10 weirdest instruments ever
Our guide to the 10 most weird and wonderful instruments
12You wonder why so many people continue to pick up the violin and piano when they could be learning the hurdy gurdy or the hydraulophone. The world is vast and there are many bizarre instruments in it, some of which will take you to sonic places you never knew existed.
Here are 10 of the most weird instruments of all.
10 weird and strange instruments
The theremin is the quintessence of ‘weird’, known, as it is, for its contactless playing technique, its use in science fiction films and the fact that it sounds like a descending UFO.
It was invented in 1920 by the Russian Soviet-era scientist Leon Theremin, who, as a 23-year-old man working at the Physical Technical Institute in Petrograd, noticed that something strange happened when he connected audio circuits to an electrical device called an oscillator in a certain way.
The oscillator produced an audible tone when he held his hands near it, and he could shift the tone just by waving his hands about. He saw its potential as a musical instrument and delivered the first concert with it soon after.
Over the years composers such as Bohuslav Martinů, Percy Grainger, Edgard Varèse and Dmitri Shostakovich have all written for the theremin, while, in recent years, the German-Sorbian virtuoso Carolina Eyck has done a lot to glamourise it. But still, the theremin remains a niche instrument, with a select, if devoted, group of followers.
2. Glass harp
In theory, many people could play this instrument, which consists of upright wine glasses, each tuned to a different pitch. All you need is a very well-stocked glassware cabinet. And yet, you don’t see that many people playing it.
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Maybe that’s because it can be an extraordinarily virtuosic feat: just filling up all those glasses to the right level is enough of an undertaking before you begin to factor in the required precision of playing them. Or maybe it’s because smashed glass is nobody’s favourite thing to clear up….
Either way, for all that the instrument has a long lineage (it has been documented in Persia from as early as the 14th century) the glass harp remains a rarity - and all the more alluring for it.
3. Hyperbass Flute
The largest and lowest-pitched member of the flute family, the hyper bass flute, otherwise known as the ‘flautist foghorn’, contains over 15 metres of piping.
Invented by the Italian flautist Roberto Fabbriciani, it first appeared at the turn of the 21st century, and made its debut in Alessandro Grego’s Persistenza della memoria - a piece that also includes live electronics and magnetic tape. Since then the instrument has enjoyed a few more outings, mostly thanks to Fabbriciani, who has devoted two entire CDs to it.
It’s played by turning a hand-cranked wheel, and sounds like a rather dour cross between a bagpipe and a violin.
The hurdy-gurdy is thought to have originated from fiddles in either Europe or the Middle East some time before the eleventh century A.D and flourished during the Renaissance. But by the end of the 17th century, evolving musical tastes demanded more polyphonic complexity than the hurdy-gurdy could provide. As a result it was shoved to the bottom of the musical hierarchy, acquiring names like the ‘peasant’s lyre’, and the ‘beggar’s lyre.’
Happily, since then, it has made a comeback, and not just among classical composers. Heavy metal musicians love its haunting quality. Meanwhile, film music composers seem to see it as the go-to instrument for evoking a touch of the Middle Ages.
The hydraulophone is the antithesis of the pyrophone (which also exists), in that it uses the flow of water, rather than fire, to make music. Patented in 2011, it consists of a row of fluid jets which can be blocked by one’s fingers to create musical notes. As such, it works in a similar way to the organ (albeit with water, rather than air), though the sound is even more otherworldly.
Fun and user-friendly as they are, hydraulophones have been used in various children’s museums and attraction parks, with the world’s largest located in the outdoor plaza of the Ontario Science Centre in Canada.
6. Smeller 2.0
The world’s first ever organ to waft out scents instead of sounds, Smeller 2.0 formed a central role at Berlin’s Osmodrama festival of smell in 2016, where it was used to create a narrative out of complex scent sequences alongside film screenings, literature readings and electronic music.
Does it technically count as a musical instrument? According to its creator Wolfgang Georgsdorf, Smeller 2.0 exudes ‘pure music for the nose’, while its scents can be written down as music notes and hence composed into chords, melodies and rhythms. So let’s lean into that analogy.
You might be alarmed by this instrument, which sends long arcs of electricity flying in all directions. But it’s yours to own - for a few thousand pounds.
Named after Zeus, ancient Greek god of lightning, this musical tesla coil is unlikely to be joining your local amateur orchestra anytime soon. Thanks to its theatricality, however, it has formed a central role in various stage shows, not least Björk's 2011 performance piece Biophilia, during a song called ‘Thunderbolt’.
8. Pikasso guitar
In 1984, Linda Manzer, a Canadian master luthier was asked by jazz musician Pat Metheny to make a guitar that had as many strings as possible. Her response was the Pikasso, an instrument with 42 strings arranged in four string sections, including a hexaphonic pickup. Named after the cubist works of Pablo Picasso, it looks like a set of conjoined guitar triplets, and is capable of an incredible range of notes and sound effects: an entire guitar ensemble contained in a single instrument.
Described by its designer- Turkish musician Görkem Şen - as a ‘real-time acoustic string synthesizer’, this instrument looks very odd indeed. You play it by hitting or bowing two long strings suspended in the centre of two drum heads. As for the timbre: variously likened to whale song and sci-fi movie sound-effects, it occupies a unique category between mesmerising and terrifying.
10. Wintergatan Marble Machine
Winning the prize for the most spectacular weirdest instrument of all must surely be the Wintergatan Marble Machine: an enormous handmade music box that strikes a vibraphone, bass, kickdrum and other instruments using a hand crank and 2000 marbles.
Designed and built by the Swedish musician Martin Molin, it took around two years to complete, which seems remarkably little, given that it includes some 3000 hand-made components, and takes the concept of the ‘one-man-band’ to a whole new, surreal, level.
Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.