I am attracted by
unusual objects and
so when I visited the
music museum at the
University of Montreal,
I could not take my
eyes away from an
object that seemed
somehow familiar. Since
I had to choose an object from
the collection to include
in the Internet virtual museum,
I decided to select
the object that had
captured my attention. It is
well known as a wood-cutting
tool used in construction but I
was surprised to find that a saw
was also a traditional Quebec folk instrument. As I am naturally curious, I wanted to learn more about the musical side of saws. Unfortunately, not much information was available about them but I will share what I discovered with you.
First of all, I must correct a common error. Any saw can be a musical instrument and therefore the correct name is "musical saw" rather than the usual designation of hand-saw or cross-cut saw that describe particular features.
A few technical details - while the saw may be the easiest instrument to make, it is one of the hardest to play. A musical saw has a serrated metal blade with a wooden handle at one end. To play this instrument, the wooden handle is placed between the feet and the blade is bent into an "S" curve with one hand while the other hand is used to rub the serrated edge with a violin bow.
Now for a bit of history. Although the origins of the musical saw are unknown, we think French lumberjacks made the saw into a musical instrument to while away the long nights in the forest. But this is unconfirmed and is only an hypothesis. It was only towards the middle of this century that the saw's popularity was revived in music halls and vaudeville. As a result of Henry Sauguet's musical piece, Plainte, the musical saw is now recognized as a real musical instrument. As for Quebec artists, the Quebec folk groups, "Bottine souriante" and "Perdu l'nord" sometimes use musical saws in concerts. The comedy act "Fous bracs" includes a musical number in which they use several unusual objects, including a musical saw. And the clown, "Chocolat", plays one to entertain youngsters.
We can see from this that the musical saw is still not very well known but that a revival seems to be underway! Perhaps one day, young people would like to play the musical saw rather than the piano! No matter what the future holds, the saw will still be one of the most diverting Canadian heritage musical instruments.
Musical excerpt: Rodrigue "Chocolat" Tremblay