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Five Cool Musical Instruments from Around the World

By Anthony Mohr

Music is a beloved part of every human society. In the United States, we all know about instruments like the piano, guitar, violin, trumpet, and drums. However, there are countless instruments that are not well known here. The following five instruments have long traditions and play important roles in their cultures of origin.


The erhu (pronounced like "arr-hoo") is a string instrument from Central Asia that became an important part of Chinese music over one thousand years ago. Americans sometimes call the erhu a "Chinese violin," although there are some important differences between the two instruments. For example, the erhu has two strings instead of four, and you do not press the strings of the erhu onto its neck like you would with a violin. Additionally, the erhu's bow, which is the wooden stick strung with horsehair that you glide across the strings, lies between the two strings, while the bow of the violin lies on top of the strings. The erhu can be played as a solo instrument or as part of an ensemble.


Here is another instrument from the Chinese musical tradition. The sheng is ancient—there is evidence that it existed over three thousand years ago! It consists of at least seventeen bamboo pipes of different lengths that stand on top of a wind chamber. The sheng is a free reed instrument, meaning it has thin strips of metal called reeds that move freely to create different columns of air when you inhale or exhale into the mouthpiece. Two other free reed instruments that you may have heard are the harmonica and accordion. The sheng actually sounds somewhat similar to these two instruments! The sheng can be heard in solo performances as well as in some modern Chinese orchestras and chamber ensembles.


The taūs, also known as the mayuri, is a unique instrument from North India. It is a string instrument that has frets on its neck and is played with a bow. Its most striking feature is that its lower part is carved to look like a peacock! The taūs became popular in court music (music that was performed during events for political rulers) in North India during the nineteenth century. It is also common in religious music in both Sikhism and Hinduism. In Hinduism, the peacock is often associated with Sarasvatî, the goddess of music.


The kora is a string instrument that is popular in many parts of West Africa. It has twenty-one strings and is played similarly to a harp. The kora is a common instrument for griots, who are dedicated historians, storytellers, and musicians who play important roles in many West African societies. The image above shows Toumani Diabaté and his son Sidiki Tiabaté, two popular musicians from Mali, posing with their koras. These two artists fuse traditional Malian music with other styles from around the world.


The didgeridoo, also spelled didjeridu, is an instrument developed by Aboriginal groups in northern Australia over one thousand years ago. The term "didgeridoo" was actually created more recently by Europeans; there are dozens of different names for this instrument among the various Aboriginal peoples of Australia. This instrument may seem simple, as it is essentially just a long tube of wood. However, a skilled player can produce many fascinating sounds with it. One powerful technique that didgeridoo performers sometimes use is called circular breathing, which allows them to play the instrument continuously without stopping to take breaths.


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