The new issue of The Economist's bimonthly (and rather self-besottedly titled) magazine Intelligent Life carries an essay by chief Times of London music critic Richard Morrison. He's asking a big and probably unanswerable question: Of all the musical instruments that have ever been invented, which is the best?
As Morrison is well aware, "best" is a loaded term. Does he mean the most widely played? The most widely heard? The most beloved? The most moving? (And how on Earth would you quantify those last two, anyway?) There are all the cultural, historical, political and even economic biases that need to be taken into account, too — and he sidesteps what must be the greatest and most universal "instrument" of all: the human voice.
Along the way, Morrison makes some odd pronouncements, like that the reason why some 40 million Chinese kids are currently studying Western classical piano is that it's much harder to master than, say, the guitar. In his words, "neither [piano nor violin] can be truly mastered without putting in hours of disciplined, repetitive practice each day for years — a discipline that seems beyond the channel-flicking attention-spans of most Western children now." (I'd like to see him play some near-impossibly difficult Chinese instruments like the pipa or the suona.)
Morrison's big question is unanswered — and ultimately unanswerable — but it's a fun and challenging point of departure. As he says, "Take a look, if you have the strength, at the 12,000 entries in the New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (1985). Then consider that the next edition will have 20,000. The standard symphony orchestra, parading a mere 14 or 15 varieties of instrument, begins to look as limited as a supermarket cheese counter."
So, which instrument reigns supreme for you? Tell us why in the comments — and please point us toward a piece of music or a particular performance that helps make your case.