A Conversation for Unusual Musical Instruments

No, no more- OK, maybe just a couple

Post 1


Gamelan - An Indonesian percussion instrument made of clay, wood, or metal nowadays. Picture a xylophone made of forty spherical bells, arranged by size. Gamelans are so revered in Idonesian that each has its own name, rather like the Native American practice of naming drums.

Radio- John Cage, who invented the prepared piano and wrote 4'33", also composed "Imaginary Landscape No. 4" for twentyfour performers and twelve radioes, set to random frequencies.

Slidge-or slidgeridoo, a version of the didgeridoo made of brass.

And an honourable mention to Harry Partch, of Oakland, CA, who invented not only an entire orchestra of his own instruments but a new system of intonation for them. His instruments were usually made of recycled junk, spare parts from other instruments, and army surplus (!?) and had names like "Spoils of War", "Cloud Chamber", and "Chromelodeon". Unfortunately, I've only heard of him in my reading and can't say what any of those instruments sounded like.

Any others?

No, no more- OK, maybe just a couple

Post 2

Steve K.

Here's one, a theremin for the new millenium. It's just been introduced by Alesis, the electronic music gear outfit. Called the "AirFX", its a combination theremin and effects processor. About the size of two videocassettes laid side by side, it has only a flattened dome, a single dial, and a digital readout with only a couple of digits. The dome is actually a three dimensional (x,y,z) position sensor. The idea is to hook up any audio source, then modulate the sound by moving your hand(s) around over the dome. It comes with fifty factory preset effects, divided into Special FX, Filters, Flange/Phase, and Synth Patches. A typical preset from the Filters is "Formented": "Sounds like the music is coming out of someone's mouth, great on a full mix". The x and y axes (sided to side and front to back) control the mouth position, while the z axis (height above the dome) controls the mix of filtered and unfiltered audio. Weird. (but I like mine ... smiley - smiley )

A couple of comments on the above - I recall the gamelan is what drove Debussy into his "impressionistic" music, a good thing since I recall he flunked music theory a couple of times. And my music theory prof claims to have once been a performer of Cage's "Imaginary Landscape No. 4", but with only six radios, the chamber version, I guess.

No, no more- OK, maybe just a couple

Post 3

Sea Change

Here are some that I think are fun!

Jegog- A bamboo-tube kind of suspended gamelan with it's own four note scale

Koto- a traditional japanese autoharp/plucked-psaltery like thing. There is a Korean version, of which I am not entirely sure it is different.

Shamisen-a strange traditional japanese two string banjo like thing, usually plectrummed.

Rain Chimes- a box with a sticky roof on which are metal beads. They fall and strike chimes fixed below them in an aleatory fashion. Turn the box upside down to re-stick the beads and allow gravity to play a different rhythm to the tune.

Rain Stick-I am thinking its a yucca stem or a cholla cactus stem, it needs to be irregular convex,about a meter long and hollow. There are irregular beads, beans or termite eatings? inside, and when you upend the thing you get a very rain-like sound.

No, no more- OK, maybe just a couple

Post 4

Steve K.

A couple of general comments:

Years ago, Microsoft published a CD-ROM "Musical Instruments" which was/is one of the best CD-ROM's I've ever seen. It has samples (recordings) of many, many instruments, in some cases multiple samples to illustrate various playing techniques. Also detailed illustrations, info, ensembles, etc. Its long out of "print", but some of the vendors seem to still have copies. Highly recommended.

Also, the "MIDI" spec (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) was developed in the early 80's to allow electronic musical instruments, e.g. synthesizers, to communicate with each other. Later, the spec was extended to "General MIDI" (GM) to standardize the numbering of 128 "standard" instruments. The interesting thing is some of the instruments listed here as "unusual" are on the list: koto, shamisen, ocarina, kalimba, shanai. So all the electronic keyboards you see in the stores have these sounds (or something like these sounds). Of course, many of the companies who create the spec are Japanese: Yamaha, Kawai, Roland, Korg, ... and most of these sounds are on the MS CD-ROM above

No, no more- OK, maybe just a couple

Post 5

Bernadette Lynn_ Home Educator

The Hoover, as used by Hoffnung, who probably used lots of similar things about which I've forgotten, and also Peter Schickele's Double Reed Slide Music Stand.

No, no more- OK, maybe just a couple

Post 6


A fellow I used to work with played something like the Theremin. His instrument produced the familiar tones of the Theremin, but was sensitive to light. He used a variety of light sources, including a flashing LED... never heard a Theremin produce tones with such rapidity before.

No, no more- OK, maybe just a couple

Post 7


The marvellous, mechanical, mouse-organ! As used by the mice in "Bagpuss".

A slightly more grisly version was used by one of the Monty Python team in which a man was introduced who played a tune using mice by having them suitably arranged on a table at an appropriate height and striking them very hard with a pair of hammers to make them squeak out a tune whilst humming along violently...

The human nose was on at least one occasion used as an instrument on the BBC television program: "That's Life". You know the one with Ester Rantzen and co. The nose is played by holding one nostril closed with the forefinger of one hand (probably the left if you are right-handed) and twanging the other nostril in time to the rhythm with the forefinger of the other hand. The actual sound is produced by humming. The nose can be played solo but it is particularly effective in a group ensemble with the flourishing forearms of the players providing a great deal of visual interest.

No, no more- OK, maybe just a couple

Post 8

David Parker

The Theremin is also what produced the sliding sound in the Beach Boys "Good Vibrations", Mike Love played it in live concerts.

No, no more- OK, maybe just a couple

Post 9

Steve K.

I attended an outdoor concert recently by a Taiko group - Japanese drumming. Not only did they use a didgeridoo, they accompanied it with a big sea shell.

No, no more- OK, maybe just a couple

Post 10

Gnomon - time to move on

The conch is a large seashell that is commonly used as a musical instrument.

No, no more- OK, maybe just a couple

Post 11


How about the Japanese sho-? It's basically a bunch of bamboo pipes that are connected at the base of the instrument, through which one blows and inhales. There's also the the larger version called the u- and there's the Chinese sheng.

No, no more- OK, maybe just a couple

Post 12

Gnomon - time to move on

Those are called mouth organs, aren't they? I've been told that they're the ancestor of the modern harmonica, but I haven't seen how they actually produce the sound, to verify this.

No, no more- OK, maybe just a couple

Post 13


Oops, my mistake. They are called mouth organs.

Key: Complain about this post

No, no more- OK, maybe just a couple

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more