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Conservation of Musical Instruments

By Peter Winsor and Stephen Ball

The family of musical instruments is probably one of the broadest and most diverse classes of object that a museum can have in its care. As well as exciting interest in their own right, instruments convey and reflect a great deal of cultural information.

Materials range from barely altered vegetable products such as dried gourds to complex constructions incorporating modern plastics and sophisticated electronics. This fact sheet addresses some of the general conservation and care issues raised by the most frequently met representatives of this challenging class.

Types and Families of Instruments

This brief survey reviews the materials used in the construction of the different types of musical instrument and looks at the principal care pointers for each group. One of the most significant conservation issues relates to the fact that even the simplest musical instrument is (potentially) a working object. Later sections address the issues of cleaning and maintenance, storage and display, and whether to play old instruments.

Wind Instruments

The familiar orchestral division into brass and woodwind provides only a partial guide because of the range of materials used and the existence of a huge diversity of wind instruments from outside the familiar modern Western canon.

Woodwind instruments are misnamed in that they can be constructed largely of metal or, more recently, of plastics as well as from wood. There may also be smaller amounts of horn, ivory or bone (for example in reinforcing rings), and various padding or binding materials used for sealing holes and joints. Many woodwind and related instruments have straight bores that allow inspection for signs of dirt or damage. Look for excessively stiff or loose joints between the different sections of an instrument, but never try to force a seized joint - take advice.

Brass instruments are more difficult to examine internally, though some additional access is possible after the instrument has been dismantled - carefully, by the removal of tuning slides and other intentionally demountable components. Again, the bore may show signs of corrosion or damage (but take advice on the removal of residues and internal deposits - see the section on cleaning).


This group includes a vast array of fretted and unfretted instruments of various sizes, played in many different positions by a variety of means. Normally, one or more strings pass from an anchorage over some kind of bridge and attach to fixed pegs or rollers that permit tuning. Common construction elements include a sound board, usually backed by some kind of resonating chamber, and one or more necks carrying surfaces or constructions for the fingers to vary the pitch of notes. (Dulcimers, harps and other multi-stringed instruments are played in different ways, and where these carry mechanical aids to playing they have much in common with keyboard stringed instruments.)

This group includes the violin, viol and rebec families; guitars and their variants and precursors such as the cither: the lute and variants: the psaltery; Western plucked instruments such as the banjo, mandolin, bouzouki and balalaika; and non-Western instruments such as the samisen and sitar.

Key conservation points include the condition and strength of the various woods under the considerable stresses of string tension - wood is by far the commonest material because of its resonant and tonal qualities - and the condition of components that are renewed through the life of an instrument (strings, bridges, etc.) or are mechanical (tuning pegs and machines, etc.). Finish is significant too, affecting sound as well as appearance, and may be composed of traditional varnishes such as shellac or nitrocellulose lacquers.


The complexity of many keyboard instruments, together with the heavy loading created by multiple strings, means that professional conservation advice will probably be needed for all decisions affecting their conservation and care. These decisions include whether and when to tune or play the instrument, and the assessment and monitoring of frames, cases and mechanisms for signs of wear or strain. Care programmes should recognise that early instruments are significantly different from the modern piano; musicians and craftspeople familiar with the latter may not have sufficient knowledge or experience of older forms.

Keyboards also serve pipe and electronic organs, of course. These, together with other keyboard instruments such as player pianos and celestes, are also specialist areas that require advice from people with suitable expertise.


Drums from various parts of the world consist of a head, usually of treated animal skin, stretched across a suitable form of support, often with some kind of adjustable tensioning. The focus of care will normally be the head, provided the other materials of the drum are stable. Heads on non-played drums will benefit from being kept at a minimum tension consistent with the skin surface remaining flat. De-tension drum-heads very slowly, paying attention to any painted designs on the skin as the tension comes off - these may shrink and crack or flake.

Other percussion instruments - cymbals, glockenspiels, temple blocks, xylophones etc. - are relatively stable, depending on the materials of their construction. Typical materials include steel, brass, bronze and wood, which require the appropriate monitoring and care.

Electric and Electronic Instruments

Electric and electronic instruments rely on electricity to a greater or lesser extent to produce a musical sound. The role of electricity can be small but nevertheless crucial, as in the case of a simple electric-acoustic guitar or the electrically driven blower of a modern pipe organ. In each case the instrument is fairly conventionally designed but uses electricity to save labour and provide a uniform air-flow (organ) or to add volume or a changed tone (guitar). Conservation and care will largely depend on the characteristics of the basic instrument.

Note, however, that in the case of the guitar this means that the 'instrument' should really be seen as the combination of guitar together with its amplifier. This is particularly true when the instrument has little or no mechanical resonance of its own, as is the case for 'solid' electric guitars which may be partly composed of metals, composites or plastics. Amplification has changed greatly since the early products of the valve era: valves improved as they developed, but then gave way to solid state electronics designs that sound very different. Loudspeaker design is another area where improvements have changed tone colours.

The sound from stringed instruments is converted into electrical signals through some kind of pick up, most of which use electromagnetic or piezoelectric techniques. The electrical components of amplified instruments such as guitars and 'bugged' violins are important contributors to the characteristic tone, so should never be regarded as insignificant add-ons that can be discarded and replaced during routine maintenance. A minor component such as a resistor, methods of coil winding, and even the nature of the wiring all influence the final sound, so museums must apply the same standards of integrity to all parts of an electric instrument and not just the obvious hand-crafted parts.

Cinema and Hammond organs are examples of another important class of electronic instruments that use electronic techniques more completely to generate and modify the final sound. In this case, there is no playable acoustic instrument remaining when the power is switched off. The museum's attention will concentrate on electro-mechanical components such as keyswitches and relays, and on the conservation issues arising when obsolete components such as valves and wax-dielectric capacitors wear out.

The working principles of showmen's and Dutch organs - large working objects in their own right, and a separate specialist area - will depend on their age; many are now electrically driven but the sound is almost always produced mechanically via pipes and percussion.

More recently, several types of electronic instruments have evolved, including synthesisers and other similar devices that generate sound digitally. Most of these use keyboard inputs, but various other forms of interface are possible, including guitar or drum variants. The digital nature of these instruments means that they can interface directly with computers, commonly via the widely used MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) standard. Some knowledge of the electronics and an understanding of the appropriate computing techniques are important if these instruments are to be kept in playing condition.

Cleaning, Maintenance and Everyday Care

The conservation approach to cleaning that you apply to other objects in the collection is also appropriate for musical instruments, though there are two main caveats. One concerns the variety of materials and structures used across the spectrum of types of instrument: beware of global cleaning techniques that suit some parts of an instrument but that may threaten other parts or components of the object. The other is the subject of the next section - dirt and even damage may preserve something of the history of the instrument and the 'signature' of those who have played it.

The reasons for cleaning are not simply aesthetic, of course. Dust and dirt can threaten surface finishes and may also serve as a focus for chemical change and pest attack, especially in an unstable environment or where temperature and humidity are high.

Cleaning methods should be as gentle as possible. A very soft brush used in conjunction with an adjacent vacuum cleaner nozzle may be all that is necessary in many cases. As always with this method, cover the nozzle with a muslin or similar filter if there is any risk of fragments coming away from the instrument.

More aggressive methods, especially the polishing of metal instruments, should be undertaken only with the greatest of care and after specialist advice. Such methods are often abrasive, removing a layer of plating or metal and associated detail, and usually deposit polish residues in inaccessible nooks and crannies. After the initial shine has worn off the instrument may look worse than it did before; this may tempt the unwary into repeated cleaning sessions.
Remember that blown instruments have been subjected to players' breath throughout their playing lives. The deposited moisture inevitably reacts with the interior surfaces and in time leads to corrosion. This problem is likely to be more severe, though perhaps hidden from normal view, in the more convoluted and less easily cleaned interiors of brass instruments. It is possible to clean some of these deposits, but do take advice first: if the condition has stabilised it is probably better to leave well alone - and some authorities claim that corrosion contributes to an instrument's characteristic sound.

Lubrication may be necessary for moving parts that are to be kept in operating condition. For example, slides and valves of brass instruments need suitable lubrication, as sometimes do machine-style tuners for strung instruments such as guitars. However, the correct lubrication must be used, and applied in the right (usually small) quantities. One example of mixed materials militating against lubrication is that of metal keywork on old wooden instruments, where the lubricant could seep into the wood.

Metal surfaces and components represent one of the biggest cleaning challenges, especially when they are attached to wood, leather and other natural materials. For example, brass may be become brittle or soft with age, making routine dismantling or adjustment a risky business. And ferrous metals are of course prone to rust. In some cases, such as the tuning pins on some keyboard instruments, a little cleaning with steel wool and subsequent lubrication may be the answer, but always seek prior advice if the instrument has any intrinsic value. Never use proprietary rust-removing preparations.

Tuning is essentially a maintenance operation, and if performed correctly may help to preserve the stability of an instrument. The intended pitch is important: even half a tone of sharpness may create damaging stresses in an old string instrument. A museum's most complex tuning problems will probably centre on the keyboard family, especially older examples such as clavichords and spinets - for example, present-day piano tuners may not have the specialist knowledge or tools to work with instruments from earlier centuries. However, non-played instruments on static display may benefit from cautious detuning to reduce the effects of stress on ageing materials (see below).

The Value of a Player's Touch

Very high prices are paid for collectable instruments, where the perceived value is based on rarity or some special association. This second category includes instruments valued for their historical significance - say, where an early instrument represents an important stage in the development of the modern version - but an increasingly important route to collectability is prior ownership by famous musicians.

This does not necessarily mean that a prized instrument should be given the 'Stradivarius' treatment, where a venerable instrument is kept in playable condition through continuous maintenance, repair and adjustment and is owned by a succession of competent musicians or virtuosi. This approach works against many conservation virtues, so another way is to preserve an instrument without making any attempt to bring it into playable condition (see the next section).

A present-day variant on player-associations involves instruments owned by jazz and particularly rock musicians, which are avidly sought by collectors and change hands for very high prices. These instruments are rarely bought to play, and on conservation grounds should be left in whatever condition they are acquired, provided that they are stable. Heavy scratching, chipping, cracks and other damage are all evidence of the playing life of the instrument in the hands of its famous owner, as are temporary repairs and home-made modifications. The story told by this scarring parallels in a more extreme form that told by the dirt patterns on historic instruments.

A Sound Decision?

As the various families and types of musical instrument evolved, their sounds changed with them. New musical tastes required different ranges and timbres, more volume of sound, or increased versatility and playability to match improved playing techniques. Renewed interest in the music of the past, whether from centuries or only decades ago, naturally leads to calls for this music to be matched by the 'authentic' sounds of its time. Should historic instruments be used to produce these sounds?

There is no simple answer to this question, which can only be answered by long and careful review, paying particular reference to the museum's collection policy and the nature of the instrument itself. From the conservation viewpoint, in terms of the object's own integrity and - where appropriate - importance, regular playing constitutes a serious risk. Wear and tear, the risk of physical damage, and the deposition of moisture from fingers and breath are only some of the sources of this risk. To maintain an instrument in playing condition, or to restore one that has lain unused for a time, involves the replacement of short-lived items such as strings, reeds and drum-heads. There will probably also be irreversible changes to the structure of the instrument in the name of 'set up' that may be required for present-day playability.

There are other factors too. One is in-built weakness or lack of durability. An instrument such as an early lute may have been designed with a very light structure to improve resonance, ensuring that it can never be brought up to playing tension in the modern era.

But perhaps the most important factor of all is that old instruments are highly unlikely to produce authentically 'old' sounds. The natural ageing of timbers and other materials, the effects of wear and corrosion, the replacement of worn items, and the succession of set ups throughout the playing life of the instrument produce a greatly changed object. Indeed, this last factor can mean that the modern object - like the virtuoso's Stradivarius - is in many respects a replica of the original. Authentic sounds are probably best created by faithful replicas of the model instrument - a course adopted by many musicians recreating historic periods in music.

Perhaps surprisingly, the 'authentic' sound problem applies equally to the recent past. The sound of electronic and electric instruments depends on combinations of components and materials that may now be unavailable. For example, an electric guitar of the 1960s will certainly have been re-strung many times, and may have been set up and modified many times - perhaps by re-fretting or the replacement of controls or pickups. In an additional complication, its 'authentic' sound was necessarily linked to a specific chain of amplification - and amplifiers too are influenced by rewiring, new loudspeakers, and the replacement of valves (tubes) and other components for which there may be no exact modern equivalents.

Where the museum decides in favour of retaining an instrument in playing condition, this must be the subject of documented policy. Talk to a specialist conservator first, and obtain an assessment of the instrument's condition and suitability for playing. Set out the terms and conditions under which playing can take place, log each playing session, and only grant playing privileges to a panel of bona fide musicians who are aware of the problems and responsibilities of working with historic instruments.

Storage and Display

Normal museum levels of RH and temperature will suit most materials used in instruments, and the familiar caveats apply: low humidity could cause shrinkage and cracking of woods, for example, and high humidity will promote corrosion of metals and encourage mould, chemical and pest attack.

As always, it is the stability of the environment that is of overriding importance: sudden or large changes will severely stress instruments that may already be at risk - for example, where the mechanical stresses of string tension threaten the physical stability of ageing woods. Remember that environmental shocks can be produced when an object is moved from one location to another inside or outside the museum.

Instruments should be well supported both in storage and on display. Supports must be padded with conservation-quality materials to prevent damage to vulnerable surfaces, and cotton gloves should be used for handling. Many instruments are awkwardly shaped, so avoid precarious propping and balancing, or use inconspicuous non-abrading ties to secure the instrument on its mount. Even a small slip or gentle drop could snap off a tuning peg, say.

Supports should be adequate for the long-term security and stability of the instrument. This is not simply a question of weight: for example, a pair of brackets under the ends of a wooden flute may be more than strong enough to support it, but the arrangement may encourage distortion in the long term as the centre portion sags under its own weight. Finally, when incorporating played instruments into displays or storage, make sure that access to them does not disturb adjacent items.

A stable stringed instrument that is not intended for play does not normally need to have its strings maintained at pitch. Progressively slacken the strings of fixed bridge instruments, such as some types of guitar, until the strings are just straight. For instruments whose strings maintain the bridge in position, such as violins, slacken the strings to the point at which they just hold the bridge in place. Keyboard instruments must be detuned gradually and systematically. In all cases take advice, because the removal or reduction of string tension changes the stress patterns through the instrument as a whole.

Sources of Information and Advice

For a more comprehensive understanding of some of these issues, see:

Crispin Paine (ed.) Standards in the Care of Musical Instruments, Museums & Galleries Commission, London, 1999.

Robert L. Barclay (ed.), The Care of Historic Musical Instruments, Edinburgh: MGC/CCI/CIMCIM, 1997.

The publication sells for $36.00 CDN, plus $16.00 shipping and handling. Orders or inquiries should be sent to:

Canadian Conservation Institute
1030 Innes Road
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada K1A OM5
Tel: 001(613) 998 3721
Fax: 001 (613) 998 4721

For more information about private conservation work please contact:

Conservation Register
Tel: 020 7721 8246

Copies of this fact sheet can be provided in alternative formats. Please contact Viola Lewis, Information Officer at MLA for further information.



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