Singing Bones, Part 2: Finger Bone Flutes and Hair-Strung Harps

Last post’s songs and this post’s tales (see list below) generally contain one (or more) siblings murdering another out of jealousy, and the murdered sibling’s remains/a reed growing from their grave being made into a haunted/magical instrument/object that sings on its own, revealing the crime.

That’s just the basic idea, but I recommend you read a few of the stories below if you are unfamiliar with this tale. It’s not completely necessary to understanding the rest of the post, though. (For your convenience, the first on the list is really short.)

The Singing Bone: Tales of ATU Type 780

  1. The Dead Girl’s Bone
  2. The Singing Bone
  3. Binnorie
  4. The Silver Plate and the Transparent Apple
  5. The Griffin
  6. El Lirio Azul (English translation: The Blue Lily)
  7. Under the Green Old Oak-Tree
  8. The Story of the Swan Maiden and the King
  9. Little Anklebone
  10. The Little Bone
  11. The Singing Bones
  12. The Magic Fiddle

I know there’s a lot of messed-up things going on in these stories, but clearly the most important question is:

Can You Really Make Instruments from Human Bones?

Short answer: yes.

Long answer:

In most of the tales above, the instrument in question is a whistle/pipe/flute a passing shepherd makes from a finger bone or sometimes a reed growing near where the body is buried. Or, following the songs from last post, a passing harper or fiddler makes an instrument from the breastbone and her hair. Some of these scenarios are more feasible than others.

Woodwinds

River canes and bamboo are fairly conventional flute materials.

Bones are … less so, but bones from various parts of various species have been and are still used in making instruments.

For example, this whistle made from a chamois phalange:

Via Il Centro del Suono

Which isn’t terribly different from a human phalange:

phalanges finger bones
Via Wikipedia Commons

Most examples of human-bone instruments are, understandably, archaeological specimens.

But some are still around today, like the Tibetan kangling (literally translated as “leg flute”), a horn or trumpet made from a human femur for use in Buddhist chöd rituals.

Tibetan kangling human femur bone trumpet
Wikipedia Commons

Kangling come in a few varieties, depending on the femur’s source. For example: whether it’s from the right or left leg and the deceased’s gender, their character, and how they died.

If you wondered how that might sound, no need to wonder:

Wood, vulture bone, and metal are also acceptable, if for whatever reason human bones aren’t an option.

String Instruments

What about fiddles?

That’s a little trickier. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t find any real-life examples of fiddles made from human bones. But, in theory, would it work?

Sort of.

First off, the dimensions of a human sternum: about six inches long, one inch across, and less than an inch thick.

Wikipedia Commons

An adult-sized violin, by comparison, has a body (the hollow part) 14 inches long, and the total length is 23 inches.

Via get-tuned.com

You can’t make a whole fiddle from just a breastbone. But looking at the above diagram, I found another possibility: the tailpiece. That could work.

In fact, some violins actually have bone components, such as the Hardanger Fiddle, made in 1786 in Norway, which features a bridge and tailpiece of bone inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

Hardanger fiddle Norway
Via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

And what about the strings — would human hair work? Doubt it. Violin strings were first made with “catgut” (actually sheep intestines). Today, metal and synthetic are also options. If anything, human hair might work for the bow, which is usually strung with horsehair.

What would it sound like?  Whatever a regular fiddle, but with strings and bow made of human hair, would sound like. Probably not great.

As for a harp…

Wikipedia Commons

I can see using ribs or limb bones for the frame, but a sternum? Probably not.

Now, perhaps you are saying, “But it’s a fairy tale. It’s not supposed to be realistic.” I know. I know. And that’s why I haven’t been complaining about the fact that these bone-and-hair instruments are also possessed.

Because, though you can definitely make musical instruments from parts of corpses, obviously haunted instruments can’t be a real thing.

…right?

 

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