Period instruments are instruments that have been made to the specifications of their original predecessors, so that, music performed from historic time periods will sound like it did when it was originally composed. They are also the original instruments themselves. The groups of instruments we have today mainly fall under the following categories: brass, string, woodwind, and percussion. Cosmetically the instruments in these group have changed since their predecessors were being played. This is due to people wanting to improve the durability and longevity of their instruments and also to make them more accurate in playability.
The brass family instruments today are made of brass and have instruments like the tuba, trombone, trumpet, and French horn. There are variations of these, as with other instruments, such as the bass trombone or the euphonium. However, one example of a brass period instrument would be the serpent. An odd looking instrument. It has many curves like a serpent. It’s made of wood, which is surprising considering it’s a brass instrument. It usually had 6 holes on the side and was covered in a dark brown or black leather. Really odd right? Mozart used two of these in his opera Ascanio in Alba. It was claimed to have first been invented in 1560, but it got more notoriety in the Classical period. It was replaced in use by the tuba.
The string family today is popularly categorized by instruments such as the violin, viola, cello, double bass, or the harp. A period instrument that was invented around the medieval period was the hurdy-gurdy. It was, however, extremely popular during Renaissance period. It’s an instrument that has a striking resemblance to a bulked up, over-loaded violin mixed with a dulcimer. It has a rosined wheel that’s cranked to rub against the strings doing the work similar to a violin bow. The original hurdy-gurdy, the organistrum, required two people to play. The person making the melodies would push down on wooden pegs at the headstock that in turn acted against the strings changing the pitch. It also has 4 drone strings, in addition to the melody strings, that can be played under the melody giving it a sound similar to the bagpipe. A staple characteristic to all stringed instruments of the musical time periods would be the use gut wound strings instead of the modern day nylon or metal strings. This is one of the few instruments that, as of today, has yet to have a standardization of the design.
The woodwind family instruments are broken up into two categories: flutes and reed instruments, and within these two categories are many sub-categories. A few are open flutes, closed flutes, single-reed, and double-reed instruments. The categories are due to how sounds are achieved on them. The woodwind family instruments in an orchestral setting are flutes, clarinets, oboes, and contrabassoons. One example of a period instrument from this family would be the chalumeau. This instrument is a cylindrical single-reed instrument with eight tone holes. This instrument, in particular, was very short lived. Dating back to around the medieval period, the design quickly changed. It’s more known to have evolved into the baroque clarinet. Either way, you can imagine they share some similarities to the modern-day clarinet. This instrument worked it’s way in being established as a staple instrument in the late baroque and early classical periods. If you're a clarinet player you can guess how the chalumeau sounded by the term given to the lower register of the modern-day clarinet.
The next family of instruments is the percussion family. These are instruments that are sounded when struck or shaken. Some orchestral instruments include timpani, xylophone, cymbals, gongs, chimes, and piano. Yes, even piano. The hammers strike the strings. A period instrument from this family is the clavichord. It’s an instrument invented in the late Medieval period but has transcended through, and gained popularity in the Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical periods. It’s the predecessor to the piano. Clavichords were extremely quiet and they were used mainly as a practice instrument because they couldn’t hold up with other instruments. Unlike the piano the notes only sound when the key is pressed, and when the key is released the felt silences the string.
A lot of period instruments are just the origins of the instruments we use today. Using period instruments today is more about creating this aesthetically accurate sound from the period in which the music was written. It’s fascinating how each culture and each time period all have unique instruments marking that culture or time period with a unique sound. I’m sure 100 years from now, people in the world will be rummaging through antique stores for the cutting edge instruments we are using now, just to say “this sounds so early 2000’s”