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The Objects of Research:
The Documentation of Musical Instruments at the NMM

by Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet, Conservation Research Assistant

Musical instruments are complex material objects. Viewed from a research perspective, they can be approached, understood, and interpreted in many different ways. At a very basic level, musical instruments can be understood as tools to produce sound. However, they can also be interpreted as art objects that belong only to a specific time period and geographic area; or, as objects that reflect an artistic style present in other decorative arts; or, as ritual, archaeological, historical, and/or anthropological objects, and so on.

Museums and public collections are valuable research resources, providing a wide variety of objects, documents, and related items for study. Musical instruments themselves might be considered by some researchers to be, in effect, three-dimensional "documents." The information acquired by studying these "documents" will vary according to the cultural background of the researcher and their particular interests. An art historian, for example, will decode certain information that would surely differ from that required by a biologist or an organologist.

Electronic documentation of instruments by the author

The scientific documentation of a musical instrument consists of systematically gathering together information for the purpose of gaining a better understanding the particular instrument under examination. To begin with, such documentation helps identify materials and construction techniques and represents the first step towards a correct conservation methodology. Moreover, an in-depth reading and analysis of the sorts of information provided by a comprehensive documentation of a musical instrument can be an invaluable tool for understanding the historical and social context or contexts to which it belonged throughout its lifetime. Thus, one can learn not only about the specific history of a particular instrument, but also the musical history of the particular place(s) and time(s) in which the instrument was constructed and used.

Musical instruments can be documented with various levels of complexity, the most basic being a simple catalog sheet where only basic information is recorded, such as the name and location of an object. A more thorough documentation involves gathering as much information as one possibly can. This can be achieved through meticulous observation and physical examination; the study of dimensional and photographic records; archival research; acoustical studies; and by obtaining accurate and detailed data using scientific equipment and techniques that facilitate non-invasive methods of physical investigation.

Right:  A researcher measures the length of keys on a clavichord by Johann Paul Kraemer and Sons, Göttingen, 1804 (NMM 3335).

A researcher measures the Kraemer clavichord

Wood Identification

Wood is a widely used material in musical instrument construction and its identification can help ascertain where and when an instrument could have been made, as well as provide clues about its unique history. Some wood species are much more frequently employed than others in musical instrument making (such as maple, spruce, or ebony) and are relatively easy to identify just by observation. In other instances, where the wood is not as common or as familiar, a strong magnifying glass may be all that is necessary to identify a less frequently encountered wood. These are non-intrusive techniques for wood identification; however, it is sometimes necessary to take a very small sample of wood in order to perform a microscopic analysis in an effort conclusively to determine a wood species. At the NMM, microscopic wood identification is carried out by Prof. John Koster, Conservator, who has extensive experience in this field of study.


Dendrochronology is a fairly recent science dedicated to the analysis and study of growth rings in wood. By comparing the patterns of growth rings in multiple pieces of wood from the same region and species, consistencies in growth can be observed that are directly related to climatic events like glaciations, floods, dry seasons, and so on. These correspondences help establish the years during which those events took place. Therefore, by analyzing the growth rings of a particular piece of wood, one can determine the dates during which the tree to which it belonged was still alive. The use of dendrochronology, then, helps establish plausible dates of construction for musical instruments. Dating is determined by analyzing the most recent ring present in the piece of wood under examination, which then sets the date for the earliest year during which an instrument could have been made.

X-Rays and Tomography

X-ray of NMM 6204.   Harpsichord by José Calisto, Portugal, 1780

X-ray of harpsichord by José Calisto, Portugal, 1780 (NMM 6204)

The use of X-rays has been widely applied to the study of musical instruments, since it allows researchers to view the interior of closed instruments (such as keyboards and violins) without the obvious hazards involved in opening them. The X-ray images provide a clear idea of construction methods and materials, as well as the evidence of repairs, damaged areas, woodworm damage, and the presence of foreign objects.

More recently, the use of tomography (also known as CT-scanning) has been applied to the study of musical instruments. This technology allows one to get much more detailed and accurate, three-dimensional X-ray images in a digital format.

Front view of The King Henry IV violin, from CT scan
Side view of The King Henry IV violin, from CT scan
The Henry IV Amati violin prepared for CT scanning

Randy Jarvis, Radiology Manager at the Sanford Vermillion Medical Center, watches as Jonathan Bouquet, NMM Conservation Research Assistant, adjusts The King Henry IV violin by the Brothers Amati (Cremona, ca. 1595) prior to taking a CT scan of the instrument on August 10, 2010. See also "Medical Imaging Enables Staff to See the "Whole" Picture," NMM Newsletter 37, No. 2 (August 2010).

Left:  Images captured from CT scans of The King Henry IV violin by the Brothers Amati, Cremona, ca. 1595 (NMM 10470).

Light Spectrum Analysis

Analysis under light spectrums other than natural light (like ultraviolet and infrared light) has proven to be a valuable tool in the study of musical instruments and their construction. Using the ultraviolet light spectrum—thanks to a phenomenon known as fluorescence, which causes different materials to emit light or “glow” in a very dissimilar way than they would in natural light—one can observe repairs, glue traces, and varnish touchups. Similarly, the use of certain materials, such as bone, horn, and whalebone, also becomes evident.

The infrared light spectrum, because it enhances the contrast of carbon and graphite, can reveal traces of writing in labels and the under-drawings hidden beneath decoration and paintings on musical instruments. More recently, infrared examination has also been used as an alternative method for viewing the inner structure of closed musical instruments. This is acccomplished by placing infrared LED lights or small incandescent bulbs inside the instruments and observing, with a special viewer, the infrared beams that pass though the thin wood. The difference in densities reveals the interior bracing, repairs, and any damaged areas.

Right:  Infrared image of the Rawlins guitar by Antonio Stradivari, Cremona, 1700 (NMM 3976).

Infrared image of the Rawlins guitar by Stradivari, Cremona, 1700 (NMM 3976)

XRF (X-ray Flourescence)

Musical instruments are made from a diverse array of materials and the identifcation of those materials is not always a simple task. Frequently, researchers have to rely upon scientific techniques to do so. For example, it is important to know the alloy employed in the construction of the metal pipes found in pipe organs. One method used to identify these metals, and their proportions in an alloy, is by X-ray fluorescence (XRF), which discerns the materials by their atomic weight.

Technical Drawings

Technical drawing of The Henry IV Amati violin (NMM 14470)

Above: Technical drawing of The King Henry IV violin by Antonio and Girolamo Amati, Cremona, ca. 1595 (NMM 14470), by Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet (2010).


The preparation of detailed technical drawings is also a very helpful tool in the documentation process. Thanks to a new methodology, which combines digital technology and graphic design software, a significant amount of physical data about any given musical instrument can be included in a single document. This process, which originated at the Civica Scuola di Liuteria di Milano, under the leadership of Professors Lorenzo Lippi, Tiziano Rizzi and Claudio Canevari, together with Davide Serracini, has subsequently been developed by the author since 2004. The resulting document (available in a choice of digital, paper, or mylar formats) allows researchers worldwide access to information about selected musical instruments without actually having to handle them, which ultimately minimizes the risk of damage to the instrument. The NMM has, since 2008, undertaken an ongoing project focused on the preparation of this kind of advanced technical drawing, the results of which are available through the NMM's online gift shop.

The ideal documentation of a musical instrument is a continuous and never-ending process as new technologies, discoveries, and ideas continue to provide new avenues for scientific research. A multi-disciplinary approach, along with inter-institutional research, ensures the accumulation of ever more comprehensive documentation by comparing similar objects, sharing data, and exchanging ideas—all essential steps towards arriving at a better understanding of musical instruments and their significance as primary cultural indicators.

Return to NMM Newsletter Index (December 2010)

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Most recent update: December 30, 2010

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