Seven Odd Musical Instruments


Travel anywhere in the world and what do you find in every culture? No, I’m not thinking about alcohol (but that would be true). I’m thinking of musical instruments. So as I build the setting for my fantasy novels, I knew I needed to dream up a few so the people of Tlefas would have some kind of entertainment.

A quick Google search got me more than I bargained for. Some of these instruments I’d love to hear played. Others, I don’t even want to think about.

African Thumb Piano

These tiny instruments are held in the palm of one hand. Every tribe has its own variation, but the basic model is the same. Keys of different lengths and shapes are clamped to a resonator, usually some kind of wood board or box, or a hollow gourd.

The keys are usually iron or some other metal, often recycled from bedsprings or the spokes from bicycles.

And with the variation in design, so do the names. In Zambia, (where the one pictures is from) it’s the kankobela. Other names are mbira, ilimbas, gyiilgo or prempremsuah. Traditionally, thumb pianos were used for religious purposes.

Aeolian wind harp

These ancient Greek harps were designed to be played by the wind, not human hands. Some hung from trees, others were constructed to stand alone and were often several feet high. They often had a range from deepest bass to high soprano.


This wood and bark Viking wind instrument was used to sound war calls in the Middle Ages. Most were about two feet long and rather narrow, somewhat like an oversized used vuvuzela.


This one takes the cake for complexity. This medieval Swedish instrument has 16 strings and 37 keys. To play it, you slide the keys under the strings and push them up to the string. Meanwhile, the strings are played with a bow.

Viennese Vegetable Orchestra

Yes, it’s an entire orchestra made from fresh veggies. Each morning the musicians shop for vegetables, and then carve them up for the evening’s performance. Afterward, they end up in the soup. The vegetables, not the musicians.

Glass Armonica

Invented by none other than Ben Franklin in 1761, the glass armonica was inspired by the phenomenon that a tone could be produced by stroking the lip of a wine glass filled with water. Reversing the concept, Franklin arranged 37 glass bowls on a spindle and spun it slowly. The player just touched the glass with wet fingertips, which produces chords. Apparently the chords produced were so beautiful, even Mozart and Beethoven composed music for the glass armonica.


The theremin was invented by Russian Leon Theremin in 1928, and is an early electronic instrument controlled without any physical contact by the person playing it. Two metal antennas sense the position of the musician’s hands, which in turn regulate the frequency and volume of the sound produced.

Apparently most of us have heard theremins played, as they produce an eerie sound that serves well as the background music in horror films.

One strange variation was inserting the theremin into a dead honey badger, creating the badgermin. (I’m not making this up.) Supposedly you play the badgermin by waving it in the air. I’ll pass, especially if the badgermin was built more than a day ago.

Lots of fodder for creating a new set of instruments for the king and people of Tlefas to enjoy!

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