“Music self-played is happiness self-made,” or so say They Might Be Giants. Not only can playing music make you happy, but, according to research, it can also make you smarter. And since your kids’ brains are primed for learning music at a young age, the lessons they get now will stay with them long after.
But, hey, why not be geeky and musical? Let’s take a look beyond guitar, piano, and clarinet to uncharted territory. Hit the jump for 10 Geeky Instruments for your consideration.
10. Keytar – When I think keytar, I think one thing: Kids Incorporated rockin’ it 80s style. However, as I’ve learned, this oft-ridiculed hybrid instrument can in fact be wonderfully geeky. Take the steampunk band Lemming Malloy here in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and lead singer Jay Cartwright. Not only does he embrace the majestic nature of the keytar, he’s re-made and re-named it entirely: Jay embellished and modified his keytar with his own hands. The result? The Marvelon. Really, the name says it all.
And did you know that Justin Timberlake, Ben Folds and “Weird Al” Yankovic are all known for their keytar prowess?
Suggested tunes: Lemming Malloy, Avalauncher
9. Bagpipes – While bagpipes get a great deal of bad press, they deserve a whole lot of respect. Not only did their keening tones terrify enemies in battle, but some scholars date this windy instrument’s inception to 1300 BCE. And bagpipes are not just for Renaissance Fairs or funerals, their appeal has influenced pop, classical, metal and folk music. Not to mention the Battlestar Galactica soundtrack…
“These are bagpipes. I understand the inventor of the bagpipes was inspired when he saw a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm. Unfortunately, the man-made sound never equalled the purity of the sound achieved by the pig.” – Alfred Hitchcock
Famed bagpipers include: Emperor Nero, Edward VII and VIII of England. You’ve probably heard them played in bands such as: AC/DC, Flogging Molly, and Enter the Haggis.
Suggested tunes: Corvus Corax, Best Of Corvus Corax. Medieval Metal? Oh yes.
8. Pan Pipes – If you’re a fantasy geek like me, the pan pipes hold a certain amount of whimsy; they are named after the Greek god Pan, after all. The pan pipes are also known as the syrinx, and have, since their ancient appearance, gone on to quite a following. Pan pipes are featured in music from the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and Goldfrapp. Even Marilyn Manson is known to play on occasion.
Some delightful explanation from Wikipedia:
“Generation of a fundamental frequency is produced by blowing across the open end of the tube, thus creating a Von Karman vortex street by means of a siphon effect at the top of the tube.”
A Von Karman vortex street… oh yeah.
Suggested tunes: The Beatles on Panpipes
7. Moog Synthesizer – The story of the Moog synthesizer is classic geek. The pioneer of the Moog synthesizer was Robert Moog (rhymes with “rogue”), who had been making custom theremins since his teenage years for fun. Eventually Moog developed the the first modular voltage-controlled subtractive synthesizer modules.
These days the Moog can be heard far and wide, and players include Alicia Keys, John Fogerty, Franz Ferdinand, Ben Folds, Moby, Thom Yorke and Dr. Dre.
Suggested tunes: Ye Olde Space Band’s The Moog Cookbook Plays Classic Rock Hits
6. Armonica – The Armonica is the history geek’s perfect instrument. I first heard about this intriguing creation while listening to an NPR piece about Benjamin Franklin. His armonica, or glass harminica, works on the principle that friction, provided by a finger and water, around the rim of a glass, results in a tone. Chances are you’ve done this a million times with your mom’s crystal goblets.
Franklin worked with a glassblower to get the instrument right, and upon its completion the armonica was a sensation. At least, until people started believing that it caused those who played to it to go mad or die.
Which probably makes sense, because famous armonica players include Marie Antoinette, Franz Mesmer and Jonathan Davis of Korn.
Suggested Tunes: Glass Harmonica (Classical)
5. Banjo – The banjo itself has a long history, its present incarnation brought about by African slaves in the US and influenced by native African instruments. Banjos come with four, five, or even six strings and there are many variations, including my personal favorite, the banjolele (a hybrid banjo/ukulele).
These days, banjos are most associated with bluegrass or country music, but that’s just a small sampling of its widespread influence. I first fell in love with the banjo listening to Toronto’s Moxy Früvous when I was in high school, and the opening notes of their “Michigan Militia” song. Other banjo players include Steve Martin, June Carter, Bela Fleck, John Lennon, Peter Tork and Gillian Welch.
Suggested tunes: Steve Martin’s The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo and Béla Fleck & The Flecktones
4. Ocarina – Yes, this entry is solely due to my late-90s obsession with the Zelda game Ocarina of Time (and subsequent crush on Link…) Did I have more fun playing the melodies and running around on the horse than anything else? Yes. Did I actually want to buy myself an ocarina and learn to play? Yes. I am not ashamed… okay, maybe a little.
Aside from their influence on the Zelda franchise, however, ocarinas are one of the oldest musical instruments known to man, dating back some 12,000 years. For more modern musicians, there is an iPhone app that ocarinafies your gadget. Bonus: it has a Zelda mode.
Recommended tunes: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Album
2. Theremin – The theremin was originally called an aetherphone, and is played without any contact between instrument and musician. It was invented in the 1920s by a Russian physicist named Leon Theremin, while he was working for the government researching proximity sensors. Theremin himself is also credited with the invention of burglar alarms and the first drum machine, or Rhythmicon.
Using antennae, the theremin actually detects where the thereminist’s hands are and can therefore control both radio frequency oscillators (which denote the pitch) and volume (with the other hand). This produces the classical sci-fi whine we all know and love… oooh-weeee-ooooooh.
The theremin paved the way for other electronic instruments like the Moog synthesizer above. For more information on the theremin, check out Kathy’s article, What’s a Good Instrument for Your Kid to Play? How About a Theremin?
2. Ukulele – Okay, I admit it. I have a love-affair with the ukulele. I own one baritone ukulele, and it makes me happy.
The uke comes from Hawaii and dates from the 19th century. There are quite a few ways to tune the four-stringed instrument and a variety of versions, including baritone, soprano, tenor, and concert. Ukuleles are also ultra-portable, extremely affordable, not to mention small. That means you can start your geeklet early.
I am not the only musician wooed by the happy uke, either. Uke lovers include Kate Bush, Jimmy Buffett, Elvis Costello, George Harrison, Brian May, Elvis Presley and Eddie Vedder.
Suggested tunes: BoingBoing co-editor Mark Frauenfelder, a fellow ukeophile, has a great archive of ukulele players performing live.
1. Accordion – Could there possibly be another #1? I declare accordions the geek instrument of choice. The history and complexity of the squeezebox is long enough that one bulleted mention doesn’t do it justice. There are button boxes, keyed accordions, concertinas, Melodeons… the list goes on.
Not to mention the actual physics involved. I’ve owned two accordions to date, and when I took one in for a check-up, I got to peer inside. Seriously, a marvel of construction.
That said, something about the accordion—maybe the frequency?—appeals to the geek inside, and perhaps even fosters its growth. Since first listening to They Might Be Giants almost fifteen years ago, I’ve not been able to shake my love for the bellowed beauty.
Some notable accordionists: Drew Carey, John Linnell, John Evan, Matt Hensley, Kevin Hearn, Brian Jones, John Lennon, Loreena McKennitt, Pete Townshend, and of course “Weird Al” Yankovic.
[This article was originally published on GeekDad on May 1, 2009.]