Music is often called the universal language because it can convey an array of emotions independent of written or oral language. It gives people from all over the world and from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds a way to connect on a human level. No one really knows how and when music was invented, but musical instruments have been around for at least 30,000 years!
Musical instruments come in all shapes and sizes and make all kinds of sounds. Often, the design and sound of different instruments can give you insight into the cultural and history of different places. This makes them a fun and accessible way for kids to learn about the world.
Here are some unique instruments from all over the world. We hope you will use this list as jumping off point to learn about the cultures and histories that make up this big and diverse world we live in!
The Kora is a type of harp that hails from Africa. Popular across the continent, it is believed to have originated in Gambia River valley. The instrument has 21 strings and a notched bridge, similar to a guitar. It is traditionally made from a gourd, animal skin, and string. The player plucks or strums the strings to make music. The instrument is at least 5,000 years old and one of the most complex string instruments. It has been used during ceremonies for centuries and often accompanies spoken words or poetry.
While Antarctica doesn’t have its own archeological history, intrepid explorers, scientists, and others have visited this frigid continent since the 1800s. This fun article, The Sailors Who Sing to Penguins, describes the history of music on Antarctica, from gramophones to heavy metal.
Japanese Shō (笙)
The Sho is a wind instrument, often categorized as a mouth organ. It is played by blowing into the mouthpiece and covering different holes. The instrument originated in Japan and was played during Imperial Court. The instrument and the traditions around it were influenced by China and Korea during the 6th Century. The design and sound of the instrument are believed to be designed after the phoenix, a mythical bird. One unique aspect of the Sho, is that it makes sound when the player exhales AND when they inhale.
The bullroarer or purerehua (New Zealand) is a unique instrument used by Australian Aboriginals and the Maori people of New Zealand. Forms of the bullroarer were also used throughout the world. The instrument is constructed of a thin piece of wood tied to a cord. The instrument is whipped around, making a sound as it zooms through the air. It is thought to be one of the oldest musical instruments and can be heard across long distances. Many Aboriginal people believe the instrument plays the voices of gods.
Uilleann Pipes are a type of bagpipes that originated in Ireland. Unlike the Scottish version, Uilleann Pipes don’t have a mouthpiece. Instead, the pipers squeeze the bellows of the instrument under their arm (Uilleann means elbow in Irish). Bagpipes have been played in Ireland for centuries and have evolved over time. The Uilleann Pipes are unique, not just for the lack of a mouthpiece, but also for their versatility. Unlike Scottish bagpipes, which have a range of nine notes, Uilleann pipes can span two full octaves. Their sound is also considered softer and more melodic than other bagpipes.
Powwow drums are an important part of Native American culture. The drums are made from animal skin stretched across a cedar base. Traditionally, the particular animal skin used derived from what was available and culturally relevant to individual tribes. The drums have been used as part of ceremonies and celebrations throughout history and through modern times. What makes this type of drum unique is the size. The large drums are meant to be played simultaneous by a group of performers, often 10-12 people. Performers also sing along to the beat. The songs retell historical battles and events from the tribe’s history.
The siku is a type of pan flute that originated in the Incan Empire. Traditionally, the flute is made from song, a reed native to the area of Lake Titicaca in the Andes. The siku comes in different sizes and variations but all consist of a double row of pipes of different lengths bound together with plant fibers or string. The pipes are open at the top and closed at the bottom, and musicians make music by flow downward into the pipes, forcing air to the bottom. Siku music often features call and response, which is believed to represent the gods talking to the people. Music and sikus have been an important part of Incan and South American ceremonies, as well as daily farm life.
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