The Beauty of Unconventional Instruments

The amount of weird and wonderful instruments that we now have in the world is growing dramatically, not least due to technological and scientific developments which some have used for artistic creativity. Here is a selection of my personal favourites: 

The Theremin

The piercing sound of this instrument is so eerie and haunting that it may as well have been created on another planet. Named after its inventor, the Russian physicist Lev Theremin, the unique aspect of this instrument is that you do not even need to touch it. The Theremin player stands in front of the instrument and moves his or her hands in proximity to its two antennas, one vertical and one horizontal. One antenna controls the pitch whilst the other controls volume. As a result, the Theremin has impressive capacities due to its volume range and the player’s ability to bend notes and play microtones. Originally created in 1920s Soviet Russia, this fascinating instrument was the product of government-sponsored research into proximity sectors. Fast forward several decades later, and it is recognised worldwide. The unique sound of this instrument has caught the interest of film composers, having been used on the soundtrack of ‘Spellbound’, ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ and ‘First Man’. Even Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page sometimes incorporated the Theremin into the band’s live performances, particularly in the song ‘Whole Lotta Love’.

Recommended Theremin listening:

  • Carolina Eyck

  • Clara Reisenberg Rockmore

The Glass harp

Unlike the Theremin, the origins of the Glass Harp are traced back to 14th century Persia and became popularised in Europe in the eighteenth century by the Irish musician Richard Pockrich. The natural frequency of each wine glass depends on how much water it contains. By changing the speed and pressure with which you press on each glass with your finger, you determine the volume. The result is a magical sound that has earned the instrument many alternative nicknames including the ‘Angelic Organ’ and the ‘Ghost Fiddle’.

Recommended Glass Harp Listening:

  • GlassDuo

  • Alexander Lemeshev

The Hang

This instrument is remarkably new, and was only invented in the twenty first century. Invented in Bern, Switzerland in 2000 by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer and first introduced at a trade fair in Frankfurt in 2001, it has since captured a lot of interest globally. The Hang is constructed from two steel half-shells which are glued together at the rim, leaving the inside hollow and creating the shape of a convex lens. The top side has a center 'note' hammered into it and seven or eight 'tone fields' hammered around the center. The bottom is a plain surface that has a hole in the centre with a tuned note. Despite the instrument’s very recent creation, it was inspired by a remarkable variety of musical models, including Arab, Caribbean and sub-saharan musical traditions. The haunting result is the perfect example of the beautiful sound achieved through the fusion of different musical traditions. 

Recommended Hang listening:

  • Hang massive

  • Daniel Waples