Have you ever heard of the Katzenklavier, or cat piano? It’s exactly what it sounds like: a design (and thankfully only a design) for a keyboard that sits “in front of a line of cages, each of which has a cat trapped inside.” Pressing a particular key causes pain to a cat, which then screeches accordingly. Different screeches across the scale produce different notes. This inhuman contraption was designed a few hundred years ago as a therapeutic device for psychiatric patients. Thankfully, it was never built (and, therefore, never used).
What the Katzenklavier does do, however, is reveal how people do strange things with controlled noise. On the bright side, many of these auditory manipulations are beautiful, and many are even delightfully absurd (and harmless). Here’s a cross-section of strange, and often beautiful, musical instruments.
Let’s begin with the Toha, designed to resemble the nests of the now-extinct weaver birds of southern Africa. Weaver nests have a totem-like quality and are tall and filled-out as they are built in close-knit bundles to create communities of bird dwellings. The Toha looks tall and full, and it has 44 strings divided into two sections of a diatonic scale, each section containing three octaves. It can be played by two people, facing one another and is a perfect “improv instrument,” meaning the two people playing can feed off of and respond to each other, thus creating a beautiful duet. It sounds blissful, like harp music, but also has a kind of aspirational, reach-to-the-heavens sound when the lower octave notes and the higher octave notes seem to be in dialogue. It’s a deliberative instrument that thrives on interactivity.
While the Toha is a contemporary instrument built to emulate ancient birds and celebrate timeless harp music, the Hornucopian Dronepipe is actually a celebration of the future we inhabit. It is entirely 3D-printed and has a weird shape that has been described as “dystopian.” It sounds like a deep, cyberpunk didgeridoo. Pictures and videos of the Hornucopian Dronepipe remind me of musical scenes in sci-fi classics, like the Cantina scene from Star Wars. The instruments therein — the Dorenian Beshinquel, the Fanfar, the Ommni Box, Bandfill, Kloo Horn and more — are detailed here. The Dronepipe would be an appropriate addition to this musical scene, though not for every song as its music is not particularly bouncy or upbeat.
Finally, you may have heard of “road musicals,” movies from the mid-20th century combining long trips and hokey songs, but how about musical roads? Sometimes when driving and making contact with rumblestrips, I immediately notice the musical quality of the resulting sound. The rumblestrips clearly produce different “notes” and when one slows down, they play “lower.” I have long wondered whether I was the only one to notice this, but no more. Honda built a strip of road in California designed to play Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” and it’s quite the project. It’s designed following a simple rule: “Closeup ridges give a high note, further apart lowers the frequency.” The tune is, unfortunately, quite off in places, and hitting the strip at 100 miles per hour sounds particularly weird, but one can’t help feel a little warm inside that a car company took the time to do something so gratuitously creative, based on the quirky idea that if rumblestrips’ effectiveness comes from their loud tonal qualities, why not experiment with those qualities?
The ability to manipulate sound into music isn’t uniquely human, but music and sound form an inexorable part of human culture. And It is great to see that people are still innovating.