Musical instruments with names as fun as their sounds

Published 5:12 pm Friday, June 21, 2024

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Music is an integral part of life.

We listen to it in our free time, while we’re driving, or at a party. Step into any restaurant and there’s almost always some kind of song playing over the speakers. If you get put on hold on a phone call, there will usually be music playing to soothe your frustration from being put on hold. (How successful this is up to you!) Music classes are often offered in school, from kindergarten through college level. Singing is an essential part of worship services.

I could keep going, but I think you get the point.

Music is incredibly varied all over the world, so of course, the instruments that create music also come in a wide variety of shapes, sounds, and names.

We are all familiar with common ones like piano, guitar, drums, violin, flute, etc. But there are also ones that are specific to their country of origin. When I attend an anime convention every year, I often get to also experience music performances featuring traditional Japanese instruments such as taiko (drums), shamisen (a stringed instrument), biwa (a different stringed instrument), shakuhachi (flute), and more. In some ways they sound similar to instruments we’re more familiar with, but other ways, they’re very different. I think that’s kind of cool, and I recommend searching for a few performances if you’re curious.

As usual, I was browsing the interesting word articles recently on the Merriam-Webster Dictionary website, and found a compilation of names of “lesser-known musical instruments.”

Of course, I can’t pass up an opportunity to share that information with the rest of you. Here are the ones I liked the best from the list:

Hautbois: The definition of this instrument is extremely technical, with details such as its musical range and its shape (“a double-reed woodwind instrument having a conical tube…”). But to make things easier, we actually just call this instrument an “oboe” today.

The original term, which comes from French, has fallen into disuse over the years in favor of the Italian word “oboe” instead. (I can’t imagine why.)

Crwth: As Merriam-Webster notes, this is a good word for a game of Scrabble if you’re out of vowels. That distinct lack of vowels comes from the word’s Welsh origins. A crwth is “an ancient Celtic stringed instrument that is plucked or bowed.” Very similar to a violin.

In case you’re wondering how to pronounce this one, apparently it’s “crooth.”

Sackbut: (Yes, take a moment to giggle at this name before continuing.) A sackbut is “a medieval and Renaissance trombone.” It comes from combining the old French words “saquer” (to pull) and “boter” (to push). I can only assume that decades of terrible spelling skills are how those two words became “sackbut.”

Personally, as a Star Trek fan, I always associate trombones with Commander Riker from Star Trek: The Next Generation, because he played the instrument in several episodes. But now I’m imagining him doing it dressed in a Renaissance outfit, just for fun!

Hurdy-gurdy: To me, this name sounds like a word you’d use to describe how heartburn feels, but it’s a real instrument from the 1700s, and “hurdy-gurdy” is allegedly an imitation of the sound it makes. (I’m not sure I want to hear this one.)

This too is a stringed instrument but it creates music by cranking a rosined wheel against the strings. An older, larger version of this instrument was called an organistrum, which I think sounds a lot more palatable.

Psaltery: “an ancient musical instrument resembling a zither” (and, for reference, a zither is a stringed instrument with usually 30 to 40 strings over a horizontal soundboard). The psaltery soundboard is often a trapezoid shape (another fun word!) but it can come in other shapes too. This instrument was popular in Europe until around the 15th century.

In case you were wondering, the “p” at the beginning of this word is silent. It comes from a Greek verb (“psallein”) which means “to play on a stringed instrument.” (Who would have guessed?)

Theorbo: “a stringed instrument of the 17th century resembling a large lute but having an extra set of long bass strings.” This definition does not really do the instrument justice, so I’ll try to describe the accompanying image: imagine a regular lute (which is kind of like a guitar) only someone has taken the neck and stepped on it, so that now it’s a bit crooked. That’s a theorbo! The strange shape is to accommodate the extra strings.

Out of all of these instruments here, I think theorbo is perhaps the most melodic of names. It’s just kind of fun to say out loud. The word comes from Italian, originally as tiorba or teorba.

These are just a few examples, but there are so many different kinds of instruments out in the world with names just as interesting as the sounds they produce. Some of my other favorites not on this list include the ocarina, clavichord, timpani, contrabassoon, and theremin.

I can’t play any of those instruments. (My musical skills are limited to the piano these days, though I think it’d be funny to learn how to play the spoons or something like that.) But, regardless, they all are certainly fun to listen to.

What’s your favorite?

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or 252-332-7206.