Musical Instruments and Music in the Long Descent

Just thinking about how various musical instruments and musical forms will do in the long descent. I can think of a few general rules that likely apply:
1) acoustic will fare better than electronic instruments
2) simpler, more inexpensive instruments will do better than more complex ones
3) instruments that you can teach yourself to play or need only minimal training will be more common than ones that take large amounts of formal training
4) instruments that are easy to find, and find music for, and find teachers for locally will become more popular in that area and ones that are rare in that area will become rarer
5) The instrumental cultures of different areas will diverge
6) More live music, and less recorded will be heard in the land.
5) Singing will thrive pretty much everywhere. Who doesn't love a free, built-in instrument in hard times?

An example of how this works out in practice:

The Harp
There are loads of different types of harps, from big pedal harps with thousands of parts costing 10s of thousands of dollars and under so much mechanical stress that they fall apart in 40 years and have to be rebuilt, to the Waring cardboard harp(I have one I built from their kit, they're a surprisingly nice little instrument), plus african harps of various kinds, paraguayan harps (which use a tuning method like that of a guitar and are really cool), laser harps (plays an electronic note when you interrupt the beam with your hand), harps that use electronic amplification instead of a soundbox (you can also amplify your acoustic harp in various ways including sticking a microphone in front of it. Been there, done that, it does work if you can get the microphone close enough at the right height)

I think we're going to see a lot less electronic harps, laser harps and electronic amplification. The first two are uncommon already, and the materials are likely to become less common in future due to resource scarcity.

I also suspect the pedal harp will do poorly. They are very complex, time-consuming and expensive to build and maintain, and a lot of people who play the harp never go near them because they're just too expensive, big, and heavy. They tend to be used mostly by highly skilled, rich harpists to play classical repertoire that simpler harps can't handle. I've never played a pedal harp, much less owned one. The short lifespan also means you can't easily hand them down for multiple generations unless you've got the craftspeople, money and specialized parts available to completely rebuild them every forty years or so.


Celtic harps and paraguayan harps are much easier and cheaper to build and maintain. I know little about african harps, though from their looks they are also vastly simpler and cheaper to run than a pedal harp.

I don't know all that much about paraguayan harps, so I'm going to talk about celtic harps, aka the modern folk harp, which is what I play. They vary dramatically in terms of price, size, and complexity. On the simple side, I have a Waring Cardboard harp I built from a kit. It has 19 strings, a cardboard soundbox and no levers. It sounds and in my case looks ( I got creative with decorating it with stuff out of the book of Kells) better than this description makes it sound. It's also super light, and easy to take on the bus. There are downsides. Most harp music, even for the folk harp, assumes you have a larger range, and when you play with other people you run into the problem that if you want to change keys you have to retune the harp. And accidents are not possible. I also have a 26 string lever harp, which handles folk harp repertoire much better, and because of the sharping levers can easily change the key between songs. Makes playing with others SO much easier... except that my particular example is heavy enough I have a lot of trouble hauling it around. I think I picked the wrong exact model for me, but never mind. I love the tone.

I think celtic harps will do fairly well during the long descent, in areas where they are a known thing. They are much more popular in some places than others. For some reason, the west coast of Canada and the USA seems to be a place where they are somewhat more popular, so perhaps they'll continue here. They're also popular in the UK and Ireland.

These celtic harps are typically strung with nylon strings, but they certainly can be strung with gut (I've had a go on one and liked the sound less and they're currently more expensive), and there are also wire strung celtic harps. These have a very long reverb time and no sharping levers and are best suited to simpler music, but they sound amazing. The ability to literally make a soundbox out of cardboard is a definite plus when trying to reduce resource use.

There's a lot of different types of harp, and its been a very versatile instrument over thousands of years, made from many different materials in many different ways and played in many kinds of music in multiple cultures. I think 'the harp' will do fine, but some of the modern variations, like the pedal harp and the electronic harps, may well die out. And even celtic harps will likely disappear in many areas because they aren't present in the local musical culture strongly enough to keep them alive.

Given the paraguayan harp's cultural importance in its homeland, it may well do very well indeed - providing that tuning machines can still be made. I don't know much about what it takes to make tuning machines rather than tuning pegs. They could use tuning pegs instead, if that became an issue. And tuning pegs are very simple things that should be just fine to make even in a truly terrible dark age.

Anyone else have anything they want to say about what they expect from music in the long descent?

Based on my scrips and scraps of knowledge, you're spot on. Everyone used to make their own music if they wanted music in the evenings. The phonograph and recordings really changed music. Radio changed it even more. Why go to the trouble of learning to play when a recording sounds better than you ever will? Every community used to have its own community band, made up of locals with whatever instruments they had.

I believe music is similar to the arts. Visual arts are still struggling with photography. Why learn skilled draftsmanship when your elderly aunt can snap a perfect representation of a person or view? Recordings did the same to music.

Have you ever read the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brien? Bill did and he mentioned that in the ship's wardroom (the series is set in the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars), the officers all learned to play simple instruments. So did the sailors, because it was one of the few ways to pass the time.

I know the Aubrey-Maturin series. It's good, and one of the things I enjoyed was the depiction of the chamber music and related friendship.

I grew up with both my parents playing the violin and singing, plus banjo, pennywhistle etc with each other, me, and others for fun. It was catching, even if I never learned the violin. Went fluteward instead. I wish there were better options for playing in tiny groups hyperlocally. I also wish a couple more people would join our church music group. It's struggling - though given the size of the congregation right now that's not really surprising. And mask mandates don't play well with wind and brass instruments!

I know what you mean about the arts, though again, it's never stopped me drawing and painting. I see things I don't when I take a photo, and I also like depicting scenes from books and animals that don't exist. Can't take a photo of a dragon or a gryphon.

bobmcc's picture

Oh, folks that make music with friends and neighbors are around. We have a woodwind quartet here on our lane. Ask around or post on a local market bulletin board - they are out there!

Just a thought, which was in the back of my mind when I took up the accordion: these instruments could become (even more) popular. Unlike many acoustic instruments, they have two voices, the melody and the base accompanyment. Once tuned, they tend to stay in tune for years. Tuning can include filing the steel reeds, though, and mistakes are irreversible. Wonder if they can be handmade; they must have been in the century before last.

Don't know how I did that.

David Trammel's picture

Waves magic admin wand over forum, sprinkles magic admin dust.

All fixed...

Interesting thread!

A few thoughts, keeping in mind two assumptions: the first is that, as JMG has noted, the long descent doesn't mean that things don't simply descend in the same way that they ascended, and also that the distribution of electrical energy sources won't completely vanish any time soon, they may just be unevenly distributed.

- David Byrne wrote previously about how the acoustics and social environment around certain types of music venues affected the styles of music themselves. For example, spacious and resonant churches allowed for the lovely choral music, and obviously the purpose of that music was religious in nature which affected the style and content of the music itself. But that kind of spacious environment renders the sound of drums and quickly played notes into a sonic mud. The same goes for stadium rock.

I don't know what will happen in the long descent, but I can imagine that, as things progress and electricity in households becomes scarcer and thus devoted to food preservation, heating, etc, households will have to rely more and more on acoustic instruments. However, there may be community halls with speakers and microphone systems where people can hook into and play their music to larger audiences.

- The style of singing or rapping that microphones enable could eventually go by the wayside, too. Microphones allow for a style of intimate singing and speaking that will likely vanish in the very long term when electrical infrastructure becomes rarer. But I can see rap as a style remaining, with a group of musicians playing rhythmic music on acoustic instruments relatively quietly so that a rapper can rap without a microphone and be heard to a small audience.

- I imagine a lot of pop music will be reorchestrated to acoustic instruments. It will be interesting to imagine how 80s pop music, which is often synth-heavy, will be rewritten for groups of instruments that also don't correspond to common classical music instrumental groupings (like string quartets). New types of instrumental groupings may appear to play this style of music. I can imagine this style of old pop music will be quite popular, as dark times will lead to the need for nostalgia... just as I wrote this, 'what a wonderful world' started playing on my radio...

- Speaking of radio, I can imagine radio becoming a very popular medium once again! CDs degrade, vinyl degrades, so I imagine people with carefully preserved collections of popular music and some form of radio transmitter will become valued members of society.

- In the medium term, high tech ways of making music, such as computer based sequencers and synthesizers, will eventually be limited to pockets of wealthy areas where energy and internet connectivity will remain. But I can imagine that a large amount of musicians will have to find low-tech ways of recording their music, whether that be via sheet music or some other newly adapted form of tablature.

- If people want to retain the piano as a viable musical instrument, people will need to get a move on with preserving piano tuning as a skill. People are so reliant on electronic pianos handling the tuning automatically that the skill of tuning pianos is being lost. That will hopefully keep all the acoustic upright pianos (that are increasingly being given away for free) that are still found in churches and community halls from being turned into firewood.

- As the ability to charge portable music players becomes more tricky as limited electricity is used for other things, it could be that music will become more valued than it currently is because it will be heard less often. Right now, for many, music is like a utility, I can stream music in the same way that I can turn on the tap to get drinking water. So music is taken for granted, and I think musical styles reflect that. I can see musical styles changing so that a song or piece becomes something to listen to, rather than a kind of sonic filler that really isn't meant to be listened to closely, but rather put on the background and half-ignored. This could just be my inner music snob speaking, though. :)

Anyway, I don't know what the future holds, so I could be completely wrong!

Two further speculations:

- Classical music is about to hit hard times, more specifically, the repertoire. It's not that popular, except among the elite, and a lot of it requires a full orchestra. Sheet music makes great kindling, too. I don't know if people will think anything but the most popular and well known classical music pieces will deserve preservation. Speaking in the long term, of course. I say this with regret, because I love classical music.

- I wonder if people in the future will make theatrical versions of the best known movies. Say, a Star Wars play, and also make more easily played versions of famous movie soundtracks to accompany these plays... hm....

kma's picture

Classical music and most arts may be in for a very hard time. Almost 100% v-rate amongst both the performers and the traditional older audience. Many have mandates for employees and audiences.

I had been thinking about that. Classical music doesn't need amplification but a full orchestra requires a substantial number of highly-trained people, so it's a lot of resources to put into one thing. Chamber music may do better.

Re: pop songs played on other instruments: I've heard some rather nice lapharp covers of metallica songs... I think that process is already well underway.

JBucks, that sounds pretty reasonable to me. I'm expecting that musical cultures will diverge from place to place depending on the conditions in the area, and local oddities like having someone who builds a relatively rare instrument living there, or an enthusiastic local musical subculture.

Orchestras may be difficult to manage in terms of finding enough, skilled enough musicians for a full orchestra. I would expect a lot of smaller places to lose their orchestras. And yet... those classical musicians can be very determined.

A bunch of people in the small town my Dad lives in have gone and started a community orchestra. They didn't have a conductor, so my Dad took up the baton, literally, and is now frantically learning how to conduct, and arranging their music to suit the rather motley collection of musicians who show up.

It sounds like so much fun. Makes me wish I was there.

David Trammel's picture

Have you seen the Burt Reynold's movie "A Bunch of Amateurs"? It is much like you described, a group of small town amateur theater players whose productions hold together the town. I could see something of the sort, where a small orchestra group, plays from time to time, and all the people in the region come to watch.

Movie info on IMDB:

Town theatres are absolutely vital to a community's sense of togetherness, I think, along with chamber orchestras, folk bands, heck even the reel and jig players in an Irish pub -- these are the glue of communities round the world. Combine that with some more sacred events such as holiday festivals with sincere, deeply rooted traditional rites and mix that generously with good honest hard work and local production and you have the makings of a strong town culture.

I haven't seen that movie, but it does sound rather similar.

It sounds like some people are.

I've done a few odds and ends, and I want to do more. I want to build an appalachian dulcimer with a cardboard soundbox.

I think cardboard is underused in musical instrument-making, given how it's ready availability for free. I was also really impressed with the little cardboard soundboxed harp I built from a kit some 17 years ago. The main downsides are that it only has 19 strings, and doesn't have any levers, which severely restricts what I can play on it. Plus it's on the quiet side. But the tone is nice, it is unbelievably light, and it is still perfectly playable.