We love celebrating national days here at The Straz, especially when they have to do with the arts. July 31 is Uncommon Instrument Awareness Day, and we want to bring your attention to these unique and fascinating music-makers. Music is all around us, and these instruments prove you can use just about anything to create distinct and beautiful sounds.
Some of these uncommon instruments have been around for centuries; others have been invented more recently. But one thing is for certain: where there’s a will to play music, or produce a certain sound, there’s a way. And these instruments prove that.
Check out these six uncommon instruments in celebration of Uncommon Instrument Awareness Day.
A musical instrument you can play without touching it? Yes – meet the theremin. One of the oldest electric instruments, it was Invented in 1920 by Russian physicist Leon Theremin and was a product of Soviet government-sponsored research into proximity sensors. Although the instrument was not at first a commercial success, it has fascinated audiences around the world, and has since become one of the more well-known uncommon instruments, having been featured in film scores, on television and occasionally in popular and rock music. Robert Moog, a pioneer of electronic music, started his career by building them.
The theremein produces an eerie and ethereal sound. To play the instrument, a thereminist stands in front of the instrument and moves their hands in the proximity of two antennas. The distance from one antenna determines frequency (pitch), and the distance from the other controls amplitude (volume). Higher notes are played by moving the hand closer to the pitch antenna. Louder notes are played by moving the hand away from the volume antenna.
Characterized by a low thrumming sound, the didgeridoo is a wind instrument that was developed by the Aboriginal peoples of Northern Australia, sometime in the last 1,000 years. Used in traditional indigenous Australian cultural ceremonies and now also in modern music, the instrument is played by continually vibrating lips to create a droning sound while using a special breathing technique called circular breathing. Didgeridoos are typically cylindrical and made of wood and can measure anywhere from three to 10 feet. What’s really cool about this instrument? It can be made completely by nature. Traditional didgeridoo makers seek out hollow live trees that have termite activity. The termites in Australia tend to hollow out entire trees, or even a branch, and create long, tapered tubes, perfectly suitable for the instrument.
The hurdy-gurdy, otherwise known as a wheel fiddle, is the only instrument that uses a crank to turn a wheel to rub strings like the bow of a violin to make music. Popular during the European Renaissance era, it has a has a nasally, bright sound, a buzzing timbre, and drone strings and was used in medieval dance music. The drone strings give a constant pitch accompaniment to the melody, making it sound like similar to bagpipes. The instrument has been many shapes and sizes throughout its existence, and there is still no standardized form today. It was originally so large it had to be played by two people but is now typically the size of a large guitar.
These days the hurdy-gurdy is mostly viewed as a Renaissance artifact, but they occasionally appear in the pop music scene, used by bands like Led Zeppelin, Arcade Fire and Weezer, and one even made a brief appearance in the 2004 film The Polar Express.
Double Contrabass Flute
Considered the world’s largest metal flute, this instrument is 8 feet tall, has tubing of up to 22 feet and weighs about 30 pounds. It is the lowest pitched metal flute in the world, and produces a warm, soft sound. Almost all metal bass flutes like this one are expensive. Double contrabass flutes are so uncommon, they are typically only made to order, and can cost around $45,000! In fact, in the early 90s and 2000s, the only way you were able to try playing this instrument was to journey to Tokyo and visit the Kotato and Fukushima firm in Japan, one of the most notable producers of the brass version of this flute. This instrument is mostly used in flute choirs, orchestras, concert ensembles and film scores.
Jew’s Harp (Jaw Harp, Mouth Harp)
You would think a simple instrument like the Jew’s harp, that has been around for centuries, would be more common. The Jew’s harp makes a distinctive “boing” sound you’ve probably heard before but couldn’t place. Have you ever watched the cartoon television show Tom and Jerry? Every time Tom has a failed attempt at catching Jerry, that “boing” sound you hear is the Jew’s Harp. It is small instrument that consists of a flexible metal or bamboo tongue or reed that is attached to a frame and is played by plucking the reed with your fingers, while holding it in between your teeth. The vibrations produce sound, which can then be manipulated by the shape of your mouth. This instrument is found in many cultures around the world, and while in the last few hundred years it has been commonly referred to as the Jew’s harp, there are hundreds of names for the instrument, most of which translate to “mouth harp” in English.
Yes, you read that right. Vegetables can be used as instruments, and the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra does just that. The group was founded in Vienna in 1998 and consists of 10 musicians, one cook and one sound technician. They use carrots, celery, peppers, squash, zucchini and other raw vegetables as instruments and use special microphones to amplify the sounds. The orchestra has invented more than 150 instruments over the years. Some are ready made from the store, like pumpkins you can thump or crunching dried onion skin. Others need to be cut and carved to resemble traditional instruments, and some creations even combine two or more vegetables to make one instrument. Of course, vegetable instruments don’t last forever, so you’d need to create a new one each time you play, but like the musicians, you can always boil whatever you don’t use or can’t play anymore into a soup for dinner.