The pursuit of new sounds has compelled musicians, inventors, and architects for centuries.
We’re familiar with many of the instruments that have emerged from this curiosity, such as the guitar, piano, and drums. But there are many more instruments that we’re unfamiliar with. Some are revolutionary, while others challenge our idea of what musical instruments can be. So, here are the weirdest musical instruments you need to try if you’re bored by the same old sounds.
While the mellotron may look like a synthesiser or keyboard (it was one of the earliest precursors to both), what’s strange about it is how it produces sound.
Developed in Birmingham in 1963, the mellotron is essentially a pre-analogue, mechanical synthesiser. Sound is recorded to tape within the mellotron, which is then played back at pitches corresponding to the keys being pressed.
The logistics of playing a ‘note’ aren’t much more advanced than hitting ‘stop’ or ’play’ on a stereo, but this ingenious invention allowed musicians to sample and arrange sound from any source, in a way that had never existed before.
The mellotron can be heard in The Beatles’ ‘’ and David Bowie’s ‘’. Its sometimes choppy, looped sound is also familiar in sample-based hip hop production over 60 years on.
The mellotron’s legacy is evidenced in modern samplers, DJ techniques, and even virtual studio technology plug-ins (VSTs), which form the backbone of contemporary music production.
After the Second World War, much of the city of Zadar – where the sea organ is now located – was in ruins. Reconstruction of the sea wall was little more than a featureless concrete barrier for most of the century thereafter. However, in 2005 an architect called Nikola Bašić designed the sea organ to replace it.
Waves crashing on the shore interact with the sea organ to produce a random, but harmonic siren-song. It appears to drone and quickly dart in and out of different pitches.
We’ve all rubbed our finger around the edge of a wine glass to produce a tone. Even Galileo did. The phenomenon has been observed for at least 500 years and the glass armonica arose as a more ordered version of the same thing.
With wine glasses, the degree to which the glass is full or empty dictates the tone being produced. However, with the glass armonica, it’s the size of the glass.
Interestingly, the glass armonica was invented by US founding father Benjamin Franklin, making it one of the oldest weird instruments. Franklin’s innovation allowed players to produce multiple tones at once – much like a piano – and also did away with the water tuning.
To operate the instrument, players touch the glasses with wet fingertips as the glasses rotate. This produces a full, high-pitched crystalline sound. You can imagine it being used to represent snow or frost in a concerto.
With a hydraulophone, water is pumped into a curved tube and spurts from holes on top. When a player covers one of these holes, water is diverted past a sounding hole that makes a tone corresponding to the covered hole.
Each spurt from each hole represents a different note, and covering multiple holes creates polyphonic tones, meaning harmonies and chords can be played. Similarly, the dynamic of a note depends on how much the player covers each hole. This results in a remarkable level of expression for such a unique instrument.
The hydraulophone was created by the prolific inventor, MIT Ph.D. graduate, and engineering professor Steve Mann in 1980. He’d observed the many instruments that produce a tone by air and solids and wished to create one that sounded via water. This is the only musical instrument he invented, but his other credits include creating the first wearable computer decades before the Apple Watch or Fitbit came to the market.
The singing ringing tree
The singing ringing tree is a 10ft tall sound sculpture that sits atop the Pennines overlooking Burnley.
Installed in 2006, it’s made from steel tubes of various lengths. The wind blows through these tubes to produce haunting, discordant howls spanning several octaves.
Hearing the singing ringing tree makes for a profoundly surreal experience as you stand beneath it observing the surrounding moors and mountains.
The singing ringing tree was designed by architects Mike Tonkin and Anna Liu. In 2007, it won the National Award of the Royal Institute of British Architects for architectural excellence.
The pikasso guitar, so named because it resembles a Picasso painting, is one of many instruments that Canadian master luthier Linda Manzer has designed for American jazz guitarist Pat Metheny (featured above).
Metheny’s brief was simple – to design a guitar with as many strings as possible. The result was a guitar with four necks and 42 strings, each crossing one another over two sound holes. Its tone is a combination of familiar stringed instruments, such as guitar, banjo, harp, and zither. When these individual elements are brought together, they produce a truly unique sound.
Mercifully, Manzer designed the guitar with her signature Wedge invention. This means the guitar tapers forward slightly to allow players to see the strings better. Since Manzer created the pikasso in 1984, this feature has become a mainstay in the design of all her guitars.
The hurdy-gurdy has been around, in many forms, since the 10th century AD. It evolved out of an instrument called the organistrum, which similarly produces sound through the friction of a wheel against tight strings. The motion of the wheel rubbing against the strings is similar to how a violinist draws their bow across the violin’s strings.
Playing the hurdy-gurdy, however, takes good coordination as one hand turns the crank as the other plays the keys. If you can pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time, this will stand you in good stead.
There are typically six strings on the hurdy-gurdy – three melody strings, two ‘drone’ strings, and one ‘trompette’ string. The melody strings are engaged when a key is pressed, while the drone strings are constant notes that play as you turn the crank. The trompette string is triggered by the crank, allowing the player to intonate rhythm with a higher-pitched buzz.
With all of these elements added together, the hurdy-gurdy sounds something like a bagpipe.
No list of the world’s weirdest musical instruments would be complete without a theremin. Between its contactless playing technique and unnatural sound, it’s alien to what we think we know about musical instruments.
To play the theremin, you hover your hands over it and make slight movements – one hand controls the frequency (or tone) and the other controls volume. The player must place their hand in the correct place to produce the desired note.
This makes the theremin hard to play a tune on, let alone master. This, along with its usage in cult film soundtracks, has contributed to its niche but passionate fanbase.