10 Unusual Musical Instruments From Around the World

Editorial Feature

By Google Arts & Culture

Minh Tam Nguyen's ‘Ðàn Tre' (bamboo musical instrument) (1981) by Minh Tam NguyenNational Museum of Australia

A different beat...

Take a look at instruments from around the world, from the ornate and the extravagant, to the simple and straightforward.

1. Ðàn Tre

The Ðàn Tre, which translates as “bamboo musical instrument” is an especially unusual instrument as there are only two in the world, made by Vietnamese refugee Minh Tam Nguyen to give himself a creative outlet in the labour camp he had been sent to. A fusion of European and Asian musical traditions, it is made from recycled materials found around the camp: a bamboo tube; a four-liter tin of olive oil that amplifies the sound traveling down the tube; and 23 strings made from the inside of a United States army telephone cable.

Minh Tam Nguyen's ‘Ðàn Tre' (bamboo musical instrument), 1981 (From the collection of National Museum of Australia)

2. Tenor cornett

Also known as a lizard for its serpentine shape, the tenor cornett is a wind instrument popular from around 1500 to 1650. It is made from a wooden pipe with finger holes along the body and is notoriously difficult to play. The instrument’s mouthpiece is more similar to that of a brass instrument than a typical woodwind, requiring the maintenance of specialized embouchure (shaping of the lips and mouth), which is tiring if done for an extended period of time. With a range of two and a half octaves, the cornett was mainly used to reinforce the human voice in choirs, particularly those of countertenors.

Tenor cornett (1600/1610) by BasanoMuseum of Norwich at the Bridewell

Tenor cornett, by Basano, 1600/1610 (From the collection of Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell)

3. Mayuri

Popular in the Indian courts of the 19th century, the esraj is an instrument resembling a sitar, with a bowed stringed neck that is played while kneeling. The Mayuri is a peacock-shaped variation of the esraj: the peacock is a symbol of India and is associated with Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of music. Not merely looking like one of the fabulous birds, it is also made using real peacock feathers and a real peacock bill. It has moveable, arched metal frets and a belly made out of parchment.

Vièle "taus" ou "mayuri"Philharmonie de Paris

Vièle "taus" ou "mayuri" (From the collection of Philharmonie de Paris)

4. Chime bells

Chime bells were an important instrument during China’s Qin and Han Dynasties. Hung on a frame and arranged by size, the bells were carefully constructed so that different areas made different sounds when struck. Each bell makes two distinct tones, which are three scales apart. The chime bells are usually played by five musicians: two musicians stand in the front, with long wooden sticks that hit the Yong bells, which make the low pitches; and three stand in the back, hitting the alto and high-pitched Yong bells and Niu bells with T-shaped wooden hammers.

The Chimes of Zeng Hou YiHubei Provincial Museum

The Chimes of Zeng Hou Yi (From the collection of Hubei Provincial Museum)

The Chimes of Zeng Hou Yi - Part4Hubei Provincial Museum

The Chimes of Zeng Hou Yi (From the collection of Hubei Provincial Museum)

5. Copper serpent

The copper serpent, a distant ancestor of the tuba, came into fashion in the late 16th century in France. Serpents were used to accompany Gregorian plainsong (aka chanting) and were traditionally made from wood bound together by leather, but copper was soon more commonly used as it proved to be a more stable material. The instrument was originally held vertically, but later musicians began to play the instrument horizontally. The serpent has played some famous roles in music, being used by Mozart in his 1771 opera Ascanio in Alba, by Wagner in his opera Rienzi and by Jerry Goldsmith in the score for the film Alien.

Copper Serpent (1825 c.) by William Lander (1763-1843)National Music Museum, University of South Dakota

Copper Serpent, by William Lander, 1825 c. (From the collection of National Music Museum, University of South Dakota)

6. Russian Bassoon

The Russian bassoon is a misleading name for this instrument, as although it is similar in shape to a classical bassoon, it is actually a type of bass horn. It is also not Russian, having been invented in France and earning its misnomer from being used in the 18th century in military bands in Prussia and Russia. It was developed from the design of the serpent, but the Russian bassoon’s vertical length and straight pipe made it easier to play while marching—or even riding horses. It has six finger holes, three keys and a bell at the end that is uniquely painted to look like a dragon.

Russian Bassoon (1825 - 1861) by HalariHamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments

Russian Bassoon, by Halari, 1825 - 1861 (rom the collection of Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments)

7. Zurna

A zurna is a woodwind used to play folk music that can be found all across central Eurasia—its ubiquity due to its simplicity of its construction and the fact that the most important component is the common reed plant that grows across this whole area. The reed is tied to one end of a conical brass tube, which is then flattened to a narrow slit on the other. It is traditionally made from the hard wood of fruit trees, such as plum or apricot, but the music it makes isn’t exactly sweet: it is known for its loud, high-pitched sharp tone. As it plays with a constant volume, it is not very suitable for emphasizing rhythm and is therefore normally accompanied with a big drum.

Zurna (2011/2011) by UnkownState Museum of Musical Culture of Azerbaijan

Zurna, by Unknown, 2011/2011 (From the collection of State Museum of Musical Culture of Azerbaijan)

8. Haegeum

The haegeum is a traditional Korean instrument that is made from no less than 8 materials: gold, rock, thread, bamboo, gourd, clay, leather, and wood. The clay is used to coat the inside of the soundbox to make a better resonance and improve the instrument’s durability. The haegeum resembles a fiddle, with a rodlike neck and two silk strings running down to a hollow wooden sound box at the bottom. It is played with two hands: the left hand creates tension in the string and the right hand controls the bowing. Watch a performance, below.

haegeumNational Gugak Center

Haegeum (From the collection of National Gugak Center)

9. Santour

The santour is one of the oldest hitting stringed instruments. Of Persian origin, its name originally meant ‘100 strings’, although it actually has 92. It is the ancestor of many other similar instruments, as it travelled along trade routes and was copied and adapted by different cultures to adapt it to their musical styles. Originally made with tree bark, stones, and stringed goat intestines, it is the father of the harp, the Chinese yangqin, the harpsichord, qanun, the cimbalom and the American and European hammered dulcimers.

Santour (1970/1995) by unknownHamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments

Santour, by unknown, 1970/1995 (From the collection of Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments)

10. The hun

The hun may look more like a vase than a musical instrument, but it is actually a more rotund relative of the ocarina. Made of baked clay, it has a blowing hole at the top and five finger holes around its diameter; it is held in two hands, as the fingers are closed and opened to make the notes. It was primarily used in temples in the 12th century, but more recently had a resurgence when some Korean composers began to use it in film scores.

The hun by National Gugak CenterNational Gugak Center

The hun (From the collection of National Gugak Center)

Posture playing the hun by National Gugak CenterNational Gugak Center

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