Music is one of humanity’s oldest cultural institutions and is considered a universal method of communicating emotion. Throughout the millennia that different cultures have been making music, they have also been developing instruments to help communicate their ideas. Here are some of the most interesting musical instruments that you have never heard of—or even heard at all.
The lur is a curved blowing horn from ancient Scandinavia that features no finger holes. The lack of finger holes to modify the sound emitted from the instrument means that the player must use facial muscles and lung power to manipulate the sound.
Lurs are an important part of Scandinavian history – paintings of bronze lurs have been found on rock formations, and the modern Scandinavian word for telephone is “lur.”
The nyckelharpa is a stringed instrument which was invented in Sweden during the 16th century. The nyckelharpa appears to be something of a cross between a violin and an accordion, with 16 strings and 37 keys making up the body of the instrument. The strings are divided between resonance, drone and melody strings, and the keys modulate the sound they produce. The interaction of the strings and the keys makes the nyckelharpa sound like a more resonant fiddle.
This stringed instrument also bears the appearance of a hybrid of two better known instruments, this time a cross between a harp and a sort of portable piano. The zither is placed either on the musician’s knees on or a table or played by a special type of pick that covers the player’s thumb and index finger to pick the strings.
Another fiddle-like instrument, the hurdy gurdy, was developed almost a thousand years ago in the 11th century. The most unique element of the hurdy gurdy is the crank that the musician utilizes to turn a wheel against the bow. A keyboard allows the musician to influence the sound produced by the interaction of the wheel and the bow, and the instrument produces a sound like a bagpipe.
The glass armonica is an instrument made up of different sized glass bowls that are played with a resonated glove. It works on the same principle as the musical glasses party trick – glass surfaces with different amounts of resistance produce a different pitch when friction is introduced. It is not known who first invented the glass armonica, but Benjamin Franklin built his famous mechanical version in 1761.
Famous for being the first patented electronic musical instrument, the Ondeo-Martenot was invented in 1928 and is simply a wire that is manipulated by the musician’s finger to produce a sound. Later versions would be attached to a piano-style keyboard to further modulate the sound.
Even if you’ve never heard of a theremin, you are most likely familiar with the sound it produces. The theremin produces an unearthly-sounding vibration that was employed in Hollywood sound studios during the 1950s and the ‘60s in science fiction and horror movies. If you can imagine the wavering whine of a flying saucer appearing in a black and white alien invasion film, then you have heard a theremin.
The theremin is an electronic instrument that has two metal antennas that produce an electromagnetic field. The player never actually touches the instrument as the movement of the musician’s hands in the electromagnetic field creates different tones.
The Zuesaphone is another electronic instrument that seems to be from beyond our world. The Zuesaphone modulates the output of a tesla coil to produce sound. This manipulation causes an impressive spark of lightning to emit from the instrument when it makes a sound. However, the sound it produces is not within a pitch that the human ear can hear, so the sound must be digitally modulated to be audible.
This keyboard that is operated with a stylus was invented in 1967 and sold over 3 million units. While most of these were marketed as children’s toys, modern composers such as Rolf Harris have been known to incorporate a stylophone into their performances. The original stylophone was discontinued in 1975, but a digital revival version was released by the inventor’s son in 2007.