“We do not know what the dragon means, just as we do not know the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the image of the dragon that is congenial to man’s imagination…. It is, one might say, a necessary monster.”
Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings
Invention stems not only from necessity, as the cliché has it, but also from the irrepressible impulse for play, for experiment, for the joyful proliferation of the superfluous. This is especially true of musical instruments. Because of the fluid and amorphous nature of music itself, the question of what constitutes an instrument is always open. Instruments are not merely the passive tools into which the composer breathes creative energy, but rather the constellation of forms, at once material and intellectual, which constitute the very conditions of possibility for all we understand by that little word, “music.”
Since the taxonomical work of Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs in the early twentieth century, organologists have classified musical instruments into four major categories, each distinguished by its primary sound-producing mechanism: idiophones (vibrating body), membranophones (vibrating membrane), chordophones (vibrating strings) and aerophones (vibrating air columns). Beyond these basic divisions, scholars have proposed such logically consistent additions as electrophones (for electronic instruments) and corpophones (for the human body as a source of sound). We propose a seventh category: fictophones, for imaginary musical instruments. Existing in the soundless form of diagrams, drawings, and verbal descriptions, these conceptual artifacts represent a fascinating and hitherto unrecognized domain of musical thought and activity. In order to catalog them, we have established the first institution of its kind: the Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments.
Technology and imagination are related in a manner both intimate and subtle. On the one hand, thought builds on what human beings find in their environment: imagination is to some extent determined by technology. Thus, certain artifacts can be judged “unimaginable” at earlier periods of history, insofar as they make use of technical means that did not then exist. On the other hand, however, technology is by no means a purely physical affair. Our tools and instruments are indeed material things, but of a different kind than the natural forms such as rocks and trees that predated the appearance of humans. They are objects given form by the human mind. Thus, technology can be understood as the process through which things take on physical reality that previously existed only in the conceptual space of human thought. In the two-way flow between the world of the mind and the world of force and matter, technology functions as a valve or threshold, acting upon and reacting to swirling forces on either side.
Imaginary instruments are a special kind of technological phenomenon. Such instruments never fully make the passage from the imagination into the world. They remain unconsummated objects, indifferent to the chaotic forces at play outside the test-tube of pure conceptuality. Ranging from the physically impossible to the simply impractical, from the “never” to the “not yet,” imaginary instruments rattle suggestively at the windowpane separating our comfortable sense of reality from that nebulous space beyond. In the words of Ernst Cassirer, such instruments are “concerned in the final analysis not with what is, but with what could be.”
A few words about the contents of our collection. We use the term “instrument” in a deliberately broad sense to mean any device used to perform, compose, listen to, or otherwise engage with musical sound. Thus, a radio or a piece of music software is an instrument no less than a piano or guitar. In historical terms, the entries span from ancient Rome to the early 21st century. Although the collection is more heavily weighted toward the recent past, the presence of older entries should dispel any notions of the unique modernity of technological speculation. (Indeed, the current state of instrument building—from the renaissance of DIY analog electronics, to the emergence of seemingly omnipotent computer music languages and the ultra-specialized “apps” of devices such as the iPad—may make us wonder whether our musical imagination no longer outstrips our technological capabilities.) Some entries are true thought experiments, or as Douglas Kahn has called them, “conceptual instruments” which—at least according to our current estimations of technological possibility—could not exist outside of the imagination. Others bear close relationships to historical instruments, of which they can be seen as derivatives, variations, or mutant offspring. Sources include speculative literature and science fiction, avant-garde manifestos, journalistic criticism, scholarly treatises, and (in the 20th century) radio, television, and motion pictures—virtually any medium in which the human mind has found expression.
The ubiquitous appearance of imaginary instruments in these diverse cultural, historic, and symbolic forms suggests something of the enduring fascination they excite. Like Borges’ dragon, they are “necessary monsters”: we cannot say exactly what they mean, and yet they transfix our minds with powerful symbolic energies and hints of possibilities which we ourselves can only gropingly intuit. We hope that our little museum conveys something of the joy and wonder we experienced in collecting these remarkable artifacts.
Deirdre Loughridge and Thomas Patteson
Berkeley and Philadelphia, June 2013
Deirdre Loughridge specializes in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, amid a broader interest in music, science and technology across their intertwined histories. She is a professor of music at Northeastern University, having previously been a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. She teaches courses on music history, including “40,000 Years of Music Technology.” Her first book, Haydn’s Sunrise, Beethoven’s Shadow: Audiovisual Culture and the Emergence of Musical Romanticism (University of Chicago Press, 2016), explores the role of optical technologies in fostering new approaches to music and listening in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. She also writes the blog, Spooky and the Metronome.
Thomas Patteson is a musician and musicologist based in Philadelphia. He is the co-founder of People’s Music Supply, an artist-led platform for creative music and community-building, and author of the blog Possible Music. His book Instruments for New Music (2016), a history of experimental sound technologies in Germany in the early 20th century, won the 2017 Lewis Lockwood Award from the American Musicological Society. More recent publications include the essay “Ethereal Timbres” (co-written with Emily Dolan) and translations of essays by Theodor Adorno and Carl Dahlhaus for the Oxford Handbook of Timbre, an anthology which won the 2022 Ruth A. Solie Award from the American Musicological Society. Thomas was a member of the Musical Studies faculty at the Curtis Institute of Music from 2013 to 2023, where he taught the music history survey and electives on popular music, electronic music, and other topics, in addition to helping redesign the music history curriculum. Past projects include the music blog Acousmata (2009-2013) and collaborations with Philadelphia-based presenting organizations such as <fidget> and Bowerbird, where Thomas helped launch the Arcana New Music Ensemble in 2016.