8 Unusually Large Musical Instruments

Michael via Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Michael via Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 / Michael via Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Sometimes bigger is better, as in a box of chocolates. But with musical instruments, bigger is just different. The biggest instruments can provide rich, full, low notes, but those often come at the expense of portability. So if you get a chance to listen to music made by one of these instruments, don’t pass it up.


Maria Ramey via Wikimedia Commons and Eva Kingma via Wikimedia Commons // CC-BY-3.0

Flutes are usually thought of as small, higher-pitched instruments, but there are other types of flutes that are larger and produce lower notes. The subcontrabass flute plays a fourth below the contrabass flute, and the pipe is over 15 feet long. You can hear what the subcontrabass flute sounds like in this video, and see it in the image above on the right. On the left is a double contrabass flute; both instruments are played by flutist Maria Ramey.


Dracoswinsauer via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0 us

A zeusaphone is what you get when you create music with Tesla coils, although some call this instrument a thoremin. Both names are puns made by applying mythological gods' names to earlier instruments (sousaphone and theremin, respectively). The term "zeusaphone" is trademarked by a company that sells and rents singing Tesla coils.

The best-known Tesla coil band is ArcAttack. The group uses two homemade Tesla coils to send arcs up to 12 feet long between them, and they sometimes include humans wearing Faraday suits (to protect them from electricity) in their performances. You can hear a variety of their tunes at the band's YouTube page.


Steve via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

A hydraulophone is an organ powered by water. When a hydraulophone is not being played, it serves as a water fountain. The music starts when you cover one or more of the water jets, which forces the water through a calibrated pipe. Many such fountains are part of civic fountain installations. Shown here is the FUNtain, a hydraulophone that is part of the Teluscape at the Ontario Science Center. You can hear music played on the Teluscape's water organ in this video


Erwin Schoonderwaldt via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The octobass is the largest of all stringed instruments. It was invented in 1850 by luthier Jean­-Baptiste Vuillaume. It is essentially a 12-foot tall fiddle, which produces sounds deeper than the lowest double bass. In most cases, it takes two people to play the octobass: one to draw the bow and the other to fret the three strings.  


Stan Mouser via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

The Great Stalacpipe Organ is billed as the world's largest musical instrument, located deep underground in Luray Caverns in Virginia. Rubber-tipped mallets tap the caves' natural stalactites and produce musical tones. The stalactites used cover 3.5 acres! Listen to the music the Stalacpipe makes here.


Atlant via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

The Wave Organ, part of the Exploratorium in San Francisco, is a seaside sculpture that includes 25 organ pipes. The pipes are activated by the action of the waves splashing against them. Built by Peter Richards and George Gonzalez and completed in 1986, the Wave Organ covers several levels of a seaside jetty in order to work with both high and low tides, although the sound is best at high tide. The Zadar Sea Organ in Croatia is a similar project.


Michael via Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ in Atlantic City, New Jersey, is the largest pipe organ ever built, based on the number of pipes. When the hall opened in 1929, the seating capacity was 42,000 people. To fill that huge space, the organ uses over 33,000 pipes! The console has seven keyboards and more than 1200 stops. 


Finnianhughes101 via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1893, Thaddeus Cahill conceived what may have been the first significant electronic musical instrument, by harnessing the tones created by telephone transmission. His telharmonium transmitted live music over telephone lines to any number of people who wanted to hear it, giving us the first long-distance live concert. But what really stands out about the telharmonium—and eventually spelled its downfall—was its size.

To generate enough power to play music, the instrument included a huge electric motor, 12 dynamos, 145 tone wheels to recreate various notes and instruments, and a two-person keyboard to control it. Cahill’s first telharmonium required 12 railroad cars for transport. He eventually built three models, each bigger and more expensive than the last, and they cost a lot more than they earned. Cahill stopped played telharmonium concerts over phone lines in 1916, and unfortunately neither the instrument nor any recording of its music survive today.