Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Rattle Those Bones!

The Bones Player by William Sydney Mount, 1856.
I am certainly not musically gifted, but I think I might have found an instrument that I can learn to play...the bones.

The bones are a folk instrument that has quite a varied history. Some accounts of musical bones date back to ancient Greece, Egypt, and China. The style of bones that were used in 19th century America came mainly by way of the Irish, and have been incorporated into a number of different musical styles.

These percussion instruments are called bones because that is often what they are made from; rib bones, but bones can also be made from a variety of materials. They can be from a number of different woods, with hardwoods being preferred due to their good tones, or even metal. For example, playing the "spoons" is merely a derivative of the bones. The bones usually measure from five to eight inches in length and are most often a curved shape to "clack" against one another and make their distinct sound.

Bones are played by holding them between one's fingers, convex surfaces facing one another, and moving one's wrist in such a way that they knock against each other. The customary method involves placing the bones to either side of the middle finger such that approximately two-thirds of their length extends along the palm while the remainder protrudes above the fingers on the backside of the hand. The hand is held in a loose fist with the bones and the curled fingers roughly parallel to the palm. Usually, the bone closest to the ring finger is gently held against the palm by the tip of the ring finger placed on its edge, while the other bone is left free to move in the "hinge" formed by the index and middle fingers as they gently hold it. A player may use a pair of bones in each hand, or just a single pair in one hand.

The bones were one of the five main instruments in minstrel shows; the others being the tambourine, fiddle, banjo, and guitar. Minstrels chose these particular instruments because they were most popular with the slaves who inspired most of the minstrel song tunes and lyrics. Unlike fiddles and banjos, slaves could easily procure a set of bones and learn to play without much instruction.

You can see and hear bones being played in the following video:

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