Exotic and Unusual Musical Instruments from Around the World


Though many of us may hear music where others hear noise, it cannot be denied that music plays an integral role in our everyday life. Music is the backdrop of many of our favorite films; most Saturday morning cartoons use classical composers like Bach and Beethoven to provide its storyline with highly effective dramatic elements. Just as mothers sing sweet melodies to their children to lull them to sleep, sporting events use loud, high-energy music to excite and invigorate spectators.

But what I consider music may not be your favorite choice of song. Just as musical tastes within cultures and across continents vary, so do the instruments used to make some of today’s most popular musical arrangements.

In the West, some of the first instruments that might come to mind are the guitar, keyboard, drums…solidified in the minds of Westerners after the birth of jazz and rock and roll. But explore a bit further, and one would easily be surprised about the breadth and scope of instruments used to produce music.

Here are a few exotic instruments from around the world that are growing in popularity. They are worth your consideration, due to each instrument’s innovative structure and uniqueness of sound. And who knows, one day one of these instruments might show up at a local festival or concert hall:

  • The Balalaika is a lute-like stringed folk instrument of Russian origin. The Balalaika has a three-sided body and a long neck. The three types of the Balalaika are the prima, sekunda, and the basses and contrabasses. Each type is played differently: the prima is played only with the fingers, the sekunda can be played with the fingers or a plectrum (pick), and the floor-sitting basses and are played with a leather plectrum.
  • The gopichand (also known as gopiyantra or khamak) is a popular folk instrument used in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. The three types are soprano, tenor, and bass and the instrument is used frequently in Hindu chanting ceremonies. The sound of the gopichand is very unique; the “legs” of the instrument are squeezed together while the other hand strums the string. It produces an exotic bending sound with a pulsating rhythm.
  • The Sitar is the most popular instrument of Indian . It has a long hallow neck made of wood and a gourd resonating chamber. It can have up to four main strings, three or four drone strings, and thirteen sympathetic (resonating) strings. The sitar is so rooted in the culture of India that children and young adults wanting to learn the sitar often enter into long apprenticeships where the teacher plays a drone that provides a beautiful accompaniment to the distinctive twang of the sitar. The sitar has been used in Hindu since the Middle Ages and became known to the West after Beatle George Harrison took sitar lessons from Pandit Ravi Shankar and incorporated the instrument into several songs in the 1950s.
  • The Yue Qin (yueqin) is also referred to as a moon-guitar, moon-zither, or gekkin. The yueqin is a lute with a round, hallow wooden body and a short fretted neck. According to legend, this exotic instrument was invented during the Chinese Qin Dynasty, between 201 and 226 BCE. The yueqin is one of the most, if not the most, popular stringed instrument in the Beijing opera orchestra. In fact, is often used as the chief melodic instrument, replacing the bowed string section. The body of this Chinese instrument is typically circular yet it can come in many different sizes and pitches.
  • Dan Bau is possibly one of the most unique musical instruments in the world – it has only one string. But its one string status is not a limitation by any means. An experienced user can produce any note with a tonal range up to 3 octaves. The Dan Bau makes a harmonic sound, full of rich overtones and takes a great deal of precision to master. The instrument is integral to Vietnamese folk music but with the invention of magnetic pickup, the Dan Bau has exploded onto the contemporary Asian pop and rock scene.