The world of musical instruments is vast, especially when you consider that anything that you can play to create a musical sound can be counted as an instrument. Of course, there’s a variety of percussion, string, and wind instruments everyone is familiar with, and each culture has some slightly different options out there. But are there any instruments out there that go beyond the norm and into what is actually weird? In this article, we’ll go over 23 of the absolute weirdest instruments in the world.
If you’ve ever dreamed of being a Jedi or having the ability to move things with your mind, the theremin is going to be right up your alley. While it’s not a rare instrument—surprising, I know—it is one of the coolest. They are electronic instruments that detect when objects get closer to them. You don’t touch it at all to play it; simply getting close causes it to produce sound, with the musician’s movements around it influencing what it sounds like.
Its range is most closely compared to a female voice singing in an opera style, and it’s incredibly difficult to get just the right pitch to come out of it. The better the theremin, the better its ability to detect movements, and the more sounds are possible with it. It was invented in 1920 and has been used on songs from both The White Stripes and Led Zeppelin.
The erhu is probably the instrument you’ve heard in stereotypical Chinese music in films. It’s a two-string instrument with a long thin neck and a very complex body cover. The resonance chamber is covered in python skin, and the strings are made of silk. The bow is made of a horse’s tail and is intertwined with the silk strings of the instrument, making the bow and body inseparable.
Nyckelharpa is… well, weird. They seem more like an amalgamation of instruments rather than any singular one. It looks like a long violin with some traits of the sitar and a set of keys along the neck. Playing it requires a lot of the same skills it takes to play a viol and accordion, just at the same time.
They’re mostly used in Scandinavian folk music, but the sound they produce is pretty close to a violin. Just expect a lot of wooden clicks coming in when the keys get depressed.
The yaybahar looks like a wooden stand that holds up a couple of cables connected to two drum heads. You have to play it like a stringed instrument, bowing with one hand and fretting with the other, but it produces deep tones that are reminiscent of whale noises and can even sound a bit like a violin.
The cimbalom is much more complex than it looks. On the surface, it looks like a piano would if you opened it up. They can have as many as 125 strings that are grouped together to create different pitches. Unlike the piano, it requires the musician to strike the strings with cotton mallets and has no keys. The sheer number of strings and their intricate groupings and tunings make it not only a complicated instrument but a bit of a weird one as well.
6. Pikasso Guitar
How do you make a guitar weird? You meld multiple guitars together of course. Pikasso guitars are much like normal guitars, but they have four string sections and up to 42 strings. It looks like something Picasso himself would have painted, but the guitar sounds wonderful in the hands of a guitar virtuoso like Pat Metheny. The additional string groupings allow one to play several parts at once!
Imagine taking a big whiskey barrel and laying keys along the rim that trigger strings running inside it. That’s about what you get with a wheelharp. The instrument is incredibly loud, but foot pedals can adjust how much sound it actually projects. You may have to rotate it a bit while playing to reach all of the necessary keys as well, making it one of the weirdest and coolest instruments on here.
8. Pyrophone Organ
Hear me out. Organ. That shoots fire. Unlike a normal organ that pushes out compressed air, the pyrophone organ is powered by combustion. Propane or gasoline is used for explosions—that are perfectly safe—and the exhaust from it is what produces sound when it comes out of the pipes. Hitting different keys and the size of the pipes regulate that sound into something recognizable, but that doesn’t make the pyrophone organ any less weird—and cool as hell.
9. Sea Organ
Have you ever wondered what the ocean really sounded like? Not the crashing of eternal waves against the shore or the sounds of birds above it. What would it sound like playing music? The Sea Organ was an ambitious project that gives us a bit of the answer to that.
In Zadar, Croatia, a gigantic organ was built into the seafront, featuring pipes running under the promenade that reacted to waves as they crashed into the shore. It creates harmonious, steady sounds that change as the ocean does and brings in tons of tourists each year.
10. Glass Armonica
Glass armonicas are seriously cool-looking instruments. To break them down simply, it is a series of glass bowls that progressively get larger and fit onto each other. They’re used to produce musical tones as the glass bowls rub against each other and create sound with friction. It’s sort of like when you rub a wet finger around the rim of a glass, but on a much grander scale.
So, the glass armonica was inspired by rubbing wet fingers over a wine glass and works with that kind of friction. But there’s another similar-looking instrument out there that works with water pressure. Hydraulophones essentially pump water through a series of holes in the tube to produce sound. The player covers specific holes, kind of like a recorder, to produce different sounds.
Hydraulophones work almost the same way pipe organs do. It basically just produces noise with compressed water instead of air, changing tone as the release of the fluid and pressures created changes. They’re super fun to watch as they’re basically a musical fountain.
12. Chapman Stick
A Chapman Stick mostly just looks like a widened neck of a guitar that’s missing its body. Instead of plucking or strumming the strings, the musician plays it by tapping on the back of the neck at the fret required for the desired note. They’re more popular than you would think too, appearing in the hands of people like Tony Levin, Blue Man Group, and Don Schiff.
13. Great Stalacpipe Organ
Ready for some more nature? The Great Stalacpipe Organ might be one of the coolest projects ever. There are a few different stories for how it came about, but the most popular one is that the idea came to the inventor when his son hit his head on a hanging stalactite, and it emitted a low hum throughout the cave.
Leland W. Sprinkle designed The Great Stalacpipe Organ in 1956. It basically works by tapping on ancient stalactites with rubber mallets, causing them to vibrate and reverberate sound through the cave system in Virginia. The elaborate setup is all connected to a normal-looking console that works like a traditional organ, but the sound is from the cave itself.
The double bass is one of the largest string instruments included in any orchestra. On average, they stand around six feet tall, though smaller models are available for people too short to play the full size. The octobass is a one-off version of the double bass that is totally gargantuan in comparison. Think of a double bass that’s nearly twice as tall, standing at nearly 3.5 meters instead of 1.8 meters. For those confused by the changing measurement system, that’s a six-foot-tall bass versus an eleven-and-a-half-foot-tall bass.
The sarangi is a traditional wooden instrument that will seem weird to those of us in the West. It’s essentially a wooden box with three strings, and the musician can either pluck the strings or use a bow to play them. Below those strings are up to 37 steel strings that reverberate as the top three are played, and the haunting sound produced is mostly thanks to those sympathetic strings and the three resonating sound chambers within the box.
The gravikord is aptly named because it sounds otherworldly. The instrument is based on the African kora but is a set of stainless steel tubing and both nylon and synthetic fibers in a dual-harp design. All 24 strings can be plucked individually, but a bow can also be used, and it relies on piezoelectric sensors to create an electrical charge that gives it its ethereal sound.
The didgeridoo is one you’ll likely recognize if you’ve ever been interested in Australian culture. The weird sound they produce is a kind of droning moan that is great for inducing trances, and the instrument itself dates back to the ancient Aboriginal tribes. It is mostly just a hollow tree stump that can be up to 10 feet long.
18. Singing Ringing Tree
The Singing Ringing Tree is probably more of a sculpture than an instrument, but it’s so cool it has to be on here. It is a sculpture made of various metal pipes in Lancashire that was completed in 2006. When the wind blows, the pipes produce a sound that has quite a lot of range for such a simple concept. Big windstorms produce an almost choral sound that can be heard from quite a ways away.
19. Jaw Harp
The jaw harp has been around 1,500 years and is one of the few instruments that use the human body as a resonating chamber. It’s basically just a thin steel reed that the player places between their lips and plucks rapidly with their fingers. Don’t be shocked by its small size though, it is incredibly loud despite using the player’s mouth to resonate and can be included in a huge range of genres.
You might recognize the name from The Legend Of Zelda, but the ocarina is a real—and super weird—little instrument. They’ve been around for over 12,000 years, and the design hasn’t changed much in all of that time. It is basically just a small flute vessel, typically made of clay, that has several finger holes for changing the pitch. Each one can produce different sounds, with some mimicking bird calls and others capable of playing full musical scales.
They can also be as simple or ornate as you like, but they’re always super compact and portable, something that was easy for our roaming ancestors to carry along with them.
21. Singing Tesla Coils
Zeusaphone and musical lightning are two other names for singing tesla coils. If you’re familiar with Tesla coils, this is a modified version that produces musical sounds when the spark output is changed. If you aren’t familiar with them, this instrument is basically a small tower that shoots lightning as it plays notes. Most sounds it makes aren’t in the range we can hear, but with digital help, they can produce tones and pitches we would recognize. It’s insanely cool to watch one play a super weird instrument.
22. Musical Saw
Not a lot to say on this one, but it is weird. Musical saws are just hand saws that produce noise by bowing along the flat edge of the saw, and the pitch and tone change as it is bent, moved, and the blade is drawn across something else. Not too crazy, but certainly weird in the instrument world.
We’ll end off with the funniest name on the list. Say hurdy-gurdy five times fast. Okay, the hurdy-gurdy is a string instrument that relies on a hand crank to produce sound. It has a wheel that rubs the strings as it’s turned, and it has a small wooden keyboard that helps it play melodies. It’s weird, it has an amazing name, and it fits the profile of what we’re looking for on this list.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.