Music within a book

Cover image of "Making music in New Zealand"I would love to be a musician. Not even a professional musician, just someone who can casually pick up an instrument and effortlessly create songs that make others want to stop and listen. Unfortunately, I’m one of those people who would be offered money NOT to sing. My perfectionist tendencies paired with my lack of patience have prevented me from learning how to play the guitar (or any other musical instrument for that matter) because, well, if I’m not good at something instantly, I just give up. Forget all this “you’ll get better with practice” rubbish. I want to be a musical genius NOW.

If you want to read about other New Zealanders with the music bug, here’s some New Zealand fiction featuring musicians

Book cover of Ready to FlyOr if you prefer to draw inspiration from real life:

And for those of you who do possess both talent and dedication, the library has a bunch of “teach yourself” resources for aspiring musicians.

I can still live vicariously through other New Zealand musicians, though. I can watch them, listen to them, and read about them. Heck, if I really like them, I might even follow them…on Twitter.

Make your own New Zealand music

Experimental musicians love their self created instruments. I recently listened to a composer on National Radio describing how he used all the glasses in his house to create three octaves of notes which he then used to create a fragile sounding theme for a composition.

However, long before the experimental movement, making your own instrument already had a long history, especially among the marginalised and repressed. Wash boards, jugs and homemade percussion instruments spring to mind.

Dictatorships are famous for banning music of various kinds -for example Cuba’s Castro has made a habit of this throughout his rule. These days they apparently get around it by swapping flash drives. In the past it was done by inventing new instruments. In Peru for example, a percussion instrument called the Cajon is popularly thought to have been invented when African slave drums were outlawed. The same thing has been repeated in many other places around the world.

Early blues musicians often made their instruments from whatever was at hand because they couldn’t afford to buy them. Cigarbox guitars are a wonderful example of what can eventually evolve from using what is at hand.

You can try your hand at doing the same thing with the help of the many books in our collection on making your own musical instruments. It is a fun activity to do with the kids and a great outlet for your creativity.

Music makers

Delia plays her Dad’s homemade modular synthesizer at the Dance-O-Mat

The practice of building and hacking unique musical instruments has a long and fascinating history filled with wonderful characters and contraptions such as Harry Partch, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Reed Ghazala and New Zealand’s own Phil Dadson.

The inventive work of such pioneers can often seem beyond the range of normal human skills but building your own musical instruments and sound-making devices can actually be very achievable and rewarding. Thanks to the explosion of “maker” culture fueled by the internet over the last decade or so, there is now a great range of resources and support available for would be instrument builders.

There are still relatively few books available on this subject but one really great one is Handmade Electronic Music: The Art Of Hardware Hacking by Nicolas Collins. This title was recommended to me by Dunedin artist and musician Pete Gorman who has built some fantastic instruments and sculptures based on Collins’ designs.

In a number of fun projects Collins covers lots of important beginners topics such as tools, soldering techniques and basic electronics. As well as detailing projects for building instruments from scratch Collins also provide a lot of helpful guidance for hacking or circuit-bending existing devices or instruments. Circuit-bending is an idea originally developed by Reed Ghazala and describes the process of creatively short-circuiting and modifying battery-powered instruments and toys to make them behave in new and surprising ways. This can be a fun and accessible way to get started with instrument building, hacking and electronics in general because you begin with something that already works.

If you have an interest in any form of DIY technology, Make magazine is great for all things geeky and homemade and often features musical projects encompassing everything from cigar box guitars to digital synthesizers. Even some of the non-musical projects  in Make would be inspiring reference points for instrument builders.

A large area of recent growth in the DIY musical instrument community has been analogue synthesizers. From simple projects such as Ray Wilson’s Sound Lab Mini Synth to room-sized, modular monsters, the synth DIY community is larger and more active than at anytime since the 1970’s. Some the best resources for synth DIY are online discussion forums such as the DIY forums at and These sites can seem a bit arcane and intimidating on first glance but are generally very friendly and supportive of both noobs and experts alike. Ray Wilson’s  websites are a great place for beginner synth builders to start reading and learning. At  Music From Outer Space Wilson presents many well-documented open-source circuit designs and some good introductory reading about synthesis while at Solder he provides lots of very useful online tools for helping with electronics and synth design.

Image of the Week

From now on an “Image of the week” from Christchurch City Libraries’ image collection will be a regular feature on our blog. In keeping with New Zealand Music Month we present this musically themed photograph from 1906.

Erecting the electro-pneumatic organ in the Concert Hall for the New Zealand International Exhibition in Hagley Park, Christchurch [1906]

Erecting the electro-pneumatic organ in the Concert Hall for the New Zealand International Exhibition in Hagley Park, Christchurch [1906]

For more information on and images of the exhibition see our New Zealand International Exhibition 1906 pages.