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10 Unique Musical Instruments You’ll Want to Hear

by Patricia West
fact checked by Rachel Jones

Music is a universal language connecting people across the globe. While we’re familiar with guitars, pianos, and drums, unique musical instruments add color and diversity to sound. From the ghostly tones of the theremin to the whimsical melodies of the Otamatone, here are ten musical instruments that will spike your curiosity and captivate your ears.

Related: Top 10 Bizarre Musical Genres That You Need In Your Life

10 Hydraulophone: Harmonizing with Water’s Flow

James Hancock playing hydraulophone at CCRMA, Stanford University

The hydraulophone is a true marvel among musical instruments. Imagine a keyboard that doesn’t rely on electricity or air to produce sound but instead water. Yes, water! If Poseidon played music, he’d probably choose this aquatic wonder.

So, what’s the deal with the hydraulophone? Picture a series of water jets shooting from a metal tube. Covering a jet with your finger alters the water flow, creating different pitches and tones. It’s like playing a keyboard, but instead of pressing keys, you’re manipulating streams of water. Talk about making a splash in the music scene.

Created by Steve Mann in the late 20th century, the hydraulophone has gained popularity in parks, museums, and music circles. Besides the sheer novelty, the hydraulophone offers a tactile experience. You can feel the vibrations as you interact with the water, adding an extra dimension to the music-making process.

So, next time you’re strolling through a park and stumble upon water with peculiar-looking water jets, don’t hesitate to try the hydraulophone. Who knows? You might unleash your inner Aquaman—or impress a few curious onlookers with your aquatic melodies.

9 Theremin: Unleashing the Magic of Electromagnetic Waves

THEREMIN – Over The Rainbow

Imagine playing music without touching any instrument—sounds like magic, right? Enter the theremin. Picture standing in front of a mysterious contraption, no strings attached (literally), and your hands create ethereal melodies out of thin air.

Russian inventor Léon Theremin created this instrument in the early 1920s, fascinating the world. The Theremin operates on the principles of capacitance and electromagnetic fields. Moving your hands near its antennas, you disrupt those fields, coaxing out those eerie, otherworldly sounds.

Now, let’s talk about the quirks. Mastering the theremin is like trying to tame a musical ghost. It takes finesse, patience, and maybe a touch of magic. Your hands become the conductors, dancing delicately to produce pitch and volume. It’s a ballet, but instead of pirouettes, you’re producing haunting melodies.

You might summon the spirit of a forgotten symphony with one wrong move. But get it right, and you’ll capture audiences with its eerie charm. From classical compositions to sci-fi soundtracks, the theremin has left its mark on music history, earning its spot as one of the most unique instruments.

8 Yaybahar: A Fusion of Acoustic and Electronic Innovation

Yaybahar by Görkem Şen

Let me introduce you to the yaybahar. It’s like the lovechild of a string instrument and a sci-fi sound machine. You won’t believe your ears when you hear this baby sing.

The yaybahar isn’t your run-of-the-mill instrument. It’s a mind-bending creation that looks straight out of a steampunk fantasy. Imagine a metal frame with strings attached to drums and resonators. Now, add some springs and other mysterious contraptions, and voila! You’ve got yourself a yaybahar.

When you pluck the strings or stroke the surfaces, the vibrations travel through the frame, creating an unearthly melody that’ll tingle your spine. It’s like music from another dimension. The inventor, Görkem Şen, deserves a standing ovation for dreaming up such a marvel. He crafted the yaybahar to explore the relationship between sound and vibration, and boy, did he hit the jackpot.

7 Marble Machine: Engineering Marvel and Musical Wonder

Wintergatan – Marble Machine (music instrument using 2000 marbles)

What happens when you combine the principles of mechanics, engineering, and music? You get the Marble Machine—a captivating device that transforms marbles into melodies. The Swedish musician Martin Molin created this instrument as a marvel of engineering and artistry.

At first glance, the Marble Machine resembles a mishmash of gears, levers, and tubes. But it’s so much more. Its intricate design transforms the simple act of dropping marbles onto various instruments into a symphony of sound. It’s like each marble has its own musical destiny, dancing through xylophones, drums, and cymbals.

What’s truly remarkable is how Molin crafted this instrument to be entertaining and mesmerizing. Watching the Marble Machine in action is like witnessing a mini orchestra conducted by gravity.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. Molin’s creation isn’t just a feast for the ears—it’s also a visual spectacle. With its intricate wooden framework and vibrant colors, the Marble Machine is a work of art in its own right. It’s like something out of a fairy tale, where music and magic collide in the most delightful way

6 Crwth: An Ancient Welsh Treasure

Bowed lyre (crwth) made by Owen Tudor, Wales (Dolgelly), 19th century

The crwth—pronounced “krooth”—is like someone plucked a medieval string instrument out of a time warp and plopped it into the 21st century. This oddball looks like a mix between a violin and a harp, but it’s neither. It’s its own quirky thing.

First off, let’s get its vibe straight. The crwth is whimsical, resembling a wooden box with a bowed neck sticking out. Now, what sets the crwth apart from your typical orchestra lineup? Well, for starters, it’s Welsh, through and through. This baby hails from the land of dragons and rolling hills—Wales. In fact, it’s one of the oldest known string instruments in Europe, dating back to the Middle Ages. Talk about vintage.

Instead of the traditional four strings like a violin, the crwth boasts six strings, which you play with a bow. Oh, and did I mention? You also finger the strings with one hand while you bow with the other. It’s like trying to pat your head and rub your belly simultaneously—a delightful challenge for the musically inclined adventurer.

5 Toha: Harnessing Nature’s Ancient Rhythms

Toha(Weirdest Musical Instruments)

Our next music discovery takes us into the quirky world of the toha, also known as the totem harp. Picture a mystical blend of nature and music, like something straight out of a fairy tale.

First things first, let’s talk about design. The toha looks like it’s been plucked from the heart of a mystical forest. It’s essentially a vertical harp, with strings stretched between a wooden frame, but here’s the kicker: the frame resembles a totem pole adorned with intricate carvings and symbols. Talk about making a statement on stage.

The toha taps into the ancient rhythms of nature. The design isn’t just for show. It’s crafted to resonate with the earthy vibes of the wilderness. With each strum, it’s like you’re communing with the spirits of the forest. Okay, maybe I’m getting carried away, but you get the idea.

The sound? Oh, it’s pure magic. Imagine the gentle rustle of leaves and the whisper of the wind, all woven into a melody that transports you to another realm. It’s hauntingly beautiful yet strangely comforting.

4 Glass Armonica: Benjamin Franklin’s Musical Magic

Sounds of a Glass Armonica

Introducing the glass armonica, a musical spectacle where Mozart meets a crystal-clear symphony. Imagine playing music on wine glasses, but with a touch of 18th-century elegance and a dash of Benjamin Franklin’s genius—that’s the glass armonica for you.

Created in 1761 by the founding father Benjamin Franklin, this instrument looks like a series of glass bowls or goblets arranged in descending size and filled with water. Always thinking outside the proverbial colonial box, Franklin conceived the glass armonica by mounting glass bowls on a spindle and rubbing their rims with wet fingers. The result? A hauntingly beautiful melody that could rival even the most elaborate orchestras.

Why glass, you ask? Well, it turns out that Franklin was onto something—the resonance and transcendental tones produced by the friction of glass are truly one-of-a-kind. The glass armonica found its way into the hearts of classical composers like Beethoven, and even Marie Antoinette was a fan. Its angelic sounds were believed to have healing properties, earning it a spot in concert halls and apothecaries.

3 Cimbalom: Trapezoidal Charms

What is a Cimbalom?

Meet the cimbalom, the unsung hero of quirky instruments that’s about to pluck its way into your musical heart. Imagine a giant wooden trapezoid with strings stretched across it, played with mallets that look like they escaped from a percussionist’s dream. This Hungarian delight is a feast for the ears and a visual spectacle.

With roots dating back to the 19th century, the cimbalom has a rich history, charming its way through Eastern European folk music and classical compositions. It’s the child of a piano and a hammered dulcimer, creating a sound as unique as its appearance.

The cimbalom’s strings are struck, producing warm tones that can go from a gentle lullaby to a lively dance in the blink of an eye. It’s the secret ingredient in many traditional Hungarian and Romanian tunes, giving them a distinctive flavor that’s hard to replicate.

But don’t be fooled by its traditional roots—the cimbalom is coming back in contemporary music, adding a touch of eccentricity to modern compositions. Its percussive yet melodic nature makes it a versatile choice for musicians looking to break free from the ordinary.

2 Otamatone: Quirky Charm and Playful Melodies

Otamatone 101: Beginner Guide

The Otamatone is a delightful oddity in the world of musical instruments. Picture a quirky combination of a synthesizer and a cute little alien tadpole. It’s as if E.T. decided to join a jazz band.

So, what exactly is the Otamatone? Well, imagine a musical note embodied in a wacky, squeezable creature with a mouth at one end and a musical scale on its neck. Pressing its neck and squeezing its bulbous body produces different pitches, resulting in a sound between a theremin and a cartoonish voice.

This little guy originated in Japan, which isn’t surprising given Japan’s penchant for blending the innovative with the adorable. It quickly gained popularity worldwide for its sheer uniqueness and undeniable charm.

Mastering the Otamatone might not land you a spot in Carnegie Hall, but who cares when you’re having this much fun? So, grab your Otamatone, embrace the whimsy, and let the music (or whatever you want to call it) flow! Who knows, maybe your rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” will become the next viral sensation.

1 Hurdy-Gurdy: Medieval Marvel with a Modern Twist

Reverse Dance. Medieval Dance. Hurdy-Gurdy, Organ & Drum

Have you ever heard of a musical instrument that sounds like a medieval time machine? Let me introduce you to the hurdy-gurdy—the quirky mix between a violin and a hand-cranked organ grinder. This offbeat instrument dates back to the 11th century, and it’s not just a feast for the ears but a spectacle for the eyes.

Imagine a wooden box with strings stretched across it, a hand-crank that looks like it belongs in a vintage coffee grinder, and a set of keys that wouldn’t be out of place on a pirate’s treasure chest. The magic happens when you turn the crank, causing a wheel to rub against the strings, producing a sound as lovely as it is peculiar.

Don’t let the oddball appearance fool you—the hurdy-gurdy has serious musical chops. Its haunting tones can transport you to a medieval castle or a lively Renaissance fair. And let’s not forget the eccentric charm of watching someone master the art of cranking and fingering simultaneously.

The next time you desire a musical adventure, give the hurdy-gurdy a spin. It’s not your everyday instrument, but that’s exactly what makes it a hidden gem in the symphony of musical oddities.

fact checked by Rachel Jones