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.”

15 Antiquated Words for 'Happy' We Should Bring Back

Happiness is such a wonderful feeling, why should we only use one word to describe it? In honor of today's International Day of Happiness, why not open up that vocabulary and let the good times roll.


From the late 19th century, meaning “cheerful.”


An expression for “good mood,” used from the late 17th century until the 1930s.


Before humans literally went beyond the moon, this popular phrase from the 1930s means “overjoyed.”


Started out meaning “intoxicated,” but by the 1950s it just meant happy.


As in “tickled pink.”


Also started as a reference to tipsiness, this referred to a general good ol’ time in the 19th century.


In the 19th century, this bouncy term also meant “splendid.”


This 19th century sailor’s slang either referred to the Peruvian port of Callo or acted as a play on the word alcohol. Or both.


From the Latin for “let us rejoice,” this oldie refers to a merry jamboree.


From the Yiddish for “so happy and proud my heart is overflowing.”


This current slang in the UK certainly needs to make a trip across the pond.


A term the Irish use to mean “delirious and excited.” We need to borrow this one, too.


This classic from the 14th century doesn’t get used enough anymore.


This confusing 19th century gem was used to describe someone who was extremely pleased.


From the phrase “to set the cock on the hoop,” meaning open the tap and let the good times flow.

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Pop Culture
Duolingo Is Offering a Free Course in Klingon
Stephen Morton/Getty News Images
Stephen Morton/Getty News Images

For Star Trek fans, the final frontier doesn’t end once the credits roll on a new TV show or movie. The franchise extends way beyond that to include countless conventions, board games, video games, mountains of merchandise, and even a dating website specifically for Trekkies. And if you’re a real die-hard for Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future, you can even learn Klingon—one of many fictional languages from the franchise, and by far its most fully-realized.

Now, the popular language-learning website Duolingo is helping people master the guttural beauty of Klingon with a free online course that is currently in a public beta. To start, you can choose to either learn some useful phrases or take an online placement test—though that’s recommended for people who already have some experience in Klingon. The course was crafted with the help of CBS—both Trek and the network are owned by Viacom—as well as “some of the world’s leading Klingon experts,” according to a quote from VentureBeat.

If you’re a novice, Duolingo will start you off with some tips on how the Klingon language works, including its alphabet, capitalization rules, and the fact that there’s really no word for “hello” (apparently, a Klingon won’t waste your time with silly trivialities like greetings).

In an interview with VentureBeat, course creator Felix Malmenbeck said there are only about 30 to 50 people who can actually converse in Klingon, though there are more who can communicate through text. But there’s a chance that number can shoot up with this new course, as Malmenbeck revealed that the site has gotten around 170,000 pre-registrations. This might seem like a lot for a fictional language, but just remember that the site’s course for High Valyrian, a fictional language from Game of Thrones, was viewed by 240,000 eager learners.

Klingon made its debut as a very basic language in 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture and was partly devised by actor James Doohan, who played Scotty. It was further fleshed out in 1984's Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and it has since gotten its own dictionary by the linguist Marc Okrand, the man responsible for working on the official language for the movie.

Duolingo’s Klingon course is available now for free, and if you have a Duolingo Plus subscription, you can experience the whole thing without ads and use it while offline. Just remember, be careful who you say hab sosli' Quch* to. It may not end well. 

*It means “Your mother has a smooth forehead.” Trust us, that’s as insulting as it gets.

[h/t VentureBeat]


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