7 Rarely Used Orchestral Instruments

Composers have long pushed the boundaries of classical music by writing parts for new and innovative instruments—but not all of them have ended up a permanent fixture in the orchestra …


The sarrusophone (above) was invented in 1856 and named in honor of the French military bandleader Pierre-Auguste Sarrus. It was originally developed as a replacement for relatively quieter woodwind instruments in military bands: its rich, deep, saxophone-like tone was stronger and better suited to outdoor performances than that of smaller woodwind instruments, like the oboe.

Although never a particularly widely used instrument, the sarrusophone enjoyed a burst of popularity in the early 1900s when a number of big-name composers—including Maurice Ravel, Frederick Delius and Igor Stravinsky—wrote parts for it in a number of their compositions. But probably the most famous work to include a sarrusophone part is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by the French composer Paul Dukas, which was famously put to use in the 1940 Disney movie, Fantasia. Nowadays, however, the unfamiliarity and unpopularity of sarrusophones means that these parts are more often than not taken by the contrabasson.


Invented by Benjamin Franklin, the glass armonica (or “harmonica”) comprises a revolving set of glass cups or rings which produce a shimmering sound when played with dampened fingers. Despite its relative obscurity, plenty of classical composers—among them several major names, including Mozart and Beethoven—have written works for the glass harmonica, although it seldom appears in larger ensemble or orchestral settings. One well known exception is Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals: in the Carnival’s famous Aquarium movement, an echo of the flute melody is played one beat later on the glass harmonica.


The heckelphone is essentially a cross between a bassoon and an oboe that was invented by the German instrument maker Wilhelm Heckel—apparently at the request of Richard Wagner—in the late 19th century, although it didn’t make its first appearance in classical music repertoire until the early 1900s.

In compositions of the time, the heckelphone was often listed under the title of “bass oboe,” but that designation was also given to the similar hautbois baryton, another deep-pitched woodwind instrument, making it all but impossible to tell which instrument the composers in question wanted: Gustav Holst’s famous Planets suite, for instance, includes a part for a bass oboe, but it’s unclear whether he had the heckelphone in mind or not. One composer who made his intentions clear, however, was Richard Strauss, who singled out the heckelphone in the score for his enormous Alpine Symphony in 1915.


Invented by Leon Theremin in the early 1920s, this bizarre electronic instrument is probably best known to modern audiences for providing the spooky, high-pitched droning sound used in classic sci-fi movie soundtracks like Bernard Herrmann’s The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). But several more composers of the early-to-mid 20th century wrote parts for the theremin in their orchestral works, including composer and musical theorist Joseph Schillinger: his First Airphonic Suite (1929) made superb use of the theremin’s curious sound alongside a full symphony orchestra. Here is a video of a theremin being played by a cat.


It’s not strictly speaking a tuba, but it was at least invented at the request of Richard Wagner: Wagner tubas or Wagnertuben first became popular in the mid-19th century and were first used by Wagner in his score for Das Rheingold (1854) as a richly-toned instrument intended to fill the tonal space between the tuba, the trombone and the French horn. Since then, Wagner tubas have been used (albeit relatively infrequently) by a number of famous composers, including Igor Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, and Béla Bartók.


Classical composers have been writing piano concertos since the late Romantic period; Mozart wrote his first piano concerto in the mid-1760s when he was just 11 years old (largely based on others' works). Since then, the piano concerto has become one of the most popular of all orchestral arrangements, with Beethoven’s Emperor (1811) and Edward Grieg’s Concerto in A minor (1868) being among the most famous and most frequently performed.

Maverick American composer John Cage, of course, had to go one better by writing a concerto for prepared piano—namely, a piano with everything from drawing pins and rubber bands to corks, forks and cotton balls inserted among the strings and hammers to give the instrument a bizarre range of percussive sounds and tones. Written for piano and chamber orchestra, the concerto premiered in New York in 1952.


Admittedly, a cannon can hardly be classed as a musical instrument—but that didn’t stop Tchaikovsky from writing “a battery of cannons” into the score of his monumental 1812 Overture in 1882. Although actual cannon fire is sometimes used in larger (and, for obvious reasons, outdoor) performances of the 1812, typically most modern performances replace the cannons with audio recordings or theatrical sound effects, or else hand the 16 cannon blasts the score requires over to a similarly loud percussion instrument, like a bass drum or timpani. No matter how it’s handled, however, the effect is a rousing conclusion to a piece of music Tchaikovsky himself dismissed as “very loud and noisy.”

A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo

The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

How to Craft the Perfect Comeback, According to Experts

In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld called “The Comeback,” George Costanza is merrily stuffing himself with free shrimp at a meeting. His coworker mocks him: “Hey, George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” George stands humiliated as laughter fills the room, his mind searching frantically for the perfect riposte.

It’s only later, on the drive home, that he thinks of the comeback. But the moment has passed.

The common human experience of thinking of the perfect response too late—l’esprit de l’escalier, or "the wit of the staircase"—was identified by French philosopher Denis Diderot when he was so overwhelmed by an argument at a party that he could only think clearly again once he’d gotten to the bottom of the stairs.

We've all been there. Freestyle rappers, improv comedians, and others who rely on witty rejoinders for a living say their jobs make them better equipped to seize the opportunity for clever retorts in everyday life. They use a combination of timing, listening, and gagging their inner critics. Here are their insights for crafting the perfect comeback.


The next time you’re in a heated conversation, be less focused on what you're about to say and more attentive to what you're actually responding to. When you spend more time considering what your sparring partner is saying, “you’re deferring your response until you’ve fully heard the other person," Jim Tosone, a technology executive-turned-improv coach who developed the Improv Means Business program, tells Mental Floss. Your retorts may be more accurate, and therefore more successful, when you’re fully engaged with the other person’s thoughts.


According to Belina Raffy, the CEO of the Berlin-based company Maffick—which also uses improv skills in business—not overthinking the situation is key. “You’re taking yourself out of unfolding reality if you think too much,” she tells Mental Floss. It’s important to be in the moment, and to deliver your response to reflect that moment.


History’s most skilled comeback artists stored witticisms away for later use, and were able to pull them out of their memory at the critical time.

Winston Churchill was known for his comebacks, but Tim Riley, director and chief curator at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, tells Mental Floss that many of his burns were borrowed. One of his most famous lines was in response to politician Bessie Braddock’s jab, “Sir, you are drunk.” The prime minister replied, “And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.”

Riley says this line was copied from comic W.C. Fields. Nevertheless, it took quick thinking to remember and reshape the quote in the moment, which is why Churchill was thought of as a master of timing. “It was an off-the-cuff recall of something he had synthesized, composed earlier, and that he was waiting to perform,” Riley says.

But in some situations, the retort must be created entirely in the moment. Training for spontaneity on stage also helps with being quicker-witted in social situations, New York City battle rap emcee iLLspokinn tells Mental Floss. It’s like working a spontaneous muscle that builds with each flex, so, you’re incrementally better each time at seizing that witty opportunity.


Anyone who has been in the audience for an improv show has seen how rapidly performers respond to every situation. Improv teaches you to release your inhibitions and say what drops into your mind: “It’s about letting go of the need to judge ourselves,” Raffy explains.

One way to break free of your internal editor might be to imagine yourself on stage. In improv theater, the funniest responses occur in the spur of the moment, says Douglas Widick, an improv performer who trained with Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade. By not letting one’s conscience be one’s guide, actors can give into their “deepest fantasies” and say the things they wouldn’t say in real life.


The German version of Diderot’s term is Treppenwitz, also meaning the wit of the stairs. But the German phrase has evolved to mean the opposite: Something said that, in retrospect, was a bad joke. When squaring up to your rival, the high you get from spearing your opponent with a deadly verbal thrust can be shadowed by its opposite, the low that comes from blurting out a lame response that lands like a lead balloon.

That's a feeling that freestyle rapper Lex Rush hopes to avoid. “In the heat of the battle, you just go for it,” she tells Mental Floss. She likens the fight to a “stream of consciousness” that unfolds into the mic, which leaves her with little control over what she’s projecting into the crowd.

It may help to mull over your retort if you have a few extra seconds—especially if you’re the extroverted type. “Introverts may walk out of a meeting thinking, ‘Why didn’t I say that?’ while extroverts think, ‘Why did I say that?’” Tosone, the improv coach, says. Thinking before you speak, even just briefly, will help you deploy a successful comeback.

And if it doesn’t go your way, iLLspokinn advises brushing off your missed opportunity rather than dwelling on your error: “It can be toxic to hold onto it."


Texting and social media, as opposed to face-to-face contact, give you a few extra minutes to think through your responses. That could improve the quality of your zinger. “We’re still human beings, even on screens. And we prefer something that is well-stated and has a fun energy and wit about it," Scott Talan, a social media expert at American University, tells Mental Floss.

But don't wait too long: Replies lose their punch after a day or so. “Speed is integral to wit, whether in real life or screen life,” Talan says. “If you’re trying to be witty and have that reputation, then speed will help you."

Some companies have excelled in deploying savage social media burns as marketing strategies, winning viral retweets and recognition. The Wendy’s Twitter account has become so well known for its sassy replies that users often provoke it. “Bet you won’t follow me @Wendys,” a user challenged. “You won that bet,” Wendy’s immediately shot back.

George Costanza learns that lesson when he uses his rehearsed comeback at the next meeting. After his colleague repeats his shrimp insult, George stands and proudly announces, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called, and they’re running out of you!”

There’s silence—until his nemesis comes back with a lethal move: “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best-seller.”


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