A Look at 7 Exotic Musical Instruments

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A Look at 7 Exotic Musical Instruments

Prior to the 60s, western popular music predominately consisted of guitar, bass, drums, piano and orchestral instruments like horns and strings. Yet in 1965, The Beatles’ use of the sitar in Rubber Soul ignited a frenzy for exotic instrumentation within the mainstream music industry. After the release, the sitar grew in popularity and was featured in the works of popular artists like The Mamas & The Papas, The Kinks and even the later work of Elvis Presley. Thanks to the Beatles, the sitar may be one of the most popular exotic instruments, but it certainly isn’t the only one. Below, we’ll take a look at 7 exotic musical instruments from around the world.

Djembe (jembe)

Originating from West Africa, the djembe (also known as jembe) is a small goblet drum that a musician generally plays with their bare hands. Most djembes are formed by means of carved wood and rawhide, while tuning is managed through the help of rope.

Although djembes are small – typically 25 inches tall and 13 inches wide – they are able to produce a wide array of sounds. Because of its strength and versatility, djembes can be used as a solo instrument or as apart of a group drum ensemble. Furthermore, the multi-dimensional sounds of the djembe prove to be a challenge for musicians. Those are able to master the diverse sounds of the instrument are held in high-regard due to their ability to make the djembe talk.

Due to their small size, djembes are great for music classrooms of all ages. Music teachers should encourage students to explore the variety of sounds that djembes are capable of making, as well as help them focus on creating a consistent rhythm.


From indigenous Australians comes the ever exotic didgeridoo which is rumored to have been around for over a thousand years. Being anywhere from 4 to 10 feet long, Didgeridoos can be thought of as a combination of a trumpet and a massive wooden pipe. Similar to the djembe, there are a wide variety of sounds that can be played through a didgeridoo, some of which are deep, roaring bass while others are higher in pitch, sounding more like a high-frequency filter.

With their exotic sounds, Didgeridoos would be great to have in the music classroom, especially for students that are bored or unimpressed with traditional instruments.

Exotic Musical Instruments


Originating in African culture, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the mbira consists of metal teeth attached to a wooden board. With the metal teeth and their simple construction, mbira may often look as though they are the early inspiration for pianos or xylophones, especially considering that they are played primarily with one’s hands and/or thumbs. This basic structure makes mbiras perfect for music education classrooms, particularly those at the elementary or middle school level. In fact, it could be a great starter instrument to help kids get used to playing with their fingers.


Originating within China approximately 12,000 years ago, the ocarina is an ancient flute instrument usually made from ceramic or clay. The structure of the ocarina features a number of wind holes (generally between 4 and 12) and a mouthpiece. In ancient China, the ocarina was an essential element of the Chinese song and dance ceremonies that spanned thousands of years. For music education, the ocarina may be popular with gaming students as the ocarina was the prominent instrument featured as the “Magic Flute” in the popular Legend of Zelda gaming series.


An ancient and classic instrument from India, a ghungroos is a metallic anklet that Indian dancers place around their feet while performing in ceremonies. The sounds generated by ghungroos differ depending on the dancer and the metallic balls featured on the anklet. Generally, the sound of ghungroos tends to be rhythmic, as opposed to melodic, and would be a great instrument to feature in music education classrooms. One idea may be to have enough ghungroos for the entire class and have a class-wide dancing ceremony while watching traditional performances on YouTube.


A classical Hindu instrument, the Sarangi is very popular in India and Nepal, particularly Western Nepal. While this short, stringed instrument is played with a bow similar to a violin, the resulting sound is much different and has been compared to the human voice. A number of modern musicians have found intrigue with the Sarangi and music lovers may recall hearing the Sarangi on songs by bands such as Aerosmith, Tool and Blind Melon. Sarangi’s would be great for music students that are familiar with violins or similar bowed instruments.


Originating in Japan, the Shamisen achieved fame through its use in classic singing and dancing performances called Kabuki. Built similar to a banjo, modern musicians playing everything from bluegrass to metal have incorporated the Shamisen into their performances to add a touch of exotic flare to the overall sound. Because of the technical similarities, Shamisens are perfect for music students that have interest or experience in playing guitar.

While it may not be possible for a music classroom to feature all of these exotic instruments, music teachers should encourage students to explore outside of Westernized music. Perhaps designated a day or week for listening and sharing songs or bands that feature these exotic instruments, or maybe purchase one exotic instrument and incorporate that into a traditional performance. Also, don’t forget the opportunities provided by platforms like YouTube or Spotify where an endless amount of music – both western and world – is only a few clicks away.

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Image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e7/Didgeridoo_(Imagicity_1070).jpg


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