I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Violins, pianos, and even the oboe's cousin, the cor anglaise, can step aside as we delve into the world of unusual musical instruments.
Music from Brainwaves
Let's start with the electroencephalophone to get a flavour of where this frivolity is going. Two boffins at the University of Edinburgh created this bit of gaiety. In simple layman's terms, electrodes are stuck all over a person's head to pick up electrical impulses from the brain. Initially, the device was used to help diagnose neurological disorders.
Then, in 1973, along came Erkki Kurenniemi, described as an artist and philosopher best known for his work in electronic music. He saw a potential use for the electroencephalophone as a way of composing music.
The result is other-worldly warbles that sound as if they could be the title music for a science fiction show. There's nothing you can hum or whistle as you can with classics such as My Boy Lollipop.
Water Musical Instruments
Musicians and inventors have created several instruments that require water to produce sound. The old-time favourite is jam jars filled with different quantities of liquid that are tapped with a stick. “Quiet folks while little Clarinda plays Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star on the jamjarophone.”
Engineer, professor, and inventor Steve Mann has given the world the hydraulophone. It is “By touching small jets of water, the hydraulophone produces a rich, unique, soulful sound” (mannlab.com).
The Sea Organ is an ambitious attempt to produce music from water, although you have to use a very liberal interpretation of the word “music” to call it such. Tubes pick up water as waves slosh in causing organ pipes to sound. It has been built on the seafront of Zadar, Croatia and, apparently, tourists flock to listen to it.
More Oddball Instruments
- The Cross-Grainger Kangaroo-Pouch Tone-Tool is the brainchild (if that's the right word) of two Australians. This contraption produces an osculating noise similar to the wail of an air-raid siren.
- The Pikasso Guitar has four necks, 42 strings, and two sound holes. It sounds like a regular guitar but a regular guitar player would be in a real tangle trying to use it. It requires the skill of a Pat Metheny for whom it was built in 1984.
- The theremin is the world's first electronic instrument. Soviet physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen takes the credit for inventing this in 1920. There are two metal antennas and the musician waves her or his hands and fingers to create changes in pitch and volume. It is the only musical instrument that is played without physical contact.
- The Marble Machine is a wonder of woodworking that was constructed by Swedish musician Martin Molin. The hand-cranked machine sends 2,000 metal balls around many different paths where they drop onto metal plates to generate plinking sounds rather like a xylophone. The instrument has become an internet sensation being viewed, as of this writing, more than 193 million times on YouTube.
Imaginary Musical Instruments
An artist and musician, Gerard Hoffnung created a collection of fanciful musical instruments. In The Hoffnung Companion to Music (1959) he presented a collection of whimsical cartoons of melodic gear.
A tuba player with a beaming smile is shown opening a tap on the side of his instrument to fill his mug with beer; it's entitled “Allegro con spirito.”
- The folk at The Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments have created what they call fictophones “Existing as diagrams, drawings or written descriptions, these devices never produce a sound. Yet they are no less a part of musical culture for that.”
- The Cat Piano is an instrument that will send the animal rights people into a froth of indignation. We have to reach back to 1650 to find the origin of this instrument; Father Athanasius Kircher described it in his work Musurgia Universalis. The instrument involves selecting cats whose meows hit the right notes in the chromatic scale. Their tales are placed under the keyboard and below a hammer with a spike in it, while the cats are immobilized in boxes. When a key is hit, a cat's tale is pricked eliciting the resulting squawk.
- J.J. Grandville invented Dr. Puff and his “steam concert.” The symphony of vapour included vocal, instrumental, and “phenomenal mechano-metronomic” sounds to delight the audiences. But, according to Grandville there was an untoward fireworks explosion at the end of the concert: “Clouds of musical smoke and flames of melody were dispersed into the air. Many dilettantes had their ears blown out, while others were injured by the shrapnel of the F and G clefs.”
- British composer Malcolm Arnold scored his Grand, Grand Overture for orchestra and vacuum cleaners. He dedicated it to former U.S. President Herbert Hoover.
- Four minutes, thirty-three seconds is the name of an—um—it's difficult to describe, perhaps non-composition, by John Cage. It's played by a full orchestra in formal attire in three movements each of which is completely silent. There are some who call it a work of genius; there are many others who are reminded of Hans Christian Andersen's folktale of The Emperor's New Clothes.
- Every year since 1996, (COVID-19 has interrupted the event) the Air Guitar World Championships have been held in Oulo, Finland. Contestants mimic the playing of a guitar without the guitar. The idea for the pantomime performances was based on a joke.
- In 1873, Frederic Kastner patented the pyrophone. It used gas explosions to force air through pipes to produce sound; it cannot really be called music. It's said to be perfectly safe but listeners might want to stand clear.
- “The Imaginary Instruments of Gerard Hoffnung.” The Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments, undated.
- “Katzenklavier: The Cat-Piano.” Charles Nichols, The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things, February 12, 2013.
- “Dr Puff’s Steam Concert.” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, November 25, 2016.
- “The 13 Weirdest Musical Instruments Ever.” classicfm.com, undated.
- “Weird Instruments - 21 Musical Monstrosities That Actually Work.” ledgernote.com, undated.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 28, 2021:
That also relate to me. Unfortunately, I don't find the words to express that. Thanks for weighing in.
ISHIKA MEHERE from NAGPUR on July 27, 2021:
I have always been interested in musical instruments but never got the opportunity to learn one. I found your article really intriguing.
Hope you have a joyfully day ahead.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 27, 2021:
Rupert, curiosity and interest prompt me to read to the end. Thanks.