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Title: Lamellophone  
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Subject: Music of Africa, Mbira, Plucked idiophone, Music box, International Library of African Music
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A Hugh Tracey treble kalimba.

A lamellophone (also lamellaphone or linguaphone, from the Latin root lingua meaning "tongue", i.e., a long thin plate that is fixed only at one end) is any of a family of musical instruments.

The name comes from the Latin word "lamella" for "plate" and the Greek root "phonos" for "sound". The name derives from the way the sound is produced: the instrument has a series of thin plates, or "tongues", each of which is fixed at one end and has the other end free. When the musician depresses the free end of a plate with a finger or fingernail, and then allows the finger to slip off, the released plate vibrates.

The lamellophones constitute category 12 in the Hornbostel-Sachs system for classifying musical instruments.

African lamellophones

A Kouxian, played by plucking the ends in front of the oral cavity. The lamella resonate to produce sound.

A large number of lamellophones originate in Africa, where they are known under different names including mbira, sanza, kisanji, likembe, kalimba, and kongoma. They play a role in southeast African Music. They were reported as early as the 16th century, but there is no doubt they have a much longer history. The Caribbean marímbula is also of this family. The marímbula can be seen as a bass variant of the mbira and is sometimes used in hiphop music.

The tongues may be arranged in the manner of a piano and may be made small enough to play with individual fingers, hence the colloquial name "thumb piano". (Although some instruments, like the Mbira, have an additional rows of tongues, in which case not just the thumbs are used for plucking.)

Some conjecture that African lamellophones were derived from xylophones and marimbas. However, similar instruments have been found elsewhere; for example, the indigenous peoples of Siberia play wooden and metallic lamellophones with a single tongue.

Lamellophones may be made with or without resonators. There are also electric lamellophones with an additional pickup.

Whale Drum with 8 tongues (from Emil Richards Collection)

Schaeffner's classification

Schaeffner's musical instrument classification scheme has a post-prominent place for the linguaphones (lamellophones) at the second highest level of classification.

In 1932, Andre Schaeffner developed a new classification scheme that was "exhaustive, potentially covering all real and conceivable instruments" [Kartomi, p. 176]. Schaeffner's system has only two top-level categories denoted by Roman numerals (Schaeffner, A.: Origine des instruments de musique, pp. 371–377.):

  • I: instruments that make sound from vibrating solids;
    • IA Solids not susceptibles of tension (equivalent to a big part of Hornbostel & Sachs idiophones);
    • IB Flexible solids (equivalent to mainly linguaphones);
    • IC Tensionable solids (equivalent to both membranophones and chordophones);
  • II: instruments that make sound from vibrating air (aerophones).

List of lamellophones

See also


  • Gerhard Kubik: "Lamellophone", in: The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (ed. Stanley Sadie). Macmillan Publishers, London, 1981

External links

  • Lamellophone players list from N. Scott Robinson site
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