Top 10 Global Instruments

by Dr. Jessie Voigts /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture
Oct 18, 2012 / 0 comments

It’s always exciting to learn about different music, around the world. And some of the instruments are so different than what we’re used to seeing – and hearing. The global diversity and beauty of music is stunning – from the ranges of tones and depths of sounds to the shining woods and other materials used. I’m partial to percussion instruments, the world over, so they weigh heavily in my top ten here, although my favorite stringed instrument (the Bouzouki) is of course present. Give a listen – you’ll soon explore (and hopefully love) new music from around the world.


Top 10 Global Instruments - some might surprise you! Listen...


Didgeridoo. From Australia, this is a very long wind instrument, made from wood. Archaeologists have found cave paintings from almost one thousand years ago, in Australia – this is an ancient instrument. They are traditionally made from eucalyptus or bamboo, and the wood is hollowed out. To play, the musician places his lips on the end of the didgeridoo, and uses circular breathing to play the notes. The player influences the notes with the strength of his breathing. It is a beautiful, wooden trumpet sound.




Djembe. From Africa, probably Mali. This is a wooden drum, with a bell-shape that the drummer holds between his knees. The leather drumhead (usually goatskin) is stretched over the top and tied to the bottom of the bell with rope. It is an extremely versatile drum, with many possible sounds, depending on the skill and experience of the drummer. The djembe is played with the hands. There are all sizes of djembe available, with the traditional one being about 25 inches tall. The sounds of the djembe are lovely, hollow, and quite intriguing.




Kalimba, from Africa. This is an African thumb piano – made of wood, with a hollow interior and one hole for the musical tones to emerge from. There are strips of metal in different sizes, which the musician plays with his thumbs. An experienced kalimba musician can coax amazing tunes from this simple instrument, which sounds somewhat like a piano, but with a lighter, more metallic and hollow tone.




Bouzouki, from Greece. (and its variants, including the Irish Bouzouki). Dating from the Byzantine Era, this mandolin-looking instrument is usually made of wood, with a spherical back and a long, fretted neck. Has 8 strings, with similar fingering as a ukulele. Lovely sounds.




Sitar, from India. This is a plucked string instrument, with curved frets and 21-23 strings. The sitar is large, and the musician will need to sit down to play it. Lovely sounds, especially in groups.




Steel Drums, from the Caribbean (thought to have originated in Trinidad and Tobago). The steel drums are steel pans (part of a steel drum container, formerly used to store oil) shaped with hammers to form bowls. These pans, or bowls, are tuned. The pitch of the bowl informs the note – and the size influences it, as well. These steel drums are played with drum sticks with rubber tips. The sound follows the Pythagorean musical cycle of fourths and fifths – the only instrument to follow his calculation. The sounds are beautiful and resonant.




Bodhran, from Ireland/Scotland. This is a circular frame drum, with a treated goatskin stretched over a wooden frame. There is a wooden cross-brace in the back of the drum, so that the musician can hold it while playing. Played with a drumstick (Beater) or with hands, the tone varies on where the drum is played, with deeper tones coming from the middle of the drum.




Taiko Drum, from Japan.  These enormous drums are usually propped up on wooden structures to hold their size. The drums are played by groups, so that each drum has a musician. They play the Taiko drums with played with large wooden sticks. Taiko drums are the most famous and popular musical instruments from Japan.




Bagpipes, from Scotland (there are also Uillean pipes, which are similar). Bagpipes are the quintessential Scottish instrument, recognizable the world over. Musicians inflate a leather bladder with their mouths, and then squeeze the bladder into a chanter (where they finger the notes) and the music emerges from various pipes. It’s a haunting sound, somewhat off-key, but powerful, nonetheless. In the United States, bagpipes are generally the instrument used by Fire Departments, in parades and at funerals for fallen comrades. Of course, you’ll also see them at many a Scottish/Celtic Festival. There is a haunting sound to the bagpipes, one you won't soon forget.




Vuvuzela, from South Africa. Sports fans will recognize this long, plastic trumpet – it is a recognizable feature of South African football (soccer) games. The horn is played by blowing into the narrow end, with the sound coming out of the wide end. The harder the musician blows, the louder the sound. The musician can also vary the notes with his embouchure. First made in the 1960s, these plastic “stadium horns” are very popular, although not very musical. Recently, some sporting events and conferences have banned vuvuzelas, because of the potential to damage hearing. Not so musical, in my opinion – just noise - but then listen to this video - you might just change your mind!