History has shown that making music is an integral part of the human experience. From very early man, in all corners of the world, people sung, banged on wood or stone to make a beat and developed systems and instruments to organise sound in sophisticated ways. Many of these instruments were tweaked and improved over the years to become the classic staples that we all know and love, but some of those paths led to some real oddities. Let’s take a look at five of the strangest instruments around!
No list of odd musical instruments is complete without the theramin, so we’ll start here! An electrical instrument with a distinctive oooh sound that many describe as eerie, alien and sci-fi, the theramin works without being touched; you simply wave your hands near the two antenna that protrude from the instrument and something known as the heterodyne principle* generates an audio signal.
There are a huge number of fans of the theramin (which was named after its inventor, Léon Theramin) and its used in many places today, from avant garde orchestras to TV theme composers. If you want to see it used fantastically, look no further than the amazing Carolina Eyck, here performing Kate Bush’s Babooshka on theramin. It looks like magic!
Science explained: The theramin works because the human body has a natural capacitance (the ability to hold an electrical charge). Your hands, which act as capacitive plates, interact with the elecromagnetic fields produced by the theramin’s oscillating circuits.
*Heterodyning is a process whereby the frequency from one oscillator (f1) is combined with the second (f2) creating both a ‘sum’ (f1+f2) and ‘difference’ (f1-f2) frequency. Usually only one signal is desirable for audio application, so one of these is filtered, the other is kept.
Included as much for its name as its strangeness, the hurdy gurdy dates back to the 11th Century and shows just what happens when traditional instruments like the violin go off on a different path and have some Da Vinci-style genius/madness applied to them!
Rather than a bow, there’s a wheel that you turn with a hand crank, and a keyboard to select notes, plus ‘drone strings’ to give the whole effect some depth.
Here’s a great example of hurdy gurdy goodness from Matthias Loibner!
Science explained: The rosined wheel rubs the strings much like a bow with a violin, creating the sound. Keys are then pressed which work like fingers on the string, changing the pitch. As for the drone strings, these lie outside the main box and produce a constant tone as they are rubbed to provide background depth.
The Great Stalacpipe Organ
Starting in 1956, Leyland W. Sprinkle spent three years crafting an organ out of the natural stalactite formations in Luray caverns, Virginia. The resulting Great Stalacpipe Organ is a set of electronically controlled rubber hammers that strike thirty-seven stalactites throughout the caves, creating a sound that can be heard throughout the 64 acres of natural caves.
No doubt it deserves to be called ‘great’! You can hear it in action here.
Science explained: The organ is an lithophone (stone instrument) with a custom console that achieves sound by using solenoid-actuated rubber mallets to gently tap the stalactites throughout the caves. Natural sound movement through the tunnels does the rest!
Singing Tesla Coil
Harnessing the power of lightning to make music not only sounds cool, it looks incredible. By doing something that involves a lot of science (again), Tesla coils make music. It’s so godlike, that people also call it a Zeusaphone (a pun on sousaphone that references the Greek God of Lightning), or a Thoramin (combining the humble theramin with everyone’s favourite Avenger / Norse God of Thunder).
It was even used in 2010’s Disney film, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – as seen here.
Science explained: High electrical current charges the primary and secondary coils which will transform into a high voltage, high frequency pulse that jumps from one coil to another once the power is switched off.
This pulse creates hot plasma in the air as it heats to thousands of degrees celsius in a microsecond and the rapidly expanding air creates a sound wave – similar to the thunder heard during a lightning storm. By changing the frequency of the pulses via a microprocessor control, it is possible to manipulate the tone and thus, play music!
Take a cello, add a great big gramophone horn (why not?) and you get the head-turning Strohcello (or Cello Horn). There’s not a lot more we can say about it, except that it’s a bit silly! It’s the master of hybrid instruments and actually sounds very pleasant. Enjoy it here!
Science explained: Here the gramophone horn acts as an amplifier to sound waves emitted by a vibrating membrane. Those vibrations come from the strings as they are played and are transferred via the bridge and a rod to the membrane.
Learning music with Bravura
Music is all about expression and if you want to express yourself in a unique way, then why shouldn’t you? Whether you’re a theramin fan or have a dream of combining a recorder with a double bass, we’re here to support you! Sadly, we don’t have any Tesla coils in the building, but we can start you off with the humble guitar!
Use our contact form or give us a call to find out more about music lessons to suit you, and if you have a favourite weird instrument to add to our list, let us know in the comments!
By Shane Chauhan and Crispin O’Toole-Bateman