About a year ago I was curious about how the trumpet works, how could it play the chromatic scale over many octaves with only these three valves!? So I made some research to understand how it works, and thought it would be a great instrument to own. So I bought one, and now it's one of my favorite instruments even though I can barely play it (I can only hit one octave and a half, play only in Bb, and sound awful). But I love it because it forces you to use your ears more, since for any given fingering, there are multiple notes that can be played. And since the notes are not presented in a linear way as in most instruments, it's harder to run up and down the scale without thinking (although after a while it becomes second nature like with other instruments, but it just takes longer, and different keys can be completely different).

I love to learn or at least experiment with instruments that are work differently to the instruments I have tried, and it can be very beneficial, especially when you feel like you have stopped learning and improving.

I have a keyboard, guitar (bass/classical/electric), trumpet, and recently got a flute. Now I am looking for a new "alien" instrument to fiddle with. But all the instruments I can think of fall into the same category (in terms of locating the notes not in terms of technique) as one of the above.

All woodwinds I have seen have holes and buttons like the flute, slightly different fingerings, but basically the same idea overall (almost linear) and the harmonic series is much less used compared to brass.

All the brass instruments I have heard of have valves like the trumpet, the trombone (and slide trumpet etc...) is slightly different, but I have a feeling that it's a bit less challenging since the slide adds small windows of linearity, and it's still very similar to the trumpet. The thing I like the most about brass instruments is that they require you to be very certain of the notes to play (recognize them by ear before playing them).

Keyboard instruments are all very similar, and don't require you to fine tune the pitch like fretless string instruments or many wind instruments.

The Question (start here if you don't want to read the whole wall of text)

What are some of the less known instruments that : (trying to make this as objective as possible)

  • Offer a non-linear (or "unusual") geometric layout of the notes (I mentioned the trumpet as an example, as opposed to the keyboard which is very linear)
  • Require the player to use their ears in order to sound correct (for example: the violin or trumpet, which somewhat rely on the ear compared to keyboards where you just have to hit a key to get a valid pitch)

I am not talking instruments that are technically difficult to play or exotic micro-tonal instruments. I'm talking about instruments that challenge you as a musician rather than a performer (it can be a classical instrument - I don't know them all). Please comment if you think the two points above are unclear or subjective.

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    The second part of your request is about intonation, and it applies to the vast majority of instruments. Pretty much everything except hammered instruments (pianos, bells) have variable intonation – even fretted instruments. – Bradd Szonye Jul 21 '14 at 6:23
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    As for the first part of your request, I'm really not sure what you mean by non-linear or how it challenges the ear. As a woodwind player I'd say that they have many non-linear fingerings, especially in the reed family, but you have excluded them so I'm really not sure what standard you're using. – Bradd Szonye Jul 21 '14 at 6:27
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    Theremin can both be made, in your words, linear and nonlinear. youtube.com/watch?v=w5qf9O6c20o – user1306 Jul 21 '14 at 8:24
  • @BraddSzonye by the non-linear part i mean the notes don't appear in succession or near-succession. I know some keys on woodwinds can be less linear in that sense to others. I'm not completely dismissing reed instruments, I only assumed they will not bee too different from the flute, you can always prove me wrong, you know reeds better – Anthony Jul 21 '14 at 10:04
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    This question looks like a shopping cart question to me, and I believe it should be closed. Please vote to close or discuss at meta.music.stackexchange.com/questions/840/… – Kevin - Reinstate Monica Jul 23 '14 at 14:54

17 Answers 17


The theremin is played by moving your hands near or far from two antennas (one for pitch, one for dynamics).

On ondes Martenot, one can play either with a keyboard or by moving a ring along a ribbon.

A washtub bass has you play with the tension you put on the string to change the pitch.

Accordions, especially when equipped with buttons, have various keyboards, most of which are not organized in a linear fashion and are different on the right and left hands.

The layout of notes on a steelpans are non-linear as well. So does the hang.

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    +1 for accordions (also melodeons, concertinas). They're great fun to play and the chord keys are quite non-linear. Playing an accordion is like reading a "fake book" with a melody line and chords. Keeping the air pressure constant is tricky as well, and some instruments play different notes depending on which way the air is going (like a harmonica). They don't require any intonation or "ear" though. – Dan Hulme Jul 21 '14 at 10:20

Well, I think the harmonica is a good one.

The arrangement of notes is somewhat linear, but some notes are blown, others are drawn, and notes can be bent by different amounts using tongue/airway techniques.

You need to practice producing single notes, not just blowing chords the whole time. You can experiment with different grips, and mouth shapes... they're affordable and very portable!

  • I actually had a harmonica, I don't like diatonic instruments. And even the chromatic harmonica doesn't fit the requirements that much; the harmonica produces the correct pitch without assistance, you just have to blow or draw on the correct hole. – Anthony Jul 21 '14 at 10:14
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    @Anthony: Fair enough, but if it was that easy, it wouldn't sound so terrible when my kids play! They don't produce the correct pitch when blown too hard, they squeal lol. – Lee Kowalkowski Jul 21 '14 at 10:17
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    @LeeWhite: Well, the order in which you have to blow or draw for an octave is not 100% straight-forward, and holes 4 and 5 (for example) produce the same pitch when blown. The notes are arranged linearly, but the method of playing the notes within an octave is not 100% linear. To play the major scale requires blow-draw-blow-draw-blow-draw-draw-blow. You need to use your ears to understand how the shape of your mouth, position of your tongue etc will affect the timbre of the sound produced, not necessarily pitch, but it still affects the sound. – Lee Kowalkowski Jul 21 '14 at 10:42
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    @LeeWhite: Why does it have to be more prominent? You said I did not answer the question at all, I have explained how I think I did, but now you're inventing new criteria. Why would you do that? I've played euphonium in an orchestra and many of the OP points do not apply like he thinks they do. You do not rely on your ears when using brass instrument valves to produce the correct pitch (not even for trombone, which I've also played), you rely on experience, you have to get it right first attempt, there is no freedom to use your ears to correct your notes at all, in practice. – Lee Kowalkowski Jul 21 '14 at 11:31
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    Playing all chromatic notes (by bending) on a diatonic harmonica sure fits the question criteria IMO. – Ulf Åkerstedt Jul 25 '14 at 22:59

I think you're too quick to dismiss the trombone. Although the slide is almost the definition of "linear", the relationship between slide positions and pitches is not quite as straightforward as it appears. The trombone is a great fit for your second criterion: intonation is very much something you have to think about.

First you have to commit the slide positions to muscle memory, and then you have to intone the note correctly as it plays. It's very easy to adjust the note as you're playing it, but being able to sound the note correctly right from the start is a difficult matter: as well as the usual note onset problems you get with brass instruments ("splitting" the note), you also need to know the pitch you're going for, and the resonance of the instrument is slightly different each time you play a note (because the slide is in a different position each time). To avoid the characteristic farty trombone onset, you have to have a very confident ear and embouchure.

On top of this, trombone players have to read music in a variety of different clefs and transpositions. Transposition practice definitely makes you a better musician!

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    Actually the trombone fits the description very well, so far it's the best candidate. It shares some characteristics with the trumpet, but for non brass players it is definitely a completely new experience – Anthony Jul 21 '14 at 10:10
  • @Anthony The trombone is a very good fit unless you're also expecting an instrument that challenges your ear. The slide positions on a trombone are surprisingly easy to learn since you use the bell as a reference. Once you get the hang of producing a sound (you've already played trumpet), everything quickly comes together. All the technical mechanics in trombone playing happen at the mouthpiece, for example, playing legato instead of glissando, you would have also practised this technique on trumpet for repeating notes. – Lee Kowalkowski Jul 22 '14 at 8:20
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    Also in the higer and lower registers, you have to adjust the positions (or think of it as half-positions) to get the notes right. And since the slide has a much higher latency than keys, you must also think of where you will play your notes (many notes being played on multiple positions) to keep up in speed with the other brass. – Evpok Jul 22 '14 at 8:36
  • Also, good trombonists make extensive use of alternate positions, so that even passages that could be played linearly end up in more interesting (faster) position patterns. – andyvn22 Jul 28 '14 at 22:25

The ocarina is a nice example. The fingering patterns are fairly straightforward (not entirely what you'd expect, but you can easily memorize it after playing for 15 minutes). However, the blowing technique is way more difficult than one would expect it to be. If you blow a bit too hard, your note will sound too high. If you blow too quietly, your note will sound too low. Hence, it's important to always blow exactly hard enough. To top it off, the blowing strength required is different for each note, so it is very important to listen carefully to what you're playing, and adjust your breathing constantly.

Personally, I bought this instrument thinking that it was really easy to learn, but I was proven wrong fairly quickly. :-)

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    not sure why you commented on the harmonica answer the way you did - the same points apply almost equally here. – Doktor Mayhem Jul 21 '14 at 19:52
  • Simply because the harmonica doesn't really challenge your ear at all. As long as you're not blowing/drawing extremely wrongly, your tone will sound decent. That can't be said about the ocarina. – Lee White Jul 21 '14 at 20:45
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    I think I'd have to disagree. They both have the same issues. – Doktor Mayhem Jul 21 '14 at 20:46
  • Do you mean to say that the ocarina's pitch isn't affected that much by your blowing force, or that the harmonica's pitch is affected significantly by it? Both would seem quite wrong to me. – Lee White Jul 21 '14 at 20:48
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    the pitch is significantly affected on both. Part of the technique of a could harmonica player is getting the draw right for perfect pitch bends – Doktor Mayhem Jul 21 '14 at 22:54

I can't recognize, how a trumpet matches the "less known" criterion, but I would definitely add bassoon to the list; the irregularity may be seen in this fingering table. The fingering alone is (as with all woodwinds) not sufficient but additional embouchure variations are necessary, which depend on the instrument itself, even if some generic trends apply (like middle register b flat always too low).

  • Being "Less known" is not a criterion, I just used that word because I already mentioned (directly or indirectly) many instruments which most people are familiar with. Thanks for suggesting the bassoon, I'll definitely do some research on it, I was assuming that it would be pretty close to other reed instruments in terms of the two main criteria I presented. – Anthony Jul 21 '14 at 10:21
  • That fingering chart looks like an autostereogram! How many thumb keys does the Bassoon have? I'm probably wrongly remembering 9 thumb keys for one of the hands... – Bob Broadley Jul 21 '14 at 10:27
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    @BobBroadley: The number of keys increases with the price of the instrument, 23 to 26 total, from which upto 9 are indeed for the left thumb, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bassoon#mediaviewer/…. – guidot Jul 21 '14 at 10:33
  • My son spent a year in elementary school learning trombone and a year learning bassoon. (He's a talented guy, and interested in learning everything!) Bassoon is much harder to get started with. Also, it's MUCH more expensive. By the way, he eventually did well with bassoon too; also by the way, I love them both! – aparente001 Apr 4 '15 at 19:17

I'd recommend a reed instrument (Clarinet, Sax) to round-out your knowledge of woodwinds. While the keys may appear at first to be the same as the flute, they are not. Also, the register break on the Clarinet does not jump an octave like with the flute, but an octave+fifth.

You appear to be associating linearity with easy and non-linearity with difficult. But an instrument like a Theremin or a Musical Saw may show you something new about linearity.

  • Well not quite. I'm not associating non-linearity with difficult, I like to move away a bit from linearity because it encourages memorized patterns too much. I picked up a flute, and in a week I started repeating some phrases mechanically without thinking. What I like about non-linear layouts is that they can, at least temporarily, free you from some patterns you repeat too much. – Anthony Jul 21 '14 at 0:24
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    The clarinet register key is indeed an octave and a fifth, but the saxophone has an octave key. Oboe is similar to flute in that the octave vent moves as you go up the scale (saxophone actually does the same mechanically, to an extent). – NReilingh Jul 21 '14 at 0:45
  • Thanks. Apparently, I need to learn the sax. ... @Anthony Apologies for the straw-man argument, but I needed some rhetorical lead-in for the suggestion. I didn't mean to suggest that you are actually equating these dissimilar concepts, but merely that my reading of the question gave me that impression. – luser droog Jul 21 '14 at 1:26
  • To complete @NReilingh remark, this is because the clarinet has a cylindric bore, not a conic one. – Édouard Jul 21 '14 at 9:53

There are of course plenty of strange electronic instrument that are played completely unlike anything mechanical. More than the Theremin and ondes Martenot, the Monotron matches your quest for something with a non-obvious geometric layout: while there is a standard keyboard depicted on its ribbon controller and you can, with a stylus, play it much like a too-small ondes Martenot, the only way to get proper quick portamento-free melodic lines out of it requires multi-finger intonation, like

◨◫◧◧◨◨◨◫◧ # # # # # # # C: ◫◨◫◫◫◫◫◫◫ ^ D: ◫◨◫◫◫◧◫◫◫ ^ ^ E: ◫◫◫◨◫◫◫◫◫ ^ F: ◫◫◫◧◫◧◫◫◫ ^ ^ G: ◫◫◫◫◫◧◫◫◫ ^ A: ◫◫◫◫◫◧◫◧◫ ^ ^ B: ◫◫◫◫◫◫◫◧◫ ^ C: ◫◫◫◫◫◫◫◨◫ ^

  • I was inspired by your post to buy a Monotron. I've written some initial impressions in the chatroom. – luser droog Aug 9 '14 at 7:03

How about various types of concertinas? Here's a link to some fingering charts.

And here's just one example of the fingering charts on that page (I hope the page owner won't mind me putting it here…!)

enter image description here


Consider the Swanee Whistle, otherwise known as the Lotus Flute. I'm afraid it is linear, but maybe logarithmic would be a more accurate term, even though it has a cylindrical bore. It certainly fulfills the second criterion, as it relies totally on the player's ear for accurate intonation.

Mine's an Ab model.

  • (Should be used in combination with a kazoo at all times...) – Bob Broadley Jul 21 '14 at 11:46

First, the short version of my answer: The ocarina, the fretless banjo, and the cross-tuned fiddle. Only the ocarina is always non-linear, but if you want, you can easily make a string instrument non-linear.

Fretless string instruments all require the player to know where the notes are by muscle memory and the sound of the note, so that you are primarily finding notes by ear. Any normally fretted instrument can be made fretless by using a neck with no frets. The fretless banjo has a real following.

While not a non-mainstream instrument, the violin can be played in less mainstream ways. The standard tuning of a violin is in fifths (GDAE), with each string one fifth apart from the strings next door. But there are many players, primarily in traditional Appalachian music, who retune one or more strings so that the interval between some strings is a fourth (ADAE tuning, for example), an octave (DDAD), or any other random interval a player wants to experiment with. The alternate tunings are still linear, but they change the location of notes and the relationship between strings. If you ever want a non-linear fiddle, just switch placement of the strings around: instead of stringing it low to high, you could put the high string somewhere in the middle, and the low string at the top, for instance.

Also, you mention the flute as a straightforward instrument where you finger the note, and the correct note comes out. The better your ear is, the more you realize this isn’t quite true, especially on any flute other than a Boehm standard concert flute. A beginner will generally rely only on fingerings to put a note in tune, and they will be pretty close. An expert will be dead on because they are doing things with the diaphraghm and the shape of their mouth to change the angle and pressure of the breathe, and the pitch that comes out of the instrument. While the concert flute is mainstream, there are many, many types of flutes outside of mainstream western music. For example, the Irish open holed transverse flute and low D whistle, the pennywhistle, the Arabic ney, the pan flute, and the ocarina all come to mind in a couple minutes thought. The Library of Congress has a collection of flutes of various shapes, sizes, and designs if you want to look for other obscure instruments. http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/connections/dayton-miller/.

The pendant ocarina is the only non-linear flute I know. From 4 holes, you can get a range of a full octave.


A fretless bass (double bass/fretless electric) can be quite a challenge to the ear. You have to be super-accurate with where you place the string on the neck, so as not to get an awfully-oput-of-tune sound.

I personally love the sound of a fretless bass, but trying to play one such that it's reliably in tune is a bit of a challenge. OK for the studio (for me) as you get to try again, but live.. hmm ..

This would be true of violins and cellos as well, of course. Much resepct to those who make this sound as amazing as it does.

Another is, strangely, guitar. Or part of it.

There are two elements:

1) "bending a string during a solo" part. You have to bend the right amount, especially if bending up to a tonic or note that's part of the scale, otherwise the ears tell you "you didin't quite get there.."

2) Slide guitar - or pedal steel guitar. If you're playing slide on a normally-fretted guitar, then you'd think that you can just hover the slide over the fret and that would be in tune. Not so. Apart from it being quite hard to see this, the fact that your'e not bending the strings to the fretboard menas the tuning is slightly different so you have to forget that part and just play using your ears, maybe using the frets as a visual indicater for "right ball park" but really it's down to your ears.

  • Also a "Slide Whistle" (= like a penny whistle but with a bike pump style plunger so you can vary the pitch). Guess it's a bit like a trombone but whistle-style. – user2808054 Jul 21 '14 at 15:23

My vote would be for Timpani. Thought buying a set might be prohibitive, I was lucky enough to be able to major in percussion and found learning to properly play a timpani console challenging and excellent for my ear.

The challenge comes when you're playing something that requires rapid changes and/or slides to a note, or changes while playing another drum. Generally, you play either 4-5 drums for modern music, and each has a range, which must be considered before playing. Check out, for example, the Paris Timpani Concerto.

  • Wouldn't playing timpani be rewarding mainly as part of an ensemble? – aparente001 Apr 3 '15 at 3:49
  • Timpani solo work is where the really challenging/technical stuff comes into play. For example, the concerto I mentioned. Generally though, these are backed by an ensemble (much like, say, string bass is rarely a solo instrument). – Josiah Apr 3 '15 at 14:04
  • Oh, I hope there aren't any bassists reading this thread! – aparente001 Apr 4 '15 at 19:14

Not quite exotic, but French Horns are usually played in a register where the fingerings matter much less than the embouchure. My old band director used to claim that a skilled French Horn player could play a garden hose if you put a French Horn mouthpiece on it.


I'm not sure if it's considered microtonal and (probably is) exotic, but you can try at least to experiment with a jewish harp. I play guitars, ukulele, harmonicas, a little of keyboard and started playing recorder, and none of these resemble jewish harp in terms of playing. It's quite easy to figure out how to play (takes maybe 5 minutes) but really hard to play by notes. hth


The hammered dulcimer has an odd layout. There are two bridges and three places relative to the bridges where you hit the strings.

Yet another one is the Rackett. It's sort of a bassoon folded up several times. The finger holes end up where you can reach them all easily, but weirdly arranged.


I think what you're looking for is an instrument with an unintuitive, or non-obvious, fingering, where, at least in the early stages, it's impossible to play a scale on autopilot. If I understood right.

I'm going to suggest the recorder. Take a look at this discussion of fingering systems for starters: http://www.mollenhauer.com/en/useful-information/recorder-designs/baroque-and-german-fingering#.VRzUYhawVP0

One nice thing about the recorder is that you can produce a reasonable sound in a relatively short amount of time.


not sure if it covers both conditions (as i only know theoretically how it works) but, what about the Reactable ? http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reactable

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