For most people, the five-neck guitar wielded by Rick Nielsen or the Air Cake, used by German group Einsturzende Neubauten (no we didn't make that up) in their live performances, would probably fall in the category of weird musical instruments. And that’s understandable, considering the abundance of live instruments in popular music that are viewed as more conventional, such as a regular guitar, piano or drum set.
But when it comes on to strange instruments, there are some that truly boggle the mind. Like the mythical cat piano, which supposedly produced music via cats who had their tails struck by nails when a key was pressed (ouch!). Or the badgermin, which is a cross between a dead badger and a theremin (sounds gross enough).
Our research unearthed even stranger musical concoctions, such as the vegetable orchestra, consisting of real veggies, and the Loophonium (it actually involves a loo). With that said, we decided to share a few of the more practical (or just plain weird) ones you may or may not have heard of. Check out these 10 musical instruments that play on the wilder side.
Invented close to 100 years ago in the 1920s, the Theremin is a remarkable instrument in that it is played without being physically touched. Named after its Russian inventor, Leon Theremin, the electronic instrument uses two antennas, one for pitch and the other for volume. The distance of one’s hand from either antenna controls the sounds that are produced. The Theremin's music can sound quite eerie, which is why it has featured in the sound effects of a number of science fiction movies. But it can also be played to sound like a classical instrument. Watch thereminist Pamelia Kurstin play below to get a taste.
Tibetan Singing Bowl
More a source of healing than for entertainment, the Tibetan Singing Bowl, also referred to as a standing bell, has existed for centuries. It is essentially a metallic bowl that is played by striking or rotating a mallet around the rim. They vary in size and are regarded as ceremonial or meditative instruments, used mainly by music therapists and yoga practitioners for healing, relaxation, meditation, and other therapeutic purposes. In recent decades, they have also found use among new-age genre musicians who produce what is referred to as Tibetan music. Here's the Tibetan Singing Bowl in action.
Singing Tesla Coil
Also called the Zeusaphone (after Zeus the god of lightning) or the Thoramin (after Thor, of course), the Singing Tesla Coil isn’t exactly an instrument. It’s an electrical concoction that is based on the design of the solid-state Tesla coil – invented by Nikola Tesla – and modified to produce music as it shoots out electrical arcs. It consists of a pair of (usually copper) coils, each built with its own capacitor, which stores electrical energy. The physics behind the phenomenon is pretty intriguing (it’s Tesla innovation after all) but in addition to producing some pretty awesome musical notes, the Singing Tesla Coil also adds cool visuals with its lightning show. Just check out the video below.
Like the pronunciation of its name, this purely acoustic instrument is on the elaborate side. Created by Turkish inventor, Gorkem Sen a few years back, the Yaybahar consists of strings, springs, and drum parts, and is likened to a type of synthesizer. Depending on where you strike, stroke or strum, it can produce a stunning array of sounds, ranging from murky to mellow. You will see (hear) what we mean in this video demonstration by the creator of the Yaybahar.
This next instrument hails from Canada and uses water to produce music. Invented in the 1980s by Professor Steve Mann, while at the University of Toronto, the Hydraulophone is made up of a curved tube through which water is pumped. A number of small holes are located at the top of the tube, which lies horizontally; the musical notes are created when the water is forced out of the holes. Different sounds are created by blocking a hole, or sets of holes, with the fingers. The sounds produced are rather soothing, made more so by the flowing water. Check out the video below to see what we mean.
Singing Ringing Tree
We now head over to England, in the town of Burnley, where you will find the Singing Ringing Tree. Except that it’s not an actual tree, it’s a giant musical sculpture, designed to make use of the wind in order to produce music. Made up of pieces of galvanized pipe, the sculpture – presented in 2006 – is the work of architects Anna Liu and Mike Tonkin, as part of an environmental project, and is one of four landmarks called “panopticons.” The sounds emitted by the Singing Ringing Tree are controlled entirely by the strength and direction of the wind, which is probably why its music has been described as eerie, melodic, heavenly, and other adjectives. Here is a sample (you might want to turn up your sound to get the full effect).
One look at the shape of this instrument will quickly give away why it has the name it does. But there is more to this serpentine, bass wind instrument than meets the eye. The Serpent is actually pretty old – invented around 1590 – and is related to the Tuba and the Cornett. It is made of wood and leather and is played by vibrating the lips against the mouthpiece. Finger holes allow the player to regulate the sound from the instrument, which was popular in churches and orchestras during its heyday. This is how it’s played.
The Glass Armonica
Also called bowl organ, hydrocrystalophone, or simply harmonica, this glass instrument has a history steeped in mysticism. It was originally inspired by English musicians strumming out notes from an arrangement of wine glasses, which led to Benjamin Franklin building the Armonica using a series of glass bowls held together on an iron spindle in the 18th century. The bowls are color-coded to denote the respective notes and the instrument played by rubbing with the hands. Although regarded to produce rather tantalizing tones, the Glass Armonica once earned the reputation of being one of the most dangerous instruments. Not because it’s made of breakable glass but due to early reports of users going mad or dying after listening to its music. Science has since debunked those assertions. You be the judge.
Here’s another one for the history and record books. Invented in 1850 by French luthier Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, the Octobass dwarfs the Double Bass in size while pushing out even lower notes than its shorter cousin. It is all of 3.6 meters in height and consists of three strings. Being that high means it is not playable without some form of assistance, which comes in the form of a standing platform and levers on the neck. The Octobass is among the rarest instruments around today (probably due to its size); in fact, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra is the only one of its kind in the world to use an Octobass. This is how they use it.
The Chapman Stick
Rounding out our 10 strange musical instruments list is one that might seem more familiar to another you’re used to – the guitar. In fact, the Chapman Stick is from the guitar family and is an electric instrument made up of 10 – 12 strings that have been tuned individually. Invented in the 1970s by Emmet Chapman, this unusual but musical stick has had starring roles in recordings, playing everything from melodies and textures to booming bass lines. Take a listen.
There are a number of other weird musical instruments which we haven't mentioned here. Are there any you think would be worthy of this list? Better yet, are there any strange instruments you might have played? Be sure to share with us on social media.