7 Crazy Instruments Pianists Can Also Play

Yaniv Hefetz
Yaniv Hefetz

Every time someone asks me, as a pianist, “Do you play other instruments too?” I tend to answer “Sure! I can play the organ, harpsichord and even accordion… but only on the keyboard side”. If you’re a pianist like me, apparently there are many more instruments you actually know how to play!

Ondes Martenot

This electronic instrument is a quite new instrument, invented in 1928 by Maurice Martinet. It was not too late for modern composers to write pieces for it (such as Olivier Messiaen, Darius Milhaud and Frank Zappa).

The instrument can be controlled either by playing its six-octave keyboard or by sliding a metal ring worn on the right-hand index finger. The position of the ring depends on the horizontal location along the keyboard. There’s also a control panel on the left side of the instrument that controls the dynamics and contains flip-switches which operates just like an organ (switches between different sound colors and timbres).

Viola Organista

This amazing instrument was designed by Leonardo da Vinci. His drawings have intrigued instrument makers for more than 400 years! However, it wasn’t until a few years ago, when pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki reconstructed the instrument for his own personal use.

When the player presses a key, the string that’s attached to it touches a friction belt, that vibrates the string, like the way a violin produces sounds. Zubrzycki’s instrument contains four bow-wheels that are spinning by the player’s foot-pedal.


A similar instrument, that works on the same concept, is the wheelharp. This in a brand new instrument (debuted only two years ago) by Jon Jones and Mitchell Manger. The keys (and strings attached to them) are wrapped around one big wheel.

American Fotoplayer

Remember all the funny slapstick movies music? Apparently a lot of it wasn’t played by an orchestra, but by a half automated piano. It was actually developed specifically to provide music and sound effects for silent movies.

You actually don’t need to be a pianist to play this “machine”, but you do need to be a… well… Fotoplayer. All the piano themes are played using piano rolls (similar to the way a music box works), and the player needs to follow the onscreen action while pressing buttons, pressing pedals and pulling cords in order to produce relatable sounds to what’s happening in the movie. 

Its production stopped in the mid-1920s when sound films arrived and less than 50 have survived until today (and only 12 are known to still be playable). Here’s one of them:


The keyboard’s keys were replaced by wooden sticks, but it still has a keyboard structure. The black keys are in a higher row than the white keys, while the vertical positions (groups of 2 and 3) stayed. Like an organ, this instrument also contains pedals for foot playing.

Every wood stick is attached to a rope. Each rope is attached to a clapper. When pressing a wood stick, the clapper gets pulled against a bell. I guess the best way to understand this one is just to listen:

The Glass Harmonica

Don’t you think glasses (as instruments) can be better organised than a lot of water-filled wine glasses? So did Benjamin Franklin, who invented this instrument in 1761. In his version, there are 37 bowls, mounted horizontally on an iron spindle. The player uses a foot pedal to spin the whole spindle. The rims were painted different colors, but today’s harmonicas are actually quite like a piano, with black stripes on the evidential notes.

Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss and more than 100 other composers wrote pieces for the glass harmonica. Here’s a composition by Mozart for the instrument:


Another new instrument is the Gamelset, which is a combination between a Gamelan (a traditional ensemble music in Indonesia, mostly percussive instrument) and a Celeste (which looks similar to a small piano, but the hammers strike a graduated set of metal plates).

The instrument was created in the United Kingdom by Matt Nolan and Bjorgvdn Thomasson a few years ago.

Bonus: A Typewriter

Well… A typewriter’s keyboard isn’t similar to a piano’s at all, but it can be a soloist in an orchestral piece written by Leroy Anderson in 1950: