6 Unusual Instruments You Must Hear To Believe

Wednesday, January 04, 2017 - 02:01 PM

Glass harmonica on display at Musée Unterlinden in Colmar, France Glass harmonica on display at Musée Unterlinden in Colmar, France (Wikimedia Commons)

One thing about music is that everything, at one point or another, was an innovation. That includes instruments, too. Even those we take for granted today probably had their fair share of critics in the past. And who could blame them? Not everyone likes change. But some instruments never really caught on, or were once red-hot then flamed out in popularity. Here are a few instruments that are past their prime, or in some cases, ahead of their time.


Italian composer and theorist Nicola Vicentino was a guy who just had to have the last word. During Vicentino’s day, one of the hottest musical arguments surrounded the relationship between ancient Greek music and contemporary musical practice. Tensions reached a peak in 1551, when Vicentino took on Portuguese composer and theorist Vicente Lusitano in a famous debate. Vicentino lost, but he wouldn’t let it go. Four years later he created the archicembalo to play the music that best demonstrated his ideas. It was a microtonal keyboard, which allowed the user to play notes between notes. Only one original archicembalo survived the Renaissance and it is on display at the International Museum and Library of Music in Bologna.


Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume was born into a family of luthiers, so pressure for him to one-up Dad and Grandpa was high. Vuillaume turned out to be an impressive instrument maker in his own right — he was so good, that one of his violins impressed none other than Niccolò Paganini. Later, Vuillaume turned his sights to other projects and invented a colossal stringed instrument called the octobass. The player must stand on a special platform and use a system of levers that hold down the strings. Hector Berlioz was a huge fan and in 1844 wrote that serious orchestras should have at least three. It doesn’t seem like anybody listened to him — except for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, which acquired one in 2016.


In 1817, Jean Hilaire Asté wrapped up his latest musical invention, one that would take orchestras by storm — the ophicleide. It was created to replace an earlier instrument called the serpent, which consisted of a winding tube with finger holes. Though some composers, including Mozart, wrote for it, the serpent was difficult to play. The ophicleide, however, had keys, which brought a much-needed consistency to the sound and composers such as Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Verdi and Wagner wrote for it. Later on, it proved no match for an even newer instrument: the tuba. Ophicleides were later replaced by their more rumbly and tubby cousins.

Glass Harmonica

When Ben Franklin wasn’t busy dispensing wisdom, drinking beer or founding a country, he was probably inventing something. A stove, the lightning rod and bifocals are all things that Franklin can lay claim to. But music is most thankful for his glass harmonica. Over the years, several serious composers, including Mozart and Saint-Saëns, wrote music for it. So what happened? Performers began to report inexplicable bouts of madness and melancholy. The glass harmonica sounds eerie, but it’s not because of voices from the dead. Rather, the sound frequencies produced by the instrument lie in a range that is difficult for human ears to place, which makes it hard for us to locate where the sound is coming from. But 19th century science hadn’t figured that out yet, and performers and audiences were scared away.

All of the Saxophones

The saxophone family is huge and extends far beyond the familiar lineup of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone. But when Belgian inventor Adolphe Sax started laying down his oh-so-saxy patents, the lineup consisted of 14 instruments. It slowly began to catch on and orchestral composers began to find uses for the new woodwind. Richard Struass's Symphonia Domestica, for instance, uses four saxophones: unusually pitched soprano, alto, baritone and bass. Earlier composers and arrangers were more liberal with their saxophone usage, but the fad wore off leaving us with the four we are most familiar with today. However, several other members of the family are still in production and there’s no shortage of enthusiasts.

Double Bell Horn

Horn player Christine Chapman’s one-of-a-kind instrument is one of the past, but also one born of modern times and perhaps suited for the future. A member of the contemporary music Ensemble Musikfabrik, Chapman had a French horn specially made that allows her to explore a wider range of colors and sounds. The main attraction is the addition of a second bell that can swivel to different angles and can operate with different mutes. The standard second bell is that of a bass trombone but can be configured to add any kind of bell, including one from a flugelhorn or another French horn. She’s this instrument’s pioneer — we have to wait and see if it will eventually catch on.

Have you come across any weird instruments? Share in the comments below.


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Comments [18]

Mort Pevzner from Deerfield Beach, FL

A cousin of mine in Phoenix, a professional flutist, owns a bass flute. It's not generally scored for symphonic music, but in flute concerts (not concertos) and ensembles. And at a flute convention in San Diego she tried a sub-contrabass flute, which she said looks and sounds like a "sewer pipe", and costs about $48,000! Not a bad Xmas present for an aspiring flute student!

Jan. 17 2017 04:31 PM
Scott Houston from Morristown, NJ

The Heckelphone is a baritone woodwind that showed up in the early 1900's. Richard Strauss wrote for it as did others, but it remains rare. There is a German woman doing a good demonstration of it on YouTube. It has recently been surpassed by the Lupophone which allows for lower notes.

Jan. 16 2017 01:29 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

I was in Portsmouth, NH this past summer and saw a street musician playing a nykelharpa (sic). Very unusual string-and-key instrument developed pre-Renaissance, popular in Sweden.

Jan. 15 2017 10:00 AM
Barry Owen Furrer from The Golden Age of Bands

From the days of the great traveling bands of P.S. Gilmore and John Philip Sousa you can add antoniophones, double bell euphoniums, echo bell cornets, and sarrusophones in all sizes to this list.
@Phil Weimerskirch~
The courtesy you extended to my wife and I when visiting the rare collections dept. at the Providence Public Library all those years ago is kindly and fondly remembered to this day! Thank you Dr. Weimerskirch!

Jan. 09 2017 10:55 AM
Paul Capon from Thunder Bay, ON

What about the theremin, that bizarre electrical instrument where you move your hands over the antenna? I think it is kind of like the glass armonica with a wider range but the sound might not be as bright.

Jan. 08 2017 07:14 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

Re the glass armonica in "Lucia di Lammermoor", if memory serves, Donizetti wrote for it in the "Mad Scene", but there wasn't a player to be found for the premiere so the tradition of the solo flute began, although the Ricordi orchestra score I have has the part scored for flute and not the glass armonica. The most recent productions at the Met that used the glass armonica certainly made the "Mad Scene" sound more eery, I think. The scores I have show Wagner using the Ophicleide in "Rienzi", Mendelssohn in "Elijah" and Verdi in the "Messa da Requiem". Honestly, when I watched the Ophicleide video and looked away when the playing began, I couldn't tell the difference between it and a C tuba. The double horn I think would be especially useful in the beginning of Franck's "Le Chasseur Maudit" ("The Accursed Huntsman") which has horns 3 and 4 alternating. But wouldn't fewer players be needed in the horn sections of orchestras? I don't think the players or the musicians' union would be agreeable if that be true!

Jan. 07 2017 09:33 AM
Christine from Somerville NJ

Colonial Williamsburg has a glass armonica (no h), and a resident artist to play it. and I have several CDs.The theremin is used in the British television series Midsomer Mysteries intro music.

Jan. 06 2017 05:33 PM
Bohdan Fedusiw from Upland, Ca.

Very interesting... especially the glass harmonica.

Jan. 06 2017 06:06 AM
Bohdan Fedusiw from Upland, Ca.

Very interesting... especially the glass harmonica.

Jan. 06 2017 06:05 AM
Upper West Side Bernie from Manhattan

In the same spirit as shown by Bob from Huntington, I'd also mention Professor Schickele's hardart, about the size of the Eniasc computer, which was debuted (and afterward discarded) in Schickele's Concerto for Horn and Hardart.

Jan. 05 2017 11:10 PM
Phil Weimerskirch

Please check out the bombarde, an early reed instrument that makes quite a noise. You can find it on YouTube.

Best wishes,

Phil Weimerskirch, Smithfield, RI

Jan. 05 2017 08:54 PM
Claudia from California

Amazing to see and hear the different instruments and sounds. The history of each isvery interesting?

Jan. 05 2017 07:33 PM
David from Flushing

I know that lead crystal decanters come with a warning about storing beverages in them for long periods. However, lead crystal goblets seem not to pose a danger. I do not think Ben's instrument would be a toxic problem and wonder if lead crystal was even used for it.

Jan. 05 2017 07:12 PM
REH from Manhattan

Did you know the MET Opera has a glass armonica player? Her name is Cecilia Brauer. Conductors' often used her for the mad scene in "Lucia di Lammermoor". American Ballet Theatre used her in their production of "Othello". Also (to be entirely correct) the word does not begin with an H.

Jan. 05 2017 03:24 PM
J M from Florida


Jan. 05 2017 02:57 PM
Adam from NYC

Re: Glass harmonica "Performers began to report inexplicable bouts of madness and melancholy." Perhaps at one point this was attributable to the sound. I thought later on it was clarified that it was the lead in the glass bowls that was the cause.

Jan. 05 2017 12:13 PM
Bob from Huntington

Let's also include the great ones presented by Prof. Peter Schickele. My favorite is the tromboon (a cross between the trombone and bassoon which combines the disadvantages of both.

Jan. 05 2017 10:44 AM

Florence Foster Jenkins and Anna Russell had weird instruments.


Jan. 05 2017 12:26 AM

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