Our Favourite Non-Traditional Instruments

Jan 24, 2024

The world of music is full of wonderful instruments. Most you probably already know; there’s the guitar and bass, trumpets and brass, strings like the violin, the woodwinds, etc. But the world of music is much wider and more interesting than just the common instruments you find in the orchestra. In fact, there are instruments out there in nearly every conceivable size and shape! That’s why this week we’re looking at some of our very favourite strange and non-traditional instruments.

Some are merely extreme versions of instruments you’re already familiar with. Others look like something that jumped off a sci-fi movie screen!

Theremin

Speaking of science fiction, what better place to start than the theremin! Of all the non-traditional instruments on this list, you might actually be most familiar with this one. The theremin is strange because you don’t touch it to play it. Instead, one creates the sound by moving their hands near two “antennas.”

Invented in 1920 by a Russian physicist named Lev Termen, the theremin was originally intended to become part of the classical orchestra. Although it never caught on as an orchestral instrument, its popularity got a bit of a boost in the 1960s when it was featured in Star Trek’s theme song, and again in 1994 when the film “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey” was released.

Bucket Drums

One of our all-time favourite non-traditional instruments is definitely the bucket drum! Popular among busking musicians, toddlers, and everyone in between, drumming on a bucket is accessible to everyone. This artform was created out of necessity because it offered a a combination of inexpensive instruments with the highs and lows of a full drum set. Some creative and enterprising drummers use “found sounds” that are difficult to tell apart from expensive instruments used in today’s popular music.

The Great Stalacpipe Organ

Organs are one of those instruments that lend themselves to strange variations. There are all kinds of materials one can use to produce sound with an organ, but the very best of them has to be the great stalacpipe organ. Found in Luray Caverns in Virginia, this unique instrument uses rubber mallets to strike tuned stalactites in the cavern. To find each pitch, the inventor, Leland W. Sprinkle, tested and shaved the stalactites, then wired them to the central keyboard. The building process took three full years, and the organ itself stretches across 14,000 square meters!

Hydrolauphone

As you might have guessed from the name, this instrument makes sound with water. However, this term doesn’t apply to a single instrument, rather, it’s more of a classification of a group of instruments, like the string section, or the woodwinds.

These instruments offer a different kind of sensory experience while playing, as the music is produced by covering different water jets to create different pitches. Think of the hydrolauphone as a bit of a hybrid – an underwater flute crossed with a pipe organ.

The Vegetable Orchestra

These people didn’t listen when their parents told them not to play with their food – but it’s to our benefit! Founded in 1998 in Vienna, Austria, the Vegetable Orchestra plays a huge range of music on fresh vegetables, using everything from bass drum pumpkins to flutes carved from carrots. Some instruments require nothing more than to be picked and played. Others require a bit of sculpting first. But no matter how they play with their food, they don’t waste anything, turning the leftovers into a delightful vegetable soup they share with their audience after each performance!

Glass Harmonica

Using the same principles that allow for playing music on wine glasses, these non-traditional instruments were originally invented by Benjamin Franklin himself. A series of glass bowls, tipped on their side, rotate. The musician simply touches the bowl rim with wet fingers to create each tone. Because of its unique design several notes can be played at once – even chords – which creates some hauntingly beautiful sounds.

It was quite popular back in its day, and even some of the great classical composers – like Mozart and Beethoven – arranged pieced to include this wonderfully strange instrument. But sadly, as you can probably guess from its inclusion on this list, its popularity has dwindled over time.

Double Contrabass Flute

What do you think of when you hear the word “flute”? Most likely that light, gentle sound with a silvery finish, right? Sure, but did you know that the flute family is much, much larger than those little silver sticks?

In fact, the entire range of the piano can be played within the flute family, ranging from the piccolo, all the way to the double contrabass flute. At a whopping 8 feet tall, with 5.5 meters of tubing, the double contrabass flute sounds more like a fog horn. But it’s not surprising that you’ve never seen one; they are very rare, with only a handful in the world.

Zadar Sea Organ

We may be stretching the definition of “musical instrument” with this next entry, but the Zadar sea organ is truly something special. Built under marble stairs in Zadar, Croatia, the sea organ is played not by people, but by the ocean itself. Waves crash over a series of tubes hidden beneath the stairs and create incredible harmonious sounds that echo out into the open air.

Pyrophone

Our next of our non-traditional instruments would be right at home in the wasteland of a post-apocalyptic film. Another take on the organ, the pyrophone, or “explosion organ,” is quite literally that; an organ powered by burning fuel. The sound is created when combustion and explosions vibrate tubes of varying length. To even play the pyrophone, at least some part of it needs to be on fire – always.

Zeusaphone

We started this list with an electronic instrument known as the Theremin. Therefore, it’s only fitting we end with another electronic instrument, sometimes known as the Thoramin. This instrument is more commonly called the zeusaphone, and between the references to Zeus and Thor, you might have already guessed this instrument makes music using lightning. Essentially, it’s a big plasma speaker that works by modulating the spark output of a Tesla coil (those big science-y things that generate artificial lightning), to an electrifying effect! That’s why the zeusaphone wins awards for best/most appropriate name, and most terrifying audience experience!

With the whole world and all of human history to choose from, there’s no way we’ve covered all the weird and wild instruments out there. Tell us what your favourite is in the comments!

Want to learn to play something a little more traditional? Check out The Music Studio’s lessons and classes, many now online!