Da Vinci invented a portable harpsichord-viola (image above) that was never actually built in his time but was designed to be strapped by a harness around the player’s waist. A system of pulleys and a fly-wheel operate a horsehair bow with the movement of the player’s legs. When a key is pressed, the strings inside the case move up against the bow. The first functional model was built last year by industrial designers at the Italian firm Leonardo3 and played at a premiere in December 2009 in New York City (see NPR story). The gears turned out to be noisier than da Vinci probably intended, though.
A mechanical drum (image at left) was designed to be used for military marches and perhaps in battle. As the soldier walked, the drum would automatically beat in complicated rhythms via the ten beaters that were triggered by adjustable pegs in the rolling wheels. The resulting noise would give the impression that the army was larger than it actually was.
According to Vasari, da Vinci was skillful at improvisation. He saw a correlation between music and painting, writing about the “resonance between visual and aural harmonies.” A computer technician in 2007 claimed that da Vinci’s famous fresco “The Last Supper” has musical notes encoded in the painting. Each piece of bread supposedly represents a note on a staff that translates into a 40-second musical composition. The idea is intriguing, but I would give it more credence if the music matched a known melody from da Vinci’s time, which would have been in line with the purposeful use of music-related iconography in Renaissance paintings.