A (Monster)Mashup of Hair-Raising Instruments

Elizabeth Dale

The power of music and its ability to affect both human biology and our behavior is well documented. From the scientific concepts of music therapy and the field of applied biomusicology, music possesses some ability to influence our emotions and physiological response.

From the tear-jerking ballads of heartache and loss to the deep bass club mixes that seem to force everyone to get up and dance, when listeners find themselves connecting with music, it often invokes an almost uncontrollable response. Fitting in alongside these examples are the ghastly sounds produced by some of the most unusual instruments. Hearing the sinister sounds that are capable of producing gets hearts racing, palms sweaty, and gasping for air, so what better time than this spooky season to explore the bone-chilling world of these instruments.

A waterphone, also known as the ocean harp or AquaSonic waterphone, consists of a stainless-steel resonator bowl or pan with a cylindrical neck and rods of varying lengths and diameters around the rim of the bowl. Often, the resonator contains a small amount of water which proves a vibrant, ethereal sound. Invented, developed, and manufactured by Richard Waters after being inspired by a Tibetan drum that contained a small amount of water to affect its timbre, the waterphone comes in four sizes: the Standard (7” diameters), the Whaler (12” diameter), the Bass (14” diameter), and the MegaBass (16” diameter). Movements created by players in a seated position with either a bow or drummed via a superball mallet can solicit a variety of sounds. Notable waterphone musicians include Mickey Hart (Grateful Dead) and Tom Waits, and the instrument is on the frightening soundtracks of ALIENS and Poltergeist.

Waterphone Demo

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The Theremin, originally known as the etherone, thereminophone, or termenvox, is an electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact by the performer. Named after its inventor, Leo Theremin, the controls consist of two metal antennas that sense the relative position of the hands and control oscillators for frequency with one hand and amplitude with the other. The electric signals are amplified and sent to a loudspeaker. After moving to the United States from the USSR, Theremin granted commercial production rights to RCA in 1928. Despite its lack of initial commercial success, the instrument fascinated audiences and eventually found a brief window of favor after World War II. One of these post-war enthusiasts was Robert Moog, who began building theremins as a high school student. The beloved NAMM Member credited what he learned from his Theremin experiences to providing the basis for his groundbreaking synthesizer, the Moog. A variation of the eerie sounding instrument can be heard on Led Zepplin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” on the Rolling Stones 1967 albums Between the Buttons and Their Satanic Majesties Request, and by Page McConnell (Phish) on rare occasions. Besides its presence in popular music, the Theremin may be best known for its defining performances in film and television, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, the Disney series, Loki, The Lost Weekend, and The Machinist.

Not many instruments can create such a striking presence as the pipe organ. The pipe organ produces its sound by driving pressurized air through its pipes selected from a keyboard. Each pipe produces a single pitch, with pipes coming in similar timbre and volume sets called ranks. Organists can employ the various sets of ranks using controls known as stops. Players manufacture sound through one or more keyboards, known as manuals, and a pedal clavier, and the continuous supply of wind allows it to sustain notes for as long as the corresponding keys are depressed. With its origins dating back to Ancient Greece in the 300 BC, the pipe organ evolved, adding bellows in the 600 to 700 century AD and multiple timbres arriving in the 1200s. The oldest (playable) pipe organ, constructed in 1435, is located in the Basilica of Valere in Sion, Switzerland. The largest pipe organ ever built (based on the number of pipes) is the Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ, located in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and contains 449 ranks, 337 registers, and 33,114 pipes. The most recognizable piece of creepy pipe organ music is probably “Toccata and Fugue in D minor,” composed by Bach and featured in the spine-tingling films Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Phantom of the Opera. Notable organ manufacturers and NAMM Members include Allen Organ Company, Hammond Organ Co., and Rodgers Instruments.

The blaster beam is an electric musical instrument that consists of a 12- to 18-foot-long metal beam strung with multiple tensed wires and with an electric guitar pickup mounted underneath. Designed by John Lazelle in the early 1970s, the blaster beam was first widely used by musician Francisco Lupica and by actor and musician Craig Huxley, who made his version out of aluminum. The aluminum version created the signature “V’ger sound” in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, films called on the instrument to produce dark and unnatural sounds in movies like Dreamscape, Forbidden World, Meteor, The Black Hole, and most recently in 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Blaster Beam is Back with Craig Huxley

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Another spooky electronic musical instrument is the ondes martenot. It is played via a keyboard and a moving ring along a wire. This action creates a “wavering” sound somewhat similar to the Theremin. The unique instrument was invented in 1928 by French inventor Maurice Martenot who found inspiration in an accidental overlap of tones between military radio oscillators. Martenot strove to create an instrument that possessed the expressiveness of the cello with its easy use of vibrato. Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead is credited with bringing the instrument to a modern and larger audience, and it has been used in popular music by Daft Punk, among others. Although you may have never heard of the ondes martenot, it appears in over 100 orchestral compositions and numerous film and television soundtracks, including Ghostbusters, The Black Cauldron, and The Good Son.

Music From the Ether (1934)

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The Apprehension Engine is a custom-made musical instrument and the brainchild of Canadian musician and film and television composer Mark Korven and luthier Tony Duggan-Smith. The terrifying instrument was designed to create unsettling noises to be specifically used to score horror films. While Korven may have conceptualized The Apprehension Engine, he commissioned guitar manufacturer Duggan-Smith to bring his work to life. The chilling notes of the Apprehension Engine are heard in numerous film and television scores, including Our House, The Lighthouse, The Twilight Zone, The Witch, and will be heard in November 2021 by audiences of the new Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City film. If you are brave enough to take on the Apprehension Engine, reach out to Duggan-Smith at https://apprehensionengine.squarespace.com/ to learn more. 

Sounds of the Nightmare Machine

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We know that you are dying to try out these spell-binding instruments. Make sure to spread the joy – or in this case, the terror of making music with those around you.