Almost Forgotten Instruments You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Nov 9, 2016

blog - Almost Forgotten Instruments You've Probaby Never Heard Of

Today’s musicians play a massive variety of instruments. Some are new and rely on the most cutting edge technology. Some have been around for a few decades, earning recognition as the genres they are known for grow in popularity. But the vast majority of the most common musical instruments used in today’s world are at least a few centuries old. The violin was invented around 1542. The clarinet in 1690. The flute has been around, in one form or another, almost as long as human societies, nearly 43,000 years. But for all these ancient instruments that we are intimately familiar with, there are countless more that have lost their influence over the centuries, or even worse, faded from memory completely. This week we’re going to explore a few ancient and beautiful instruments that you may never have heard of!

Nyckelharpa

A strange, 600+ year old Swedish instrument, the Nyckelharpa is a bowed, keyed sort of fiddle. The keys, when pressed, serve as frets, changing the pitch of each string. This instrument, a weird combination of things to our modern eyes, almost went completely extinct in the early part of the 1900s. That being said, it enjoyed something of a “comeback” during the ’60s and ’70s. Of course, how successful this “comeback” was is open to interpretation; only about 100 people in the UK play the Nyckelharpa today.

Xun

As one of the oldest Chinese musical instruments, the xun has a history reaching back more than 7,000 years. Essentially a flute, this instrument is easily made from clay into a hollow egg shape with no more than 10 holes in the surface. This beautiful, lamenting instrument produces a sound with a timber similar to that of the human voice. These instruments have been unearthed along both the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers as Neolithic relics. This suggests to many historians that the xun was extremely popular among the ancient Chinese people.

Mbira

Also known as the thumb piano, the mbira is a traditional Zimbabwe instrument that is still widely used in Africa today. Usually homemade, this ancient instrument is created by mounting metal keys onto a soundboard made with hardwood. Interestingly, this instrument seems to have been invented twice in Africa: a wood or bamboo-tined instrument was discovered on the western coast of Africa, dating back 3000 years, while a metal-tined instrument first appeared in the Zambezi River valley (located near Africa’s south eastern coast) around 1,300 years ago. The mbira has been used at both religious and social occasions for centuries, and they are still being made today, albeit in very small numbers.

One last thing about this ancient instrument: according to Mbira.org, “The buzz is considered an essential part of the mbira sound, required to clear the mind of thoughts and worries so that the mbira music can fill the consciousness of the performers and listeners.”

Saung

The national instrument of Myanmar is a strikingly beautiful curved harp, played by Buddhist musicians since about 500 AD, and is said to be the only surviving Asian harp. The base of the instrument is made from a tree that naturally grows in the shape of the harp’s curve. 16 silk strings are finger-plucked to produce the beautiful sound. During the construction of a saung an ancient ceremony may be conducted to invite “nat spirits” to live inside the harp, to “enliven its tunes.” It is said that these spirits leave the harp through its soundholes while it it being played, only to return when the performance is complete.

Balalaika

Actually a whole family of stringed instruments ranging in pitch and size from the rare piccolo, to the balalaika, prima balalaika, secunda, alto, bass, and finally the super deep toned contrabass balalaika. This group of Russian instruments all have a unique, triangular shaped body, are usually strung with 3 strings, and feature a fretted neck. This family of folk instruments was developed sometime around the late 18th or early 19th century, and while the look of it may not be very familiar to most Westerners, the sound is quite familiar, almost like a mandolin. You wont find many people in Canada playing the balalaika, but it is still fairly popular among Russian folk artists.

Crwth

Once widely played all across Europe, this archaic stringed instrument is particularly associated with the Welsh (which explains the spelling of its name). Consisting of a pretty simple box with a flat, fretless fingerboard, and six animal gut strings, this instrument is played with a bow, and most likely evolved from the Roman lyre, which is thought to have been played in Wales since the Roman Empire was at its height.

Hurdy-Gurdy

The hurdy-gurdy is a most unique instrument, thought to have originated in either Europe or the Middle East some time before the 11th century AD. What sets this fiddle like instrument apart from any other ever created by man is the fact that it uses a crank to turn a wheel that rubs the strings like the bow of a violin to create music. The melody is played on a small keyboard that presses small wedges called tangents against one or more of the strings to change the pitch. Most hurdy-gurdies also have a few drone strings, which produce a constant pitch to accompany the melody. This gives the instrument a sound not unlike that of the bagpipes. For this reason, the hurdy-gurdy is sometimes used in place of, or along with bagpipes, especially in Catalan, Cajun French, and Hungarian folk music. This instrument was remarkably innovative, especially when you consider it was invented about a thousand years ago!

Theremin

This last instrument isn’t exactly what most people would call “ancient.” In fact, to many this instrument is actually rather futuristic. Patented by Leon Theremin in 1928, the strange, electronic instrument’s controlling section is made up of two metal antennas that are able to sense the relative position of the performer’s hands and control oscillators for sound frequency with one hand, and volume with the other. The bizarre, eerie sound the theremin produces has been used in film scores, like Bernard Herrmann’s The Day the Earth Stood Still. Though the instrument never really became too popular (it was originally introduced right after the Stock Market Crash of 1929), it has been a favourite of hobbyists and sci-fi fans for decades.