A World of Music: Improvised Instruments

Dec 2, 2020

Over the last couple of months, we’ve been going on an adventure around the orchestra and across the globe! Our exploration of this world of music has seen us take a closer look at the Spanish guitar, keyboard instruments, drums, the brass section, strings, flutes, the human voice, and even the world of electronic dance music!

Let’s wrap this topic up this week with a look at some of the world’s improvised instruments!


One of the most common instrument found the world over is undoubtedly the rattle. They include:

  • Maracas in Latin America.
  • First Nations’ ceremonial rattles.
  • West African shekeres.
  • Cuban chekeres.

Each of these gourd rattles are a little different, but remarkably similar. In every case the gourd was left to dry out over the course of several months. Once dry, the pulp and seeds inside were scrapped out. It was only after this process was done, and the inside scrubbed clean, that the different cultures diverge on just how they would make the hollow vessel rattle.

When making maracas, for example, the dried seeds from the inside of the gourd are put back in once the pulp has been removed. It’s the seeds that make the rattling noise. However, for the West African shekere, rather than put anything inside the gourd to produce sound, seeds or beads are woven into a web-like network of cables. This web is then wrapped around and fastened to the outside of the dried gourd. The sound is made when the beads make contact with the outside of the gourd when it is shaken or hit.


No one is really sure when humans first discovered that conch shells make excellent trumpets, but once it was discovered, it seems like everyone wanted one! Conch shells were used in so different cultures’ important occasions and ceremonies it’s hard to keep track of them all. The shell itself comes from a large marine snail, and can be used to produce a warm, full, and far-carrying sound, completely without any modifications. Some cultures chose to modify them anyway, adding a wooden, bamboo, or even metal mouthpiece to make playing the instrument a little easier.


Our last natural instrument is one of the simplest, yet it is still used often in today’s music, especially country and folk; the rasp. For thousands of years, humans have been rubbing sticks across the natural roughness of all sorts of materials to produce a rasping sound. Turtle shells, for example, were common in cultures that had them. Rubbing a stick across the shell created a very distinctive sound. A sound that would be amplified by the hollow space between the upper and lower shells. Hollow gourds or clay pots also did the trick quite well. And today you might recognize the washboard as just one modern version of the rasp.


And speaking of the washboard…

The washboard became a useful percussion instrument through the practice of “hamboning” (an African American form of dance that involves stomping and slapping the arms, legs, chest, and cheeks,) that was brought to the new world by African slaves from West Africa. From there, jug bands, using jugs, spoons, and washboards to provide the rhythm were created.

Traditionally used in jazz, zydeco, skiffle, jug band, and old-time music, the washboard is typically played by tapping, but also by scraping the washboard with thimbles. Many washboards today have additional elements, like a wood block, a cowbell, and perhaps even small cymbals.


Another improvised instrument that belongs right alongside the washboard is the spoons! A pair of spoons played together become an idiophone that is similar to castanets. There are four main spoon playing techniques:

  • Fire Tongs: A pair of spoons is held tight with the concave sides facing out, with an index finger between the handle to space them apart. When the pair come together the spoons sharply hit each other and then spring back to their original position. The spoons are usually struck against the knee and the palm of the hand.
  • Salad Serving Style: One spoon between the little, ring, and little finger, and the other spoon between the ring, thumb, and index fingers in such a way that they can be rotated with the ring finger as the common axis. They can be hit against each other at the convex sides by gathering the fingers.
  • Castanets Style: Two spoons held in each hand, one held concave side against the palm with the thumb, the other between the ring and middle finger tips with the finger tips in the concave side. They are struck together by gripping with the middle and ring fingers.
  • One spoon, held concave-side against the palm with the handle jammed tight under a wrist watch belt, with another spoon between the ring and middle fingers of the left hand, hitting the latter castanet style, with a third spoon in the right hand, hitting both spoons in the left hand, as with a drum stick.

Glass Harp

Made from upright wine glasses, the glass harp is somewhat unique. It’s played simply by running a wet or chalked finger around the rim of each glass. The instrument is “tuned” by either grinding each goblet to the specific pitch (in which case, once set the instrument cannot be re-tuned), or by simply filling the glasses with water until the proper pitch is created.

Although musical glasses have existed since at least the 14th century is Persia, the first glass harp as a whole is though to have been created by its first virtuoso, Irishman Richard Pockrich, in 1741. While it is still played today, the popularity of the glass harp has waxed and waned over the centuries, and it has never truly recreated the popularity it enjoyed throughout the 18th century.

Humans have been improvising instruments for as long as there has been music to make with them. In fact, if you think about it, the very first instruments had to be improvised! And from them, every instrument we have today was born!

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