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World's Weirdest Musical Instruments

Forget boring old pianos or guitars; these are the weirdest musical instruments that exist in the world today.

Since the dawn of mankind, music has been a crucial part of our society, giving rise to a variety of music styles and customs - and also to some very strange instruments. The love of sublime melody has translated into ingenious musical concoctions ranging from nature-based instruments to innovative variations of more common instruments. Here is a list of our top picks of the weirdest instruments ever invented.

Glass Armonica 

Named after the Italian word armonia, which signifies harmony, the glass armonica–some call it the glass harmonica–remains one of the strangest instruments to this day. It was invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761; on one of his trips to London, Franklin was enthralled by performers who used musical glasses to entertain their audience. He went on to develop the glass armonica - a string of glass bowls placed on a rotating metal rod which could be controlled via a foot pedal. The player's damp fingers would touch the edges of the glass bowls, giving rise to sounds of different pitches. 

The glass armonica became a popular instrument in the 18th century, referred to by Franklin's wife as the music of the angels. Famous composers such as Mozart and Beethoven wrote pieces for the armonica, and even Marie Antoinette was passionate about playing this odd instrument. However, as music moved to the concert halls, the armonica went out of fashion due to the era's lack of amplification.

Pyrophone

An explosive alternative to our modern-day piano, the pyrophone (or the fire organ) is an instrument in which very loud musical notes are generated by explosions in the form of swift combustion reactions. Invented in the late 19th century by Georges Kastner, the pyrophone functions similarly to modern day internal combustion engines, but uses hydrogen flames and glass resonant chambers of different sizes and height. When the player hits the organ keys, the small detonation produces a large hydrogen flame that is directed through the appropriate glass channels to produce a specific note. Although traditional pyrophones are now obsolete, custom made ones are produced in smaller sizes and use liquid nitrogen to cool the chambers while playing.

American Fotoplayer 

In the beginning of the 21st century when silent movies dominated the film industry, the American Photo Player Company developed the Fotoplayer, a player piano that could generate sounds and music to create specific atmospheres during silent movies. The automatic mechanism of these pianos facilitated their widespread use in theatres. Fotoplayers consisted of an electric player piano to which multiple levers, buttons and accessories were attached that allowed the player to generate various sounds ranging from thunder and chirping to gunshots and bells. When the ability to capture sound on film was invented, Fotoplayers were discontinued. Today, less than 50 of the original instruments have survived. 

Singing Ringing Tree 

Photo by Mid Pennine Arts

Set in the beautiful British countryside, the singing ringing tree is a wind powered sound sculpture constructed in Lancashire, England. Built in 2006 by architects Mark Tonkin and Anna Liu, the singing ringing tree is composed of galvanized steel pipes of different shapes, sizes and orientations that use the power of the wind to generate pitches across several octaves. This results in sounds that are described as strange, ominous and sad, but praised for being truly alluring. Due to its unique properties, the singing ringing tree has become a major tourist attraction and was one of the recipients of the 2007 National Award of the Royal Institute of British Architects for architectural excellence.


Theremin

Invented by the Russian musician Leo Theremin in the early 1900s, the theremin is certainly an unusual instrument. Its uniqueness stems from the fact that players can control it without physically touching the device. It is composed of a box containing a vertical antenna (that controls the pitch) and a horizontal loop (that controls the volume). A monophonic device, the theremin can only produce one note at a time. The player manipulates the volume and pitch of the instrument by changing the distance between their hands and the antennae which creates an electromagnetic field. The theremin became popular in Hollywood due to its eerie sound, and you can hear its specific tone in movies such as Spellbound and The Day the Earth Stood Still

Sharpsichord 

One of the weirdest instruments in existence, the sharpsichord is a modern-day invention coined by British sound sculptor Henry Dagg in 2011. Built over the course of five years, the sharpsichord is a massive acoustic harp made of stainless steel that weighs a whopping 2.5 tons. Consisting of 46 strings and approximately 11,500 holes, the sharpsichord was designed to let any player create their own music. All one needs to do is screw pins into the holes of a punctured cylinder, thus activating levers that then pluck each string to generate specific notes. Interestingly, the sharpsichord has a mechanical memory (meaning it can play music backwards and forwards) and had a notable appearance in Bjork's Biophilia show.

Crwth

Originating in 11th century Wales, the crwth is an ancient musical device without many vowels but a lot of history. Its appearance is peculiar; kind of a cross between a miniaturized guitar and a violin. Made from various types of soft wood, the crwth consists of a rectangular soundboard containing two circular holes through which sounds escape and strengthen the tone. All four strings are played simultaneously, generating a harmonious sound which has been described by medieval poets as being like a hundred voices. The crwth generates folk-based music that is reminiscent of medieval times. If you listen long enough to these melodies, you may find yourself being transported into a Game of Thrones episode. Surviving photos depict crwth players with the instrument resting against their chest and a strap around their neck. The crwth lost popularity by the 18th century, with only four remaining copies being exhibited in museums across Wales and America. 

Sea Organ 

Set on the scenic Croatian coast of Zadar, the sea organ is a natural instrument that harnesses the powers of the wind and sea waves to create a cornucopia of musical sounds that delight passersby. Located underneath white marble steps on the coast of the Adriatic, the sea organ consists of seven groups of polyethylene tubes and a resonating cavity. The air in these pipes is pushed by the combined strength of the wind and waves in random patterns to create a never ending musical concert on the diatonic major scale. The Croatian sea organ is truly a one-of-a-instrument.

Didgeridoo

Hailing from the aboriginal tribes of Australia, the didgeridoo is by far one of the planet's strangest instruments. Part of the family of brass aerophones, the didgeridoo is a wind instrument whose length ranges from about 45-62 inches. Didgeridoos are masterfully crafted from hollow trees which have had their heartwood chewed up by termites. Craftsmen trim off the bark and the ends of the tree, add beeswax to the mouthpiece and often decorate the instrument. The didgeridoo expels drone-like sounds and uses a special technique called circular breathing. With this skill, the player continuously expels air out of their mouth while concurrently filling their lungs with air through their nose. Aboriginal tribes use the didgeridoo during various cultural ceremonies; however, only men are allowed to play the instrument. Didgeridoos are used outside of Australia in various musical groups ranging from jazz music to extreme metal - and are available to play by either gender.

Jew's Harp 

Half the size of a human palm, the Jew's harp has the shape of a key and consists of two main parts knows as the frame and the tongue. The player operates the instrument by gently holding the steel bars between their front teeth and pushing the tongue of the device with their index finger in a forward motion. The rhythm of the music is controlled by the player's breath. A great deal of debate has occurred since the 14th century as to whether the Jew's harp is a chromatic or percussion instrument; recently, it was designated to be an aerophone, since music is generated solely when air is transported past its tongue. The Jew's harp remained among the most beloved instruments in Western Europe until the 1850s. Composers such as Johann Georg Albrechtsberger and Franz Koch composed music for the Jew's harp, and the English royalty would often listen to virtuosos performing on this instrument. Throughout history, the Jew's harp has also been used in strange circumstances such as to induce a trance, heal the sick or in certain types pf psychotherapy. 

Singing Tesla Coil

By far the geekiest instrument on this list, the singing Tesla coil (or zeusaphone) uses modified Tesla coils to produce electronic music. The plasma speakers generate square waves which translate into basic chords. The resulting sounds are digitally modified so that the frequency lies within the human audio spectrum. Since its first public appearance in 2006, the singing Tesla coil has gained momentum, even popping up in  The Sorcerer's Apprentice. The vibrating electronic sounds of the zeusaphone are accompanied by a spectacular visual show that will remind you of thunder wars from Greek mythology. A beautiful example of the Tesla coil in action can be found on YouTube in the electronic rendition of "The House of the Rising Sun".

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