Celebrate Uncommon Instrument Day with These Musical Oddities | Nashville Public Radio

Celebrate Uncommon Instrument Day with These Musical Oddities

Jul 31, 2018

Unless you’re keeping a close eye on a calendar of bizarre, fringe holidays, you probably aren’t aware that today is Uncommon Instrument Awareness Day. We here at 91Classical love a holiday, and we certainly aren’t going to miss celebrating one all about musical instruments. Join in the festivities and boost your awareness of unusual instruments with this collection of musical oddities that you definitely won't hear every day.

Ondes Martenot

The origins of the ondes martenot lie in WWI, when cellist and radio operator Maurice Martenot was fascinated by the accidental overlap of tones between military radio oscillators. The first public ondes martenot performance took place in 1928, and early versions of the instrument included players sliding a metal ring with an attached wire to create futuristic electronic glissandos. Later, Martenot would add a four-octave keyboard. 

Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger and Radiohead are among those who have incorporated the ondes martenot into their music, but perhaps the most notable use of the instrument was that of Olivier Messiaen. Above is his piece Fête des belles eaux, written for six ondes martenot. You can also witness the instrument live next May when the Nashville Symphony and Cynthia Millar play Messiaen’s famous Turangalîla-symphonie.


A version of this delightfully-named instrument first appeared in the 10th century, but its heyday was in the Renaissance, when it was used to accompany both common folk dances and royal court entertainment. The mechanics of the hurdy-gurdy are similar to that of a violin, but instead of a hand-held bow, strings are vibrated with a built-in wheel that is turned with a crank. Several lower strings provide sustained drone pitches, while upper trumpet strings give the instrument a characteristic buzzing sound that's sometimes likened to a barking dog. A keyboard on the underside of the instrument's neck is used to produce melodies. 


Functioning very much like a giant phonograph (and named after Cecil Sharp, who collected English folk tunes using a cylinder phonograph in the early 20th century), the sharpsichord was designed by inventor Henry Dagg to be an interactive sound sculpture. Visitors can create their own music by placing pins in the perforated cylinder. Here's Dagg with a thorough explanation of how the sharpsichord works: 

Originally commissioned by the English Folk Dance and Song Society, the instrument had a moment of fame when it appeared on Icelandic singer Björk's 2011 album Biophilia.

Pikasso Guitar 

Built by master luthier Linda Manzer, the Pikasso was constructed in response to guitarist Pat Metheny's request for an instrument "with as many strings as possible." The result was a guitar with 42 strings, four necks and a hexaphonic pickup to connect to Metheny's synthesizer. 


When nonconformist composer Harry Partch decided that the Western system of equal-tempered tuning was unsatisfactory, he worked to build his own collection of instruments that would be capable of playing an ancient Greek-inspired scale with 43 pitches, as opposed to the traditional 12. The chromelodeon, an altered reed organ, was one of his first customized instruments. The video above shows Partch demonstrating on a number of his musical inventions, with the chromelodeon appearing at the 3:00 minute mark.  

Glass Armonica 


The notion of producing musical sounds by running a wet finger around the rim of a glass has been around since at least the days of Galileo (who published his thoughts regarding the phenomenon in 1638), but it was Benjamin Franklin who mechanized the process in 1762. 

Named after the Italian word armonia (meaning "harmony"), Franklin's invention was a big hit in Europe. It was introduced to Mozart by physician Franz Mesmer, who used the instrument to conclude his "mesmerizing" sessions with patients. 

Mozart composed two works for the instrument, including a quintet with flute, viola, oboe and cello and this solo work, featured above. 

Marble Machine 

Martin Molin from the Swedish band Wintergatan went viral with this video featuring the Marble Machine, a hand-powered feat of engineering using 2000 marbles to orchestrate a song with vibraphone, bass guitar and simulated drums. The band has plans for a new and improved Marble Machine X, and give updates regularly on their YouTube page about the process of its construction. 

Floppy Drive Orchestra 

Here's one use for obsolete technology: all over the internet, orchestras of floppy drives are being programmed to perform music in a number of styles (a cover of the 1993 techno hit "What is Love," anyone?) thanks to software designed by engineer Sam Archer. Want to start your own floppy drive band? Here's how. Now, enjoy the soothing sounds of Johann Pachelbel on eight screeching machines: 


Illustration from Caspar Schott's "Magia universalis naturae et artis," c. 1657
Credit Wikimedia Commons

The concept of the katzenklavier is the stuff of nightmares: nine cats are contained, arranged by the natural tone of their mew with their tails stretched under a keyboard. When a key is depressed, a nail is driven into a cat's tail, eliciting a cry from the animal. 

Its origin is debated. The demented instrument appears in anecdotal stories meant to criticize the cruelty of royalty, and just when you thought it couldn't get any weirder, one 18th century German physician touted it not as a musical instrument, but instead as a remedy for psychiatric patients.   

Here's the good news: there's no evidence to show that the katzenklavier was ever actually constructed. What we do have is a much more humane (but perhaps equally bizarre) version built by none other than sharpsichord inventor Henry Dagg:

And on that note (mew?), wishing you a very unusual Uncommon Instrument Awareness Day!