History of Spoons Playing? by Mike Keith

topic posted Thu, May 4, 2006 - 3:37 AM by  Vash
Expert: mike keith
Date: 4/24/2001
Subject: Origination of musical instrument

I am trying to uncover the actual or semi-actual date of when spoon-playing was first created/discovered/invented.


This is way out of my area of expertise, which is a particular instrument (Rolmonica), made in the US in the 1920s. However, I'll try to give you help.

This could be a pretty humorous question to answer, but I'll play it straight and serious (which may be funny enough).

I guess to try to pin down when spoons were first played, you'd have to find when the first spoon was invented. Human beings use many things for music, so I'd say within a short while after the invention of the spoon, you'd have a spoon player. Spoons are prehistoric, so I think you would have a pretty hard time finding someone who would say there were not prehistoric spoon players, even though there may be no evidence to prove that there were. (Maybe there is evidence -- I have no idea about that or the actual history of the spoon, which would rightfully be asked of an archaeologist).
What we know as spoon playing may use things that aren't actually spoons -- or ones which are so modified that we wouldn't use them to eat. We may be better off talking about the class of instruments spoons belong to, which I suppose would be "Concussion idiophones." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (the most authoritative reference work on Music -- usually just called "Groves") defines idiophone as: "General term for musical instruments that produce their sound by setting up vibrations in the substance of the instrument itself."

ANd here's their classification for concussion idiophones:
"111.1 Concussion idiophones or clappers: two or more complementary sonorous pans are struck against each other"

Other concussion idiophones are castanets, bones, clappers, and claves. When Groves discusses clappers, they refer to spoons but only after some definitions and earlier history. Here's Groves' definition of clapper:

"Concussion idiophones consisting of two or more objects in the form of sticks, plaques or vessels of wood, bone, ivory, nutshells, marine shells, etc. "

Here's what they say about the early history of clappers:

"Prehistoric rock drawings of dancing figures and pottery of the 4th millennium in Egypt may depict clappers with curved blades held in one hand. Actual instruments, decorated with animal heads or bearded human heads, survive from Dynasty I (c3100–2890 bce). "

Much later in the history of clappers, Groves refers directly to spoons:

"Clappers were used as instruments of music in the Baroque era. Mersenne (Harmonie universelle, 1636–7) spoke approvingly of ‘the little bones and small wooden sticks … which one can manipulate in such a fast and agile way'. Clappers in the form of marrow bones and cleavers were integral instruments in the music of the butchers of England and Scotland, and pairs of Bones, along with clappers formed from household implements such as pairs of tablespoons (‘spoons'), are still common in the British Isles. (In Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bottom remarks: ‘I have a reasonable good ear in music: let us have the tongs and the bones'.) "

In other words, the general class of instruments that spoons belong to are probably among the oldest instruments known to man (striking two sticks or rocks together would make a concussion idiophone). Spoons were probably used as such instruments shortly after spoons were used for eating.

Here's a short essay about bones and bone playing and some bones and spoons for sale (I have no connection with the shop Lark in the Morning but they do have a lot of instruments on the web):

ANd here's a book someone put on the web that tries to teach you to play spoons:

I realize that was a longwinded answer that may not really answer your question, but you can see it's a more complicated question that you probably thought it was.

By the way, there is much more about idiophones and clappers in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians -- I didn't copy more because I try to respect the copyright holders and this publication does a great job and deserves to be paid for it's work. A very good library should have a copy or give you access to the web-based version (which requires registration). I got my information from the web-based version, which is at: (they give you a free trial if you're so inclined.)

Hope that helps you.

posted by:
  • Bob
    offline 5

    Re: History of Spoons Playing? by Mike Keith

    Sun, September 2, 2007 - 2:40 PM
    The bones are mentioned in the Metrical Dindshenchas, an early Irish set of bardic poetry that relate place lore. The earliest preserved edition is part of the 12th century Book Of Leinster and they are also found in other later manuscripts. The poem may have been part of an older oral tradion prior to being put down in writing.

    The bones are mentioned in the poem describing the fair at Carmun.

    An english traslation of this poem can be found here:

    And here is the wikipedia entry on the Dindshenshas:

    At one point, the poem describes the beautiful music to be found at the fair (verse 59):

    "These are the Fair's great privileges:
    trumpets, harps, hollow-throated horns,
    pipers, timpanists unwearied,
    poets and meek musicians. "

    After describing some of the many tales told at the fair, the poem goes on to descibe the loud boisterous music of the rabble (verse 65):

    "Pipes, fiddles, gleemen,
    bones-players and bag-pipers,
    a crowd hideous, noisy, profane,
    shriekers and shouters. "

    Still, the efforts ofthe bone-players and other musicians were rewarded, though what that reward was, we aren't told (verse 66):

    "They exert all their efforts
    for the King of seething Berba:
    the king, noble and honoured,
    pays for each art its proper honour. "

    This puts the bones in Ireland as early as the 12th Century.

    It also puts us bone-players among the less-than-courtly rabble, which fits with the humor of Bottom's line from Midsummer Nights Dream. Remember that Bottom is in the form of an Ass while courting Titania, Queen of the Fairies.....


    Thank you for the Mersenne reference. I had not seen this before and it is the earliest specific mention I am aware of of wooden bones.

Recent topics in "Bones & Spoons"

Topic Author Replies Last Post
Need Feedback Abby 2 December 2, 2010
Bodhrán Workshop with Kip Ruefle Columbus Ohio 10-10-10 kip 0 October 3, 2010
CBH: New Music Vash 0 October 21, 2008
Cheap bones Kent 0 April 9, 2008