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The Mbira: A Musical Instrument and Detecting Fake Medicines

Linda Crampton has loved music since childhood. She plays the piano and recorder, sings, and listens to classical, folk, and early music.

A Traditional and a Scientific Instrument

The mbira is a traditional African instrument consisting of metal tines of different lengths placed on top of a wooden soundboard. The tines are plucked with the thumbs stroking down and the right forefinger stroking up to produce music. In the west, the instrument is known as a thumb piano. In the Caribbean, it's sometimes called a kalimba. The instrument is played and its music enjoyed in many countries today. Its name is pronounced um-beer-ra.

Scientists have created an instrument based on the mbira that can be used to detect the density of liquids when it's played. Tests show that the density measurement can indicate whether a liquid medicine is genuine or counterfeit. Counterfeit medicines are a problem in some parts of the world. The instrument is relatively cheap to make and would be easy to transport to areas that don't have access to expensive detection equipment.

The Mbira

Structure of the Instrument

The mbira is particularly associated with the Shona people of Zimbabwe. The Shona instrument contains 22 to 28 tines, or keys, and has a range of about three octaves. Each key is wider and thinner at its tip than at its base. The keys are held in place by a horizontal metal bar placed on top of them near their base. They are held slightly above the solid, hardwood soundboard by a second metal bar underneath them, which acts as a bridge. This allows the keys to be plucked. A wooden hole is located on the right of the soundboard. The little finger of the right hand is placed in the hole, which helps to place the hand in the right position for playing.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the mbira may have existed as long ago as 500 CE. It may well be even older. It's classified as an idiophone, or an instrument that vibrates as a whole in order to make a sound. It's also classified as a plucked iodiophone, or a lamellaphone.

Factors Affecting the Sound

The sound of the instrument depends on the length and size of the tines, the type of metal that was used to create them, the nature of the soundboard, and other factors. The smaller tines produce higher notes. The keys are made from new or recycled metal obtained from a variety of sources, depending on what's available. Iron, brass, or steel may be used. The pitch and tuning of the instrument varies. The bottle tops at the bottom of the instrument shown above are not decorations. They are used to produce a buzzing sound as the instrument is played. Some mbiras have either shells or metal beads on a wire instead of bottle tops.

Producing Resonance

The mbira is often placed within a large resonator, as shown in the photo below. The enclosure amplifies the sound and is known as a deze. A stick is used as a wedge to keep the instrument in position. A typical deze has a circle of attached bottle tops or shells on the edge of its outer surface. Once again, these aren't for decoration but are meant to add a buzz to the sound. Traditional dezes are made from a calabash or gourd. Modern versions are often made of synthetic materials to improve their durability.

Mbira Music in Shona History and Culture

The mbira is connected to the Shona culture and is the national instrument of Zimbabwe. When it's played by a skillful musician, it can create enjoyable tunes and rhythm as well as rich and interesting harmony. The instrument is sometimes known as the "mbira dzavadzimu", which means mbira of the ancestors.

The Shona traditionally played the instrument at important ceremonies, including weddings, funerals, and events honouring specific people. The instrument was also played during a ceremony to attract the spirits of the ancestors. This event was known as the Bira. The music was intended to help people enter a trance and make communication with the spirits easier. Singing and dancing were often additional components of the event. The ritual sometimes lasted all night. It was generally performed by a group of related people who wanted to ask their ancestors for help.

The word "kalimba" has more than one meaning. It's sometimes used as an alternate name for a mbira, but in North America the word generally refers to a slightly different instrument with only one row of keys.

Today the mbira has both spiritual and national significance for the Shona. The instrument has has been incorporated into popular music in Zimbabwe and in the west, where it appears in rock, pop, and jazz music. Often two people play a similarly tuned mbira at the same time. Each player's music complements the other's, and the sounds made by the instruments interlock. An American ethnomusicologist named Paul Berliner brought the mbira and the Shona culture to international attention in the 1970s.

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The mbira is the national instrument of Zimbabwe, where it holds an important place in all spiritual, political and artistic matters of the Shona people – so most people belonging to that culture will have some working knowledge of the instrument since childhood, even if they aren't musicians themselves.

— David Macnamee, The Guardian Newspaper

Obtaining an Instrument

Musical instruments based on the mbira are available in some music stores and can be easily found online. It may be a challenge to find an authentic version of excellent quality that also has an acceptable price, however.

Artisans are likely to provide the closest thing to a real mbira, but their instruments will probably be more expensive than store-bought ones. Some authentic instruments can be bought online. Instructions for making homemade mbiras are available on the web. When constructed correctly, the instrument is capable of producing interesting and attractive sounds, as can be heard in the videos in this article.

The mbira has inspired researchers to create a scientific instrument that may be very helpful in the fight against fake medicines. Counterfeit drugs can be a serious problem. In some countries, up to ten percent of medicinal drugs are counterfeit. Identifying these medications and making sure that sick people receive real ones are important processes.

A Scientific Instrument Based on the Mbira

Researchers at the University of California noticed that the density of the metal used to make the tines of a mbira affects the sound that's made. This inspired them to create a related instrument that is able to detect the density of a liquid. The instrument that they've produced acts as a bridge between music and science.

Like the mbira, the scientific instrument contains a long piece of metal attached to one end of a wooden soundboard and plucked at the other. The metal is in the form of single tube that is folded to make a U shape, however. The closed section of the U faces the player and is plucked, as shown in the video below. The open end is clamped to the wooden sound board.

Before it's plucked, the tube is filled with the liquid to be tested. The sound emitted by the instrument as it's played depends on the density of the liquid in the tube. The human ear may not always be able to detect the difference in sounds produced by liquids of different densities, but computer software can. It can tell whether the liquid has the density of a genuine medicine or a counterfeit or adulterated copy.

Analyzing the Liquid in the Tube

Once a sound is produced by plucking the tube in the scientific instrument, it must be analyzed to reveal information about its contents. The density of the liquid in the tube must be compared to that of the real medicine in order to discover whether the liquids contain the same ingredients in the same proportions. Unfortunately, there are two requirements for doing this which might limit the usefulness of the process in some parts of the world.

The relatively low-tech instrument requires some high-tech technology in order to be useful in the detection of fake medicines. The sound of the instrument must be recorded by a smart phone and then uploaded to web software that analyzes the sound and reports the results.

The creators say that they want their device to be useful in developing countries. Perhaps over time the system will be improved so that it can be used in areas where people don't have smart phones or Internet access. Alternatively, perhaps the required technology will become more widely available.

The research was supported financially by both the National Science Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Grand Challenges Explorations program. It would be good if further efforts by the researchers were also supported by these organizations. More research is needed in order to ensure that the instrument works with other liquid medicines besides those that were tested and to investigate the distribution of the required technology.

The World Health Organization estimates that 10 percent of all medicines in low and middle-income countries are counterfeit. Existing technologies to identify counterfeit drugs are both expensive and require expert technicians, neither of which are readily available in much of the developing world.

— Holly Ober, University of California - Riverside, via the news service

An Ancient Device That Is Still Useful

I find it very interesting that such an ancient instrument as the mbira is not only being played and enjoyed today but may also indirectly help scientists solve a medical detection problem. Music, musicians, and instruments from other parts of the world have much to offer us, sometimes beyond new sounds and rhythms. The music produced by an mbira and a capable player can be very enjoyable to listen to. If the scientists who were inspired by the instrument create a device and system that significantly helps the fake medicine problem, the mbira will have made another valuable contribution to humanity.


  • The mbira in the Shona culture from a non-profit organization devoted to the traditional music of Zimbabwe
  • Mbira facts from the Grinnell College Musical Instrument Collection
  • Information about the thumb piano of Africa from the Australian Museum
  • An article about the thumb piano from The Guardian newspaper
  • Musical sensor shows bad medicine plays false note from the news service
  • Musical instruments as sensors: a PDF document from the American Chemical Society
  • Information about counterfeit medicines from the FDA (Food and Drug Administration)

© 2018 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 23, 2020:

Hi, Peggy. Yes, the instrument could be very helpful. I hope this is the case.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 23, 2020:

Thanks for introducing me to the Mbira instrument. It was fun hearing it being played. What I found most fascinating is how it can be used to detect harmful substances in fake or altered medicines or even problems with river waters. This could be a game-changer for many people around the world!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 04, 2018:

Hi, Devika. It is an unusual instrument, at least for those of us living in certain countries. I like its sound.

Devika Primic on October 04, 2018:

An amazing way to listen to tunes. The instrument is unique.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 30, 2018:

Thanks for the comment, Gerry. The mbira isn't well known in some countries, but I think the instrument and its music are worth exploring.

Gerry Glenn Jones from Somerville, Tennessee on September 30, 2018:

This was a totally fascinating article. I can't believe I've never heard of this instrument, but I hadn't until I read this. Its detection of fake medicine is equally fascinating.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 24, 2018:

Thank you very much for such an interesting comment, Mel.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on September 24, 2018:

I think this instrument and its scientific uses shows the interconnectivity of all things. Our sophisticated technologies boil down to everyday frequencies that we hear all around us. Sometimes we have to go back to our primitive roots to grasp important concepts that have been lost somewhere along the line. Great work!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 14, 2018:

Hi, Flourish. The combination of music and science is very interesting. It's chilling that counterfeit medicines are produced, though. As you say, people often depend on drugs to save their lives.

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 14, 2018:

How fascinating that this combines music and science! It really just goes to show how everything in this world is connected in some way. It’s sad that people would produce counterfeit medicines. Lives are st stakes and I’m sure the most vulnerable suffer the consequences.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 14, 2018:

Hi, Heidi. Thanks for the kind comment. I hope you have a very enjoyable weekend.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on September 14, 2018:

I always learn something new from your posts, Linda! And this is no exception.

I think I've heard music using this in movies or television soundtracks, but wouldn't have known what it was. And the medicine ID aspect is just fascinating.

Thanks for sharing your wealth an depth of knowledge! Happy Weekend!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 14, 2018:

Hi, Eman. It would be wonderful if researchers could find ways to eliminate fake medicines. Thank you for the visit.

Eman Abdallah Kamel from Egypt on September 14, 2018:

Fake medicines have become widespread these days. The adverse effects of treatment are more than the treatment itself. I hope the researchers will find instruments such as this musical instrument and others that will enable them to detect counterfeit medicines.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 14, 2018:

I agree, Manatita. Instruments and music from other countries can definitely enrich our lives. I'm hopeful that the research will help the fake medicine situation.

manatita44 from london on September 14, 2018:

This sensoring idea is new to me but great pioneering work. Music can do so much for healing!

Nice to see the scientists branching out to address the problem with fake medicines.

African and other novel, yet old instruments can most certainly enrich our lives.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 14, 2018:

Hi, Mary. Thanks for the interesting comment. Administering fake medicines is a horrible way to treat sick people. It's a problem that needs to be solved.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 14, 2018:

Thank you very much, Bill! I'm glad that there are so many fascinating things to explore in our world.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on September 14, 2018:

Linda, we have a mbira at the cottage, a very simple one, one row, and it is exciting to know how this simple instrument can help science. You are right about the fake medicines sold in many countries. It is sad that people with no conscience always prey on those who can't afford.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 14, 2018:

Absolutely fascinating! I like to think I'm reasonably intelligent, but every week you manage to point out what I don't know...and I'm grateful for it!!!!!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 13, 2018:

Hi, Vellur. The mbira is an unusual instrument in some parts of the world. I like its sound. Thanks for the visit.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 13, 2018:

Thanks, Jackie. I appreciate your visit and comment. Since the researchers got their idea from the mbira, they must have been familiar with the instrument. The connection is certainly interesting!

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on September 13, 2018:

Mbira, an instrument that I never knew about until I read your article. It is interesting to note that a musical instrument from way back is helping modern day science. It has an unique sound, thank you for sharing.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on September 13, 2018:

Mind blowing isn't it? Why would they ever have thought to use it to distinguish counterfeit medicines?

You astound me with what you come up with and never boring for sure!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 13, 2018:

Thank you very much, Pamela. I think it's an interesting instrument, too. The density sensor might be very useful in medicine. I hope this is the case.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on September 13, 2018:

The mbira is a fascinating insturment and I wondered if it was her that long ago. The way it is being used is so interesting since it is being used in the medical field and as an instrument for religous reasons is fascinating. This is an excellent article.

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