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Musical Innovations – Six Unique Instruments

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

Add These Sounds to Your Earbox

An assortment of electronic and acoustic instruments
An assortment of electronic and acoustic instruments

In previous posts, we have touched on the instruments of the conventional Western orchestra, some instruments from around the world, and some electronic instruments as well. In this post, we are going to meet just a few of some of the lesser known instruments that you might have heard, but you might not have known what you were hearing. Whether you are a composer, producer, musician, singer, or just an admirer and listener, add these new sonic possibilities to your "earbox" and see where your musical imagination takes you!

The Glass Armonica


Franklin Glass Armonica
Franklin Glass Armonica

The Glass Armonica, also called the Glass Harmonica or Glass Harmonium, was invented by none other than Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) in 1761. However, The idea for the a crystallophone or musical glass predates him. The idea that running a wet finger around a crystal goblet to produce a sound has been known since the Renaissance. In fact, one of the first scientists to write about that phenomenon was Galileo. Irish musician Richard Pockridge (or Pockrich) is credited with first using a set of water-tuned glasses into an instrument called the Musical Glasses. Pockridge performed around London in the 1740s. Unfortunately, both him and his instrument were caught in a fire which killed him and destroyed his instrument. Baroque operatic composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) performed a concerto on a set of musical glasses.

In 1761, Franklin was in London, representing the Pennsylvania Legislature to Parliament. Asa lover of music and an amateur musician and composer, he would often attend concerts. One such concerts Franklin attended featured Edmund Deleval playing set of a musical glasses, that was patterned after Pockridge's instrument. Franklin was so taken with the ethereal sound of the glasses that he was inspired to create his own mechanical version of the instrument.

Working with a glassblower in London, Franklin made 37 glass bowls, tuned to specific pitches by their varying size, and fitted one inside of the next with cork. Each bowl was made with the correct size and thickness to give the desired pitch without needing to be filled with water. Franklin painted the bowls so that they were color-coded. A was indigo, B violet, C red, D orange, E yellow, F green, G blue, and the accidentals were marked in white. A hole was put through the center of the glass bowls, and an iron rod ran through the holes which was attached to a wheel, that was spun via foot pedal. In place of water-filled glass, the musician's used fingers lightly wet from water touched to the edge of the spinning glasses produced sound.

The Glass Armonica premiered in early 1762 with the name "glassychord", played by Londoner Marianne Davies. Franklin later built a second instrument with which Davies toured Europe while Franklin returned to Philadelphia with his. Mozart was so impressed with the Glass Armonica that he composed for it, including "Adagio for Glass Harmonica, K. 356" (below). Other Classical era composers, also wrote for it and there about 200 pieces written for the instrument that we still have today. Although the instrument lost popularity in the 19th century, French Romantic composer Camille Sant-Saëns (1835-1921), used it to give the water sound to his "Aquarium" from The Carnival of the Animals (below). Franklin's inventiveness should inspire us to create and innovate as well.

"As we enjoy great Advantages from the Inventions of others we should be glad of an Opportunity to serve others by any Invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously." – Benjamin Franklin

Wagner Tuba


A model 110 double Wagner tuba in F/Bb, built by Gebr. Alexander Mainz.
Wagner Tuba

The Wagner tuba was created for composer German Romantic composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Wagner loved the low sound of the tuba, but he found the tuba’s tone was too heavy to play melodies, so he conceived of a hybrid that was a cross between a French horn and a tuba.

The body of the instrument looks like a French horn, but the bell part at the end of the instrument, which kind of resembles the end of a trombone, points upwards, like a tuba. Wagner most likely had in mind the ancient Bronze age Nordic horn or lur when he designed his new tuba. German instrument maker Carl Wilhelm Moritz (1810-1855) constructed the instruments for Wagner and the Wagner Tuba debuted with Wagner's Das Rheingold. Other composers have called for the Wagner Tuba as well. Famous pieces that feature the instrument including Anton Bruckner's moving slow movement in his Symphony No. 7 (below) and the dramatic Universal Pictures Fanfare composed by Jerry Goldsmith (below). The instrument is the photo to the right is a model 110 double Wagner tuba in F/Bb, built by Gebr. Alexander Mainz.



The German composer Wendelin Weißheimer playing a Pyrophone
Wendelin Weißheimer

The Pyrophone, also known as "Orgue á Flammes (Flame Organ), is a musical organ which uses explosions or other forms of rapid combustion/heating to create sound and light. In 1873, Strasbourg-born musician and scientist Fréderic Kastner (1852-1882), invented an instrument which used flames encased in pipes similar to traditional organ pipes to produce pitches. Romantic composers, such as Hector Berlioz and Cesar Franck, were intrigued by the instrument. German composer Wendelin Weißheimer (see photo) experimented with the instrument as well. French composer and pedagogue Théodore Lack wrote several pieces for the instrument.

Kastner was not a very successful inventor, however, Kastner's mother was well-connected. She was acquainted with Henry Dunant, a Swiss activist who founded of the Read Cross, inspired the Geneva Convention, and received the first Nobel Peace Prize, and hired Dunant for a 50,000 Franc commission to introduce, demonstrate, and promote the pyrophone. Dunant introduces's a performance of Lack's pyrophone arrangement of God Save The Queen with

“The sound of the pyrophone may truly be said to resemble the sound of the human voice… like a human and impassioned whisper, as an eco of the inward vibration of the soul, something mysterious and indefinable, besides, in general, possessing a character of melancholy, which seems characteristic of all natural harmonies”.

Despite the promotion, the pyrophone failed to catch on. However, contemporary musicians and inventors have continued to experience with making music out of fire. Daniel Durox, a French scientist, has designed a more recent version (below).



Leon Theremin demonstrating the theremin, December 1927
Leon Theremin, December 1927

The Theremin, also known asa an aetherphone or ether phone, is an electronic musical instrument that is controlled by a player's gesture without any physical contact on the instrument itself. It is named after its inventor, Russian physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen or Leon Theremin (1896-1993) in the West. Theremin started developing the instrument in 1919 and first introduced it in Oct. 1920. (Happy 100th Theremin!) Theremin moved to the United States where he patented the instrument in 1928 and granted the commercial production rights to RCA.

The instrument's controlling section usually consists of two metal antennas that sense the relative position of the player's hands and control oscillators (pitch generators) for frequency and amplitude (dynamics) with the other. Higher notes are produced by putting the hand closer to the pitch antenna, and louder notes are produced by moving the hand away from the volume antenna. The electric signals from the instrument are amplified and sent to a loudspeaker.

The instrument is known for its ethereal or eerie timbre. It is often described as sounding like a disembodied voice and it pairs nicely with singing. See Carolina's video below to hear how the instrument blends with her voice. The music critic, Harold C. Schonberg, wrote that the theremin sounds as a

"cello lost in a dense fog, crying because it does not how to get home."

Clara Rockmore
Clara Rockmore

There have been some virtuosos of the instrument, including Clara Rockmore (1911-1998) who knew Theremin and became playing his instrument after muscular problems lead to her giving up her promising violin career. She performed with the premier orchestras of the USA, enjoyed many commissions, and closely collaborated with conductor Leopold Stokowski. Rockmore developed the instrument's playing technique, including a fingering system, which allowed her to accurately perform fast passages and large note leaps without the much glissando.

On its one hundredth birthday, there are still composers writing for the theremin today. Including Finnish composer, Kalevi Ensio Aho (b. 1949), who wrote his Eight Seasons - Concerto for Theremin (2011).

Ondes Martenot


Ondes Martenot –
Ondes Martenot –

The Ondes Martenot "Martenot Waves", also called the Ondes Musicales "Musical Waves", is a monophonic electronic instrument (pictured right) invented by French cellist and radio telegraphist Maurice Martenot. It features an otherworldly, voice-like timbre, similar to the theremin. In fact, Martenot was inspired to build his instrument after meeting Leon Theremin in 1923. The first model of the Ondes Martenot was pattered in 1928, the same year as the theremin.

Olivier Messiaen in 1937
Olivier Messiaen in 1937

Over 100 "classical" compositions have been written for the Ondes Martenot. Composers in the French tradition such as Arthur Honegger, Florent Schmitt, Darius Milhaud, Edgard Varèse, Jacques Ibert, and Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) all wrote for it. Messiaen's works for the instrument are some of the most well-known, especially significant is his 1949 work, Turangalîla-Symphonie. His sister-in-law, Jeanna Loriod was a renowned player of the instrument, and she performed all of his works for it. According to composer Richard Lainhart, Messiaen's Oraison "is not only a lovely piece of music, but has historical interest too – it may be the first piece of purely electronic music written expressly for live performance."

While the Ondes Martenot has not yet become a generally known instrument, composers for it have theorized that it will one day become part of the standard orchestra. Honneger believed it might eventually replace the contrabassoon in the orchestra. Referring to the Ondes, he said:

‘The instrument has power, a speed of utterance, which is not to be compared with those gloomy stove-pipes looming up in orchestras.’

The Ondes Martenot is made up of two units: the main section is made up of a keyboard and pull-wire operated by a ribbon controller for the index finger. The keys are capable of slightly shifting, which has the effect of moving the pitch. Sliding the ribbon with the index finger creates glissando sweeps and expressive portamentos. For this reason, it has been a favorite for television and film scorers, especially of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror films. Scores that feature the Ondes include Dr. Who, Ghostbusters, Heavy Metal, There Will Be Blood, Hugo, and Amélie.



The Melodica is a free-reed instrument, a type of instrument similar to a pump organ, harmonica, concertina, or accordion. It was invented by Hohner, famous for making harmonicas and recorders, in the 1950s. It combines the portability of a small, wind instrument with the versatility of a piano keys of an accordion. It's size, ease of play, and affordability make it a common instrument for kids and adult beginners.

Composer, Steve Reich (b. 1936), was one of the first to compose "serious" music for it. His Melodica composed in 1966 consists of one tape loop gradually going out of phase with itself, first in two voices and then in four. Reich played the loop on a melodica after dreaming it. In more recent performances, digital technology rather than tape is used.

Morricone in 1978 with Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza
Morricone in 1978 with Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza

A composer who had made excellent use of the timbre of the melodica was legendary Italian film composer, Ennio Morricone (1928-2020). Morricone often blended timbres and used unusual instruments, such as the melodica, to create interesting sounds for the soundscapes of the films he scored, which he score over 500! His scores for "Spaghetti Westerns"of the 1960s created the sound of the genre. His suite of music from his score to The Godfather (below) is an example of a novelty instrument being taken seriously.

One of the most celebrated, possibly the only famous musician who specialized in melodica, was Jamaican Root Reggae and Dub artist Augustus Pablo, born Horace Swaby, (1954-1999). Pablo was a lifelong studio multi-instrumentalist and music producer.



Kenjamin89 - Own work A young musician plays on a hydraulophone, the world's first instrument that makes music with water
Kenjamin89 - A young musician plays on a hydraulophone

The Hydraulophone can be thought of as an great-grandchild of the Glass Armonica. However, while the Glass Armonica uses glass and water to create sound, the hydraulophone only uses water. It is played by touching small jets of water, which produce its "rich, unique, soulful sound."Mann believes his instrument use of water and sound is naturally healing and can be effectively used as a part of music therapy. It can also be used in public spaces for recreation, like the example being played by the young girl in the photo to the right.

It is a recent invention built by Canadian, Steve Mann who has also composed for it. The instrument was used for the the 2010 Olympics Opening Ceremony in Vancouver. Composer and a part of Mann's MannLab team Ryan Janzen performed his piece, Changing Spirit of an Oxbow Lake, along with Colin Meier on violin.

How has listening to and seeing these six instruments in action inspired you? Are you feeling like Ben Franklin or Steve Mann and ready to innovate and create a new instrument? Are you feeling like composers Messiaen or Morricone and ready to use an usual instrument to create the soundscape you hear in your mind? Or, are you feeling like Clara Rockmore or Augustus Pablo and ready to create a new world of performance by mastering a unique instrument? As always, I'd love for you to let me know, leave a comment or send a email to


Further Reading

Zeitler, William. The Glass Armonica: Benjamin Franklin's Magical Musical Invention. (Accessed 21 September 2020).

The Franklin Institute. Benjamin Franklin's Glass Armonica. The Franklin Institute. (Accessed 21 September 2020).

California Symphony. What’s a Wagner tuba? (Accessed 21 September 2020).

The Wagner Tuba. (Accessed 21 September 2020).

Sommerlad, Rob. The Amazing Adventures of Kastner's Miraculous Pyrophone Part One. Science Museum. (Accessed 21 September 2020).

Sommerlad, Rob. The Amazing Adventures of Kastner's Miraculous Pyrophone Part Two. Science Museum. (Accessed 21 September 2020).

Leon Theremin. Moog Music. (Accessed 21 September 2020).

Eyck, Carolina. The Theremin. (Accessed 21 September 2020).

Theremin World. (Accessed 21 September 2020).

Crab, Simon. 120 Years of Electronic Music. Ondes Martenot. (Accessed 21 September 2020).

Parr, Freya. Classical Music Brought to You By BBC Music Magazine. What Is the Ondes Martenot? (Accessed 21 September 2020).

van Cooten, Peter. The Ambient Blog. (Accessed 21 September 2020).

Hohner: Melodica. (Accessed 21 September 2020).

Greene, Jo-Anne. Augutus Pablo. (Accessed 21 September 2020).

Watershapes. Fluid Memories: An Interview With Steve Mann. (Accessed 21 September 2020).

MannLab. The Hydraulophone: Music from Water. (Accessed 21 September 2020).


Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.



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