To a certain extent, nearly all instruments can play a whole range of dynamics or volumes. They can produce a subtle quiet tone or a blisteringly forceful loud one, with some instruments better disposed to do so than others. What this article aims to explore are those instruments whose timbre is perhaps best employed in a quiet, gentle setting rather than a showy cinematic score.
Where I would like to begin is possibly not with a well-known instrument. It is called the Mbira and it originates from Africa and the Shona people of Zimbabwe. The more common name that has been adopted in Europe is the ‘thumb-piano‘ and this gives a valuable clue as to how the instrument produces its sound and also why it is one of the quieter instruments around today.
There are different types of mbira but a popular construction consists of up to 28 metal keys that are fixed to a wooden soundboard or resonator; often made of African hardwood. The metal keys can be made of many different types of metal from steel (common these days), to brass, copper, or metal recycled from bedsprings, bicycles, or cars. The Mbira is commonly held in two hands with the keys plucked by the player’s thumbs. As the sound is pretty quiet, players may place the mbira into a large ‘resonator’ that amplifies the sound.
An ancient Chinese instrument called the ‘guqin’ or sometimes simply ‘qin’, is thought to be one of the softest instruments ever made and dating back possibly 5000 years. It is supposed to have been an instrument the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius played and is felt by many to be an instrument capable of great expression and refinement.
The guqin is a seven-string instrument that is played by plucking the strings. Its range is approximately four octaves with its lowest pitch around two octaves below ‘western’ middle ‘C’. Playing techniques include sliding or glissando, and the production of harmonics just as you would expect from a Cello, Viola, or Violin. Interestingly, the sound of a guqin was sent out on a gold LP with both the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft as part of the sounds of instruments from across the globe.
The Viol was the string instrument of choice before the advent of the violin. Its popularity was almost unchallenged from the late 15th century until the late 17th century. Similar to the string family common today the family of viols comprised of both small and large instruments with the smaller ones being played from the performers’ lap rather than held under the chin as with the violin and viola.
Viols dominated the musical landscape of the Renaissance and were used extensively by composers of the day including Henry Purcell, Orlando Gibbons, and William Byrd. The tone of the viol is clear with an almost nasal quality to it that whilst quite penetrating, in no way compares to the resonance and richness produced by a violin or viola. Composers in the Classical Period soon abandoned the soft, ringing timbre of the viol in favor of the violin although they have been used to great effect in some 21st Century pieces.
An instrument often associated with Japan more than china is the transverse flute called the Shakuhachi. The flute is traditionally made from bamboo that produces a wonderfully expressive and breathy timbre. Unlike flutes you see in the orchestras and ensembles of today, the shakuhachi’s sound is created by blowing down a tone hole carved at the end of the bamboo pipe.
Although different lengths of shakuhachi exist its name in Japanese means its length. One ‘shaku’ is 30.3cm with a ‘Hachi’ meaning 3cm. Each flute commonly has four finger holes on the front of the instrument with a single thumb-hole on the reverse. Due to how the shakuhachi is made, the sound tends to be a quietly evocative one with its repertoire consisting of both solo and small ensemble pieces. As a small point of interest, Peter Gabriel used the ’emulated’ sound of the shakuhachi on his 1986 hit ‘Sledgehammer’ at the introduction of the song.
The ‘Toy Piano’ is one of the quietest instruments with a history that dates back to the latter part of the 19th Century. Originally these tiny versions of pianos were as you may well expect, designed and made for children, but have also been used for several ‘serious’ pieces of music. John Cage composed his ‘Suite for Toy Piano’ (1948) and George Crumb uses the instrument to great effect in his haunting work titled ‘The Ancient Voices of Children’.
It was the Schoenhut Piano Company who initially manufactured these delicate instruments, but by the early part of the 20th Century, they had become a phenomenon and were immensely popular. This gave rise to a generous variety of styles of Toy Piano, some far more sophisticated than others, that included ‘player piano’ options.
The sound of the toy piano is not unlike that of a vibraphone. Metal bars are struck by small wooden or rubber hammers that make an appealing, gentle tone. Early versions of the instrument had the sounding bars made of glass that was never going to ensure the longevity of the instrument in the hands of an ardent young student.
The humble recorder is felt by many musicians to be amongst the quietest of instruments. Like many families of instruments, the recorder comes in a variety of sizes from the large bass recorder right through to the sopranino that produces the highest range of pitches. Each of these fine woodwind instruments has a full range of dynamic capabilities, but to my ears at least, sounds more pleasing when it is played at the medium to the low end of its dynamic spectrum.
Finally, I have to include the ‘silent keyboard‘. Yamaha manufactured their first model in the early 1990s and haven’t looked back since. Whilst these instruments cannot truly be considered ‘quiet’ they can in another sense be classed as the ultimate in quiet as they cannot be heard.
Silent keyboards make use of very sophisticated technology that still reproduces the player’s performance faithfully but through headphones. The instrument can be used as a normal acoustic piano too. Interestingly, such has the popularity been of ‘silent’ instruments, Yamaha also manufactures a range of string, brass, and woodwind instruments that are branded under the ‘silent’ range.