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10 facts about the waterphone

Unless you’re a pioneer for strange methods of sound production or the film director for a horror film, the chances are that you’ve never heard of OUP’s instrument of the month for August; however, that doesn’t mean that you haven’t heard it being played, and in fact, you probably have without realising!

The Waterphone is a unique, handcrafted instrument. It is named after its creator, Richard Waters, and was patented in 1975. Today, it is scored by both classical and film music composers. The instrument falls into the category of un-tuned percussion, and can be drummed, bowed, or even be used as a flotation device. Here are ten fun facts about this niche and diverse invention.

  • When designing the Waterphone, Richard Waters was inspired by three instruments: the kalimba (an African “thumb piano” that has been exported since the 1950s), the nail violin, and the Tibetan water drum. The resulting instrument combines the characteristics of these three instruments.
  • The Waterphone consists of a diaphragm which can be filled with water through a connecting aperture. The aperture also acts as a resonator. The diaphragm and aperture/resonator constitute the central section of the instrument, and are surrounded by protruding metal rods, known as “tonal rods.”
  • The tonal rods surrounding the water drum are tuned to a combination of micro-tonal and diatonic relationships, using even and uneven increments. This gives the Waterphone a very distinctive sound.
  • The Waterphone is only legitimately made and sold by one company in the United States. Buying the largest one available will cost you around $1700.
Image Credit: The Waterphone by Richard Waters. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
  • Before playing the instrument, one needs to fill the bottom diaphragm and resonator of the instrument with distilled water. The amount of water in the instrument fine tunes its sound–experimenting with varying levels of water may consequently entirely change the timbre of the instrument.
  • The instrument can be played in a variety of ways: one can apply rosin to the rods and a bow and then use the bow to create sound, or apply rosin only to the rods and use damp hands as a substitute bow, or drum the Waterphone by covering the aperture and tapping the bottom and top of the instrument simultaneously. Here’s a helpful demonstration of some of the multifarious sounds you can create with the instrument.
  • By lifting the Waterphone when it is being played, one can swirl the water in the diaphragm, which results in the notes being bent and strange pre-echoes being created.
  • The strange sounds that can be made through note bending makes the Waterphone a perfect instrument for sound effects in film. In fact, it has been utilised in films such as The Poltergeist, The Matrix, and Let the Right One In.
  • The Waterphone has also been used by many classical composers too, reportedly to great effect in Howard Goodall’s song ‘Heart of the Woods’ from the musical The Dreaming.
  • Some have tried to use the Waterphone to make contact with sea animals. Reportedly, bowing the instrument with your hands emulates a whale’s call, and players of the Waterphone have been known to take the instrument into the sea, upturn it, and use it as a buoyancy aid when trying to make contact with these.

Image Credit: Humpback Whale Breaching Ocean by Skeeze. CC0 via Pixabay.

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