Weird Instruments - 21 Musical Monstrosities That Actually Work

Weird musical instruments abound. Strings, brass, percussion... even ones with animals in them exist in the present, and that's not even counting the theoretical ones throughout history that got a little too bizarre.

21 Weird Instruments

Let's take a look at the strangest and most unusual instruments out there, in no particular order. Now, there are some crazy choices we could include, like the bagpipes or accordion, but we're going to avoid anything that's popular enough that you've heard of it.  We'll also be leaving out anything that's just a weird looking version of another common instrument. We're sticking to the strange and unknown, no exceptions.

Hydraulophone

hydraulophone

If you know how a woodwind instrument works, like the various types of ocarinas or saxophones for instance, then you already understand the hydraulophone. As the name implies, instead of using pressurized air it uses a liquid such as water. Steven Mann invented this wet wonder in the 1980's to help people with visual impairments make music by using touch. By blocking the holes with your fingers, you divert the water past the sound mechanism for that hole, allowing air to blow out at that specific pitch. The neat thing with these is people have already built them into hot tubs, called balnaphones. There is also the pyrophone which uses combustion and fire to pressurize the pipes, which is too dangerous to be recommended.

Pikasso Guitar

pikasso guitar

The designer Manzer obviously named this harp guitar based on its resemblance to the cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso, but it doesn't sound as crazy as it looks. Despite the four necks, 42 strings, and two sound holes, it sounds quite normal (and even better in the hands of master guitarist Pat Metheny, for whom this weird instrument was created in 1984).

The Yabahar

yabahar

Gorkem Sen, a musician out of Istanbul, invented the Yabahar as a completely new type of acoustic instrument. As pictured, you can bow the strings along the neck that pass vibrations down coiled springs on each leg that create an otherworldly listening experience, especially due to the echos and vibrations hitting the drum membranes and returning back up the springs. It's a very hypnotic, reverberant sound.

Aeolus

aeolus

Not all instruments in this list are designed for humans to play. The Aeolus, named after the ruler of the winds in Greek mythology, is shipped around the world for people to enjoy in various parks. It's described as an "acoustic pavilion designed to make audible the silent shifting patterns of the wind." It's an aeolian harp that allows the wind to vibrate strings within the tubes to project the sound into the center where the listener is situated. It's actually for sale if you're a baller unlike me and need a lawn ornament. There are similar art installations like this one such as the Singing Ringing Tree that you can look up if you liked this one.

Theremin

theremin

The theremin is a dual radio transmitter and receiver generates a static electro-magnetic field between the antenna and the loop, allowing the player to manipulate the field with their hands to alter the pitch produced. The theremin was patented by a the Soviet inventor Leon Theremin in 1928. It's still a novelty, having appeared in a few movie soundtracks and some concerts, but it'll never really take off due to the limitations of the instrument itself, and the quite haunting, spooky sound it creates. It doesn't help that people took to embedding these in taxidermist-stuffed animals, like the Badgermin.

Marble Machine

marble machine

Mad man Martin Molic, member of Wintergatan and inventor of the Marble Machine, unveiled his custom music box in 2016. Besides the unbelievable woodworking and musical prowess involved, what makes this thing amazing is that it's powered by a hand crank that continually passes 2,000 marbles through it. They dump in at the top and gravity does the rest, plinking strings, tinking off a xylophone, hitting MIDI drum pads, and more. There are countless paths for the marbles to take that play various melodies.

Zeusaphone

zeusaphone

The Zeusaphone is basically a Tesla coil that has been altered so the electrical output can be manipulated by software or a MIDI instrument like a keyboard or guitar. This allows the player to control the tones that are emitted, creating a very lo-fi square wave synthesizer sound. These are categorized as 'plasma speakers,' which sound quite scary to be honest. There are bands out there taking advantage of these for their live stage shows, and plenty of nerds making their zeusaphones play out the melodies to video game songs.

The Jew's Harp

jews harp

Although you see all types of lamellophones out there that are pretty tame, like the kalimba and other thumb pianos, the Jew's Harp takes the cake as the whackiest from this family of instruments. They're also called linguaphones due to the long, thin metal plates looking like tongues. There's tons of names for these, including but not limited to jaw's harp, ozark harp, guimbard, and juice harp. That's because it's traveled around the world in its long history as far back as the 4th century BC, where the names changed from language to language based on how the previous name sounded. All you do is hold it between your teeth, flick the doohickey, and breath in and out at various rates, while using your tongue to change pitch.

Glass armonica

glass harmonica

Believe it or not, this extremely fragile and rare instrument was designed and first built by Benjamin Franklin, making its debut in 1762. Mozart eventually wrote two pieces for the glass armonica, one being a solo and the other part of a quintet. Beethoven hopped aboard the trend as well. The name comes from the Italian word for harmony, which is "armonia." These glass bowls spin and the friction of your slightly damp fingers creates a vibration that rings out the high pitch like that of a wine glass as the rim is being rubbed.

The Sharpsichord

sharpsichord

In 2011, the English Folk Dance & Song Society gave sound sculptor Henry Dagg £56,000 to create three music installations. Instead, he tacked on more cash and cranked it up to £90,000 while only creating one instrument, the Sharpsichord. It took him 5 years and can only play 90 seconds worth of music! Rather than giving them the instrument they commissioned, he bought himself out of the contract. Under the hood it's a normal automatic acoustic harp, except it has 11,520 holes on the cylinder where pins can be placed to pluck the strings they pass by. The coolest thing about it is that it's solar powered. It sounds like something somewhere between a harp and a bass clarinet.

Hang Drum

hang drum

Created in the year 2000 in Switzerland, the Hang (or hang drum or handpan) came about from a study of steel instruments that resulted in a new type of steel being discovered as well. This beautifully sounding instrument sounds like a set of bells more than a drum. The dimples around the curved surface are hammered in at specific intervals to allow for different notes to be played. It was inspired by the steelpan trend in the 70's, where the steelpan made its way from Trinidad to Europe.

The Chrisalis

Chrysalis

Cris Forster created and built many instruments, but his first concert-sized instrument was the Chrysalis. It's a stringed instrument in the shape of a wheel, designed to be spun so that the spokes, which are tuned strings, will pluck sounds that are reminiscent of the wind. It was inspired by Forster's interest in the large stone Aztec calendar that made huge waves through the New Age community, much like Solfeggio Frequencies are doing now.

The Nellophone

nellophone

Instruments made of long tubes aren't rare, but the Nellophone sets itself apart from being gigantic and being able to project multiple pitches loudly. This octopus-looking device is constructed of 30 pipes, each tuned to a specific note in various octaves. By slapping paddles across the openings of the tubes, the player standing in the center can play an eerily electronic sounding melody. The entire Nellophone is 12 feet wide and long by 15 feet high.

Nose Flute

nose flute

As you'd imagine, this started in ancient history when people in Polynesia and the surrounding areas started playing standard flutes by ramming them up their noses. But they weren't just being goofy. They realized by exhaling air from their nostrils they freed up their mouths to be used as resonance chambers to alter the pitches to form melodies. This allowed for simpler flutes to be constructed and for variable sliding notes to be played rather than only discrete steps by covering holes. What you see above is being called a humanatone these days to separate it from a basic flute placed in front of or inside the nose. You can score a nose flute for pretty cheap these days too.

Hurdy-Gurdy

hurdy-gurdy

Some time before the 11th century AD, some knucklehead thought "I hate bowing the violin. Why don't I create a wheel to rub the strings for me. And while I'm at it, I'll make it more like a piano." And thus we are blessed with the wheel fiddle, or hurdy-gurdy. The player constantly turns a crank to vibrate the three strings, which are then pressed like fingers on a guitar fretboard by keys that are pressed like a keyboard. We aren't sure if this is this organistrum is the work of a musician in the Middle East or Europe, because wherever it was invented, it spread fast. A similar instrument is the Nyckelharpa from 1350 AD in Sweden.

Digderidoo

didgeridoo

Also known as the didjeridu, this drone pipe was invented by the aboriginal peoples of Australia sometime in the last 1500 years. It's typically around 4 feet long but can range from 3 to 10 feet. The longer ones reach a deeper pitch while the flared ending offers a higher pitch. In this way they can be tuned as they're built. When played for even a short time your mouth can go numb due to having to vibrate your lips to create the droning sound. The best players have mastered circular breathing and can continually drone on for as long as needed. Recordings exist of people going for up to 50 minutes!

The Great Stalacpipe Organ

stalacpipe organ

This giant lithophone was constructed within the Luray Caverns in Virginia in the United States.  It's an electrically-actuated organ designed to use rubber mallets to gently tap the hanging stalactites, causing them to ring out the most beautiful tones, resembling those of hand bells. It took Leland W. Sprinkle just over 3 years to design it and put it together. The Stalacpipe Organ debuted in 1956 and has been a staple of the Shenandoah National Park since.

Chapman Stick

chapman stick

Despite the similar appearance to guitars and basses, the Chapman Stick is far more versatile than either of those common instruments. Invented by Emmett Chapman in the 1970's, this device has 12 strings tuned in a way that the masterful player can play the lead melody, bass lines, chords, and even drones all at the same time, or one at a time while taking on a specific role in a band. It's a polyphonic chordal instrument, meaning the only limitation is your skill level.

Janko Keyboard

janko keyboard

This one kind of breaks our rules but is worth sharing. It's a piano keyboard laid out in a different orientation much like you see some players stacking their synthesizers. It was invented in 1882 by Paul von Janko. It allows for players to reach more notes and transcribe songs easily. The reason is that every chord will now have the same fingering regardless which key you're playing in. You can simply move further up or down the keyboard to change keys. This genius invention really opens up the world of piano to players not interested in memorizing every chord variation in every key and scale.

The Earth Harp

earth harp

Invented by William Close, the Earth Harp can be transported and reinstalled into any architecture or landscape. "The theater becomes the instrument. The audience experiences the music from inside the instrument." Close has run the strings almost 1000 feet across canyons and connected to mountains and more. It's played by coating special gloves with violin rosin to generate symphonic tones, which are captured and amplified by microphone. Sure, it's gimmicky, but it takes the gimmicks to the next level. There are similar instruments out there like the Friction Harp, where vibrations within pipes are generated by rubbing them with rosined gloves.

Aztec Death Whistle

aztec death whistle

Only recently discovered and originally dismissed as toys, these "death whistles" look like their name implies, but they sound even scarier. Warriors would use them for psychological warfare before battle, frightening their enemy by playing hundreds of these at one time. They literally sound like the most horrified and angry people (perhaps the undead even) screaming at the top of their lungs. The harder you blow, the more intense the screaming is. Now multiply that by however many warriors are in your tribe. It will send shivers down your spine when you hear it.

Conclusion

We left out some silly items, such as organs made out of ice, the 12 neck guitar, giant music boxes made from roller-compators, and the Loophonium, an euphonium made from a toilet. We also left out normal items used for music, like the conch or bowing a barbed wire fence, etc. There's lots of weird instruments out there, but the above 21 are the epitome and the best you'll find. It's up to you now to invent the next one or share this post using the buttons below with someone who can!

Jared Hobbs Headshot Jared has surpassed his 20th & 15th year in the music industry & in web development, respectively. He acts as owner, editor, lead author, & web designer, as well as co-author on all other articles.