10 talks that involve highly unusual instruments


Music comes in all shapes and sizes, as these talks illustrate. From an electric drum suit called “thunderwear” to an ancient stringed wheel to an arresting rare organ, the instruments featured in these talks reshape our soundscape and offer inspiration in the cacophonous world around us.

David Holt plays mountain music
In this amiable talk from TED2004, David Holt gives a musical tour of Appalachia, weaving together the life stories and uncommon instruments of the mountains. As Holt plays the harmonica and mouth bow, he breathes life into the colorful region. Plus, a rhythmic sartorial invention of Holt’s own creation is something not to be missed.

Mark Applebaum: The mad scientist of music
Mark Appelbaum’s musical innovation was borne out of an unshakeable boredom with the day-to-day grind of traditional musical production and composition. From  “scavenging” music out of subway maps and wristwatches to radically re-imagining instruments — like an electric device that plays combs and doorstops with violin bows and chopsticks — Applebaum turns the musical world on its head.

Qi Zhang’s electrifying organ performance
This breathtaking performance is both brief and electrifying. At TEDxUSC, Qi Zhang plays the Yamaha Electone Stagea, a rare instrument she programmed herself.

Andrew Bird’s one-man orchestra
Nobody can create music like Andrew Bird, the ingenious instrumentalist whose electric loops of violins, whistles and xylophones create a theater of sound from a single person.

Pamelia Kurstin plays the theremin
Never actually touching her instrument, Pamelia Kurstin electrifies TED2002 with the theremin. The early electronic instrument operates on sound waves, which the player manipulates by moving their hand back and forth in the air around the device.

Tod Machover and Dan Ellsey play new music
“Everyone can experience music in a profound way, we just have to make different tools,” suggests tech composer Tod Machover at TED2008. After helping to create Guitar Hero, he is now working to invent more instruments that anyone can play. Bridging the gap between music, technology and medicine, Machover’s latest project involves working with people with cerebral palsy to enable them to express themselves through sound.

Caroline Phillips: Hurdy-gurdy for beginners
Caroline Phillips brings the unique sound of the hurdy-gurdy to life in this euphonious talk from TEDGlobal 2010. Dating back 1,000 years, the hurdy-gurdy is the only instrument that requires the player to crank a wheel to rub the strings, like the bow of a violin. Phillips accompanies the melody of the hurdy-gurdy with a song in the rare Basque language.

Matthew White gives the euphonium a new voice
Euphonium maestro Matthew White removes this instrument from its traditional place in brass bands. At TEDGlobal 2009, he shows it in a new light — hip-hop.

Neil Harbisson: I listen to color
Neil Harbisson hears beautiful melodies in everyday places like grocery stores, thanks to an electronic eye that extracts sound from color frequencies. As he explains at TEDGlobal 2012, this device lets him dress in a way that sounds good — in the upbeat key of C major. This technology may have been invented to overcome colorblindness, but Harbisson suggests that we might all be able to compose technicolor polyphonic meals.

Eric Whitacre: A virtual choir 2,000 voices strong
In the era of YouTube, the possibilities for musical production are endless. Composer Eric Whitacre harnesses this digital technology to make choirs without borders — a virtual collaboration of singers from around the world who record their vocal parts and post them online. Whitacre then fuses the videos into one cohesive song, redefining the musical landscape along the way.