Music has been around since the beginning of recorded human history (and probably even earlier). However, it is safe to assume that the music and instruments of ancient history were very different from those of today. When thinking of modern instruments, you might think of a guitar, a piano, a violin, a drum kit, or even a computer.
Artists are constantly innovating and finding new ways to experiment and bring new sounds to delight our ears. And it has always been so! But there have been some really weird instruments used by artists.
Some of them you don’t see anymore today (or only in rare cases). These instruments may have gone out of style due to their size, sound, or practicality. There are probably hundreds of other instruments that have been lost to history. Our focus today is on the weirder instruments you don’t see today. Let’s get into it!
Related: The 10 best musical instruments of tomorrow
10 Crwth (bowed lyre)
The first instrument on our list is the crwth, also called the bowed lyre, crowd, memory, or crotta, a stringed instrument of Welsh origin. It was invented a long time ago, probably in the 11th century.
A crwth, like a lyre, is a stringed instrument. It’s basically a box with a flat fingerboard and six strings of different thicknesses. Footage from the story shows a crwth player holding the bottom end against his chest and tying it around his neck. Think of a larger violin with a larger, flat body and more strings. The crwth was one of the most popular stringed instruments in Wales for centuries, along with the harp and timpani.
Although modern versions of the crwth have been created, it is believed that only four surviving original crwths remain. They are all in museums: St. Fagans National History Museum in Cardiff, the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, the Warrington Museum and Art Gallery, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA. Although it was very popular a few years ago centuries, the crown has slowly been replaced by harps, guitars, violins, and other stringed instruments we use today.
Next on our list is a percussion instrument called a cajón. A drawer is shaped like a box or drawer with a hole in the back. It is played by slapping or hitting the front or back plate of the box shape. Sometimes mallets or drumsticks are used instead of the hands.
The cajón originated in Peru in the early 19th century. There are two theories as to how it was invented. Some think that the cajón was adapted from other African percussion instruments and brought over by slaves. Another theory is that slaves were forced to carry fruit and other goods in boxes, and when they had a moment to rest, they played music in the boxes, which eventually led to the design of the cajón.
Either way, cajons are popular in Peruvian music, particularly Afro-Peruvian music. Due to their unique sound, cajons are sometimes used in flamenco and jazz music today, although very rarely.
8 Sambuca (hurdy-gurdy)
A sambuca (or hurdy-gurdy) was another stringed instrument from the ancient past. It was originally invented in ancient Greece. A sambuca was a small harp with a triangular shape and a very strident tone. There are many stories about the origin of the sambuca, and it is difficult to know which one is the truth. The various claims include:
- Eusebius attributed the invention of the sambuca to the troglodytes (cavant diggers).
- Athenaeus claimed that the inventor of the sambuca was called Sambyx and named it after him.
- Polybius compared it to a rope ladder, while other scholars said it was in the shape of a boat.
Because sambuca is so long ago, it’s hard to tell fact from fiction. Interestingly, sambuca is used not only as a name for this instrument, but also to describe a cranked string instrument from the Middle Ages and a woodwind instrument created from a Sambucus tree.
One thing is for sure, the sambuca (or hurdy-gurdy) is one of the most mysterious and strange instruments of all time.
Nyckelharpa is a Swedish word that translates as “key harp”. As you may have guessed, this instrument was invented in Sweden. It is an ancient instrument and dates back to the 14th century.
The nyckelharpa was a stringed instrument that looked similar to a fiddle or fiddle. However, it is quite different. Combine keys and strings to make a very complex instrument. While it’s not entirely clear how many strings this ancient instrument originally had, it has evolved and modern versions have as many as 16 strings, along with 37 keys.
A nyckelharpa is held similar to a violin, using a strap around the neck, while the right arm holds the instrument in place. While the original design of the nyckelharpa has been lost to time, it has changed and grown over time and is the national musical instrument of Sweden today.
The next instrument on our list comes to us from the Asian continent, specifically from India. The sarangi is unique not only for its design but also for its sound. When played, it has a wide range of sounds and has been described as sounding like a cat or a person singing.
The sarangi is a rectangular wooden box instrument with three strings. It can be played bowed (like a violin) or plucked (like a guitar). Another thing that makes the sarangi unique is its three sound chambers carved into its body. The sound chambers are covered with animal skin, usually goatskin. These chambers add resonance and a unique, weird, even creepy quality.
A sarangi is held and played like a cello, although it is much smaller, so players let the instrument rest on their knees. This strange instrument was invented in 1865 and is rarely seen outside of India today.
The next instrument on our list comes to us from one of the oldest cultures in the world, China. The erhu dates back more than three thousand years. It is a very small instrument with a rather simple, if strange design. It is made with a very thin stick neck and a small wooden resonance chamber covered with python skin. Tied around the neck are two strings (traditionally made of silk) held in place by two pegs at the top. The tuning pegs are used to tune the strings to the desired sound.
An erhu also has a built-in bow. The bow is a stick of wood or bamboo strung with horsetail hair. The horsehair side of the bow is connected to the erhu, so a player simply moves the bow back and forth to create the desired sound while pressing and releasing the silk strings at the top. It has a strange and unique sound that you can hear in the video linked above.
The next instrument on our list has almost been completely lost to history. It’s called gue and it was invented in Scotland, specifically in the Shetland Islands. We don’t know a few things about the gue, but it is clear that it was a two-stringed instrument that was something like a violin or a lyre. However, it was played more like a cello than a violin.
The last known account of a gue is from the early 19th century by Arthur Edmondston in his book View of the Ancient and Present State of the Zetland Islands. There have been recreations of the gue, but with so little information about its origins, it’s hard to separate fact from conjecture.
A Lituus is one of the few instruments on our list that wasn’t necessarily made for enjoyment. Instead, it was for intimidation and communication on the battlefield. That’s how it is; the lituus was originally created as a war horn.
The distinguishing feature of a lituus is its enormous size. As big as you think it is, think big. This war horn was apparently 8 to 10 feet (2.4 to 3 meters) long, which begs the question, how can you hold it?
The lituus was used in a composition created by Johann Sebastian Bach and not much else since. Scientists have recreated it, but the true design of the lituus has been lost as its popularity waned. Probably due to the enormous size.
The duduk dates back to the 5th century and perhaps even further back. It was invented in Armenia, although variations exist (or existed) in the Middle East and Caucasus regions.
A duduk is a double reed instrument; early versions of the instrument were often made of bone, although more modern versions are made with apricot wood. A duduk has a larger reed than many other double-reed instruments (think oboe or bassoon). It also has quite a different sound, more like a mournful horn than an oboe.
One thing that makes this instrument especially strange is that they are almost always played in pairs. One musician plays the melody, while another plays a steady rhythm, called a “dum.” Although duduks are rarely seen today, they are an important part of Armenian cultural history.
The cymbal is one of the oldest (and weirdest) instruments on the list. It was invented in Hungary in the Middle Ages. The cymbal also has the most strings of any of the instruments on our list, with as many as 125. The strings are divided into groups of three, four, or five strings. Each string section is designed to create a unique tone.
This ancient instrument was not played by hand but with the use of soft mallets. A musician can play the cymbal by striking the strings with soft mallets. The instrument also uses bridges to separate the strings to create more playable tones. For such an old instrument, it is not only strange but very complex!
Another unique quality of the cymbal is that its strings are not horsehair or silk but metal. The instrument sits horizontally, like a piano, and was the forerunner of many other dulcimer instruments.
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