Music to My Ears: Instrumental Vocab

Listen up! We've assembled a collection of words for unusual musical instruments that will either make you want to cover your ears or pick up a dulcimer and strum along.

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definitions & notes only words
  1. accordion
    a portable box-shaped free-reed instrument
    “An anvil fell on Bugs Bunny and now the Monstars are playing his crinkled torso like an accordion. This team is going to be tough to beat!”Slate (Jun 20, 2019)
    The accordion was invented in the early 1800s, and it's played in many countries around the world. The word comes from the German Akkordion, from Akkord, "musical chord" or "be in tune."
  2. bagpipe
    a tubular wind instrument
    One song begins with a nearly four-minute bagpipe drone before giving way to tenderly hushed vocals.Washington Post (Feb 12, 2019)
    It's more common to use the plural form — bagpipes — or even "the pipes" or "a set of pipes." The music produced by bagpipes is distinctive, with a constant harmonizing sound being produced by the drone pipe, and no rests between notes. The bagpipe player squeezes the bag with his arm as he blows a pipe called a chanter, and in formal situations he might wear a kilt and knee socks.
  3. bassoon
    a double-reed woodwind instrument that makes a low sound
    Grunts of tuba and bassoon, scuttlings of strings, a splash of saxophone, and slapstick percussion hint at the vaudeville tradition that informs so much of Beckett’s work.The New Yorker (Dec 17, 2018)
    Baaaaaaasooooooooooooon. The name of this wind instrument offers a clue and a half to its sound: the bassoon makes a low sound, like all bass instruments. That’s not quite onomatopoeia, but it’s close. Many instruments are classified as bass by their low sound, from the tuba to the bass guitar.
  4. castanets
    pair of hollow pieces of wood or bone made to click together
    Six señoritas in long, fitted dresses with flaring skirts and castanets in their hands flounced onto the stage.How the García Girls Lost Their Accents
    This plural noun is the name of a percussion instrument consisting of round pieces of shell, wood, or bone held in the fingers. Castanets were originally made from chestnuts and get their name from the Spanish diminutive for chestnut.
  5. cymbal
    a percussion instrument consisting of a concave brass disk
    She's the percussionist and gets to crash the cymbals and play the thundery kettle drums, which sounds an ace laugh.Black Swan Green
    One of the most fun parts of being a drummer has to be hitting the cymbals, a crashing, clanging instrument that, as you may have guessed, is very loud. A cymbal is a concave, almost flat, circular piece of brass. Drummers hit the cymbal with a drumstick or bang two cymbals together. If you love peace and quiet, stay away from cymbals — and drummers!
  6. dulcimer
    a stringed instrument used in American folk music
    The show will offer a musical history of the waterway, performed on period instruments, including a hammered dulcimer, a banjo, a hurdy-gurdy and a squeeze box.New York Times (Aug 23, 2018)
    A dulcimer is a stringed instrument used mainly in American folk music. It has three strings, and a fretted fingerboard like a guitar. Like a guitar, the strings are strummed with one hand while the strings are held down with the other hand on a fretted fingerboard. Hammers, despite their association with carpentry and Thor, are often used to play musical instruments, including quite a few on this list. Dulcimer has been found in English since the late 1400s.
  7. fife
    a small high-pitched flute similar to a piccolo
    This year’s National Independence Day Parade along Constitution Avenue will include marching bands, a fife and drum corps, floats, giant balloons, drill teams, and military units.Slate (Jul 2, 2019)
    You’re probably familiar with the small wind instrument called the flute. This is a similar instrument that’s even smaller, with a unique sound: the fife. The fife has a particularly folkish flavor. When I think of the high-pitched sounds of the fife, I imagine elves dancing in the forest, while wood nymphs sing a happy tune and woodland critters frolic, but maybe I’ve had too much coffee. Anyway, the fife is similar to the piccolo.
  8. gong
    a large metal disk that sounds a note when struck
    Each morning I was awoken by the calls of strutting peacocks, resounding gongs, and tractors blaring Bollywood hits as they made their way to the surrounding fields.Scientific American (Apr 10, 2019)
    The gong, which is part of the percussion family, is a huge, metal, rounded disk. When you hit the disk with a mallet or drumstick, it makes a loud, deep, powerful tone. Why is a gong called a gong? Probably because a gong sounds like gooooonnnnnngggggggggggg. This is an example of onomatopoeia, like buzz and moo.
  9. harp
    a chordophone with strings between the neck and the soundbox
    This week, the Tehran Symphony Orchestra, including female musicians in burgundy headscarves on cello, horn and harp, played works by 19th-century Russian composers for an enraptured crowd in the capital’s main concert venue, Vahdat Hall.Washington Times (Jul 5, 2019)
    The harp is a massive instrument that the harpist sitting down, strumming the strings. Like the lute, the harp has a bright, light sound. The word harp can also mean to talk constantly and dully about one topic: "The harpist did nothing but harp on about the bad weather."
  10. lute
    a stringed instrument with a pear-shaped body
    Most are of people alone, often women, set apart from us, performing domestic activities like pouring milk, writing a letter, putting on a necklace, playing a lute.The Guardian (Feb 16, 2019)
    This is a stringed instrument similar to a guitar. Lutes are typically associated with Elizabethan music. In college, I went to a school best-known for music, so I was surrounded by musicians of the popular and classical type. I remember one friend playing me some lute music, which I thought was sensational. The pure tones of a lute made me feel all Shakespearean inside.
  11. lyre
    a harp used by ancient Greeks for accompaniment
    Speaking of music, the versatile Karen Hansen is back with the gang, playing everything from violin to lyre and slide trombone.Washington Post (Jul 19, 2017)
    If you don’t want to harp on the word harp, here’s a word for the same thing: lyre. The lyre was specifically a harp played by the Greeks. The word lyre also took on another meaning in the 1700s as a symbol of lyric poetry.
  12. maraca
    a rattle-like instrument that is shaken to make noise
    Another showed staff shaking maracas and wearing sombreros, ponchos and fake mustaches.Reuters (Nov 3, 2018)
    Most traditional maracas are made out of dried, hollow gourds or coconut shells, and they're filled with dry beans or pebbles. The word maraca comes from the Portuguese, via a Brazilian language called Tupi. In some French-speaking parts of the world, maracas are called "shac-shacs."
  13. piccolo
    a small flute; pitched an octave above the standard flute
    It was like the whistling of a piccolo many times magnified—shrill and shriller till it keened with the terror of a lost soul and filled the room with the piercingness of itself.I, Robot
    The piccolo is a woodwind instrument about half the size of a flute. The word piccolo is in the fairly extensive group of Italian words that designate musical instruments and other musical terms. A piccolo plays an octave higher than an ordinary flute; the word comes, appropriately enough, from the Italian for "small," which is also piccolo.
  14. sitar
    a stringed instrument of India
    When I eventually arrived, I was instructed to sit in the lotus position on the floor and mime playing sitar to a Beatles track.The Guardian (Jul 20, 2019)
    Sitars have long necks and as many as 21 strings. It's like a guitar, but in addition to the six or seven strings that a sitar player plucks, there are more that vibrate beneath the frets, called "sympathetic strings." Despite all these strings, the word sitar means "three-stringed" in Persian.
  15. xylophone
    a percussion instrument with wooden bars played with mallets
    My baby fell asleep to a xylophone version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that was just the suggestion of the band that I worshipped in middle school, like a Nirvana-flavored La Croix.Washington Post (Jul 11, 2019)
    This percussion instrument’s name sounds like it comes from an alien planet in a distant galaxy of an alternative universe, but there’s nothing super fancy about the xylophone: it’s made of a series of wooden bars that you hit with a little hammer to produce musical notes. The sound of this word is a lot weirder than the sound of the actual instrument.
Created on July 25, 2019 (updated July 25, 2019)

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