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Your Favourite Instrument That You've Never Heard Of

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

The wonderful world of music is full of unique sounds created by a plethora of different instruments. At Greater Toronto Music School, we encourage diversity through music by exposing students to sounds from around the world. When exploring music from around the world, new fascinating instruments you may have not seen (or heard) before may emerge. Here are a few unique instruments from around the world one may encounter when delving into different styles of music.

The Didgeridoo

The didgeridoo is a wind instrument that comes from Northern Australia. Originally developed around 1500 years ago by the Aboriginal peoples of the region, the didgeridoo is usually made out of an around 1.2 m hollow wood cylinder (although can be a large range of sizes). The instrument is played by continuously vibrating the lips (similar to a brass instrument) and a special circular breathing technique to produce a

drone (continuous note). The length of the didgeridoo can vary as well, generally the larger the cylinder length, the lower the tone produced. Some may be flared (wider at the bottom end) which will cause a higher pitch than another of the same size. Usually made from wood from various species of eucalyptus trees, termites eat the heartwood of the trees leaving the wood favourably hollowed out. Traditionally, having knowledge of the termite activity of a certain region is helpful in finding the proper wood for the instrument. Today, modern didgeridoos can be made out of a number of types of wood and things like fiberglass and or metal. Traditionally only played by men, the didgeridoo is a cultural symbol and tool. Usually played to accompany dancing and singing for a variety of cultural ceremonies, the didgeridoo is of vast significance in this culture beyond the music. There have also been adaptations of the didgeridoo into more contemporary or Western music settings, with artists such as Xavier Rudd, Jamiroquai or Kate Bush.

Listen to some examples of the didgeridoo below:

The Kora

The Kora (also known as the African harp) is a stringed instrument with vast popularity in West Africa. The instrument usually has 21 strings, played by plucking with fingers of both hands. Constructed out of a hollow gourd ( hardened and dried fruit or vegetable shell) with a cow skin stretched over the opening for resonance. A long hard wooden neck with strings is attached with a split bridge set over the resonant skin. The strings run down the neck and split into two sections on either side ( 11 left and 10 right) so that each hand can pluck each set more easily. The sound is a mix of harp and guitar/banjo like qualities. Harmonically and melodically it is similar to blues or flamenco style guitar. Playing riffs or ostinato parts (repetitive rhythmic themes) called "kumbengo" or more improvised solo parts called "birimintingo". Very skilled players are able to play both at the same time (similar to how a piano player can play chords or bass with one hand while playing melodies with the right). The Kora can be tuned to four different seven note scales similar to our Western major, minor and Lydian modes.

Traditionally, Kora playing is passed down by ancestors in "Jali families", who are traditional historians, storytellers and genealogists. Having first been described in writings as old as the 1300s. Although originally from Gambia, the Kora has a long history spanning across much of West Africa. Most commonly played by men, (although more recently women such as Sona Jobarteh have gained popularity in more contemporary settings) the Kora is part of an African oral tradition and would accompany royal ceremonies and practices. For many years, music was not written down formally and it wasn't until around the 1970s when scores began to be written for the Kora. To this day, more traditional players (Jali) continue to practice without scores/written music w

hereas the Kora has made it into more contemporary settings and contexts where scores are sometimes used. For more examples of the Kora, check out the following links:

Traditional style of Kora playing:

Contemporary style of Kora playing:


The tabla are a set of two or more hand drums that serve as the main percussion instrument in Hindustani Classical Music. The Tabla can be part of smaller and larger ensembles, serve as accompaniment to vocals and other instruments or played solo. Popular all over the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka), the tabla are played in both traditional, folk and religious settings (sufism) as well as contemporary and fusion settings (Mahivishnu Orchestra,Delhi 2 Dublin). Although the exact Origins are unclear, there is some evidence linking the Tabla to cave drawings of warriors with drums strapped to their horses (known as Pushkaras) and other accounts of Muslim Warriors later (during Muslim rule in India) with other drums, actual written and depicted evidence of the Tabla is not present until the 1800s.

The Tabla drums are usually played sitting down, cross legged. The drums are angled slightly away from the player on a bundle of cloth or plant material for ergonomic playing efficiency. The drum on the right (also the smaller of the 2) called daya (which translates literally to "right") is tuned to a specific note (usually the tonic or root note of the piece) and is mostly used for treble and more tonal sounds/phrases.The the left drum, known as bayan (which translates literally to "left") is used more for bass sounds/tones. A complex combination of hand/palm and finger techniques are used as tools to translate the mnemonic syllabic rhythms known as bol. Bol are sometimes recited orally through a practice called Konnakol. Konnokol is the oral performance of the Solkattu language made up of bols (rhythmic syllabic language).

Similar to the Kora above, the Tabla is traditionally learned through oral tradition and doesn’t have a universal standardized notation system. The syllabic language makes it easier to learn by rote. Many forms of written notation for tabla are personalized or a matter of the composer’s preference. Two systems that have been developed and become more popular are na

med after their creators Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and Vishnu Narayan Bhakhande. Both using written forms of the bols in either Latin or Devanagari and involving use of instructions/symbols denoting meter (tala) measure length (matra), and starting beat (sum). More traditional Tabla compositions called Kayda or Kaida, can be pre-composed as well as improvised. The use of tabla in more contemporary genres can also be pre-composed, improvised and or re-contextualized through the use of sampling. Here are some great examples of how tabla can be heard in different settings.

Traditional classical listening examples:

Traditional religious listening example:

Contemporary listening examples:

Sampling listening example:

At Greater Toronto Music School, we encourage students to explore as many styles of music from around the world as much as possible. Those who are seeking inspiration might listen to some Klezmer or Soukous artists, as well as ensembles featuring instruments like the oud or kalimba/mbira. If you or your child are interested in learning more, you can always contact us at Greater Toronto Music School for virtual music lessons or music lessons in Toronto.

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