If you’ve ever spent time in music shops or checking out unorthodox musical styles online, you probably know that mass communication has brought about access to some very strange musical instruments. Here are just ten of the strangest instruments known to exist in the world today, and why musicians interested in oddball sounds or unique experiences will have their work cut out for them in coming years.
1. The Kora
Having been built and employed by Malian musicians for generations, the kora is a harp-like instrument that is chiefly used in the country’s traditional music. The kora may look strange, but its beautiful tones and playability bely its bizarre appearance. Anyone who is familiar with the music of players like Toumani Diabaté will know that there is something very special indeed about the humble kora.
2. The Theremin
Popularized during the sci-fi boom of the 1950s and 1960s, the space-age theremin synthesizer provides players and audiences with eerie and ghost-like (but instantly recognizable) tones. The instrument was most famously used on the Beach Boys’s hit single “Good Vibrations”; its association with psychedelic rock since the 1960s has made the theremin a collectors’ item.
Sometimes known as a “thumb piano,” the kalimba (or mbira) is a pocket-sized instrument that is popular with musicians in Zimbabwe. This charming but odd little instrument is also used by musicians in America and Europe who have been fascinated by its unique sound for decades. The critically-acclaimed Congolese band Konono Nº1 have been known to use an electrified kalimba to great effect.
4. The Singing Ringing Tree
Built to harness the power of the wind as it rushes across the wild moors of Lancashire, England, the Singing Ringing Tree is an instrument that doubles as a work of art. The “tree” has to be one of the strangest instruments ever created: Its bizarre and almost alien sounds are wholly determined by natural occurrences. If the wind is really blowing up a gale, this thing probably puts on a serious show. Just don’t stand next to it in a lightning storm.
If the name of this strange instrument makes you do a double-take, you’re not alone: True to its title, the pyrophone is an instrument that produces flames to achieve its interesting sounds. The pyrophone probably won’t be showing up at your local Guitar Center anytime soon: Its massive size and potentially hazardous effects makes this instrument a bonafide musical curio.
6. Electrochemical Synthesizer
The sounds of the Electrochemical Synthesizer probably won’t take the Billboard Top 40 by storm, but for people who love science as well as music, it is certainly an interesting instrument. True to its name, the Electrochemical Synthesizer operates via chemical interactions between different substances. The tones the instrument produces could hardly be called dulcet, but the synthesizer’s inventors do deserve kudos for their creativity.
7. The Aztec Death Whistle
The Aztec Death Whistle is not the type of instrument you’d want played at your wedding or fancy dinner party: This ancient piece of musical history from Mesoamerica is said to produce some of the most chilling sounds on the planet.
Considering that the “death whistle” was used in ancient sacrifice rituals, the instrument is probably going to be more interesting to your local university’s archaeology department than to your local garage band. (However, your local noise band might disagree with this sentiment.) Either way, fans of unorthodox music should definitely check out videos of the instrument being played online.
8. The “Furby Organ”
The so-called “Furby Organ” has to be one of the most bizarre instruments ever conceived of by human culture. Like the Aztec Death Whistle, the “Furby Organ” does exactly what it says on the tin: This is essentially a synthesizer that plays a couple dozen Furby dolls when triggered by a keyboard. To be honest, it’s a pretty horrifying contraption that will probably give you nightmares if you play it, and any musician who dares combine this “organ” with the Aztec Death Whistle should probably not be trusted.
9. The Badgermin
So you’ve mastered the theremin and want to take your skills to the next level. How would you go about doing this? If you’re “Furby Organ” inventor David Cranmer, you will probably design an instrument that is part theremin and part badger.
Answering the age-old musical question of what would happen if you combined Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows” with 60s-era Beach Boys music, the Badgermin has attained distinction in the “Why did they build this?” department. (Presumably, however, the strange appearance of this item does put potential thieves on the back foot.)
Due to its odd “steampunk” look, you’d be forgiven for believing that the Wintergaten was designed by a mad scientist from the 19th Century. The instrument operates on a complex interlocking system of mechanical parts and 2000 marbles. (Trust us when we say that you do not want to knock this instrument over.) Unlike the Aztec Death Whistle, however, the Wintergaten actually sounds quite nice!
While there are too many examples of bizarre instruments from across the globe to list in one article, these ten items have to rank as some of the strangest musical tools ever made. Many have accrued a sizable fan base, but instruments like the Badgermin and Wintergaten will probably be indefinitely relegated to a handful of garages and museums in the years to come. Still, we have to hand it to the inventors of these unique items: We certainly can’t fault them for a lack of imagination.