FOR MY 12th BIRTHDAY, my mom had dropped several hints she’d be giving me an instrument. I had my heart set on a flute. It was dainty, ladylike, and pretty. All the cool girls in middle school were playing the flute. My brothers were in on the surprise – they helped blindfold me and lead me into the living room where my shiny new instrument was waiting for me. I ripped off the blindfold to see not a shiny silver flute, but a hulking brassy trumpet. I was devastated.
I ended up moving from the trumpet to the French horn, a bit more feminine I thought at the time though now I’m not really sure why since every other song involved me dumping spit out of the instrument from several different openings. It’s technically water condensation, but try explaining that to a violinist.
I may have hated the trumpet at first and protested vehemently when my mom insisted I practice the piano, but I have to admit that having some classical music training has helped me appreciate music more.
From comments on our first 5 of the most incredible (and least known) instruments in the world and poking around for a few more, here are 10 more of the world’s unusual and amazing instruments.
Berimbau de barriga
Berimbau de barriga literally translates to “jaw harp of the stomach,” though it’s more commonly known as just berimbau. The single-string instrument is a musical bow, brought to Brazil from Africa by Bantu slaves. It’s best known for its connection to capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art.
The wooden bow, or varga, is 4-5 feet long, flexible, and strung with a steel string, or arame. Size matters with the berimbau – if the cabasa, resonance chamber at the bottom of the bow, is bigger, the sound is lower. The instrument also involves the caixixi – small rattle, baqueta – a wooden stick, and the pedra – a coin or stone that changes the tone.
The berimbau is used in capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian dancing martial art. The musicians use different rhythms, or toques, to direct the players in what they should do; there are seven major toques. And those different toques serve a purpose. From “Capoeira, The Art of Survial,” in Brazil before the 1930s:
The early illegal status of capoeira provides a possible explanation for the different rhythms of the berimbau: when the slave master, overseer and later, the military police approached the roda, the capoeiristas were alerted to the danger by the berimbau’s song. The style of play would change to become more dance like or the capoeiristas would rapidly disperse, without saying a word.
It was 1919 when Russian physicist and inventor Lev Termen created the theremein by accident when working on radio surveillance equipment. The world’s first electronic musical instrument makes a slightly spooky and ethereal sort of sound, and it’s done without actually touching anything solid. From A Course in Theremin:
It is basically made up by two antennas, one upright and one looped to the side of a case in which the electronics is put up. Its control consists in moving hands towards and away from the antennas: through the upright one (vertical rod) you can control pitch, while the left one (horizontal rod) you can control volume.
Through the joys of Youtube, I’ve discovered that the theremin can be used to play all types of music: There’s Jimmy Page’s theremin solo in “Whole Lotta Love,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “The Legend of Zelda” theme song. Here’s the original – Leon playing the instrument he made.
Beer bottle organ
I took two years of organ lessons in college, and organ music nerd that I proudly am, I make a point to check out organs when I travel. But I’ve never seen a beer bottle organ, which uses air blown over the tops of bottles instead of pipes for the sound.
It sounds like it’s just a gimmick, but the beer bottle organ actually has 200+ year history. According to Peterson Organs of Chicago who create and sell the beer bottle organs:
[In 1798], on the island of Helgoland (formerly Danish territory, now German) whose church congregation were tired of paying for an organ tuner to sail out every month to tune the church organ. The pastor, who was tired of hearing the complaints, subsequently commissioned an ex-mercenary soldier/organ builder from Eisleben, (later East Germany) called Johann Samuel Kühlewein, to build an organ which would not go out of tune due to changes in temperature or weather conditions. Kühlewein thought about it for a while and decided to build an organ using bottles instead of standard organ pipes and using sealing wax to fine tune the bottles.
It’s an instrument you can make at home, or play with at college:
Aeolian or wind harp
Aeolus was the ancient Greek god of the wind, and it’s for him that the Aeolian harp is named. The instrument has been around for a long time – it was described in a book written in 1673. Wind harps work basically by the wind blowing over the strings. If you want to get technical, it’s the von Kármán vortex street effect that does it.
You can find them all over: Wind harps have been installed at Burning Man, there is one in Germany that you can listen to live, and at 92 feet tall, one of the world’s largest wind harps is in San Francisco. Basically anywhere there’s wind, you can have an instrument.
‘Ohe hano ihu
The ‘ohe hano ihu of Hawaii is aptly named – it literally translates to bamboo flute for nose. More commonly it’s just called hano. It has a fairly simple design – three holes in a piece of bamboo. It is used in hula and was used by men to call and woo their lady loves. I mean, what says I love you like a nose flute serenade? It comes up in Hawaiian legends of romance and courting, and while, yes, it could be played with the mouth, it’s played by the nose for a reason.
Manu Josiah, a Hawaiian musician, explained that “the reason why we used our nose to play the instrument is because we believe that the purest air, the cleanest air, that comes from the body comes from the nose. Sometimes things come out of our mouth that aren’t really pure, such as bad words and mean words, so we didn’t want to have that pass through the flute when we’re calling our sweetheart. So we used our nose, because the purest air comes from the nose.”
Similar flutes can be found in Tahiti, Fiji, Tonga, and other Pacific Islands.
The stalacpipe organ is a part of the Luray Caverns in Virginia. Not technically an organ since it doesn’t use air to produce the sound, the rubber-tipped mallets softly striking stalactites in the caverns make organ-like tones. To tune the stalactites, Leland W. Sprinkle, the creator, hand-sanded each one. The entire project took 36 years.
I’m not sure how I feel about this project –I feel like the caverns were amazing enough on their own without making an organ out of them. Then again, it is a pretty impressive concept.
Recognized by UNESCO in 2010 as an Indonesian Intangible Cultural Element, the angklung is a West Java instrument made of two bamboo tubes suspended in a bamboo frame. The player taps or shakes each tube that has been tuned to a specific note. While you can play it on your own – have you heard “Umbrella” by Rihanna on an angklung? – it’s traditionally played in a group.
From The Jakarta Globe:
“The reason the angklung was inscribed to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity is because it has deep philosophical values for humanity, such as cooperation, respect and social harmony,” he said.
“Because to produce music with angklung requires good cooperation among the angklung players, as no melody can be played by a single player.”
It’s also played in parts of Bali, Malyasia, Thailand, and the Phillipines.
Take a violin bow and a hand saw and you have an instrument. The musical or “singing” saw is an American folk instrument. There’s an International Musical Saw Association with an annual festival in Santa Cruz and a NYC Musical Saw Festival that attracts players from around the world.
The hang (pronounced hung and often referred to as a hang drum) was created by PANArt in Switzerland after they studied the sounds of drums, gongs, steel pans, and other instruments. It sounds a bit like a blend of all of them. Named for the word “hand” in the local dialect Bernese, the double-domed instrument is played with the hands and looks a bit like a flying saucer.
The domes are made of steel with one side that’s tuned to a scale. For the physics of why the instrument sounds the way it does, you can read through this article. Or, like I did, just appreciate sound without having to know why it sounds like it does.
You know when you wet your finger and rub it around the rim of a wine glass and it makes a ringing sound? Benjamin Franklin, that prolific American inventor, came up with the glass armonica that uses that basic principle, but he turned the glasses sideways and set them into a turning spindle.
That particular instrument is played perhaps most often at living history events, but variations using the same principle but with regular glasses are more common.