Music is an international language. It brings people together. Every culture has its own repertoire of melodies, songs, dances, and in some cases, even their own unique instruments. It’s hard to say how early in our evolution we began to develop music, but seeing tribes around the world today, we can guess that it was quite early.
Neuroscientists have discovered that playing a musical instrument stimulates more parts of your brain than virtually any other activity. This has the tremendous advantage of creating new connections between different parts of the brain, making you smarter and quicker to react to pretty much anything. Let’s take a look at 10 weird and unique musical instruments, old and new, with which we’ve enchanted ourselves, and brought a bit of harmony into our lives.
10. The Nose Flute
Surprisingly enough, this particular instrument is found in many places around the world. It’s predominantly found in the Eastern Hemisphere, in Polynesia and other Pacific Rim regions. Some similar variants can also be found in places like China, India, or Sub-Saharan Africa. In Hawaii, this instrument is called “ohe hano ihu” or, “bamboo flute [for] nose.” It’s made out of a single section of bamboo and has two or three finger holes. Here, the nose flute was commonly used as a courting instrument, played in private and for personal enjoyment. However, it sometimes found itself accompanied by chants, song, and even hula dancers.
In New Zealand, the nguru, as it is called, was sometimes made out of whale teeth. It had elaborate carvings, and was considered a sacred object. In Tanzania, the nose flute is used in pairs: one for each nostril.
Even though it seems counterintuitive to play this instrument with the nose, this technique has the advantage of using the player’s mouth as a variable resonance chamber, while air is exhaled through the nostrils. This way the nose flute is able to produce a rapid and smooth series of ascending or descending notes on the musical scale, instead of them being made in steps.
Unfortunately, however, the tradition of playing it around the world is fast disappearing. Artists are trying their best to conserve this amazing instrument. A more modern variant, called Humanatone, was invented back in 1904 by James J. Stivers in New York City. As opposed to the traditional ones, the Humanatone today is made out of plastic and loosely resembles an airplane propeller.
9. The Hang
More commonly known as a Hang Drum, this name is considered as a misnomer by its inventors. They say that the term is too limited for what it can actually do. Developed in 2000 by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer in Bern, Switzerland, the Hang, as it is officially called, is the result of an in-depth and scientific research into the development of steel musical instruments. This culminated with the discovery of a new, hardened type of steel, as well as its UFO-like shape.
This not only gave the instrument a softer tone, but kept it quite durable in the process. Its name comes from the Bernese German word for hand. The “dimples” going around its surface are specially hammered in to create the many psychedelic sounds it can produce. When played, it can sound like a harp, bells, or harmonically tuned steelpans.
The steelpan is originally from Trinidad and Tobago and is played with two small hammers. It was actually the inspiration for the Hang. This came as a result of the Steelpan craze in Europe during the ’70s and ’80s. Rohner and Schärer experimented with different variations of steelpans throughout the years. After about 25 years, a visitor came by their shop with a Gatam (a South-Indian percussion instrument), inspiring them to adapt their invention to be played by hand. Though it needs some practice to master, the Hang is quite easy to learn. Many who try it once are able to pick up the technique instantly.
8. The Lion’s Roar
Compared to other entries on this list, the friction drum is almost always used to accompany other, more harmonious musical instruments. Found in regions of Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America, this friction drum comes in many different shapes and sizes. It’s also called by many different names. It’s most often used for specific religious and ceremonial purposes, especially in Europe. In Flemish it’s known as a rommelpot, while in Spain, it goes by the name of zambomba. It’s also used in various Italian religious processions, as well as during Romanian New Year festivities.
Being a percussion instrument, the sound is produced inside a cylindrical box. This is often a jug, a pot, or a small wooden kit. A membrane, usually made out of leather, is stretched over the opening, and sound is produced either by rubbing it directly with the finger, or by using a wet stick or cord. Changing the pitch can be done by pressing in on the membrane itself. The wet cord, which in some places is made out of horse hair, is tied to a small stick at one end. Through a small hole in the middle of the membrane, it creates friction when pulled. In this case, the friction drum may also be known as a “string drum” or “lion’s roar.”
7. The Balalaika
Though a traditional Russian folk instrument, the balalaika has a close resemblance to many East Asian stringed instruments, like the dombra and tanbura. Nevertheless, jesters and troubadours were playing the balalaika in Russia as early as the 1500s, ridiculing the ruling class and Orthodox Church at the time. Not surprisingly, the first written documentation of the balalaika is an arrest record from 1688, with the church trying to ban folk music altogether. This, of course, didn’t happen. The string instrument became more popular than ever, especially with the lower and middle classes.
By the late 1800s almost every household in Russia owned one. The history of the balalaika can be compared to the American banjo in this regard. The banjo was similarly used in music significant in cultural revolution. But while the balalaika was more of a symbol of unity, the banjo stood more for conflict between abolitionists and slavery supporters.
Its name is somewhat similar to the Russian equivalent for “babble” or “jabber,” making a clear connection to its folk origins and its essence as an easy and fun instrument. Its triangular shape is believed to have originated by quartering a pumpkin, since the balalaika was initially made out of one. The modern versions date to the 19th century and were developed by the famed Russian musician Vasily Andreyev. They come in five different sizes, ranging from about 20 inches to about 5.8 feet.
6. The Glass Harmonica
The Glass Harmonica is as rare as it is fragile. Designed and built by none other than Benjamin Franklin, the bowl organ, or hydrocrystalophone, was often played by George Washington and Marie Antoinette. It might look like an outdated steampunk device, but this instrument has made a lot of guest appearances alongside many world renowned artists like Tom Waits, Linda Ronstadt, David Gilmour, Björk, and Robyn Hitchcock.
French classical musician Thomas Bloch uses it on a regular basis, together with other musical oddities like the ondes Martenot and Cristal Baschet. Strauss, Beethoven, and Mozart all wrote works for the glass harmonica, and even the famous nu metal band Korn made use of it.
The way it works is pretty straightforward. It’s similar to a drunk uncle trying to make a glass of wine “sing” at your wedding by running his finger around the lip. But while he most likely ends up spilling his wine and breaking the glass, a skilled musician can actually make it work. The biggest difference, however, is that it’s mechanized. A series of 37 different sized glass bowls are threaded onto an iron spindle, rotated by a foot pedal. The biggest advantage the glass harmonica has over its classical counterpart is that the bowls are positioned horizontally and the player can work it like a piano, playing up to ten notes at a time.
5. The Semantron
This percussion instrument is used only in monasteries belonging to the Christian Orthodox faith. It’s essentially only found in countries in Southeastern Europe. Its purpose is to summon monks to prayer, or at the start of every procession. Of fairly simple design, the semantron can date its origins to the 6th century, within the Byzantine Empire. First appearing in monasteries across Palestine, Egypt, and Sinai, the xylon, as it’s called in Greece today, replaced trumpets that had previously been used for similar purposes, and quickly spread throughout the entire Empire.
The semantron can come in various shapes and sizes, and is used in a particular order. The most common variant is basically a plank of hardwood, suspended by two chains and struck with one or two wooden mallets. The others are either smaller, portable, or made out of metal, but their principle is the same.
Though simple, the semantron is able to produce a strong resonance and a wide range of different intonations. These all depend on the thickness of where it is struck, and the force used. The custom of using bells in Byzantium only became somewhat popular after the Fourth Crusade when the Venetians, together with the French, sacked the city of Constantinople. But even then, the semantron outnumbered bells by a 5-to-1 ratio. The reason for its continued use today is largely because of the Ottoman Empire, which outlawed bells during their dominion over the region.
4. The Jew’s Harp
Despite its name, this lamellophone has nothing to do with Jewish people. Other names for it are jaw’s harp, juice harp, Ozark harp, trump, or guimbard. Most names are misnomers to the original misnomer. In fact, the word “jew” used here is an old misspelling of the word “jaw.” Quite small, it consists of a flexible metal or bamboo tongue, attached to a frame. The player holds it to his mouth, which acts as a resonance cavity, and plucks the harp’s tongue to produce sounds.
The notes it can generate are limited, and it has only one pitch. The individual harmonics are regulated by the moving of the player’s mouth. During the 18th century in Europe, some musicians made harps with two or more tongues of different pitch, allowing for a more complete instrument.
Its origins can more or less be traced to Asia and Oceania, and only finding its way into Europe sometime around the 14th century. Some consider it to be among the oldest instruments in the world. Due to its quiet sounds and melodies, the “juice harp” was associated in Asia with contemplation. In Thailand and 19th century Austria, the Jew’s harp was used for lovers’ serenades. Today, many of the sounds it’s able to produce are most often found in children’s cartoons.
3. The Hydraulophone
The hydraulophone can only be played if you’re willing to get your hands wet. Though it looks complicated, the system within is similar that of a woodwind instrument, like a saxophone, or a bassoon. Here, however, sound is produced by pressurized hydraulic fluid. So rather than using air like a woodwind, it uses liquid to produce its music. Steven Mann, a researcher and inventor best known for his work on computational photography, came up with this instrument in the ’80s as a means for low vision individuals to better use their senses in creating music. It gives the player a higher degree of control over their musical expression via touch.
Water is pumped into a curved tube with a series of holes through which it then spurts out. A sounding mechanism is placed above each hole. As the player places a finger over one hole, the water is directed past the associated sounding mechanism and diverted to another part of the instrument. Similar to an electric keyboard, the hydraulophone can be fitted to a wide variety of sound-producing devices. Moreover, the uses of this instrument are numerous, as you can even fit one in your hot tub. If you do that, however, the instrument will then be called a balnaphone.
2. The Alphorn
Blowing tube instruments have been around for a very long time. In fact, one such example can be the Australian Didgeridoo, which the Aborigines have been using for thousands of years. Another good example is the Alphorn, which can only be described as a horn on steroids, measuring some 8-to-12 feet long.
Used by mountain people living in Switzerland to communicate with each other over large distances, the Alphorn is believed by some to have originated from the Roman Lituus, a similar looking instrument, used with a similar purpose. No documented connection exists, though, and many believe it to be a simple misinterpretation of the word liti, meaning Alphorn in the Obwalden dialect.
Its origins are still largely debated. Another possible connection could be with the Bucium, used in the Carpathian Mountains. Here, its use was as a means of communication between shepherds and their wives, or to signal potential military conflicts taking place in the valleys below. In Romania, women play this instrument more often than men. The Bucium, however, has a different sound and relative shape to the Alphorn. However, it’s believed to be much older, possibly predating even the Roman version.
1. The Conch
Let’s end on a literal high note. We’ll finish with the conch in the number one spot, even though this list was written in no particular order. Archaeological finds date the use of this instrument as far back as the Upper Paleolithic, more than 12,000 years ago. Its use is spread throughout the world, wherever large gastropod shells are commonly found. It also goes by different names, and its uses were mostly ceremonial, or with various religious purposes. From South Asia to Mesoamerica, the Caribbean, and many Pacific region countries including Korea and Japan, all use the conch in different variations and sizes.
In island nations like Fiji or Hawaii, it goes by the name of Pu, and is played like a ceremonial fanfare trumpet. Depending on the style of blowing, the sound can be carried as far as two miles away. Some beautiful legends surround these instruments. In pre-Colombian America, the Quiquizoani, as it was known to the Aztecs, was used at important events. It was also used as a means to coordinate troops on the battlefield.
Strong links connect it to the watery underworld and to certain deities like Quetzalcoatl. At Teotihuacan in Mexico, conch shell depictions adorn many structures on the site. It seems that these instruments denoted high status and a special spiritual power. They’re a common find in various burial chambers for the elite.
In more modern times, American jazz trombonist Steve Turre plays the conch on occasion, accompanied by his group called Sanctified Shells. During the filming of Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien, the Conch is used as an eerie background noise when depicting the extraterrestrial environment of the derelict spaceship.
Bonus! The Digi Fonf
Okay, so maybe we didn’t “end” on a high note with the conch. We’ve also decided to add a bonus instrument in here. It was hard for us not to include it, simply because of its pure awesomeness. The Digi Fonf could be classified as a musical instrument played by men, for the enjoyment of women. It was invented by Romanian Stefan Popescu, who has been teaching music for more than 35 years. He’s renowned for inventing at least 37 wind instruments. He even got close to earning the Guinness World Record for playing the largest pan flute in the world.
He can also play a carrot, a salt shaker, a bottle of liquor, and a walnut. Basically, he can play pretty much anything he can blow into. He states that he can “play” anything as long as it has at least one hole. Insert your own dirty joke. The Digi Fonf is a simple tube fitted with a mouth piece. The player uses his middle finger to touch his desired notes. Practicing on the Digi Fonf can also have some other, more practical applications, than just creating melodies. If you catch our drift.