While many of you know of the guitar, drums, flute, piano, violin, and other instruments that have stood the test of time, there are hundreds more that never saw the same type of fame. Created over the centuries, these instruments have spanned cultures and regions, with a few even being called national landmarks. Though some have been phased out of common use, all still retain a valuable place in the timeline of music history. Below, we look at 30 instruments you may have not heard of and what makes them truly unique and exotic.
The first introduction of sound to film was one of the biggest breakthroughs in the movie industry and sent a shock wave to all, as well as a wave of new and inspiring innovations. Developed in 1926 in California, the fotoplayer kickstarted this movement. This instrument combined piano parts, organ pipes, a xylophone, bells, triangle, drums, and more, and included tons of pedals, levers, buttons, switches, and pull chords that each made a different sound. Before sound could be recorded for films, the fotoplayer enabled musicians to add in musical effects during a screening, bringing entertainment to a brand-new level, and strengthening the ties between the worlds of music, theater, and Hollywood.
Even though the banjo is strongly connected to American folk and bluegrass music, it originated in Africa and was brought over to the Americas by slaves. With an animal hide drum head over its circular body and unique arrangement of 5 strings (with the highest string in the place you’d expect the lowest to be), the banjo is very distinctive from the mandolin and other plucked instruments, so much so that new plucking styles and picks were made just for this instrument.
Created by Emmett Chapman, the Chapman stick is a 10-string instrument resembling the fretboard component of a guitar. To play it, you simply tap the strings. Along the road, Chapman’s company has created several models based off the original including those with a longer scale, 8 and 12 strings, different string spacing, multiple wood compositions, and bass and alto versions. They’ve even put together their very own stick camp learning program for those who want to join in and jam with their stick.
The sound of the crwth takes you back in time through the scenic land of Wales. Originating in Medieval Times, this lovely Celtic bowed lyre is one of the predecessors to modern day bowed instruments in the violin family, though it’s played facing away from the musician like a cello. Made with a wooden, rectangular body that frames the fingerboard, the crwth has two holes in the soundboard, very small tuners, and a special cavity running through the fingerboard. Crwth competitions date back to the year 1176, and this 6-stringed instrument is still played to date.
Perhaps there’s nothing that musically depicts the landscape of the mysterious and amazing Australian Outback more than the didgeridoo. Termites in Australia can hollow out entire trees, creating a perfect instrument body base, often out of eucalyptus branches. Indigenous Australians were the first to create instruments from these abandoned, piped branches by stripping off the bark, smoothing them out, whittling the mouth top, applying gum or beeswax around the rim, and sometimes decorating the final product with brightly colored paints. Didgeridoos are still used in traditional indigenous Australian cultural ceremonies, as well as in mainstream music applications.
Double Contrabass Flute
If you thought carrying a sousaphone was difficult, try carrying a double contrabass flute. This massive musical contraption made by Kotato & Fukushima in Japan contains around 18 feet of tubing, providing for an unusual range of fluttery sounds, and making it the largest flute ever created.
With the first hammered dulcimer appearing in the Middle East around 900 A.D., the modern Appalachian dulcimer was evolved in the 19th century by Scotch-Irish immigrants residing in the Shenandoah Valley of the Appalachian Mountain region. Played with the instrument resting on your lap and plucking it with your fingers, one can find the dulcimer being played on someone’s porch like a banjo often is. Its fun sound is created from a long, thin, wooden body strung with melody strings close to the player and a bass string on the outside. The dulcimer became popular in American folk music and is still prevalently heard in Appalachia to date.
True to its name, a friction harp produces sound when you rub your fingers along the length of its metal tubes to create friction. It can be constructed from various metals cut to different lengths for practically any range of notes, and screwed or welded to a secure bass. To fit a player’s preference, it can be set up parallel or perpendicular to the ground.
A relatively new instrument, the Gameleste was created when Icelandic artist Bjork commissioned the creation of new instruments to complement her music style and 2011 album. A modified celesta (similar to a piano) with tone bars from a gamelan (an ensemble of kettle-shaped tuned gongs prevalent in Java, Bali, and Indonesia), the gameleste produces unique chime-like sounds.
Derived from the Greek word ἁρμονία (harmony), the harmonica is a well-known instrument. However, few people have seen or heard of a glass armonica. Invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761, the glass armonica works in a similar way to sound produced from tuned bottles and glasses. For its construction, glass bowls are lined in a row and continuously spun on a long rod. While the glass keeps spinning, the player taps the edges of different bowls for each note. The sound resonates clearly, creating an angelic aura. In a generous spirit, Franklin refused to patent it, like the rest of his inventions.
The Great Stalacpipe Organ
Filled with spacious tunnels of dripping and flowing water, endless echoing sounds can be heard inside underground caves, but perhaps none is more surprising than the great stalacpipe organ of Luray Caverns, Virginia. Inspired in 1954 by the natural sounds produced from stalactites and the cave walls, the Pentagon’s electronic scientist/mathematician Leland Sprinkle decided to combine the sounds of nature’s wonder with a man-made instrument. After testing over 3,000 of the stalactites, he selected about 37 for his idea, and shaved them to perfect their pitch. When pressing a key on the organ, an electrical pulse is created which directs a rubber-tipped mallet to tap a stalactite. The sound then vibrates off the cavernous walls through a vast space of about 3.5 acres making this the world’s largest natural instrument. Since stalactites constantly grow through water accumulation and are subject to mechanical and chemical weathering, the instrument is constantly upkept and tuned.
Remember walking home and dragging a stick along the fence to make a clanging noise, or playing with your great grandmother’s washboard? The güiro follows the same principals. This Latin American instrument is made of a carved, serrated body, often cylindrical or shaped like a fish, and played with a stick or dowel-shaped scrapper. Originally made from gourd-shaped fruits picked off the higüero tree, they are now made from wood, plastic, and metal as well. Heard in Latin and Caribbean music, güiros can be used to produce a nice array of rhythms and sounds.
Hardanger Fiddle (Hardingfele)
Hardangerfjord, Norway is home to a violin that not only has 4 regular strings, but also has 4 to 5 sympathetic strings beneath the fingerboard to give it an echoing sound. Typically adorned with beautiful and intricate artwork including carvings, drawings, and inlays, this violin originated in the mid-1600s and can be tuned in one of about 26 different ways. Even today, this instrument has remained popular in Norwegian folk music, as well as in America and Sweden.
“Hurdy-Gurdy” is quite a term for this 12th century Medieval stringed instrument, but despite its unusual name, it became pretty popular in France and in folk tunes. It has changed throughout time like many of its string counterparts, but has retained a distinct look. Played by manually cranking the instrument’s wheel, the musician simultaneously pushes on keys attached to the strings. The wheel takes the place of a bow, rubbing the strings for a drone-like effect almost reminiscent of a stringed version of the humming sound of bagpipes.
The company splashtones has decided to cultivate the sound vibrations of running water into a musical instrument. The player blocks sound holes of jets of water to produce a full, calming sound in a unique fashion. The instrument can be custom built, and is found in the Ontario Science Centre, Legoland (California), the Florida Aquarium, children’s museums, and CNIB (a charitable organization that helps Canadians suffering from vision loss), amongst other locations. The group H2Orchestra performs worldwide with their music centered around the hydrolauphone.
From the same family as the mbira, the kalimba is a thumb piano created by West Africans over 3,000 years ago near Cameroon. First made from woods of various lengths, they spread through the remainder of Africa and are now found throughout the world. Currently, many are made from small, thin, flat strips of metal that are arranged in an alternating pattern (compared to a piano’s layout). Connected to a wooden base, they spring and vibrate when pushed down. A relatively soft sounding and small instrument, the word kalimba means “little music” in the Bantu language. They are still used for fun in a wide array of musical genres, as well as in cultural celebrations and spiritual gatherings.
Named for the Greek word λίθος (lithos), meaning “rock”, lithophones are made of flat slabs of stone placed on top of or tied down to two parallel wood or metal risers. This creates a gap between the ground and the rocks, allowing room for resonation. Contemporary metal/wood percussion instruments, including the xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, and glockenspiel, mimic the keyboard-style layout pattern of the lithophone. The oldest of these ancient, Stone Age instruments have been found at prehistoric sites in Vietnam – who knew rock music went back so far? They can be played by scraping the slabs with other small rocks, or banging them with mallets, and are currently used to scare animals away from crops, in addition to making music.
Like its other blowing horn counterparts including the shofar (ram’s/sheep’s horn), Tibetan dungchen, and Swiss alphorn, the Viking lur gives off an arresting, royal sound that’s loud enough to be heard over the mountain tops. Used primarily for warning signals, it was later incorporated into music. Early Nordic models were cast from bronze (during the Bronze Age), and over time, wooden lurs were carved to be used by shepherds in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.
Played for over 600 years, this traditional Swedish instrument’s modern version has 16 strings total (3 melody strings, 1 drone string, and 12 sympathetic strings) and 2 to 3 rows of keys. “Nyckel” is Swedish for “key”, making this a violin-shaped, bowed, keyed instrument with an elaborate flair.
The ocarina is popular throughout the world in Central and South America, Europe, Japan, Morocco, and other locations, and is even featured in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time video game. The earliest of these painted clay vessel-flutes stretch back 12,000 years ago to the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan empires. These beautiful, ancient wind instruments are sometimes found in the shapes of animals.
Pan Flute (Panpipes)
Created by the ancient Greeks, pan flutes were attributed to Greek mythology and the Greek god Pan. Made from fastening 4 to 18 cane tubes together, the player blows across the top of each tube to create soft, airy sounds. They have grown popular throughout the world including in Native American music, especially in Peru.
The distinctive, twangy sound of the pipa creates an atmosphere akin to the foothills and gardens of West and Central Asia. This plucked lute has 4 strings and an oval body with frets of different sizes. Its name is derived from the words “pi” (to play forward) and “pa” (to play backward). Both describe the rapid back and forth plucking style associated with the pipa in which the player consecutively uses multiple fingers on the same note. Made with silk strings, it became widespread in China during the Tang Dynasty and was often artistically decorated.
Located on the Mediterranean coast of Zadar, Croatia, the sea organ was designed by architect Nikola Bašić with the help of hydraulics consultant Andročec (from Zagreb Civil Engineering University) and others. The organ is comprised of layers of deep steps reaching from the coast down to the ocean. At around 230 feet wide, it has 35 pipes of various lengths that are attached to whistles reaching from the lowest tide level up through air holes to the surface. Every time the tides change and the sea pushes the air through the pipes, diverse sounds are produced, adding to the natural, soothing sound of the ocean waves.
Singing Ringing Tree
In the midst of the beautiful, hilly countryside of Lancashire, England stands a unique musical creation. Designed by Tonkin Liu, the singing ringing tree was made from galvanized steel pipes cut to different lengths and stacked on top of one another. Placed not too far from part of the country’s Forest of Burnley Reforestation program, the tree converts wind energy into low pitched sounds thanks to its tubular, tree-like shape.
Used throughout ancient and present-day India, the sitar is a Persian-Indian lute made of many natural components, ranging from Indian mahogany to dried pumpkin, and has a great reverberation across the board. The strings can be pulled and bent more so than most other stringed instruments, but perhaps the most unique aspect present in many sitars is a resonator (called a tumba) just below the headstock on the underside of the neck which adds to the resonation that takes place in the body of the instrument.
It may be a household item, but it’s not too often you hear someone playing spoons. Since prehistoric times, people have been making music, and the spoons come from the oldest instrument class of all – idiophones (instruments that rely on vibrations from striking, shaking, or grating). Spoons along with human bones and other items were used by Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans for signals and battle marches. Today, metal and wooden spoons are still used for an amusing, percussive additive.
Sometimes government sponsored programs result in the creation of…musical instruments. Yes – you read that right. When Russia was researching proximity sensors in 1920, physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen (a.k.a. Leon Theremin) developed a hands-free motion sensor. Not only was this invention one of the first electronic instruments, but it was also the very first to be played without being physically touched. Simply wave your hand near the antenna and different pitches will emanate. Known for its eerie sound used in horror and science fiction films, the theremin spread to other regions including the United States. Robert Moog, founder of Moog Music, started his career by building them.
Alike to other deep harp-style instruments, later violin predecessors, and droned string instruments, the 11th century 3-to-5-stringed vielle had a more oval-shaped body and upright pegs perpendicular to the headstock. Many of its earliest historical references appear in France with one even being found on the seal of the Count of Forcalquier.
Featured in the 2013 NAMM show, the wheelharp is made by Antiquity Music in coordination with Jon Jones & Sons and comes with a curved or straight keyboard attached to a cylindrical construction. When you press a key, one of the many strings get pressed against the rotating wheel to create a gritting sound. The more you press down on the pedal, the deeper the sound becomes.
Made of “singing” Tesla coils, the Zeusaphone works off of musical lightning. With the help of a constant current to create a magnetic field, the build-up of energy through controlled and timed surges, and air heated by plasma, high voltage sparks are discharged from a Tesla coil. As each spark moves through the air, it creates unusual square waves (harsher sounding) instead of the typical (and smoother sounding) curved sine or cosine wave. Perhaps there’s a lot more to explain, but you get the idea… Just like in the movie The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, this creates a fantastic musical light show.
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