It might seem like musical instruments are pretty straightforward: a lot of people play the guitar, piano, or drums. We are familiar with most kinds of instruments through classes at school or from watching musicians play on television. And of course, most of us have learned at least one instrument at some point in our lives, whether it was the generic recorder in grade school or a brass or wind instrument for marching band in high school.
Yet, there are a lot of instruments out there that most people have never heard of. They allow some artists to fill a niche, and provide a way to reconnect with history or a creative outlet for others. It seems our ancestors were as obsessed with music as we are today, and a wide variety of musical instruments have been around for thousands of years. But not all instruments are old: many artists and musicians have attempted to dream up new musical instruments in order to produce unique and unusual sounds. Some, like the Aeolean harp, actually make use of natural phenomena – in this case, the wind – or reflect scientific developments, such as the singing Tesla coil. Others attempt to emulate the rich sounds of more than one instrument, such as the recently-invented wheelharp. And finally, some instruments are actually custom made, as was the case with the gameleste, which was actually commissioned by and created specifically for Icelandic singer Bjork.
From the ancient didgeridoo to brand-new contraptions invented by ambitious musicians and scientists, here are a few of the strangest (and most awesome) musical instruments in the world.
The gameleste was actually invented specifically for Icelandic singer Bjork for “Biophilia,” an album and multimedia performance project that she created and debuted in 2011. This percussion instrument is a cross between a gamelan, a traditional Indonesian instrument that basically consists of many percussion instruments, and a celeste, which is a small keyboard-like instrument with hammers that strike steel plates, creating a bell-like sound. The gameleste was created for Bjork by a British percussionist and an Icelandic organ craftsman.
9. Solar-powered musical box or “Sharpsichord”
A sound engineer, Henry Dagg, spent 4 years building a gigantic pin barrel harp that is powered by the sun. Dagg called this monstrous creation a “Sharpsichord. It is essentially a huge steel device with a gramophone and 11,000 holes on a rotating cylinder. Pegs that are stuck into the cylinder pluck the instrument’s strings as it turns. The songs it plays must be manually programmed, peg by peg, which means that playing one song could be a long process that actually takes a day or more to do.
The lur is a long blowing horn that can reach as long as 2 meters and appears to be one of the oldest instruments on record. Illustrations of these instruments have been found on rock paintings in Scandinavia. Straight or curved, a lur is often associated with old images of Vikings, and in fact, the wooden version of the instrument was used in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages. As technology changed, so did the instrument: a bronze version of the instrument was played in Bronze-age Denmark and Germany, and consisted of a mouthpiece and some pipes.
7. Singing Tesla Coil
This is probably the coolest instrument on our list, as far as science goes, since it looks like something straight out of a science fiction movie. The singing Tesla coil is a form of plasma speaker. It is a variation of a Tesla coil (a coil that produces high-frequency alternating currents) that produces musical tones by creating a spark output. The result is a pitch that has a low wave-like sound, which is similar to that of an analog synthesizer. Its frequency is actually above human-audible frequencies, so digital modulation reproduces a recognizable pitch. If you’re completely lost in all of this scientific jargon, essentially, the music that this instrument makes results from a spark passing through air.
A pyrophone is literally an organ that makes sounds through explosions. Yes, really. The pyrophone originated in the 19th century (which happens to be when people were obsessed with the discovery of the combustion engine.) The organ creates internal combustion that produces a sound. It basically directs the exhaust of combustion through chambers that produces variable sounds and (more or less) produces different tones. These steampunk-like musical instruments are usually powered by propane or gasoline.
5. Hurdy Gurdy
The hurdy gurdy looks nearly as ridiculous as its name, but it’s actually a very important instrument in French, Hungarian and Galician folk music that produces rich, exotic and timeless sounds. This is a stringed instrument that produces a sound when a wheel rubs against strings, kind of like a bow rubbing on the strings of a violin. In fact, the hurdy gurdy sounds a little bit like a typical stringed instrument, but it is enhanced by melodies that can be played on a keyboard, also contained within the instrument. On top of the instrument are drone strings, which provide a constant pitch that accompanies a melody, making the instrument sound like bagpipes. The hurdy gurdy is sometimes even used in place of bagpipes in songs.
The wheelharp is a musical instrument with bowed strings that is controlled by a keyboard and a foot-controlled motor. It has strings that constantly make a sound as a result of friction between its spinning wheels. The wheelharp is powered by a treadle that is managed by a musician’s foot (kind of like the petals on a piano). Although the wheelharp made its debut in 2013 in California, it was actually based on the design of an instrument that Leonardo da Vinci himself sketched centuries ago. DaVinci never got around to building the instrument, but thanks to some ingenious musicians and artists, the instrument finally became a reality. It produces a very full, rich sound, almost like many musicians playing several instruments at once.
3. Hardanger Fiddle
This instrument might also be the prettiest on the list: a Hardanger Fiddle is a traditional Norwegian stringed instrument that is similar to the violin. What sets it apart is the fact that it has double the amount of strings of a violin – usually 8 or 9 strings. Four of the strings are played like the strings on a violin. The others resonate and provide a haunting, echoing sound to the melodies that are played on the instrument. It is often an elaborately carved instrument and used in many traditional songs from Norway.
The didgeridoo is a well-known, ancient instrument from Australia. It was invented around 1,500 years ago by the Indigenous Australians. It’s basically a natural wooden trumpet or pipe that produces sound through air. The instrument comes in different sizes, and usually the longer the instrument, the lower the pitch of the horn. The instrument is so old that is appears on ancient rock drawings. Today, many instruments are painted to represent the traditional culture of the groups of people who used to play the instrument.
1. Aeolian harp
Also known as a wind harp, this strange contraption makes sounds when wind passes through the device. The Aeolian harp is named after the Greek god of the wind. The large device has a box and a sounding board with strings that are stretched across two bridges. When placed in an open window, the wind blows across the strings and produces sounds. The strings can be tuned to different pitches. The resulting sound is haunting, even eerie, and indeed feels as though the gods themselves are playing this instrument.
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