Triangle Instrument History – The Grimley Memoirs

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The triangle is one of the instruments that has gained a bit of a bad reputation over the years.  In fact, some people don’t even think it IS a musical instrument…the nerve!

Admittedly, it doesn’t look like much or seem to do a whole heck of a lot. 

So, what is a triangle instrument, then, exactly? 

Well, it’s a simply bar of metal (usually steel but sometimes made from beryllium copper) bent into a triangular shape, that gives off a bright sound when struck.

It is termed an “idiophone”, which means, basically, that it has no strings, but, nonetheless, it gives off a sound when struck, shaken, or scraped.  A gong is also part of this family, and so is a bell. 

There is a view that we think that many a musician has, not to mention the public in general, which is that the triangle is the ugly duckling of the music world, and only used by the semi-autistics of the world.

In your average 9th grade music class, the most hopeless of the lot might be assigned the triangle as a way to occupy them without giving them anything too difficult to do, musically speaking. 

In the 21st century, the triangle is not exactly used liberally in Katy Perry or Lady Gaga songs.   And Ed Grimley (below) hasn’t helped matters much either, for that matter.

Percussion Family Matters

It is thought, whenever anyone does consider this oft-neglected instrument (which is rarely if ever), that the triangle doesn’t have any real special significance, and has little impact on any major piece of music. 

Disagree?  When was the last time you gave a care for the humble (and rather high pitched) triangle?

Maybe the last time you heard a triangle was when someone called you to dinner somewhere in the Southern U.S.A., about 40 years ago.

Let it be known that as a simple instrument as it may be, we think that the triangle deserves a lot better than the reputation is currently seems to have. 

So who do you think would be the first to stick up for the forlorn triangle, if anyone?  We suppose it is none other than your local percussionists and members of military marching bands.

Yes, if anyone knows its secret plight, it’s the percussionist who understands the important role the triangle has been playing since its advent.  This is because besides being an idiophone, the triangle is part of the percussion family.

Indeed, the triangle is a very unique instrument, as is its role in any ensemble of which it is a part.  It has been featured more than one might guess.

Is the triangle a musical instrument?

The triangle may be seen by many as a joke to your average music fan in the 21st century, thinking it inconsequential and an insult to the rest of the instruments.  It is rude to think this, but do not doubt that triangle bigotry is real.

“Do you even require ANY skills to play the triangle?” You may have probably come across people who have said this, who think that anyone can play the triangle.  Give it a whack once in a while, that’s all that needs to be done…or is it?

As simple as the triangle may appear, it is more technical than you can imagine. Any trianglist can tell you that playing the triangle is not easy by any means. 

The angle at which you hit it to make the proper tone, the timing, and the volume are but three considerations that are tougher than they appear.

Here are two videos showing how tricky it can be to wield one of these instruments.  It’s no cakewalk.

As you can see and hear from the above examples, not just any random person can pick up a triangle and make it sound less than a clinking clanking cacophony.  

Now, before you start playing the triangle to prove us wrong, you need to realize – this mission will take skill and lots of practice.  You can’t just practice once and think you are good to go with this instrument.  No reputable symphony will have you, trust us.

Playing the triangle requires consistency.

As difficult as it is to control the volume of the triangle, an expert can attain this, after hours of blood, sweat, and tears.

Using a knitting needle and otherwise using a lighter striking implement makes it easy to obtain quieter notes.  A wooden striker can also be used as it gives quiet and duller notes.  Your style of playing is up to you.

The invention of the triangle (whose “bright” idea was it?)

As many may assume, the triangle was not invented by Pascal.

Blaise Pascal is a known mathematician who is believed to have invented the concept of the triangle properties. Pascal is thought to have invented the triangle shape in the 17th century, and so also erroneously labeled as the father to the triangle instrument. 

Voicing such an assumption back in those days was liable to have you laughed out of the local drinking establishment and pelted with rotten fruit.  That’ll teach you to behave like such a ninny!

In contrast to this common misconception of Pascal’s paternity to the triangle, we have evidence that the triangle was an instrument that was seen used long before Pascal’s time.   

To recap, and just as the name suggests, a triangle is a metal bar that has been bent into a triangular shape. So between the triangle shape and the triangle instrument, which one was invented first?

The triangle instrument was invented a little bit earlier than the triangle shape, oddly enough.

The triangle instrument’s history can be traced all the way back to 3000 B.C.  A number of scholars believe the origin of the triangle can be traced musically back to the sistrum.

A sistrum is a rattle that is comprised of an arch and an attached handle. It was an instrument that was used in religious and traditional ceremonies, mainly in Egypt.

Did the triangle evolve from the sistrum or was it an independent development?

Yes, we know this question has kept many a triangle fan awake at night, tossing and turning until they fall asleep from sheer exhaustion.

A few scholars have written that the triangle is a direct descendant of the sistrum.  The main assertion for a lineage between the sistrum and the triangle is that both were used in religious ceremonies.  Hence, they must be close relatives, one might suppose.

This is an unfounded idea, however.  There is no link that connects the two, and it is clear that the development of the triangle was independent and not as a result of the evolutions of the sistrum! 

If the sistrum was to evolve into a triangle, it would lose a number of its properties such as the size and how it produces its sound.

Pictures from the seventeen century show the sistrum and the triangle together, sharing the stage. Therefore, both of these instruments existed differently from each other.

Here is a video showing how the sistrum is played, if you are curious to hear it.

What are some of the instruments that looked similar to the triangle?

Instruments such as the spurs and trapezoid dulcimer have a some resemblance to the triangle, although their resemblance is merely passing, at best.

Here are the spurs being played by David Valdés.

These instruments were used in the early fifteenth century, or thereabouts.

Although the trapezoid dulcimer and the spurs have a passing resemblance (in the case of the trapezoid) or percussive function (in the case of the spurs) to the triangle, they are not really the same at all.

It is believed, however, that the early makers of the triangle could have gotten ideas from these two instruments.  Of this, we concede, it’s likely.

Here is the sound of a hammered trapezoid dulcimer.  

When was the first triangle instrument seen?

The triangle instrument was first mentioned in a manuscript dating back to the 10th century. 

A number of drawings depict triangles with rings,  though the early triangle from the 10th century had no rings, and had a slightly different and more decorative shape with some interesting almost floral motifs and curlicues.

Hebrew culture also featured what were called “tuning triangles”, which is another purpose for which triangles may have been created, to use as way to tune other instruments.

Another image of the triangle can be seen in the 14th century, slightly different again.  This iteration of the instrument is found in religious paintings, stained glass, manuscript and much other religious symbolism.

The triangle always appeared with sacred instruments and icons depicting Christian symbolism.

Looking back to that time, it was a time when the church was struggling with the incorporation of instruments into the church. Being a simple instrument with its rhythmic nature, the triangle was the likely candidate for use.

The popularity, such as it is, of the triangle seems to be holding steady since the 14th century.  Design modifications to triangles through the centuries were less documented than other instruments that arrived on the scene, and so there is much mystery to the triangle’s evolution.

Development of the triangle

In the 15th century, the triangle seemed to have gained some additional popularity. The triangle is seen with jingling rings that are located at the horizontal bar. Most of the instruments in that century had either two or three rings attached.

Due to its short sustain and particular quality of sound, the triangle was considered as a supportive instrument.

In contrast, today’s triangles are considered as instruments which have more sustain to their sound.

Description of the early triangles?

Due to the construction process, the triangle of the 19th  had pointed corners as compared to the modern triangles which have rounded corners. The pointed corners were as a result of forging the metal on an anvil.

Comparing how the modern triangles are constructed there exists a great contrast. The modern triangles are created by folding the metal around a jig. 

As illustrated in many images over the century, the was consistency in the size of the triangle. 

The triangles were between 8 to 12 inches although there were some triangles which seemed to be bigger than this.

The bigger triangles were estimated to be between 16 to 18 inches in size.

The modern triangle

The modern triangles are constructed in a way that the left angle is left open.  The ends of the bars do not touch. But why leave an opening? The opening is not there by accident.

This opening is important as it prevents the triangle from having a certain pitch rather, it allows scintillating overtones to be generated.

The triangle is always suspended by a piece from the other adjacent corner.

The commonly used piece is a fish line it can be hooked over the hand. This suspension allows the triangle to vibrate freely. The triangle is then struck using a metal and the resultant sound is a high pitched tone.

Here is a video showing how to play the triangle.  Kalani knows his stuff.  Great technique!

Which music style can you use the triangle?

Since the middle of the 18th century, the triangle has been used in a number of orchestra performances.

Franz Liszt, a teacher of music, a composer, and a conductor was the first to a triangle at a piano concert.

A number of composers such as Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven also used the triangle in the 18th century in classical music.

Check out Symphony #100 (“Military”), played by David Valdés.

The triangle has also been used in Brazilian music styles and also in folk music. In the Brazilian music style, the triangle is used together with the zabumba.

Here’s a cool video where the zabumba and triangle are both featured, by soundamusica.

Triangles are also used in some cultures to call people to dinner – a noble purpose indeed, if ever there was one.

Here is a video showing the creation of a dinner bell triangle by a blacksmith by the name of Chandler Dickinson.  This video is rather long, but worth a watch!

Although you may not think of it often, the triangle has gained popularity over the years and, due to it’s sporadic nature, is often used as a dramatic accent to certain pieces of music.

Dating to more than 1000 years, the triangle can be considered the purest metal instrument in the percussion family.  Our hope is that it will one day be the dominant instrument in every culture.  

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