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Why are some instruments cheaper than others?
Back when I was a young, bright-eyed, 20-year-old, I worked in a sales capacity for a music retailer. I was responsible for selling sheet music and band and orchestral instruments (including percussion). While I did have the odd professional muso come in for a purchase, most of my clients were parents.
Like many things in life, with musical instruments, you absolutely get what you pay for. This is a lesson that many of these parents had, unfortunately, learned the hard way. While these were generally parents looking for orchestral instruments, the idea of investing in high quality needs to start much earlier. I can guarantee that the child playing a $20 xylophone will stand out in the kindy band, and for all the wrong reasons. Sure, it might look similar to the $300 one beside it, but that’s where the similarities end.
One of the most important parts of an instrument is that it’s in tune, (or able to be tuned, like a guitar for example). A musician’s ear is the most important tool they have (even more than their hands), and an instrument that’s not squarely hitting each note will lead to a confused ear and a frustrated player. Our ears tell us when we’ve made a mistake, and often how to fix it. Our ears also tell us that we’re sounding amazing, and the brain benefits that follow are priceless.
One of the biggest contributing factors to an instrument being perfectly intonated (aka in tune), is the materials it’s made from. While the size and shape of an instrument play a huge role in its ability to be tuned (either by the player or the manufacturer), there are ultimately some materials that will always prevent the final stages of tuning. Different materials respond to the sound waves in different ways, meaning that some will never sound exactly right.
Certain types of high-quality wood, for example, are an excellent option for many instruments. Not only is the right wood sturdy and able to take a beating from an enthusiastic child, wood generally produces a warm, rich tone.
Another thing to consider when assessing what the instrument is made from, is how easy it is to play. More expensive instruments with higher quality craftsmanship and materials will be easier to play (and produce a greater sound), than their cheaper counterpart. This then creates a child who enthusiastically loves creating music, and therefore indulges in a banquet of developmental benefits.
The need for high quality instruments starts early. Our brains are experiencing incredible growth during the first five years of our lives. Music can have a whole range of wonderful benefits, but it’s important that the right tools are used.
For example, a few years ago I purchased a wooden toy xylophone for a project. For the purposes I needed it, I thought a cheap, department store version would work just fine.
I was wrong.
When I tapped the keys with the mallet, they didn’t play the notes they were supposed to. While this looked like any other wooden toy xylophone, it definitely didn’t sound like it. Instead of playing at least some close version of the major scale it should have, it sounded like someone was randomly tapping notes in in any order. I was shocked.
Instruments that sound wrong/bad, are uncomfortable to play, don’t last, and will do actual harm to the person’s musical ear and skill level. Playing a scale that doesn’t sound like a scale is like trying to teach math with the wrong formula. A child who is introduced to music through high quality instruments will have much better outcomes than one who isn’t.
The price difference can also indicate the level of craftsmanship. A cheaper instrument made from cheaper materials is likely mass produced in a factory, with little care for the integrity of the instrument. The craft of making instruments requires an impeccably high skill level. These artists understand, like nobody else, the workings of sound and its relationship with different materials.
Finally, high quality instruments are made to last. What an incredible legacy for a child’s instrument to not only survive the years of playing during childhood, but to be passed down through family generations.
Most parents understand that music is important for children, and that even hitting a drum or thumping on an old keyboard is beneficial. However, music at any age, has incredible power and should be seen as an investment. Even if your child doesn’t go on to learn one instrument in particular, the simple act of being exposed to and ‘playing around’ with high quality instruments will have a huge impact on their development.
At the end of the day, music truly is a gift that should be fully appreciated and taken advantage of. Let’s show our gratitude by investing as much as we can afford.
Written by Joanna Predo, author, long-time music teacher and musician. Joanna spends her days negotiating with book printers, stealing time at the piano, and cutting the crusts off sandwiches. Before creating her own tribe of little people, Joanna worked as a jazz singer and pianist for many prestigious clients around Brisbane. She played her first song on the piano at age 2, sung her first jazz number publicly at age 8, and taught her first piano lesson at age 14. Joanna has dedicated most of her 33-year life to the in-depth pursuit of music, and says she is constantly humbled by the fact that she has been selected as a vessel to carry it.