Rare Instruments In Pop Culture

The world of music is vast and sometimes terrifying. You obsess over one instrument, learn how to play it, do more research and then find a new instrument you had no idea existed. You decide you want to “branch out” and learn to play that instrument. In the process of researching that instrument, you find another one and so on and so forth. You get the gist, there are too many instruments and too little time. When I first got into music I did not venture too far and settled on a more regular choice of an instrument – a guitar. Then I realized I was really into ukuleles, started researching how much I would have to save on my miserable minimum wage job to buy one. And at one point I ended up hearing Clara Rockmore’s “The Swan”. The music sounded like a woman’s voice but later on, I found out that it was the theremin. That is the point when I realized I should probably focus on one particular instrument (maybe two) and let my theoretical research stay theoretical. To this day theremin is still one of the most interesting and fascinating instruments to me. Unfortunately, I never tried playing it but I have been an avid fan of any musician that would use a theremin. When you listen to a song by your favorite rock band you probably do not imagine anything other than the “regular” instruments being a part of creating the song you have been playing on loop for days (seriously… it’s been days, maybe try something else?). BUT there are bands that have used rather unusual instruments in some of their most popular songs. There are also popular songs that you have probably heard in movies or tv shows and had no idea they involved anything other than regular instruments. So let’s talk a bit about instruments that are not guitar… piano… ukulele and so far.


Despite the fact that most people associate bagpipes with Scotland they have been popular among people in various parts of the world and are said to have been invented in ancient Rome. They have also been around for centuries with bagpipes features in 13-century paintings. Bagpipes usually have the main bag, a drone and a chanter (although there are variations on how many chanters and drones there are in one bagpipe). Providing a constant flow of air by flowing into the bag of the instrument, the musician/bagpiper creates a sound and the chanter which is basically a pipe is used to produce a melody. I won’t go deep into the construction of the bagpipe because it is rather complicated and unless you are actually trying to learn how to play one you probably won’t need it. One of the most famous uses of a bagpipe, apart from various movies, is in the song by AC/DC – It’s a Long Way to the Top:


Another instrument that has been in use for decades but does not get as much recognition is an accordion. Created in the 19th century, an accordion is a free-reed aerophone bellows-driven instrument. An accordionist usually compresses and expands the bellows of the accordion while pressing the keys to produce the sound. The melody is created on the right-hand keys while the left-hand keys are for bass and pre-set chords. One of the most famous songs that uses accordion is Bruce Springsteen’s 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)’:


Radiohead has doubtlessly revolutionized music world and brought in some new sounds. In “No Surprises” Radiohead uses glockenspiel, a percussion instrument that you rarely saw used in bands during those times. Glockenspiel has quite a simple construction. It is made of a set of metal keys arranged in a similar way to a piano. It is rather similar to a xylophone but in comparison to that one Glockenspiel has a much higher pitch. “No Surprises” is an example of how the sound of a “simple” instrument that is not utilized that often can transform a song and make it popular.


As I have already mentioned theremin has been one of my favorite “rare” instruments for a while. Created by  Léon Theremin in the 1920s this device does not require any physical contact to create a sound. It consists of two metal antennas and the proximity of the hand that is placed between them determines frequency and amplitude. The closer you move to the pitch antenna the higher the volume. Interestingly enough, a lot of movies and tv shows have used the sound of the theremin to create theme songs or soundtrack that induces discomfort in the listener. Midsomer Murders, a famous British murder show that has been running for over 20 years has opening score heavily featuring theremin:


A popular instrument in Asia, melodica is not that often used in Western pop/rock music. This small free-reed instrument with the keyboard on top is quite similar to harmonica (well, except this one has keys on top). So the way it works is the following: musician blows in the air and presses keys on the keyboard to open holes so that the air leaves through the reeds. This produces the sound. Melodica is actually a very fun instrument to master, not to mention how compact it is. One of the most famous bands that uses melodica is Gorillaz. In “Clint Eastwood” Gorillaz makes use of this unusual instrument and it is rather a testament to their genius and innovation:


Harpsichord looks a bit like a piano but trust me there are a lot of major differences between the two instruments. The instrument comes in various sizes and shapes but the mechanism stays the same throughout when the keys are pressed the string is plucked, creating the sound. Of course, this is an oversimplification but you get the gist.  Mostly popular in Renaissance and Baroque music, harpsichord has lost its popularity but there are still quite a few instances when modern musicians use this beautiful instrument in their songs. The Black Key, a popular American rock band, made use of harpsichord in their “Too Afraid To Love You” and they have definitely hit the right chord with that one.


You probably do not imagine a theremin or a glockenspiel when thinking about a performance of your favorite band. While that is usually the case and most bands gravitate towards more “regular” instruments like guitars, keyboards, drums and so on, there are a few instances where usage of instruments like harpsichord and melodica takes a performance from good to amazing.

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