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Experimental and obscure musical instruments from the bygone era

Boban Docevski

When it comes to musical instruments and music, there is no limit to people’s creativity and imagination. Literally everything around us can be used as an instrument, as a means to produce sound. Music has been an inseparable part of human existence since the beginning of our evolution.

Throughout history, musicians and instrument makers have been experimenting with different ways of producing sound and melody. Some of the contraptions created have become a standard in the musical world. The others, the ones that are more experimental or obscure, are pushing the borders of sound and inspiring musicians to pursue new horizons.

Some of those instruments look like something out of science fiction. Here is a list of some strange and experimental musical instruments which don’t fit into conventional categories.

1 Theremin

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Leon Theremin performing a trio for theremin, voice, and piano, c. 1924.

This is probably one of the most recognizable items on this list because of it commercial popularity. It was initially known as the Etherphone. This is one of the early instruments that uses electricity to produce sound. The Etherphone was named after its Russian creator, Léon Theremin. Lev Sergeyevich Termen (known in the West as Léon Theremin) invented the device in October 1920.

It was initially conceived during a government-sponsored research project into proximity sensors. After a while, Léon decided to move to the United States, where he patented his invention in 1928. After he realized its potential, Theremin granted commercial production rights to RCA. In the end, the instrument didn’t become a great financial success.

The Theremin is played without physical contact. The musician stands in front of the instrument and moves his hands around two antennas, one horizontal (the volume antenna) and one vertical (the pitch antenna). 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. While commonly called antennas, they are not used for receiving radio waves; they are, in fact, plates of capacitors.

2 Pyrophone

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German composer Wendelin Weissheimer (1838–1910) playing a Pyrophone. Photo credit

The Pyrophone, also known as a “fire organ,” is an instrument that produces sound by explosions, rapid combustion, or rapid heating. The Pyrophone was invented in the 19th century by Georges Frédéric Eugène Kastner, a French-German physicist, inventor, and musician. It seems like the pyrophone is a musical engine of some sorts. It controls the internal gas explosions to produce tones. Pyrophones are usually powered by propane, but there are also some versions that run on gasoline.

3 Ondes Martenot

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A seventh generation Ondes Martenot model from 1975. Photo credit

Another early electronic instrument was invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot. The first version of this device is reminiscent of the Theremin. Later, more options were added which made it more complex than the Theremin. The mysterious modulated tones of the Ondes Martenot are produced by changing the frequency of oscillation in electron tubes. There are several different ways of playing it.

It can be played normally, by using the six-octave keyboard, or by sliding a metal ring worn on the right index. The ring is attached to a wire in front of the keyboard. The position of the ring corresponds to the different notes along the keyboard.

4 Stylophone

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A mid 70s version of the Stylophone. Photo credit

A fine musical toy from the 1960s, the Stylophone is a mini-analog stylus-operated synth. It was created in 1967 by Brian Jarvis and his Dübreq Company. It consists of a metal keyboard played by touching it with a stylus.  Some three million Stylophones were sold from 1967 to 1975. Although it was primarily designed as a toy, a lot of famous musicians enjoyed its simplicity and used it in their songs. One of them was David Bowie. He played the Stylophone on his 1969 debut hit Space Oddity.

5 Cristal Baschet

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The Cristal Baschet! Photo credit

This alien-looking acoustic device, called The Cristal Baschet, was invented in 1952. Its creators, the French instrument makers and artists Bernard and Francois Baschet, were specialists in designing interactive musical sculptures. The instrument has a range of five octaves and produces a pleasant ethereal sound. The sound is produced by gently rubbing glass rods attached to metal rods, which are connected to a thick plate.

 

The vibrations of all the elements produce sound with the help of friction. When this instrument appeared, analog synthesizers such as the Moog were also being developed. The idea of the Baschet was to try and produce music that sounds electronic through acoustic means.

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6 The Glass Armonica

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A modern glass armonica built according to Benjamin Franklin’s designs. Photo credit

Here is another amusing machine that produces tones using friction. It uses several glass bowls or goblets with varying sizes to produce the tones. This instrument appears in many different shapes (including the basic form – rubbing wine glasses.) A mechanical version of the instrument was invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761.

He was inspired by a musician playing on wine glasses and decided to take the idea to a different level. Franklin attached 37 glass bowls on a horizontal iron spindle. The spindle was turned with the help of a foot pedal. Just like when playing on wine glasses, sounds are produced by touching the rims of the bowls with water moistened fingers. The sound made by this instrument is a little bit eerie. Probably that is why strange rumors appeared that a prolonged period of playing or listening to the Glass Armonica could cause insanity.

7 Gravikord

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A Gravikord. Photo credit

The Gravikord is a strange electric double bridge-harp inspired by a West African instrument called the Kora. It was designed by Robert Grawi in 1986. This hybrid instrument has 24 nylon strings and no resonating box or skin. The tones are produced by plucking strings with the thumb and index finger of each hand. A built-in piezoelectric sensor enhances the sound.

8 Stroh Violin

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A Stroh Violin exhibited at Museu de la Música de Barcelona. Photo credit

The Stroh Violin was patented by John Matthias Augustus Stroh, an electrical engineer from London. In 1899, John applied for a UK patent, which was accepted in 1900. His design implemented a flat metal diaphragm in the voice-box of a violin to amplify the sound mechanically. Today, many examples of horned violins can be found, especially in the Balkans. When it first appeared, the Stroh Violin was pretty expensive. In 1911 in London, the Stroh violin cost nine guineas (then equal to $37.80) or twelve guineas ($50.40). A standard violin at that time could be bought for only two guineas.

9 American Fotoplayer

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Ben Turpin with a Fotoplayer (1922)

The American Fotoplayer was created by the American Fotoplayer Company between 1912 and 1925. This type of player piano was specially designed for silent movie cinemas. Back in those days, people realized that adding sound to silent movie scenes had a more emotional effect.

In the beginning, normal player pianos were used for providing music. Piano rolls were automatically playing the “soundtracks.” Some of the player pianos were customized with pipe organs and a variety of sound effects placed in large cabinets on both sides of the piano. The musician could use all of these effects to musically enhance the movie. The appearance of sound movies made this instrument obsolete. The American Fotoplayer Company stopped production in 1925.

10 Pikasso Guitar

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The Pikasso guitar. Photo credit

Linda Manzer is a Canadian string instrument craftsman famous for her acoustic guitars. One of her more interesting designs was a weird guitar called the Pikasso Guitar (or Pikasso I). The name was apparently given because of its similarity with the cubist paintings of the famous Pablo Picasso. The Pikasso Guitar is a type of harp guitar with four necks, two sound holes, and 42 strings. Only two of them were ever made.