Eight Strings and Other Nonsense
by Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham
The Anatomy, History and Family Tree of the Mandolin
“The sound of the mandolin is a very curious sound because it’s cheerful and melancholy at the same time, and I think it comes from that shadow string, the double strings.”
Rita Dove, US Poet Laureate
The mandolin is a fretted, eight-stringed, double-coursed instrument, with pairs of steel strings, each pair tuned to the same note, GDAE. It is descended from the mandore (right), a four to six string lute-like instrument, which rather intriguingly only had single-coursed strings. The first “true” mandolins appeared during the early 18th century in Italy. These early mandolins were primarily owned by travelling musicians, hence their popularity spread rapidly through Europe. They would have been bowlbacked, meaning that the body was shaped much like a pear sliced in half vertically. This design would eventually become known as the well-known Neapolitan mandolin (below).
In the early part of its life, the mandolin was primarily a classical instrument. Beethoven wrote for and played mandolin, and Mozart composed for it. Before either of these men Vivaldi wrote a mandolin concerto. After the dawn of the 19th century, the mandolin began to lose popularity in the world of classical music and became a predominantly folk instrument. It was thanks to the Estudiantes Españoles (Spanish Students), a mandolin group popular across Europe andthe US that the mandolin came back into fashion around the turn of the 20th century. It was not uncommon for a family of people to own a family of mandolins and play them after dinner in the same way we would watch Saturday night television now.
At this point, it is probably worth explaining what these other members of the mandolin family are. You may have noticed that the word mandolin is a contraction of mandore and violin, and you would be right! It is of course the same size and shape as the former, and the same pitch as the latter. As you might expect then, there is therefore a mandola, a mandocello and a mandobass, all sharing the same tunings as their violin family counterparts. Whilst in terms of size, it would be easy to confuse a mandola for its little brother, the mandocello is naturally more substantial, with a scale length of around 28 inches. The mandobass is a more obscure instrument, and owing to its rarity especially in recent years, our definition of it is somewhat looser. Today it can refer to a single- or double-coursed instrument, pitched either like a traditional double bass or two octaves below a mandolin.
The main member of the mandolin family which does not share its pitching with violin equivalent is the octave mandolin. It is pitched an octave below the normal mandolin as the name suggests. It was invented to fill in the pitch gap between the mandola and mandocello, and is particularly common in Irish music. Over its lifetime, however, it has changed and developed considerably, and the main contributor to this change has been the introduction of the bouzouki.
During the 1950s, there was an influx of Greek immigrants to Ireland, and with them came their musical culture. The Greek bouzouki was similar to the octave mandolin in that it shared the same GDAE pitch, but one of the strings in each pair in the bottom two courses is tuned an octave above. It also had a smaller, bowlback body and a longer scale length. Over the following few years, the line between the two instruments blurred, ending with the development of the Irish bouzouki. This variant maintained the scale length and octave strings of its namesake, whilst using the traditionally Irish flatter-teardrop body shape, resulting in a fusion of timbres. Despite this, however, the original name of octave mandolin is still very widely used, generally referring to shorter scale length models.
In modern times, the mandolin has in many ways regained its previous folk connotations. It features heavily in the bluegrass and blues music of America, as well as the native styles of many other countries across the globe. In addition to this, however, it also maintains a presence within the popular music scene. Since the rise of the Fender Mandocaster electric mandolin (right) during the 1960s and the increasing popularity of folk rock, mandolins have been used fairly frequently in certain major bands, such as Muse (alternative rock), System of a Down (avant-garde metal), Imagine Dragons (indie rock), Green Day (pop punk) and most famously, Led Zeppelin (classic heavy metal). Sadly, the other members of the mandolin family only really feature in music with strong folk roots.
In conclusion, over the three hundred years of its life, the mandolin has featured in almost every style of music in the Western tradition, and in many others beyond. Its popularity has ebbed and flowed, yet never died out, and I would say that this is proof of its greatness. I would also like to suggest that we are currently in a “mando-flow”, thanks to the work of musicians such as Mumford and Sons, and who knows, perhaps twenty years down the line we will see the next Ed Sheeran clutching a mandocello rather than a guitar…