Weird Instruments Part Two: Sonic Aqua-Phone

 In part one we talked about the incredible electronic machine that is the theremin. In this part we take a look at another instrument that begins to blur boundaries and move on into the weirder musical instrument category with its creation of sound, the way its played, and the sound that it produces.

The Sonic Aqua Phone is a device that you’ve heard many times before. You’ve heard it while watching The Matrix, Star Trek, The Poltergeist and many other countless sci-fi or horror films. It’s that eerie and slightly ethereal sound that sends shivers up your spins. It sounds mildly like a muted string instrument like a violin, but with a longer draw-time and a timbre of which is almost impossible to describe.

The Sonic Aqua Phone, also known as a Tibetan Water Drum or simply Waterphone. While there is no date on which this instrument was really known to have been created, there is some suggestion it has existed for many hundreds of years. The simple technology utilising water, as well as a bow system that creates the sounds resonating on the water is not a new or modern technique. In fact, the bow has been utilised throughout most string instruments, as has the inclusion of water when it comes to achieving a desired sound.

The instrument is created from a bowl, with a cylinder attached to the base, which is filled with a small amount of water. On the outside of the bowl are a number of smaller cylinders which act like strings on a violin. From this, the smaller cylinders are played with a violin bow, the sound of which is created when the reverberations move against the water within the larger cylinder and resonate because of the bowl shape. The pitch can be changed with the amount of water, as well as the size of the bowl, and a mild rhythmic sound can be created through the moving of the instrument.

When the instrument is moved around, the water too changes which alters the pitch of the sound being played.

When the instrument is tapped or used for percussive elements, there too is a different sound created which gives the player control over the percussive sound if that’s what they wish to achieve. One long sound can also be created while the instrumentalist alters the water’s movement and level to create another different series of sounds.

While it may seem unlike any tonal instrument you might see being played around, this a-tonal creation has inspired many film soundtracks as well as compositions of a newer and more abstract form. The sound seems to create an ominous and supernatural feel that has given inspiration to many musicals as well as film scenes.

With such an interesting creation, there are many ways in which the instrument can be utilised. It looks incredibly odd and almost space-aged as well as giving off an eerie vibe and sound. While these things may not seem like your normal instrument, they definitely work together to create a sound that is needed to move forward in the atonal instrumentaion and its many uses.

For more info, check out youtube for some demonstrations on how it works, as well as different albums and films you might have heard it on.

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