Weird Wednesdays: Five odd instruments you probably shouldn’t play

As the end of the year approaches, many students’ end of-the-year recitals are at hand. Whether it be for piano or the jazzy saxophone, these performers have undoubtedly practiced their craft to perfection. Instruments are finicky things to learn and it can take hours per day to master their nuances.

Of course, you could also spend your days learning the intricacies of a glass armonica, the danger of a zeusaphone or the oddly memetic joys of American fotoplayer. Here are five weird instruments that you should be glad you don’t have to practice with. If you manage to master one of these, invite me to your recital.  

Cat piano

The past didn’t have many animal rights laws. As such, several instances of the mythical ‘cat organ’ has surfaced in Europe since the 1500s, described in king’s courts as part of the “cruelty of the royals”. Cats with varying pitches of voice were arranged chromatically in cages with their tails exposed. When played, each key would correspond to a cat, which would be struck in the tail with a hammer or nail. The resulting sound may have been considered “music” by a bunch of bored French people, though I’m sure most ASPCA members would disagree. If you want tortured musical screeching, you’re probably better off at a middle school violin concert.

Zeusaphone

Also known as The Singing Tesla Coil, musical lightning and the Thoramin (it’s very pun-friendly!) this instrument uses vibrations produced by lightning hitting conductive metal to produce a tone. Depending on the wavelength and energy level of the electricity, the metal will vibrate at a high or low frequency with a high or low sound. Though the lightning is often produced by a machine, shows will often include a conductor (ha, ha) in a Faraday cage in the middle who will direct the bolts. The musical group ArcAttack uses these in their performances.     

American Fotoplayer

If you’ve ever seen the meme “Hit it, Joe!” then this is what that old guy in the video is playing. Originally developed to provide sound effects for silent movies in the 1920s (hence the name and the range of sound effects), it still remains a relic. There are only 12 playable models in the United States today. The piano plays itself by way of steam pump, and the sound effects (which can include a whip crack, a bird chirp, a steam whistle and a car horn) are made by devices attached to the player which are used by the performer as needed. The only skill needed is comedic timing!

Glass Armonica

Benjamin “Let’s make a turkey the national bird of the United States” Franklin invented  the glass armonica in 1761 as a source for musical amusement at parties. Players would produce clear, high sounds by rubbing a wet finger on each of the instrument’s glass rings, much like rubbing a wine glass rim. The instrument was so popular that it was played by Beethoven in concert. Mozart composed music for it as well. Unfortunately, it fell out of fashion by the 1820s because it became associated with female hysteria and illness. It also just didn’t play well in large music halls. Fun fact: the Greek word hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica, which means “playing music for the soul with wet fingers” was invented for this instrument.  

Pyrophone

This one’s name describes its function perfectly. Basically, it’s a musical explosion calliope. Tiny little combustions send flames through the glass or metal pipes, producing a range of noises. Depending on the diameter, it can sound either light and flute-y or deep and tuba-esque, sort of like when you blow into an empty bottle. The organ is fueled by gasoline or propane. It was originally invented by musician and physicist  Georges Frédéric Eugène Kastner after he experimented with sounds produced by flames running through glass test tubes. Don’t try this one at home, kids.

Note: I have not included the theremin for the very specific reason of it being freaky enough to warrant its own column. Tune in (ha, ha) next semester for more on that. Next week: decadence and depravity. But until then, respect your cats, don’t set the recital hall on fire and stay weird!


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.