Glossary of Unique Musical Instruments

There is a wide variety of musical instruments in the world and they can be broadly classified into stringed instruments, percussion instruments, brass instruments, and wind instruments. Numerous instruments can be found under each category. Stringed instruments comprise of guitars, violins, pianos, and others instruments whose sound is created through string movement. Examples of percussion instruments are cymbals, drums, triangles, and anything that is hit or struck to cause sounds. Trumpets, bugles, and trombones are brass instruments, ones whose different notes are created through valves on the instrument, or through the lengthening of the tube, as with the trombone. Wind instruments that use blown air to create sound are flutes, piccolos, clarinets, and harmonicas. Music is different from one region to another, and there are many unique musical instruments in the world. Here’s a glossary of some interesting musical instruments which can be used for study or comparison research.

Ashiko: This is a versatile African drum which originated from Nigeria. It is a hand drum with sharp crisp tones and primary tones similar to the Djembe, another type of African drum. The tones vary depending on the type of skin used; for example, goat skin and cow skin drums have different tones.

Baryton: A string musical instrument with a bow, the Baryton was quite popular in the 18th century. Part of the viol family, it became less popular due its size and difficulty in playing. It was as large as a cello with six strings played with a bow and additional strings played with the fingers. The bowed strings formed the melody and the additional strings formed the accompaniment.

Bodhran: The Bodhran is a popular Irish drum comprising of a wooden body; goat skin covers the top and creates a base for the head. One side is open, which helps to control the pitch. A double sided stick is used to play the drum.

Bombard: A member of the oboe family, the bombard is a double reed instrument used traditionally by the Bretons. It has a powerful sound similar to a trumpet and is played with the mouth. Different octaves are reached through lip pressure.

Bouzouki: This string instrument is an integral part of Greek music. The bouzouki is similar to a mandolin with a long neck and pear-shaped body. It is played with a plectrum, a small tool used for plucking strings, and the sounds are metallic. Bouzoukis may be classified as three-course or four-course based on the number of strings.

Bowed Psaltery: The bowed psaltery is a stringed instrument of the harp family which is played with a bow. The melody is played with the bow and the accompaniment with fingers.

Chitarino: This is a stringed instrument similar to the lute and the guitar which was popular in the fifteenth century. The chitarino looks like a smaller version of the guitar due to its shape but it is played and sounds like a lute.

Cittern: The cittern is a small, flat backed, string instrument. Signifying casual music, it’s preferred over the lute and other string instruments because it’s cheaper, easier to carry around, and very easy to play.

Cornamuse: This is a double reed instrument which is similar to a Krummhorn, a curved horn with a double reed. It is quieter than the Krummhorn and gives out a lovely sound as the bell is closed. Unlike the Krummhorn, a cornamuse is straight.

Doumbek: Originally from the Middle East, the Doumbek is a hand drum with the shape of a goblet. It has a distinct sound due its thin drumhead. The main notes are low notes and sharp notes; low notes are created when the center of the drum is hit, and the sharp notes are created by hitting the edges of the drum. It is made out of wood, clay or metal.

Dulcian: This instrument has many uses as it is loud enough for outdoor music and quiet enough for indoors. It has a double reed with a conical bore.

Flutes: A member of the woodwind instrument family, the flute is a reed-less instrument. It comprises of a tube with holes, and its sound is controlled by pressure from the lips and movement of the fingers over the holes. It is one of the oldest known forms of musical instruments.

Frame Drum: Any shallow drum which contains skin stretched over a wooden ring is a frame drum. It has different names in different cultures and can be played differently. It is used for spiritual music as well as entertainment. The larger drums are played mainly by men while the smaller ones are usually played by women.

Guitar: This string instrument comprises of a wooden frame with strings attached to its neck. The gut strings have now been replaced with steel or nylon strings. The guitar is an extremely popular instrument. It’s normally played with the help of a pick and the fingers.

Hammered Dulcimer: The hammered dulcimer is a stringed percussion instrument. It comprises of strings stretched over a sounding board, played with the help of mini mallet hammers. The instrument sits at an angle while being played and sounds similar to a piano.

Kantele: A member of the zither family, a string instrument family in which the instruments do not have a neck like a the violin or guitar, the Kantele is made up of five to six strings on a wooden frame carved from a single piece of wood. Originating from Finland, it can play three chords and can be tuned in numerous ways.

Krummhorn: It derives its name from the German word “Krumhorn” meaning bent horn. The Krummhorn has a distinct shape with its pipe shaped like the letter “J’. It has capped reeds, which means the player does not directly touch the reeds. The pitch is changed by the use of fingers along the holes on the pipe. The most distinct feature is the unique buzzing sound that it produces.

Mandolin: A member of the lute family, the mandolin can be round or shaped like a tear drop. Small in size, it consists of four sets of strings played with the fingers. It is largely used in Mediterranean music and occasionally in classical or rock-and-roll music.

Lap Dulcimer or Appalachian Dulcimer: This instrument is a native of North America and derives its name from the famous Appalachian mountain range. It is played while resting in the lap, hence the commonly used name, lap dulcimer. A member of the zither family (string instruments which lack necks), it has three to four strings on a fret board which runs along the length of the instrument. The Appalachian dulcimer has a low mellow tone.

Lira da Braccio: A stringed bow instrument used as accompaniment to vocal performances or other instruments. The lira da braccio has a close resemblance to a fiddle. It was popular in Europe during the Renaissance period, primarily in Italy.

Lira da Gamba (Lirone): A bass model of the lira da braccio, this instrument had more strings, enabling more notes. It was held between the knees, and it had a gently curved bridge so that many strings could be played at the same time.

Lute: Any string instrument with a neck and played with a pick can be referred to as a lute. Lutes come in various shapes and sizes with five to seven sets of strings, all of which are double strung.

Oud, Aoud, or 'Ud: One of the oldest stringed instruments, it is used widely in the Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and North African regions. It has a round back and consists of one to three holes with a bent head. The oud has eleven strings which are in pairs except for the low note string which is single.

Psaltery: An ancient instrument that comes in various quadrilateral shapes. Initially, it comprised of just a wooden board with strings but it slowly evolved over the years to have holes and different four-sided shapes. It has a harp-like sound.

Recorder: A recorder belongs to the fipple flute family, instrument group which are played by blowing through a channel where air hits a sharp-edged fipple. It has a wooden plug at its mouth and seven holes along the front of its body with one hole along the back for the thumb. The recorder has a tapered shape with a narrow top that widens towards the mouthpiece.

Sackbut: This is the earlier version of the trombone and was prevalent during the Renaissance period. A member of the trumpet family, the Sackbut has a slide to adjust the length, thereby providing flexibility to change the pitch and tone as required.

Serpent: The serpent is a type of brass instrument but made of wood and covered with leather. Played the same way as a trombone, it has a snake-like shape with holes on either side.

Shawm: It was one of the most important instruments used in the Medieval times because it could produce sounds outdoors and could reach a huge audience. It is a key-less double reed instrument with holes for fingers and thumb.

Vielle: Used in the Medieval period, this stringed instrument sounds similar to a violin. It has a longer and deeper body with five gut strings.

Viola d'amore: This instrument has five to seven bowed strings and five to seven sympathetic strings which are not played but vibrate along with the notes. The viola d’amore is placed under the chin. Due to the sympathetic strings, it has a sweet and distinct sound.

Viola da Gamba: A bowed stringed musical instrument similar to a cello, the viola da gamba is played resting on the artist’s feet. It does not have the resonance of a cello but the sound is sweet and compelling. The viola da gamba has six strings and frets.

Violin: The violin is a string instrument with four strings. The body is made of wood and the strings are made of gut, steel or nylon. Normally, a bow is drawn over the strings though fingers may also be used.

Vulcan Lyre: This is a unique stringed instrument whose strings are perpendicular to each other. The lyre frame consists of twelve strings grouped into four with the base containing a sound box. One hand strums the melody while the other plays the chords.

There are many more different types of musical instruments in the world and it is near impossible to list all of them. The above is just a short compilation. Different societies throughout the world have created instruments which shows the human desire to create and hear music. Many seemingly ancient or rare instruments have niche groups and followers today that keep their distinctive sounds alive.