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The Haunting Sounds of Water-Based Musical Instruments

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Not a water-based instrument. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

People have probably been experimenting with things that make exciting sounds from the moment someone found two rocks to bang together. Acoustic musical instruments have been built from every imaginable material including wood, stone, metal, crystals, bones and root vegetables. Musical materials have even been made out of used X-ray prints.

But what about water? Bubbling creeks and roaring ocean waves can be soothing or awe-inspiring to listen to, but their sounds are difficult to replicate.

Water isn’t easy to work with. It isn’t solid, so you can’t form instruments out of it, and it’s heavy in large quantities. You can’t scratch, pluck, or stroke it like a string, it doesn’t have its own shape so you can’t blow into it to make it resonate and it doesn’t have the consistency to strike or beat like a drum membrane. So what do you do with it?

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Fortunately, there are some clever people who have figured out how to incorporate water into musical instruments in very creative ways. Take a listen.

1. The Waterphone

3 of Richard Waters' waterphones of varying diameters. Courtesy of Richard Waters/ Waterphone.com
Waterphones of varying diameters. Courtesy of Richard Waters/ Waterphone.com

Richard Waters developed the waterphone in the 1970s, acquiring a patent for the unusual instrument in 1975. Also called the Ocean Harp or the AquaSonic Waterphone, it looks a little like a flying saucer and its alien appearance is pretty accurately rendered in the otherworldly sounds it makes.

Waterphone Demo: Waters-Hubbert

I’m really, really excited by this new official Richard Waters’ waterphone made by Brooks Hubbert. Brooks is an amazing musician and instrument builder who knew and worked with Richard. This new bass waterphone is so very resonant, responsive and expressive! It is a dream to play.

The instrument’s unearthly wailing evolves in an organic way because a chamber built into the base is filled with water. Players can change the pitch or produce strange reverb-like textures by tilting the waterphone, which sloshes the water around inside.

With such an eerie sound, the waterphone lends itself to suspenseful soundtracks, scoring films such as “Poltergeist,” “Let The Right One In” and several “X-Files” episodes. The instrument is used mostly to create spooky atmospheres rather than melodies. And because its haunting tones are reminiscent of whales, some have even used the waterphone to call to the marine mammals.

2. Hydraulophones

Composer Ryan Janzen playing hydraulophone. Photo courtesy of Steve dsc22pc on Flickr
Composer Ryan Janzen playing a hydraulophone. Photo courtesy of Steve dsc22pc/Flickr

Hydraulophones are essentially pipe organs that use water instead of air to produce sounds. Unlike the Waterphone, hydraulophones can be played melodically like a piano. But instead of using keys, hydraulophones offer a row of holes similar to a flute that players cover with their fingers, forcing water through the instrument to create music. Many hydraulophones are marked with Braille so that players can recognize the various holes to plug to produce the notes they want without having to worry about trying to see through all that splashing water.

“We Three Kings of Orient Are” played hydraulophone

“We Three Kings of Orient Are” played hydraulophone

Hydraulophones are also special because you can sit inside of the instrument while playing them. That means you can literally play your hot tub. Best. idea. ever.

hydraulophone/balnaphone, courtesy of Glogger
A hot tub hydraulophone. Photo courtesy of Glogger

3. Zadar’s Seashore Organ

Courtesy of FLICKR/LINSSIMATO
Courtesy of FLICKR/LINSSIMATO

Zadar is a coastal city in Croatia that suffered massive damage during the Second World War. After reconstruction, the city’s seaside had been hastily repaired for utility rather than aesthetics, leaving residents staring at a boring concrete wall. Croatian architect Nikola Bašić saw an incredible opportunity to build something miraculous using this blank canvas. So he designed a massive, ocean-powered organ. (Click on the image below to hear the organ in action.)

#zadar #stop #chill #seamusic

See this Instagram video by @andrea_nikolov * 13 likes

The steps along the water hide a system of pipes, resonation tubes and vents that create lovely harmonies at random. Whenever waves lap against the steps, air is pushed through the “instrument” and produces sound as air passes through the tubes.

4. Glass Harmonica

Courtesy of Glogger
Courtesy of Glogger

Have you ever rubbed the rim of a wine glass with wet fingers and discovered that it “sings?” This phenomenon is a simple demonstration of resonance. The tones can be turned into music by “playing” a variety of glasses filled to differing levels with water. The amount of liquid and the shape of the glass determines the pitch, so you can play a little melody.

Though musically pleasing, this isn’t exactly a musical instrument. For that, you need a glass harmonica.

Glass Harmonica

Invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761. Music by Wolfgang A. Mozart. Played by French artist Thomas Bloch, exhibiting the glass harmonica in the Paris Music Museum, Nov. 29, 2007.

Invented in 1761, the glass harmonica solves the problem of arranging and filling glasses for every performance by creating a “keyboard” of pitched glass bowls. The “keyboard” spins, making each note easier to manipulate. Musicians play the instrument by wetting their fingers and placing them on the spinning glass rings. The friction sparks the resonance and produces lovely, angelic tones.

5. Aleatoric Water-Based Musical Instrument

Aleatoric water musical instrument

When water makes a ripple it acts as a magnifing glass and makes some areas brighter than others. Phototransistors which are light sensors detect this change in light. An arduino or microcontroller receives the inputs from the sensors and sends them as midi events to a computer.

This curious instrument doesn’t produce sound on its own. It’s actually a digital instrument that uses water as a controller. The black dots in the water basin are photo-receptors that sense changes in light. They send that information to a little Arduino microcomputer that has been coded to translate these light-signals to MIDI, a communication protocol used by electronic music instruments, such as synthesizers and musical software.

The MIDI note values are then sent to a computer to produce a previously specified sound. So the ripples created whenever one disturbs the water trigger the photoreceptors, causing a computer to play several notes. This instrument’s creator has made the code available if you want to build your own aleatoric water-based instrument.