Which musical instruments are the most familiar ones to you? Chances are good that instruments such as the piano, flute, guitar and drums immediately came to your mind.
In western music, these are some of the most commonly played instrument, and they frequently are the subject of children’s instrument lessons.
However, music in other parts of the world sounds really different. Even in North America, some lesser-known instruments sometimes make a surprising appearance.
Let’s take a closer look at just a few of these. Perhaps they will inspire you and your kids to learn more about music around the world or even start taking instrument lessons.
The Glass Armonica or Harmonica
Most schoolchildren are already familiar with the name “Benjamin Franklin.” They recognize him as one of the founding fathers, and they probably also know that he was a prolific inventor and scientist.
However, they may not know that Franklin also invented an instrument that made beautiful music.
It was the middle of the 18th century, and Franklin was serving as colonial America’s delegate to Paris and London. There was a fashion at the time for amateur musicians to show off their skills with musical or “singing” glasses. Franklin happened to attend one of these impromptu concerts and was intrigued by the beautiful, otherworldly sound that the singing glasses created.
The idea inspired him to invent his glass armonica. Thanks to his innovations, it was possible to play chords and a huge variety of melodies.
A London glassblower helped Franklin by crafting several dozen glass bowls, each of which was tuned to certain notes with their varying sizes. Each bowl was fitted inside the next with a piece of cork. An iron rod ran through the bottoms of the bowls, which were turned on their sides. A wheel was attached to the rod which was operated with a foot pedal. The bowls were made of various sizes and thicknesses to produce a specific note. Franklin even used colored paints to indicate the notes.
The musician would wet their fingers with water and begin to play. As it was able to produce magical sounds, many people were enamored with the instrument.
Franklin’s armonica became enormously popular, and composers like Mozart and Beethoven wrote music specifically for the instrument. Some of the most well-known compositions for the glass armonica include:
- Mozart’s Adagio and Rondo 617
- Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor opera
- Beethoven’s Leonore Prohaska Melodrama
- Bloch’s Sancta Maria
- Naumann’s Sonata No. 3
This traditional Russian stringed instrument belongs to the lute family. It was created during the 18th century as an offshoot of the dombra. The dombra itself was a three-stringed lute with a long neck and a round body that was commonly played in Central Asia and Russia.
The balalaika comes in six sizes, from the petite piccolo to the large double bass. It features a triangular belly, a fretted neck and a flat back. At the narrow end of the belly is a small sound hole. Like the dombra, the balalaika has three strings that usually are made of gut, and the musician plucks these using his fingers. However, some versions of the instrument have strings made of metal. These may be plucked with a plectrum made of leather.
Typically, two of the balalaika’s strings are tuned to the same note, but the third string is tuned to a perfect fourth higher. Balalaikas that are designed to play at a higher pitch typically play chords and melodies. Because it has a short sustain, it usually is necessary to rapidly strum or pluck the instrument when it is used to play melodies.
The balalaika is most frequently used to play traditional Russian folk music. However, there are entire orchestras that are made up of different sizes of balalaikas. These ensembles usually play classical music that has been specially arranged for playing on the instrument.
If you ever visit the National Museum Australia, you’ll have the opportunity to view a rare instrument indeed. It is called the đàn tre, and it was built by a refugee of the Vietnam War named Minh Tam Nguyen.
When Nguyen fled Vietnam for the Philippines, he was inspired by the musical traditions of both Asia and Europe to create the đàn tre, which is mostly made out of bamboo. Nguyen migrated to Australia in 1982, bringing his bamboo instrument with him.
In English, the name of Nguyen’s instrument translates to “bamboo musical instrument.” It is less than three feet tall and has 23 strings made of wire that are attached to a bamboo tube. The base of the instrument is an empty tin that once held olive oil but now functions as a resonator.
Nguyen invented the bamboo musical instrument in 1976 while he was a prisoner of war of the Vietcong in central Vietnam. The instrument may be used to play either Asian or European compositions as it combines elements of the guitar and the Vietnamese bamboo zither.
A lifelong music teacher, Nguyen created and played the đàn tre to help him feel more connected to the family that he left behind in Vietnam.
Sometimes called a lizard because of its shape, the tenor cornett was a musical instrument commonly seen in ensembles during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The cornett had a range of about two and a half octaves, though players with a particularly strong embouchure may be able to get even higher sounds out of the instrument. Most tenor cornetts were shaped like an “S,” which is why they were called lizards.
Composers who wrote pieces that would have been played with the cornett include:
-Guillame Du Fay
-Johann Sebastian Bach
-George Frideric Handel
While the tenor cornett enjoyed its heyday in the 16th and 17th centuries, it still is popular today in some musical circles. These musicians may be inspired by the music of this earlier time period as well as the unusual sounds that are produced by the instrument. Many listeners say that it is strangely reminiscent of the human voice.
Most cornetts were covered by leather and constructed out of wood. The double T spelling is used to differentiate this historical instrument from the modern cornet, which is a brass instrument.
If you had lived in Germany during the Renaissance, you might have referred to the cornett as a zink, though it was known as a cornetto in Italy.
The Santur or Santour
Part of the zither or hammered dulcimer family, the santur is a fairly common instrument in the Middle East, South Asia and even Europe. This instrument is so ancient that its precise origins are lost to time. However, many experts believe that the earliest versions of the santur were created in Persia.
The body of the santur is a flat wooden box that’s shaped like a trapezoid. Metal strings are attached to the box, and these strings are beaten with small mallets or hammers made of wood. The string are fastened to the box with metal hooks on the left side of the instrument while tuning pegs are placed on the right.
Depending upon where the instrument was made, it may have anywhere from 72 strings to more than 100 strings. The strings typically would be tuned in sets of three, four or five strings.
The people of Arabia, Turkey, Iraq and Iran use the santur as part of their tradition of classical music while in the Greek Aegean Islands, it is mainly used for folk music. If you are traveling in the Kashmir region of South Asia, then you may hear the santur played with Sufi music along with a variety of stringed instruments and drums.
Where Will Your Musical Journey Take You?
Learning to play an instrument is the beginning of a lifelong adventure. It isn’t necessary to become a virtuoso to find the benefit in music instruction. In fact, it isn’t even necessary to dedicate years to becoming proficient at a particular instrument.
Simply understanding the foundation of music and how it is constructed leads to a deeper understanding and appreciation. You can get your kids started on the right foot by introducing them to the engaging video lessons and activities at Prodigies.
If you want your little ones to benefit academically, emotionally, socially and physically from learning about music, then get started with the programs at Prodigies today.