Some of the Most Unique Musical Instruments from Around the World

The world beyond bass, guitar and drums

Human beings have been making music for a very long time, and this had led to some very interesting instrument designs. Based on technology, culture and the availability of materials, people around the world have come up with some pretty unique tools to express themselves with sound.
 

KALIMBA

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(Photo By Kirill Afonin. Licensed under Creative Commons via Flickr.)

Also known as an mbira or thumb piano, the kalimba originated in Africa and has many incarnations across the continent. The basic design consists of pitched metal or bamboo tines anchored to a wooden board or resonator. When plucked with the thumbs, the tines produce notes. Local musician Laura Barrett makes great use of the kalimba on her solo recordings.
 

DIDGERIDOO

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(Photo By Feans. Licensed under Creative Commons via Flickr.)

The warbly drone of this long, wooden pipe is synonymous with Australia. Eucalyptus trunks or branches hollowed naturally by termite activity are harvested, cut and finished to produce the traditional version of this instrument. Evidence suggests that didgeridoos have been played for thousands of years.
 

SINGING SAW

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(Photo By Liz Simmons. Licensed under Creative Commons via Flickr.)

The singing saw is a great example of musical ingenuity. Early American settlers, having little room or money to spare for musical instruments made the most of what they had – building tools. The saw, cradled in the player’s lap, is held taut with one hand bowed with the other. Toronto band Beams use this instrument to great effect.
 

GAMELESTE

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A cross between a celesta and Indonesian gamelan percussion instruments, the Gameleste is an entirely new instrument commissioned by Bjork for her Biophilia album and tour. She had her gameleste custom built for the occasion.
 

THEREMIN

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(Photo By Gregor Hohenberg. Licensed via Wikimedia Commons.)

The theremin is one of the earliest electronic instruments and produces a ghostly, ethereal tone. The pitch and volume of the note is determined by the proximity of the player’s hands to each of the two antennae. The player never touches the instrument to produce a tone creating a fluid relationship between intention and sound for a skilled performer.
 

ONDES MARTENOT

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(Photo By Julien. Licensed under Creative Commons via Flickr.)

Working on the same principal as the theremin, but with the addition of a keyboard and timbre-controls, the ondes martenot offers the player much more control over the sound. The ondes martenot has been popular with science-fiction film composers, and is a favourite instrument of Jonny Greenwood – he’s used it on a number of Radiohead albums.

 

AMERICAN FOTOPLAYER

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The American Fotoplayer is a type of player piano used to provide music and sound effects for silent movies. These one-man-band contraptions use piano rolls to work the keyboard, leaving the player’s hands free to trigger an assortment of sound effects including cowbells, slide whistles, and car horns. Once ‘talkies’ came about in the 1920’s, the demand for fotoplayers waned and production ceased. There are only a small number operational today.
 

KORA

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(Photo By Gee Pena. Licensed under Creative Commons via Flickr.)

The kora is a West African harp-like instrument that defies most categorization. Traditional koras feature 21 strings strung in two divided ranks along a hardwood neck attached to a gourd covered with goat-skin to form the resonator. The strings are plucked by the thumb and index finger of the player’s left and right hands in alternating, ploy-rhythmic patterns.
 

CELESTA

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(Photo By Larissa Kirillina. Licensed under Creative Commons via Flickr.)

Resembling a small piano, the Celesta is basically a full-size music-box. The keyboard triggers felt hammers that strike tuned sheets of metal. It was developed in France in the late 1800s, and has been adding an air of whimsy to orchestral, soundtrack and pop-recordings ever since. Listen for it in the opening of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, or the song “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.