Most musical instruments look a little weird, if you stare at them for long enough. When aliens finally make contact, they'll be confused by our habit of gripping wood and metal structures and throttling sound out of them. But some devices are odder than others. Here are the strangest musical instruments of all.
The Contrabass Balalaika
The Russian folk instrument was developed in the late 17th century. It's available in various sizes (prima, secunda, alto, bass and contrabass balalaika) — but they all have a triangular body, played with fingers or leather plectrums.
The American Fotoplayer
The instrument combines a piano with organ pipes, drums, bells and various sound effects, using switches, pedals, levers, buttons and pull chords. It can chirp like a bird, or create the sound of thunder, pistol shots or sirens, among others. Some of them have a matching roll cabinet that features music specially composed for romantic, dramatic or chase scenes with "Picturolls."
These were produced between 1912 and 1925. Between 8-12,000 of these were made, but less than 50 survive, and only 12 are known to be in playing condition.
The Boardwark Hall Auditorium Organ, Atlantic City, New Jersey
The largest musical instrument ever was designed by the state senator Emerson L. Richards and constructed between 1929 and 1932 by the Midmer-Losh Organ Company. It has seven keyboards (called manuals), 1,235 stop tabs controlling 587 flue stops, 265 reed stops, 35 melodic and 46 non-melodic percussions, 164 couplers, 18 tremolos, 120 swell pedal selectors for the 6 swell pedals controlling 15 swell boxes and a stop crescendo pedal.
A ten-minute documentary film about the organ is available here.
The analog stylus-operated synthesizer was invented in 1967 by Brian Jarvis and went into production in 1968. Three million were sold, until 1975.
The multi-necked Pikasso with 42 strings and two sound holes was created for Pat Metheny by Linda Manzer in 1984. It took two years to build.
The Theremin or the ætherphone
The theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments, was invented by the Russian Lev Sergeyevich Termen (Léon Theremin) in 1928. It's an instrument that you play without making any physical contact at all.
The concert hammered dulcimer was popularized in Hungary, but can be found in other Central-Eastern European countries and Greece, too. It's very common amongst the Romani people (Gypsies) of the area. The cimbalom has occasionally been used in film scores like The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or in the Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
The glass harmonica (armonica, bowl organ or hydrocrystalophone)
This was invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1762, one year after he saw Richard Pockrichan playing on an instrument composed of glass vessels in London.
The Welsh Crwth (or crowd) was thought to have been played in Wales since the 11th century. Only four of them have survived, but some modern copies have been made.
(via Michael J. King)
The Great Stalacpipe Organ, Luray Caverns, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
The electrically actuated lithophone (an instrument consisting of a rock or pieces of rock) was designed in 1956 by a Pentagon programmer named Leland W. Sprinkle, but the musical attributes of the stalactites was known since the discovery of the caverns in 1878. Each organ key is wired to a solenoid-actuated rubber mallet that is connected to a stalatite.
That's what I call rock music!
The Ondes Martenot (or the ondium Martenot, or ondes musicales)
The early electronic musical instrument was invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot. The notes are produced by varying the frequency of oscillation in vacuum tubes. It was produced until 1988.
Frank Zappa, Arthur Honegger and Pierre Boulez employed the Ondes Martenot in their works, and it was frequently used in popular films and TV series like The Outer Limits (1963-1965), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Ghostbusters (1984) and Amélie (2001), among others.
(via Wikimedia Commons)
Jew's harp (Gewgaw)
It's held against the teeth or lips and plucked with the fingers. The Gewgaw is originally came from Asia, and it's one of the oldest musical instruments in the world.
It could be made of iron and bamboo, among other substances.
Piano especially designed for people confined to bedrest (UK, 1935)