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Unusual Musical Instruments and How They Came to Be

With the arrival of advanced music technology, acoustic instruments are soon to be a thing of the past. Creating music has become accessible and simple enough for anybody to indulge in, and as of 2020, there is no shortage of new unique music. One no longer needs to spend countless hours practicing, writing manuscripts, and learning music theory. Instead, with only a basic understanding of music theory, and access to music production softwares, you are now able to create records from scratch – all without an instrument!

Pop culture aside, human history is rich with wondrous man-made instruments. Albeit these may not be used in current times, the instruments we’re going to list below have played a large part in paving the way for modern music.

Editor’s Note: The information in this article is derived from multiple verified sources. All sources can be found in this article.

Friction Harp

There is currently very limited information about this unique string instrument. US-based Tinkertunes Music Studios is one of the few entities that conducted and released a detailed write-up about the Friction Harp. Read their article here.

First invented by a musical instrument manufacturing company by the name J.C.Deagan inc. in 1920, the Friction Harp is unlike any other string instrument. The pitch of this harp’s tone is not determined by the tension exerted on a particular string, but by the length of that string. It is made up of 25 tuned aluminum tubes that fit into a wooden strip, complete with a metal thumbscrew to hold the tubes in place. Founder John Calhoun Deagan, the inventor of the Friction Harp, is better known for his work in the field of the mallet percussion instruments. A detailed write-up about Deagan’s many accomplishments can be found in the Percussive Arts Society, a not-for-profit music service organization with operations across the globe.

Tom Kaufmann, a musician and instrument builder for Tinkertunes Music Studios, writes in his piece about the Friction Harp titled ‘The Friction Harp – A Story of Rediscovery in great detail how his understanding of this unique build came to be. Astonishingly, Kaufmann was not initially aware of John Deagan, the original father of the Friction Harp, but was immediately drawn to Deagan’s pure genius and decided to replicate the instrument to the best of his capabilities. He was invited to the Ringing Rocks State Park in Buck’s country, Pennsylvania to play Deagan’s Aluminium Harp in 2008, further allowing him to understand what made Deagan’s instrument unique in its own right. He writes  “I found that the tubes Deagan used did not continue to ring after you stopped stroking them, as the solid rods do. They require a bit more force to initiate the note as well, perhaps because the nickel coating was worn. Since it was made to be portable, it was as stable as my instruments. The stand tended to wobble a bit, and I also prefer my horizontal mounting system, which I find more ergonomic, even though it takes a great deal of floor space”.

Tom Kaufmann also released exclusive footage of his own Friction Harp on Youtube.

John Deagan’s original Aluminium Friction Harp currently be found on the National Museum of American History website here.

 

The Great Stalacpipe Organ

The Great Stalacpipe Organ was first and foremost a natural sonic wonder. First discovered in 1878, The Luray Caverns are sprawled across a whopping 3.5 acres and are currently known as the biggest cave complex in the Eastern US of A. On a Smithsonian Institute tour of the caves, co-leader Andrew Campbell is recorded to be the first person to strike the stalactite pipes in these caves, producing a tune that, from then on, became Virginia’s very own naturally-occurring ‘instrument’. During the early 20th century, the Luray Caverns became a part of numerous guided tours and fostered various musical performances. During one such tour in 1954, mathematician and electronic scientist Leland W. Sprinkle decided to develop The Great Stalacpipe Organ.

The Luray Caves already had 37 naturally-formed stalactites. Sprinkle constructed the organ by first cutting individual stalactite pipes accurately to resonate specific notes. Rubber mallets were put in place to strike each pipe and a wire connected each mallet to individual notes on a keyboard. This allowed for the striking of the mallet to take place by simply playing the appropriate key. The Great Stalactite Organ took a total of 3 years from conception to development, and Virginia-based Klann Organ Supply created a custom keyboard console that was fitted in place of the initial keyboard. 

While the instrument itself stands at 3.5 acres in size, sounds generated from it can be heard within an impressive 64-acre radius! Since its conception, The Great Stalactite Organ has been seen in various pieces of pop culture, one such sighting being in a song called In The Cave by Finnish/Swedish musicians Pepe Deluxé in September of 2011.

You can visit the Luray Caves and witness the marvel of The Great Stalactite Organ first-hand, courtesy of Atlas Obscura by visiting their website here.

 

Lithophone

A lithophone is known as an instrument that uses a stone of pieces of stone to produce musical notes. Taking its name from the Greek word for stones (Litho), this primarily organic instrument can be seen in various cultures and regions across the world. The oldest discovery of the Lithophone is mapped to Vietnam, known as the đàn đá, and is approximately 9000 years old! 

The functionality of the Lithophone is simple. Melodious rocks such as granite, fossilized coral, etc are struck with mallets (similar to the xylophone) to create both individual melodies and grouped harmonies consisting of multiple notes at once. Historic depictions of the Lithophone can be seen as an early attempt to harness the sonic capabilities of simple stones, resulting in a widespread of different versions of the instrument – whether in Asia, Europe, or the Middle East. 

Tom Kaufmann of Tinkertunes Music Studios also took great fascination towards the Lithophone, developing his own versions of the Lithophone using different types and shapes of stone. Read about his developments in his article here. In a video publicized by The Kids Should See This, YouTube channel Hi Vietnam displays the use of the Vietnamese version of the Lithophone, producing sounds that can be compared to the melodious clinking of glass. The Vittala Temple in Karnataka, India also houses 56 pillars known as The Musical Pillars of the Ranga Mantapa, that, when tapped gently, produce a range of major and minor notes. 

While other regions of the world had discovered, designed, and adapted different types of Lithophones, it was not until the year 1840 when Englishman and local stonemason Joseph Richardson took it upon himself to develop what is now known as The Musical Stones of Skiddaw. Richardson was a self-taught musician with a keen sensibility of both sound and stones, making this famed instrument a wonder of its time. Including an entire eight octaves and holding a close resemblance to the glockenspiel, Richardson named his instrument the Rock Harmonium and with his sons went on to tour Europe and the UK, bringing mainstream attention to his creation. Richardson’s Lithophone can be found today at the Keswick Museum in England.

The Singing Ringing Tree

What was once home to an old-timey broadcast station in the English town of Burnley is now one of the famed 21 landmarks that represent Britain in the 21st Century. This sonic marvel, known as the Singing Ringing Tree is the brainchild of architects Mike Tonkin and Anna Liu, built to completion in 2006. Standing at 3-meters in height and made of up galvanized steel pipes, each pipe has been carefully crafted to emit specific notes and volumes. This is done by cutting small gaps on the base of individual pipes and maintaining relevant lengths.

The shape of the Singing Ringing Tree is unique and has been designed to emit hums that are both melodious and haunting when the wind makes its way into its pipes. These iconic sounds have made appearances in some notable entertainment mediums – namely John Kesson’s Duet No. 1 For Synthesizer and the Singing Ringing Tree and Henry Peacock’s Song about SRT (read more here).

It is important to note that the Singing Ringing Tree does not need to be struck or otherwise manipulated, it is completely wind-powered – and nestled on one of the higher plains of Lancashire – making for a must-visit tourist attraction. You can find everything you need to make your way to the Singing Ringing Tree, courtesy of Atlas Obscura.

Since its development in 2006, this instrument went on to win the prestigious National Award for Architecture Excellence by the Royal Institute of British Architects; following which a second Singing Ringing Tree was placed in the town of Manor, situated in Austin, Texas.

 

 

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Writer, musician and always covered in stray fur. When I'm not tapping away at a keyboard, you'll find me attending to meows and woofs.

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