Updated date:

How music creates bridges across cultures:unusual instruments used in world music


We automatically connect with the usual instruments when the topic of music is discussed and the piano, cello, violin, saxophone and so on come forth to occupy our minds. Many of us have been given lessons in these well-known instruments and make wonderful music with them.

The creativity of the human being, however, is difficult to challenge. He uses a variety of materials to bring music to audiences the world over. Indeed, some of the instruments I am about to introduce in this article are examples of simple and pure creative genius.

Indeed, music has a force that can motivate and unite people. It is universal and can be an expression of positive humanity.


Instruments used in world music

Other than the usual piano, violin and cello, there remain some undiscovered musical instruments all over the world that produce sounds to enthrall and motivate. The sounds they produce will literally be music to the unaccustomed ears.


Aeolian harp recorded on a beach

Aoelian Harp

The Aeolian Harp is a musical instrument that is played by the wind. Essentially a wooden box that is a sounding board, It has strings stretched across two bridges to produce sound. These can be tuned to different pitches. These are now made of metal used to craft monuments and put on a windy hilltop so that it can produce its best.

The sound is largely dependent on many factors, including the nature of the wind and type of strings used. Crescendos and decrescendos are sounded exactly like those produced by a harpist. It produces an almost mystical sound. The percussive aspect, like that needed to play the wind chime, is absent.


History of the Applachian Dulcimer

Appalachian Dulcimer

Belonging to the zither family, the appalachian dulcimer is a fretted string instrument that is played in the Appalachian region of the United States. Full-toned and diatonic, its body is as long as the fingerboard.

It first appeared among the Scottish immigrant communities in the Appalachian mountains.

No true mountain dulcimers exist earlier than 1880, when J. Edward Thomas began building and selling them. It was used as a parlor instrument that was best suited to small home gatherings. It was rare in the first half of the 20th century.

It made a reappearance in the 1950’s when folk music was revived. The dulcimer was re-introduced by Jean Ritchie, a musician from Kentucky who brought it to New York in the 1960s. Other musicians like Richard Farifa began to introduce the dulcimer to a wider audience.


Playing the boobam or tubular drum

Boobam Drums

The Boobam is a percussion instrument that belongs to the membranophone family. It is made up of an array of tubes with membranes stretched on one end and the other open. The tuning largely depends on the length of the tube.

These tubes were originally made from lengths of giant bamboo. Membranes were usually made from goat or calfskin but plastic is mostly used now. The name Boobam was coined in Mill Valley, California and refers to Bamboo spelt sideways.

The instrument was used extensively bey Harry Partch, an American composer who developed a system of music that depended on the use of exotic instruments. He called on musicians David Buck Wheat and Bill Loughborough to build some of these instruments for him.

Together with businessman Jak Simpson, they founded the Boobam Drum Company. Jazz percussionist began adding the boobam to their pieces. Their unique sound inspired acts like the Kingston trio. Nick Reynolds of the trio eagerly included them on his percussion solo, O Ken Karaga.


Muddy Waters-Cigar Box Guitar Box Blues

Cigar Box Guitars/fiddles

A cigar box guitar is a primitive chordophone that uses an empty cigar box as a resonator.

Typically, it has a wooden slat and two to three strings.

The early cigar boxes were fairly cumbersome, so it was not until after 1840 that lighter cigar boxes began to be used as the resonators of instruments in Jug Bands and for the blues. These were used by musicians living in poverty and who could not afford an instrument. This was especially so in the years of the Great Depression.

The use of the Cigar Box Guitar has been gaining in momentum. Modern ones have resonator pick up cones added to it.


Bandura Music

The Bandura

The Bandura refers to the Ukranian plucked string folk instrument, which combines the elements of the the zither and lute. Musicians who play the bandura are known as bandurists.

The earliest mention of the Bandura dates back to 1441, when Bandurist Taraszko played in the court of Polish king Sigismund III. Special schools for blind musicians or bards were established, known as the kozbars. By the 18th century, the bandura had formed into a lute like instrument with 4 to 6 strings. It is a diatonic instruments.

In the 20th century, the bandura was used to raise Ukranian ethnic awareness. Blind kozbars began to disappear and the subject was brought up for discussion at the XIIth Archeological Conference in Khariv in 1902. The bandura became popular among students and young people. Restrictions were placed in order to control the rise of Ukranian self-awareness until they were lifted in World War 2.

Today, music conservatories offer courses majoring in the bandura. It is possible in the Ukraine to obtain degrees in Bandura performance and pedagogy.


Balalaika Music

The balalaika

This refers to a family of instruments ranging from the highest to the lowest pitched, used in Russian folk music. All of them have three sided bodies, fir tops and backs made of 3 to 9 major sections. It is played with the fingers or a plectrum.

It comes in the following sizes:

  • piccolo
  • prima
  • secunda
  • alto
  • bass
  • contrabass

the most common being the prima balalaika.

The most common way to play it is to fret notes on the lower string, using a plectrum commonly referred to as a pick by guitar players. Bass and contrabass balalalikas rest on the ground because of their large sizes.

Balalaika orchestras were formed during the Andreyev period. Vasily Vasilievich Andreyev arranged music for balalaika orchestras. It has a sound not entirely Western European. Balalaika ensemble groups were formed during the tbaime of the Soviet Union, which were deemed proletarian (working class) and progressive. Musicians and buskers often play solo on the balalaika.



The cimbalom

The cimbalom is a hammered dulcimer, a large trapezoid instrument with metal strings stretched across the top. Popularized in Hungary, it is found in many Eastern European nations.

It is played by striking two beaters against the strings. The beaters are arranged in groups of three and are tuned in unison.

Dating back as far as 3500 B.C., the cimbalom was played by the peoples of the Mediterranean under different names. It was popular among the Romani Gypsies and popularized by V. Josef Shunda, who began producing it in 1874. It became popular within the Austro Hungarian empire, and was used widely in Moldovian and Romanian

folk ensembles.

Modern cimbaloms from Shunda’s time onward are fully chromatic and can explore semi tones. A more portable version was produced in the Ukraine in the 1950s.




The bonang is an instrument used in the Javanese gamelan. It is a collection of small kettles or pots placed horizontally onto strings in a wooden frame. Each is tuned to a specific pitch in the appropriate scale. The lower pitched kettles have a rounded head.

They are played with paddled sticks.

There are three types of Javanese gamelan:

Bonang Penurus

This is the highest of them and uses the smallest kettles. It utilizes the fastest rhythms of the gamelan.

Bonang barung

This is the mid range bonang and is pitched below the penurus. It covers two octaves and is the most important instrument in the gamelan ensemble.

Bonang panembung

This is the lowest pitched of the instruments and is usually reserved for more serious repertoire.

The parts played by the penurus and barung are elaborate, making the bonang an instrument that gives a piece of music a defining quality.


First Look Inside

The Kalimba

The kalimba, also known as the thumb piano, like the xylophone belongs to the bar percussion family. An instrument common in the Congo and Zimbabwe regions of Africa, it consists of a wooden board with metal bars of varying lengths affixed. The longest tines are typically in the center, with shorter (and thus higher-pitched) tines arranged alternately in ascending order towards both sides of the instrument. It is held in both hands to pluck the tines simultaneously.

It is bent at a certain angle to produce overtones, with chords being produced when adjacent tines are played. It was played braveling musicians or girots who entertained villagers with songs and stories. The sound of the kalimba was thought to bring down spirits to Earth, attaching spiritual importance to the girot and his instrument.

The first Kalimba to go out of Africa was one produced by a man named Hugh Tracey. He was largely responsible for bringing people the realization that the kalimba was not a toy but an instrument capable of real music.

These days, the kalimba is used together with electronics in modern music. Musicians like Sascha Lino Lemke use the kalimba with special microtonal tunings and a custom made computer program in his performances.


The Kora

The Kora

The Kora

Another instrument from Africa, the Kora is played in Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and The Gambia. It is a harp built from a large kalabash and covered with cow skin to make a resonator with a long hardwood neck. The skin is supported by two handles running under it. Regarded as a cross between a harp and a lute, the strings run in two ranks, making it a double harp.

The sound resembles a harp, but when played traditionally resembles the flamenco. Only the thumb and index fingers are used to pluck the strings in different rhythmic patterns while the other fingers secure the instrument by holding onto the hand posts.

The instrument was also played by girots or traveling musicians and storytellers. A traditional player is also known as a Jali. Koras typically feature 21 strings. These days, the ones manufactured in Senegal sometimes feature additional bass strings as well.

Human creativity is evidenced in how we express ourselves musically. This expression, though with instruments unique to each culture, is the same the world over.


Love in Any Language Sandi Patty

How music brings the world together and can make a difference

Music is a universal language

People the world over use music to communicate. It is something that everyone the world over can understand and appreciate, although we speak different languages.

Mihalo Antovic, a linguist and researcher at case Western University, suggested that conceptualizing music brings people all over the world together. He performed a study of children from Serbian Speaking and English speaking homes. He also included seeing impaired children.

The children were exposed to short musical sequences with opposing high and low, long and short tones. The children were asked to verbally describe what they heard. These children had no formal music education.

In his final results, all these children had a subconscious notion of what these tones were and could differentiate high from low tones. It suggested that human beings have identical musical concepts.

Everyone can move to music

The musical philosopher Nietzsche once said, “We listen to music with our muscles.” All of us the world over know how to keep time, tap our feet and move to music. The responses to music the world over are similar.


Saltwater Julian Lennon

A powerful force to bring important messages across and raise awareness

Music is often used to bring to the world important social messages and unite people for important causes. Legendary singers and musicians have often used this tool to put forth these ideas and raise awareness of important issues.

Examples of songs with clear social messages to make the world a better place are Imagine by John Lennon and of course, the songs Heal the World and We are the World by Michael Jackson. John Lennon’s son, Julian, recorded Saltwater, which is a song with clear message to cherish our environment.



We may have different ways and different instruments to bring music to the world. The appreciation of it, though, is the same no matter which part of the world we go to. No matter which part of the world we are in, music has the unchallenged power to bring different individuals together.


Other music hubs by Michelle Liew



Barbara Radisavljevic from Paso Robles, CA on August 25, 2021:

I had no idea there were so many instruments in the world. It does go to show that people everywhere need and want to make music with whatever materials they have available to them. Thanks for expanding the world of music for me.

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on November 14, 2015:

I love this hub Michelle and am sharing it here, on Google+ and on Pinterest for several reasons. I feel there is insufficient knowledge and appreciation both of musical styles and instruments from around the world. Too often here in the west, people seem to be exposed just to a handful of musical sounds - the piano, violin, cello etc that you mention, and the 'pop' instruments such as guitar, drums and the all too prevalent synthesisers.

I love traditional folk music and world music so predictably I love the sound of several of these instruments and would like to hear their distinctive tones taken up more commonly in western music. As for the poll, my regret is that I can only pick one. The boobam drums have a distinctive sound, and I love the simple, gentle and very oriental sound of the bonang pot drums. Another which has real appeal for me is the kalimba - an instrument like the harmonica which is small enough to carry anywhere, and which can clearly carry an entire tune without any other musical accompaniment. All of these were entirely new to me. The most complete and beautiful for me is probably the balalaika, but I find the bonang such a charming revelation, so I eventually voted for that one!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 05, 2013:

Hi Mary! Rock and roll 'em! "Going to a party and we count to ten...."

Mary Craig from New York on June 04, 2013:

What a wonderful array of musical instruments. No matter which instrument we use, the music it produces is always soothing and pleasant to listen to...even if its fast and loud....music is the best. Epi is so right...you rock and we roll!

Voted up, useful, interesting and shared.

suziecat7 from Asheville, NC on June 02, 2013:

I love the Aoelian Harp - almost spiritual. Loved this Hub too. I have a friend who makes beautiful cigar box guitars. I'm glad you included these. Voted up!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on January 09, 2013:

Hey, James!! Yes, these are certainly around. I think they're becoming popular too, in certain parts!! Thanks for sharing!

James A Watkins from Chicago on January 08, 2013:

I love this Hub! Thank you so much for making this pleasure available. I enjoyed learning about all these instruments. A Cigar Box Guitar!? Who knew?! That one really surprised me. Well done! :)


Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on December 16, 2012:

Collin, thanks, for coming again, and I'm listening to the Persuasions as I write. They have a fantastic sense of harmony!! Classic acapella, no question. Thanks for coming by again!! The Anonymous 4 show excellent vocal prowess as well, and their tone is super clear!! Will be going by your music and writing group in FB!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on December 16, 2012:

Collin, I love the Persuasions! I will check out the Anonymous 4. Thanks for coming by!!

epigramman on December 16, 2012:

....You rock ......and I roll along with your hubs ...... just sent you some fan mail - and this is one of my all time favorite hubs? Did you check out the Persuasions, the viola da gamba and the duduk? lake erie time 7:29am

epigramman on December 15, 2012:

......For really great acapella music try the fabulous - The Persuasions discovered by Frank Zappa no less and a really terrific 4 lady classical choral group called Anonymous 4.

lake erie time 2:55pm

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on December 15, 2012:

Yes, Epiman, thank you so much. I love music. World music and acapella appeal to me. Yup, music hubs always take a bit of time!! Ah and I will give the Music and Writing page a like and join it. Thanks for posting it there!!

epigramman on December 15, 2012:

I am running low on energy here my friend after coming home from night shift so it will be my pleasure to return to this hub presentation of yours when I get up again from night shift sleep later on today. So here I am to bookmark this page with a comment - and being a resident musicologist here at the Hub I must say this is by far one of the best music hubs I've ever seen/read/listened to - there is so much depth here and I can tell it's a labor of love for you with your fabulous research. I will post, link and share this 'beauty' to the Music and writing FB page and I shall return. By the way two of my favorite instruments are the duduk and the viola da gamba - lake erie canada 6:44am sending you warm wishes and good energy

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on December 11, 2012:

Diversity should be embraced and music is indeed a language that everyone should use to make the world a better place. Thanks for sharing.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on December 11, 2012:

Thanks, vibesties! It's amazing how creative people can be, isn't it? Thanks for sharing!

Valleypoet on December 11, 2012:

There are some really interesting and unusual musical instruments that you have brought together for this hub Michelle....by doing this you have managed to emphasise how diverse the instruments are around the world, yet their purpose is the same i.e. the creation of music...a language that everyone understands...excellent hub...voted up:-))

vibesites from United States on December 11, 2012:

The bonang is similar to the "kulintang" I saw in the Philippines. And the Kora, the stringed instrument made from gourd. I find that interesting in particular. It also gives me a glimpse to music from other cultures through this hub. Voted up and interesting.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on December 10, 2012:

Thanks, Sherry, for coming by!

Sherry Hewins from Sierra Foothills, CA on December 10, 2012:

Thanks for a very interesting hub, several of these instruments I've never heard of.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on December 10, 2012:

Hi Alecia C! Glad that you find this hub informative. Music does bring people together. Thanks for sharing!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on December 10, 2012:

Thank you very much, Daily Top!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on December 10, 2012:

Thanks, Ruchira, it unites the world indeed! Thanks for sharing and coming by!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on December 10, 2012:

Pstraubie, thanks! Sometimes the only way to break the barriers too. Thanks for sharing!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on December 10, 2012:

Thanks, Meldz!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on December 10, 2012:

Glad you like it, Who!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on December 10, 2012:

Amazing how creative we can be, Linda! Amazing boobam player, that boobam boy in the video!!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on December 10, 2012:

Oh, my, Mary, there really are so many to share but due to time constraints I had to stop! Thanks for sharing!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on December 10, 2012:

Too true!!! It's really the thing other than the need for the loo that people have in common! Thanks for sharing!!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on December 10, 2012:

Thanks, Bill, that was the music teacher in me. World music has always been in the music syllabus here, though not discussed enough, I am afraid! Thanks for sharing!!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on December 10, 2012:

I enjoyed learning about all the different instruments in this very informative hub! It was great to hear the unusual sounds of some of the instruments. I totally agree with your last statement about music having the power to bring different people together. Producing music and listening to it are wonderful activities!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on December 10, 2012:

Thanks, Janine. Am catching it because it's showing over cable here, yay! A good break, I need one!! Thanks for sharing!

dailytop10 from Davao City on December 10, 2012:

A very informative hub especially for music-lovers out there! Thank you for sharing.

Ruchira from United States on December 10, 2012:

Awesome message, Michelle.

Music unites the world and you brought fwd many unique instruments. Awesome!!!

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on December 10, 2012:

I love learning new things and I have learned so much here. Musical is a magical elixir that allows us to bridge cultural and language barriers. What a gift it is. thanks for sharing these instruments. This was so informative.

Sending Angels your way :) ps

ignugent17 on December 10, 2012:

Amazing musical instruments. Thanks for this wonderful information and it is true that we appreciate the cultures of others through music.

Voted up and more. :-)

whonunuwho from United States on December 10, 2012:

I have always been fascinated with musical instruments, and though I cannot play so skillfully on the guitar, it is my favorite. There are a wonderful selection of most unique instruments in your work, and well done, my friend, midget. whonu.

Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on December 10, 2012:

I'd like a cigar box guitar! I could imagine some nice country music played with that instrument! Also a bit of salsa music with the boobam drums! Well done Michelle.

Mary Hyatt from Florida on December 10, 2012:

Music is truly a universal language. I had not heard of several instruments you wrote about here. One of my favorites is the tin drum that is played in Jamaica and other Caribbean cultures.

Great Hub. I voted this UP, will share and Pin.

Tammy from North Carolina on December 10, 2012:

I love world music. Besides needing toilet paper, it is something all cultures share. Well done and very interesting to see so many new instruments!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on December 10, 2012:

I agree totally with your premise that music bridges the gap between cultures. Having said that, I just received an education from a teacher; I have never heard of a couple of these instruments. Great fun and sharing.

Janine Huldie from New York, New York on December 10, 2012:

So true Michelle about music being something that could bring us all together. In the next few days, there is a concert that will take place to raise money for Hurricane Sandy victims in NYC with all famous musicians, such as Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and so many more. I always love to see when music is used for the greater good. Thanks for sharing and absolutely awesome!!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on December 10, 2012:

Instruments used in world music and how music can create a bridge across cultures

Related Articles