I hope the University sees fit to expand its online collection in the future. (I'd especially like to see more QT movies, since I'm completely at a loss as to how a Harp Zither is played.)

The Astonishing World of Musical Instruments can be found at http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/Exhibitions/Musique/index.html.

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