odd instruments

6 Amazing and Odd Instruments

I’m sure we’ve all put cardboard tubes over our mouths to make horns or banged on a few pots and pan lids as makeshift cymbals in our time, but these weird and odd instruments really take the cake. We’ve got one that was created by Benjamin Franklin almost 400 years ago, and another that was created by a Russian inventor only in 1928. Some you play without touching, and others need water to work. Take a look below at 6 of the oddest musical instruments we’ve ever seen!

Glass Harmonica

This hauntingly beautiful creation is also known as a bowl organ and is basically a more compact and less-susceptible-to-thirsty-pageant-contestants version of Sandra Bullock’s talent act in Miss Congeniality. Instead of all the glasses standing up individually and being filled with water to change the sound, the different sized bowls are mounted inside each other on a iron spindle and then turned horizontally. The player then wets the tips of their fingers and touches the rim of the glasses while pushing the foot pedal to turn all the glasses at once, creating an eerie sound, which some used to claim could cause the player to go mad.

The real reason why this odd instrument sounds so mysterious is because of the way humans perceive and locate sound. Glass harmonicas play at a frequency that is particularly difficult for humans to locate, so it sounds like the music is coming from nowhere and everywhere at once.

Hydraulophone

Invented by Steve Mann and classified loosely as a ‘woodwater’ instrument, the hydraulophone works in a similar way to woodwind instruments, except, you guessed it, with water instead of air. Water is pumped into the instrument, runs through either reed-like or fipple (like a recorder!) mechanisms, and then out multiple holes, which the player covers with his or her fingers to produce different tones. The sound is sometimes amplified using an underwater hydrophone to convert it to an electric sound.

Most hydraulophones found in public art installations and parks have a limited range of notes, about one and a half octaves, but concert hydraulophones (yes, there are such things) boast a range of 3 and a half. You can find public hydraulophones installed at the entrance to Legoland, in California, and at the Ontario Science Center.

Theremin

This odd instrument was originally known as an etherphone or aetherphone, and has a distinctly sci-fi/mystery quality to its sound and is played without even needing to be touched! The instrument is made up of two sensors, both of which measure the distance from the player’s hand to the instrument. One affects volume, and the other affects pitch. Moving the hands closer makes the sound higher and softer, while moving them further away makes them lower and louder.

It was created in 1928 by a Russian inventor, Leon Theremin, and is named after him. Fun Fact: people often mistakenly think that this instrument was used in the Doctor Who beginning credits.

Otamatone

The otamatone debuted in 2009, and its moderate resurgence in popularity is strange and unexplained. Described by some as a “cross between a tennis ball and a recorder” and shaped like a three dimensional musical note, this cute little thing actually works via a sensor on the note ‘stem’ that reads where the player’s finger is, and a sound producer that only plays when the player squeezes the ‘note head’. The result sounds a bit like a dog’s squeaky toy, and is both adorable and really annoying.

Due to the sensor board having no markings to indicate notes, human error can sometimes cause the Otamatone to go wildly flat or sharp, but there are some people who have ‘mastered’ the strange little instrument.

Kalimba a.k.a. Thumb Piano

Kalimbas are of African descent and are played by plucking the tines across the top with the thumbs. The tines are measured precisely and are also configured so that when one tine is plucked, other tines nearby also vibrate, creating a subtle harmony. Traditionally, the tines of these odd instruments were made with bamboo, but nearly all modern kalimbas now use metal tines.

Many people thought kalimbas were toys when they first started spreading outside of Africa and gaining popularity, due to the fact that they were quite easy to learn and were used in elementary schools as an introductory instrument. However, others realized this was a case of a great thing in a small package. Groups such as Earth, Wind, & Fire and Vampire Weekend have incorporated kalimbas into their modern tracks, and kalimba soloists have found modest success on the internet.

Ocarina

Perhaps not as unknown as the previous odd instruments, due to its appearance in the title of the popular video game Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the ocarina is still far from mainstream. It is extremely old, with origins dating back to over 12,000 years ago, and has a large role in Central American, Chinese, and Japanese cultures. Usually, these flute-like instruments are made of ceramics or clay, which is why the Japanese call it the tsuchibue or “earthen flute”, but they can also be made of plastic, metal, wood, glass, and even bone. The name ‘ocarina’ is an Italian word meaning “little goose: and became the more popularly known name after the instrument was simplified and made into a toy in Italy in the 19th century.

The most common ocarinas are the ‘sweet potato’ type, which, as you might have guessed, are somewhat ovular in shape and potato-y in size, and have 10 to 12 holes, but there are also some smller varieties with only 4 to 6 holes that players can wear as a pendant around their neck, and others that have multiple chambers that enable the instrument to have a much wider range.

That’s it for this segment of odd instruments! What are some strange instruments you’ve seen? Tell us about them in the comments below!

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5 comments

  1. JD

    It would be nice to have links to be able to hear these instruments.

    • There are videos of people playing the instrument for the theremin, hydraulophone, Otamatone, and ocarina that I’ve linked within the description. Here’s a video of ‘Ben Franklin’ playing the glass harmonica: . And here’s a really cool one for the kalimba: .

  2. Karen Funk

    I’m not sure that this is an odd instrument, but have you heard of the Q-Chord? I have seen one once in my life and it is something I would like to have. It is a small, mostly round object, which is quite portable. I envision myself using one in nursing homes and other places where there isn’t a piano. How about a campground?

    • Never heard of it before! I just looked it up and it looks pretty convenient, if a little pricey (over $200!).

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