If you’ve been following my blog for a while, or know me, you know that music plays an existential part of my life and being. I was raised by a mother who majored in music education in college and actually taught music in elementary school when she first started her teaching career (moving a few short years later to teach 3rd grade for 17 years and remedial reading for the remainder of her career). Mom’s children were all “strongly encouraged” to learn a musical instrument and sing in choruses and choirs. My older brother played trumpet, I learned piano and my younger brother played drums for a year or two and tinkered with a guitar. My older brother and I both sang in church choirs. I sang in school choirs starting in 3rd grade and all the way through my time at college. I also pretended to learn to play the French horn so I could be in band in high school. Lyrics of songs I know stick in my head like toothpaste on a toothbrush. Suffice it to say that much of my life has a musical base, and I am grateful to have it. I’m even more grateful that, in what was often a difficult parent-child relationship, my mother passed down the legacy of music and books to me.
Nonetheless, I recently came upon a musical instrument whose name was new to me. I posted it on social media in order to share it with my friends, many of whom I know from our shared time in band and/or choir during my high school year. One of those long-time friends commented and shared with me the names of two other instruments of which I was not aware. I checked them out on the Internet, and I thought it would be fun to share with any of you who either might have a musical thirst or merely wants to know something obscure for future trivia nights with your friends! So here you go!
Waterphone: A waterphone (also ocean harp) is a type of inharmonic acoustic tuned idiophone consisting of a stainless-steel resonator bowl or pan with a cylindrical neck and bronze rods of different lengths and diameters around the rim of the bowl. The resonator may contain a small amount of water giving the waterphone a vibrant ethereal sound that has appeared in movie soundtracks, record albums, and live performances. The instrument was invented, developed and manufactured by American Richard Waters (1935-2013). It looks something like this:
And is sounds something like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vpix1v2BikQ The next time you’re listening to the music in a scary or horror movie, you may notice this kind of music – and now you’ll know how it’s created!
Glass Armonica (No, that’s not a typo – this is the correct spelling of the name!): The glass armonica is a type of musical instrument that uses a series of glass bowls or goblets graduated in size to produce musical tones by means of friction. It was invented in 1761 by Benjamin Franklin. In its ‘simplest’, if you saw the movie Miss Congeniality, you saw Gracie Lou (aka Sandra Bullock) play a series of glasses filled with different amounts of water by rubbing her finger over the rims to create different notes/tones. The more complicated glass armonica looks like this:
This photo does not show it, but the performer keeps a bowl of water nearby if it’s necessary to remoisten their fingertips while playing. And it sounds something like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LP8QFR9Qvc
Theremin: While this sounds like a really good name for some kind of prescription medication, a theremin is an electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact. When you read those words, you might think it’s something magical and when you hear how the instrument is played, you might well think the performer is, indeed, a musician!
The performer stands in front of the instrument and moves their hands in the proximity of two metal antennas. The distance from one antenna determines frequency (pitch), and the distance from the other controls amplitude (volume). Higher notes are played by moving the hand closer to the pitch antenna. Louder notes are played by moving the hand away from the volume antenna. Most frequently, the right hand controls the pitch and the left controls the volume, although some performers reverse this arrangement. Some low-cost theremins use a conventional, knob operated volume control and have only the pitch antenna. While commonly called antennas, they are not used for receiving or broadcasting radio waves, but act as plates of capacitors.
Don’t worry if you’re creasing your forehead and thinking, “Huh?” I only understand it in the most basic of concepts. Even with just those basic concepts, I honestly can’t believe why anyone would want to learn how to actually play this instrument.
The instrument was created by Russian Leon Theremin and was later pushed into the spotlight by Robert Moog’s creation of the modern synthesizer.
It looks simple in its structure, like this:
As I said, looking at it, it doesn’t seem like much. But when you listen to how it sounds and watch the performer’s movements… Well… this is what it’s like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjnaciNT-wQ
Clair de Lune is my favorite ‘classical’ piece of music, so I didn’t mind watching this over and over and over, etc. But I’m still as clueless about how it works, and I still think there must be some kind of magic involved. I’m not sure I know anyone with enough patience to learn to play this instrument!
So now you know about three obscure musical instruments! Doing my research, I discovered names of other musical instruments I’ve not heard of, but I don’t want to overwhelm anyone’s brain – including my own (I’m still trying to figure out the theremin!).