5 Unusual “Instruments” Used in Orchestra Music

Check out the pieces below written by some very creative conductors and the weird “instruments” they chose to include.

If you’d like to hear a playlist of music featuring unique instruments, we have two of them! Here and here. Find a full list of audio playlists, organized by mood and activity, here. Check out the playlists or read on for more information on each piece, and video links.

1812 Overture by Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky

Synonymous with the 4th of July in the United States, Tchaikovsky wrote his 1812 Overture to commemorate Russia’s victory against Napoleon’s army. To accurately portray the sounds of war, Tchaikovsky wrote a part in the finale to be played by cannons- yes, he literally intended for cannons to be shot off as percussion instruments! But don’t worry, if you hear this piece indoors, the cannons are usually replaced by other large percussion instruments like the bass drum. Skip to 3:55 of this cool behind the scenes video to see the cannons in action.

Coro di Zingari by Guiseppe Verdio

Composers definitely like to get creative with their percussion instruments. In Il Trovatore, a 19th century opera by Verdi, there is a whole chorus of anvils that play along with the orchestra during the beginning of the second act. Verdi’s instrument choice makes sense though: in the scene, the stage is full of gypsies using anvils to create the wares they are going to sell at the market.

The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi

Respighi’s Pines of Rome is a beautiful piece that depicts pine trees at specific spots around Rome during different times of the day. This piece calls for a recording of nightingale sounds to be played at the end of the piece. It is perhaps the very first piece ever composed to include pre-recorded bird sounds!

Piano Concerto by Aram Khatchaturian

Khatchaturian dug deep into the world of wacky percussion instruments when he wrote his piano concerto. Have you ever heard of a flexatone? Neither had we! Also called a fleximetal, it is very similar to the musical saw and is often used in cartoons for silly sound effects. Click over to 18:23 in this video to hear the way it sounds during the otherwise serene orchestra moment and then check out this video to listen up close to its part in this piece.

Outside the Orchestra!

We challenged two musicians to play the famous Also Sprach Zarathustra on their usual instruments and then DIY versions of their instruments. We love how this shows that anyone can make music at home, even if you don’t have any instruments. We also love how serious they took their DIY instruments – like true professionals! Check out the performance below and a full activity guide on DIY instruments here.

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