Three Fantastically Weird Instruments from Musical Traditions Around the World

Strange instrumentation does not start and end with The Theremin – people all around the world have long been creating traditional music with instruments that seem strange to us here in the West. Some of these though, are undeniably weird looking and probably won’t be see adorning stages in massive global arenas anytime soon. However, that doesn’t make these three awesome and unique music making tools any less interesting!

Hurdy-Gurdy
Hurdy-Gurdy

Hurdy-Gurdy

Phew, where to start? A Hurdy-Gurdy is sort of like a violin with a keyboard input for the various notes – only it is played by a windup crank wheel rather than a bow. They also usually feature two drone strings that are continuously played during a performance, offering a flat and continuous sound base similar to that of a set of bagpipes.

Despite looking fairly technical and modern, the Hurdy Gurdy’s origins go back almost as far as the plain old fiddle. Medieval court entertainers would play an early version known as an Organistrum, and documents refer to their use as long ago as the 10th century.  Today the Hurdy-Gurdy is mostly heard in France and Ukraine, although players can be seen occasionally across Europe. One famous proponent of the Hurdy-Gurdy in modern day pop music is Rock & Roll Hall of Famer and Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore.

The Glass Harmonica

This fascinating instrument was created by serial inventor Benjamin Franklin, of all people, in 1761. It consists of a set of glass bowls in various sizes, which are played by the musician’s touch – with a wet finger. However, the origins of this kind of sound go as far back as Galileo and possibly even further than that. Ancient cultures were known to hit glass bowls filled with varying levels of water to produce music, and the famous Renaissance scientist also wrote about the phenomenon in his book The Two Sciences.

The first person to realize you could vary the tone, pitch and length of the notes by using empty glasses of different sizes and a wet finger was Irishman Richard Puckeridge in 1743. Franklin had refined the apparatus into a portable instrument by 1762, which he called an Armonica (the unrelated Harmonica had yet to be invented). Franklin’s Armonica was extremely popular among orchestral composers of the day, with over 400 pieces written for it within the next decade. However, by 1830 it had fallen off the radar of most musicians and remains a niche instrument to this day.

Bianqing
Bianqing

Bianqing

The Ancient Chinese had many of their own instruments, most of which would look foreign to us today as they were largely uninfluenced by the Western musical tradition. Just one such example is the Bianqing, a percussive instrument made from a wooden frame upon which dozens of L-shaped stones of different varieties and thickness were suspended. Bianqing played an important part in rituals and palace ceremonies in Ancient China as well as other parts of South-East Asia such as Vietnam and South Korea. Surviving examples of Bianqing have been discovered in burial sites from as long ago as 400BC.

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