I bring this up because that background is the reason I once considered myself a kind of music lover and music expert. Not the expert, of course, but someone with legit ideas and opinions about it. Not to mention, someone with a basic grasp on what sorts of instruments are being used by modern performers.
But now, here I am eating my words and a slice of humble pie, and presenting to you the six reasons I am eating said words and pie. These are examples of six obscure musical instruments I only just recently found out are still being used today, despite the fact that almost no one outside of a music department really knows they exist.
The calliope is more widely recognized in images than by name, and often pops up in other blog posts about obscure instruments as a result. Calliopes were once commonly used on riverboats and in circuses. They produced sound by sending gas through large whistles; originally, the makers actually used locomotive whistles when building a calliope. But the calliope, despite being classified as “obscure,” is still used and played today, even getting a shining moment in steampunk band Vernian Process’ 2011 single "Something Wicked (That Way Went).”
This is a weird little instrument, even to me, someone who deals with weird things on a daily basis. It doesn’t look like a harp, for once thing; it’s played with the mouth and tongue, for another. ...so who knows who decided "harp" was a good name for this thing.
Its exact origins can only be speculated on. Its very existence is probably a complete accident. It’s also a very difficult little instrument to master, assuming you even find anyone who can teach it to you. But that hasn’t stopped it from being used by modern day songmakers; the Jews harp has appeared in songs by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and the Beach Boys.
Here's a challenge: try saying “the hurdy gurdy” ten times without laughing. (No, really. Try.)
Odd names aside, this instrument is the first stringed instrument to which the keyboard principle was applied. It actually produces sound thanks to a crank-turned rosined wheel rubbing against its strings; in essence, the wheel on the instrument acts like a violin bow. Somehow, despite not making it into elementary school music education classes, this quaint instrument has survived the trial of time, and is still used by European folk-music bands.
This thing has the crowning achievement of being the world’s first electronic instrument. Literally. This thing runs entirely on electricity. Of course, since this thing doesn’t require human contact, playing this instrument is a bit tricky. You in essence learn how to play it without playing it. That hasn’t stopped artists like Celia Sheen from mastering it. Somehow. Don’t ask me how. I’m still flabbergasted by the idea of this being a thing.
Kind of like a xylophone, this instrument uses two rows of metal bars instead of one wooden one. It’s also a tricky instrument to play, because you can’t look at music for it AND down at the keyboard at the same time. But even though no one can pronounce this thing’s name correctly and its very design is faulty at best, it’s still popped up in these popular numbers:
• Jimi Hendrix “Little Wing”
• U2 “I Will Follow”
• Queen “Don’t Stop Me Now”
So I actually knew about this particular instrument before I made this list. And I actually think carillons are fantastic instruments. But of course, since the majority of my friends and readers have no idea what this thing is, my knowing about this thing doesn’t exclude it from my list.
Carillons are massive instruments that are traditionally housed in bell towers; an instrument must have 23 cast bronze bells to even qualify as a carillon, meaning that one carillon can easily weigh between 4 and 100 tons. You play a carillon by using your hands and feet to hit and stomp on wooden pegs that are arranged in a similar fashion to a keyboard; each one is tied to a different bell.
Most bell tower carillons are sitting unused today, with over 700 in North America and another 500 in Europe. Groups like Cast in Bronze, though, have invented traveling carillons for the sole purpose of bringing the instrument to the masses of people who don’t live near the few bell towers currently in use. Yes, performing this instrument year-round is someone’s job. I can’t even imagine what traveling down the highway with 4 tons of bronze hooked up behind you must be like.
Those are the six obscure instruments I only recently learned are still in use today! Did I miss any super obscure instruments that you may know about? If I did, let me know in the comments!