Unusual Musical Instruments
Created | Updated Jun 24, 2014
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Woodwind Instruments - An Overview | Unusual Musical Instruments
With a little ingenuity, just about anything can be used to produce music. Over the last few thousand years, all sorts of strange instruments have been produced. Here are some of the more unusual ones.
An anvil is used as a percussion instrument in Verdi's Anvil Chorus and in Wagner's Ring for the forging of the ring.
The Aulos is an ancient Greek reed flute. It has three to five finger holes and a reed similar to that of a clarinet. A single player plays two 'auloi' together as a pair, one in each hand, at right angles. Not much is known about what sort of music was played; perhaps one aulos played a drone while the other played the tune. Playing the Aulos put a lot of strain on the muscles of the cheeks, so the player wore a leather face mask which held in the cheeks. The playing of the Aulos was associated with the cult of Dionysus and all that went with it; wild times, revelry and wild dancing, and so it was banned by the sober kill-joy philosophers, Aristotle and Plato.
Pronounced 'bow rawn' (bow rhyming with cow), a bodhrán is a goatskin drum which is struck with a two-ended stick called a tipper. It is very popular in traditional Irish music. The quality of an Irish traditional group is in inverse proportion to the number of bodhrán players it has.
An extremely loud instrument similar to an oboe used in Breton music. The bombard uses so much breath that most bombard players can only play for about 10 seconds. Then they need a break to recuperate.
A celeste is a keyboard instrument in which hammers strike bells. This is the instrument which plays the 'Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy' from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. Celeste players must hate this beautiful tune: despite there being an extensive repertoire for the celeste, this is the only tune anyone else wants to hear.
Pronounced 'shalloo moe', this is a small clarinet-like instrument with a deep tone. It has a cylindrical bore and single reed like a clarinet. Unlike a clarinet, though, there is no upper register and it only has a range of one and a half octaves. It looks a bit like a recorder as it has no bell. The chalumeau was first mentioned in writing in 1700 but the clarinet was developed from it around the same time. The chalumeau was probably developed from the recorder and existed in parallel with the clarinet until the clarinet's lower register was improved enough to make the chalumeau obsolete. (The clarinet's lower register is still called the 'chalumeau register').
The clavichord is like a table-top piano. Like a piano, you press down keys and a hammer strikes a string inside. The difference is that the hammer, which is metal rather than felt, stays touching the string. This produces a tinny sound. The clavichord is very quiet, but it has one great advantage over the harpsichord: you can change the volume of the notes you play by pressing the keys harder. This gives it a dynamic range all the way from ppp (extremely quiet) to p (quiet).
The clavichord was made redundant when the piano was invented.
Corna di Caccia
Pronounced 'korna dee katcha', this is an early valveless hunting horn. It differs from the modern French horn in the lack of valves and in the type of mouthpiece - it uses a cup-shaped mouthpiece like a trumpet instead of the normal conical mouthpiece. This gives it a more strident tone than the normal rounded horn sound. Bach uses one of these in the B Minor Mass.
Sometimes called Cornetto, this instrument is not to be confused with the cornet. A cross between a flute and a trumpet, the sound is produced by lip action like in a trumpet, but the length of the tube is varied by the use of finger holes.
This is an early instrument which is no longer used. It is a double reed instrument with a cylindrical bore. The reed is held in a capped chamber, not in the mouth, like the chanter of a bagpipes. This means that the crumhorn is not really capable of overblowing into the second register. The crumhorn has a very limited range of one octave and one note. Early crumhorns used finger holes without keys. Some modern replicas have keys to extend the range by a few notes. The most distinctive feature of the crumhorn is its shape: the end of the crumhorn is curved upwards to make a shape like the letter J. This is purely for decorative purposes. The name crumhorn means bent horn.
Didgeridoo (various spellings)
The didgeridoo is an instrument made by aboriginal Australians, normally from a log which has been hollowed out by termites. It is basically just a long wide hollow tube. The mouth end is rounded by applying beeswax, to make it comfortable against the mouth. The sound is produced by an extremely loose lip action. This makes it technically a brass instrument, although it is made of wood. Circular breathing is used to provide a continuous note. Aboriginal women are not supposed to touch a didgeridoo. This is strange, because many modern versions of the instrument are made in factories, and guess who gets to work in the factories?
The flageolet is a duct flute with six holes. There are two main types, the French flageolet with two thumb holes and four finger holes, and the English flageolet with six finger holes.
A glass harmonica is not a thing you blow into, it is a collection of large-bowled glasses similar to red wine glasses. A small amount of water is placed in each glass and the glass is played by stroking a finger around the rim. Different sized glasses produce different notes. The sound is very pure and ethereal.
There is an enormous hammer which is used in Mahler's 6th Symphony. Twice during the final movement, the percussionist must strike the ground with this hammer, which has a handle about 5 feet long. This is supposed to represent nails being driven into a coffin! Originally, Mahler had intended three hammer blows, but he decided it looked a bit stupid.
The hurdy gurdy is a string instrument where the strings are bowed by a rotating wheel. To play the hurdy gurdy, you turn the handle and press buttons to get the different notes. 'Hurdy gurdy' is also descriptive of the Swedish chef on the Muppet Show.
The jaw harp is sometimes known as jew's harp, juice harp or mouth harp. It consists of a piece of vibrating metal in a stiff metal frame. Part of this is inserted into the mouth. The vibrating piece sticks out and is twanged with a finger. It provides a base note with is unchanging, but harmonics can be changed by moving the cheeks in and out. The theme music for Raidio na Gaeltachta, the Irish language radio station, has been played on a jaw harp for at least 24 years.
This is a tin whistle which is made twice the size and hence an octave lower than a normal one. It is played in exactly the same way as the ordinary whistle. While it looks like a macho whistle for the big boys, it is actually quiet and slow to react, making it not much competition for a flute.
The lute is like a guitar with extra strings. It is pear-shaped and has a very fancy piece of fretwork blocking the round hole in the middle. It is very quiet compared to a modern guitar. The pear-shaped back of the lute is very fragile and it can't be hacked around the way a guitar can. Very few lutes have survived as a result.
Another ancient Greek instrument, the lyre is like a small harp. The sounding box has two curved bars protruding from it. A crossbar joins these and the strings are attached to this at one end and the sounding box at the other. The lyre was the symbol of classical music for many centuries, but seems to have been supplanted by the bearded tenor.
This is also known as the thumb piano, kalimba, lamellaphone or likembe. It is a Central African instrument. The mbira consists of strips of metal of different lengths which are fixed at one end to a sounding board. The metal strips are pressed down and released to make a 'spoing' noise. The different lengths produce different pitches.
The mezzo-soprano of the oboe family, this is like a larger oboe, but not as large as the cor anglais. It has a bulb shaped bell and an angled crook at the top for the reed to go in. It is pitched a minor third lower than the oboe and is a transposing instrument. The name means 'oboe of love' and the tone produced is absolutely beautiful. Bach wrote some wonderful music for oboe d'amore in his B Minor Mass.
The ocarina is a musical instrument made from earthenware or plastic. It works on the same principle as a recorder or tin whistle. You blow into a tube. The air strikes a hard edge to make the sound. You cover or uncover finger holes to change the note produced. But ocarinas are not long thin tubes, they are round like a hollow ball with holes.
One popular type is the Italian ocarina, or 'sweet potato'. It is shaped like a tear-drop with a tube sticking out of the side. It usually has ten finger holes. It was invented in Italy in the 19th Century.
Another popular type is the Peruvian ocarina. These have been made in South America since before Columbus crossed the Atlantic. They are usually circular or slightly oval and are painted in bright colours. In olden times, they were often made in the shape of animals or people.
The pan pipes is a collection of straight cylindrical tubes bound together. Each pipe is closed at one end. Blowing into the other end of the pipe produces a breathy sound. They are very common in Peruvian music and also popular in Romania.
Pipe and Tabor
The pipe and tabor is not one but two instruments: a pipe and drum. The two are played together by a single player, a sort of one-man-band. The pipe is played with the left hand and the tabor (drum) with the right. This is the traditional accompaniment for Morris dancing. The pipe is often called a 'tabor pipe' when talking about it on its own.
The pipe is similar to a tin whistle or penny whistle, but it has only three holes, one for the thumb and two for fingers. The other fingers support the weight of the pipe.
Since a pipe with three holes will only play four basic notes, the player has to use accurate breath control to 'overblow'. This shifts the pipe into a different harmonic where other notes are available. Overblowing is used to a limited extent in other wind instruments such as flute, recorder and clarinet to get three different registers (sets of notes), but the tabor pipe uses about six registers.
The prepared piano is the invention of the composer, John Cage. It is a grand piano in which various items such as bunches of keys, tin cans and so on have been hung out of the strings, so that all sorts of clangs and bangs come along with the normal piano sound. Another thing Cage is famous for is his composition 4 minutes 33 seconds, which consists entirely of silence.
The racket is a type of bassoon in a pot. There is a double reed at one end of a very long wooden tube. The tube is folded over and over and squashed into a cylindrical box about 30 cm high and 15 cm in diameter. Finger holes down the two sides open into the appropriate places in the tube. This produces a very deep, squeaky tone. The racket has died out as an instrument due to a flaw in the design: there was no way for moisture to escape, so the insides rotted.
The saw is a carpentry tool, but it can also be used to make music. Just attack the back of it with a violin bow and a wailing sound will come out. By holding the handle and pressing the other end of the saw against your leg, you can bend the saw, changing the note produced. With a lot of practice, you can play tunes. Special custom-built musical saws without teeth are available. These have the advantage that you don't cut your own leg off if you slip.
The shakuhachi is a Japanese bamboo flute. This is a bamboo pipe, open at both ends, with usually five finger holes, four on the front, one on the back. Some models have seven holes. The pipe is end-blown, instead of having a separate blow hole. The name literally means 'one foot eight' because the standard model is 1.8 Japanese feet in length (54.5cm - a Japanese foot, shaku, is about 303mm, 0.5% less than an English foot). The shakuhachi has a very breathy sound similar to the pan pipes. The range is two octaves and a fourth. The bottom note with all holes covered is D on the standard model, but there are a number of sizes.
This was the name for a traditional Hungarian instrument which died out. The name was 'recycled' and used for a 20th Century invention, also Hungarian. The Tarogato is like a straight wooden saxophone. It has a clarinet-type mouthpiece but a conical bore, so it sounds more like a saxophone. Tarogato players get cross if you call it a tarogato, because it is actually a tárogató.
The theremin is an electronic instrument invented by a Russian bloke by the name of Theremin. It uses electronic oscillators to produce a note. The most distinctive feature of the theremin is that you play it without touching it. You just wave your hands in front of it. The oscillators are connected to a capacitive pick-up which senses your arm waving and varies the note. Presumably other parts of the body could be used as well.
This is the most elaborate form of bagpipes. It used in Irish traditional music. Unlike the familiar Scottish bagpipes, you don't blow into the Uilleann pipes. Instead you operate a bellows with your right elbow. Air from the bellows pumps up the bag under your left elbow, which provides the air for all the pipes. There are seven separate pipes. The most important is the chanter: you play tunes on this pipe by opening and covering fingerholes. Three pipes are called drones and provide a continuous note: all three play the same note, but in three different octaves. The final three pipes, which are not present on all sets of Uilleann Pipes, are the regulators, which can be used to play chords to accompany the music. They are played by striking your wrist against metal keys, while simultaneously playing a tune with your fingers, pumping with your right elbow and squeezing with your left. Most uilleann pipers stamp their foot too, to provide a bit of rhythm.
The name 'Uilleann pipes' is popularly thought to come from the Irish word, uilleann meaning elbow, but is more likely to be a corruption of the word 'union', because of the union of the seven different pipes. Irish language enthusiasts invented the name uilleann in an attempt to make the pipes seem more Irish.
The viola d'amore is a stringed instrument similar to a viola with extra strings. The additional strings are not touched at all by the player. They pick up sound by resonance and hum away. It's a bit like playing a piano with the loud pedal down all the time.
The zither is an instrument with strings stretched over a resonating wooden box. There are two types of strings: in the melody part, the strings are played like a lap steel guitar. They are pressed down against a fretboard by the left fingers and plucked by the right thumb. In the harmony part, there is one string for each note, like in a harp. These strings are plucked with the right fingers to provide chords. Zither players seem to think they have three hands, because the right thumb must work with the left fingers, independently of the right fingers.
The zither was all the rage when Orson Welles used it for the theme music of his classic film The Third Man. Since then it has more or less been forgotten, but is still useful as a word in Scrabble and a good one to come last in an A - Z of unusual instruments.