The Hydraulophone: An Instrument Played by Flowing Water
An Unusual and Interesting Instrument
A hydraulophone is a musical instrument in which sounds are created by flowing water. It's an unusual and interesting device that can be very expressive when played by a skilled musician. The general public can also create music with the instrument. It's fun and easy to play, although a skilled player can produce a wider variety of sounds than a beginner.
In a hydraulophone, water is pumped into a curved, horizontal tube and spurts out of a series of small holes on the top of the tube. A sounding mechanism is positioned upstream of each hole. If a person places a finger over a hole, the water is directed past the associated sounding mechanism and diverted to another part of the instrument. Each sounding mechanism creates a different note, allowing music to be played. If more than one hole is covered at the same time, multiple notes can be played simultaneously to create polyphony.
The hydraulophone was created in the 1980s by Steve Mann, an engineering professor at the University of Toronto. He explores wearable computers as well as unusual instruments. Ryan Janzen is a leading hydraulophone player and composer.
Origin of the Instrument
In an interview with WaterShapes (which is referenced below), Steve Mann says that the idea for creating a hydraulophone developed gradually in the 1980s. He remembers a specific event that was important in the genesis of the new instrument. He was watching a truck filling some tanks with liquid nitrogen and was intrigued by the sounds produced as the fluid flowed through the pipes. Since then he has built hundreds of hydraulophones. He says that they aren't identical with respect to operation but are actually a family of instruments.
The sound is almost otherworldly, a singing voice of a very special sort. And with practice, you can learn to bend and squeeze notes by the way you press the jets, which allows you to expand the range and create notes that don’t exist on standard instruments.— Steve Mann, via the WaterShapes website
Creating the Sound
The hydraulophone is played like a keyboard instrument but is actually more closely related to a woodwind instrument. In fact, it’s sometimes called a “woodwater“ instrument.
The water is pumped through the instrument by an electric pump, a water or wind powered pump, or a hand pump operated by another person. The water flowing out of the holes is generally collected in a trough to be recirculated.
A variety of sound-producing devices are used in hydraulophones. The diverted jet of water may pass through a valve, a shaft, or a spinning disk containing holes in order to make a sound. Some instruments contain a device similar to those found in wind instruments, such as a single or double reed or a fipple. An example of a fipple is the mouthpiece of a recorder.
Another similarity between hydraulophones and wind instruments is the application of embouchure. Embouchure refers to the shape and position of the lips as they contact the mouthpiece of a wind instrument. The embouchure affects the nature of the sound that's produced.
In a hydraulophone, the fingers can act like the lips of a wind instrument. The sound can be modified by the position of the fingers over the holes as well as by the pressure and velocity of a finger. These factors affect the water current hitting the sounding device, just as embouchure in a wind instrument affects the current of air entering the instrument. For example, the sound of a hydraulophone is slightly different depending on whether a finger approaches a hole from the side or from above. It's also influenced by whether the finger partially or fully closes the hole. The sound created at a hole can be "sculpted" and may have a polyphonic quality.
Range of a Hydraulophone
Hydraulophones are sometimes installed in parks for anyone to use. These generally have twelve holes arranged in a single row and are known as 12-jet diatonic hydraulophones. They have a one and a half octave range, starting on the A below middle C and going up to E. Key valves provide an extended range on some instruments.
More advanced hydraulophones used in concerts have forty-five holes arranged in two rows. They are known as 45-jet chromatic hydraulophones and have a three and a half octave range.
There are three categories of traditional musical instruments: string, wind, and percussion. Steve Mann thinks that water instruments should be a fourth category.
The two hydraulophones outside the Ontario Science Centre in Canada are part of a sculpture. The stainless steel instruments produce their own sounds and also send water out through the openings in large organ pipes, which are driven by hydraulic action. The instruments are available twenty-four hours a day. They form the world's largest outdoor hydraulophone that can be accessed by the public.
An outdoor instrument allows people to have fun creating music even if they don't have an instrument at home. One advantage of water running out of the holes in a public hydraulophone is that it helps to clean the instrument. In fact, hydraulophones are often said to be "self-cleaning".
A Nessie for Creating Music
Some hydraulophones are covered by a colourful material. One end is enlarged and has an opening that resembles a mouth. The other end has an extra curve and resembles a tail. The hydraulophone looks like a strange water creature. It's nicknamed "Nessie" after the Loch Ness Monster. Nessies are especially fun for children to play, especially when the player can take the instrument into the water with them as shown in the video above.
All hydraulophones work in the same fundamental way, but they vary considerably in their sound producing devices. The Nessie shown in the video above has acoustic enhancements to make the sound more musical.
Other Types of Hydraulophones
The design of a hydraulophone can be modified in multiple ways and offers many possibilities with respect to instrument creation. Some varieties of the instrument contain solenoid-operated valves. The valves control the release of water from the holes and enable sounds to be produced with no human player involved. If the valves are disabled the instrument can be played in the usual manner.
Some instruments use electronics to amplify the sound. In these instruments, the turbulence created when a person presses on a hole and changes the water current produces a sound of its own, but this sound is weak. It's picked up and amplified by a hydrophone (an underwater microphone) and then sent to a computer, which plays the sound.
Hot tubs containing hydraulophones are fun for creative relaxation. Since the hydraulist (the musician) is immersed in the liquid used to make the sound, the instrument is often called a balnaphone. This name is derived from "balnea", an Ancient Greek word for bath.
The Callioflute: A Hydraulophone Combined With a Calliope
A calliope is an instrument that sends steam into whistles. A row (or rows) of whistles of different sizes makes up the instrument. The calliope plays a tune based on the whistles that receive the steam. Both pitch and duration of the sound can be controlled. Some calliopes are driven by compressed air instead of steam.
A callioflute is a combination of a calliope and a hydraulophone. The player stops a jet of water with a finger, as in a regular hydraulophone. The water is then rapidly heated and converted to steam. The steam travels into a whistle to produce a sound. Like the hydraulophone, the callioflute was created by Steve Mann. Combinations of a hydraulophone with other instruments have been created.
The hydraulophone is an interesting invention. The instrument can produce concert music for an audience's enjoyment or provide fun for children and adults in parks and museums. Hydraulophones can be used by professional musicians and by people who don't know how to play an instrument. A public hydraulophone allows everyone to play music, even if they can't afford to buy a musical instrument of their own. The instrument also allows a player to be expressive as they learn how to vary the sound that's produced by each hole.
Hydraulophones are used in water and music therapy. Many people find playing in water relaxing. The flow of water jets over the hands can be soothing for some individuals. Instruments with Braille markings by the holes are useful for visually impaired people. Producing music with a hydraulophone can be a creative and enjoyable process.
Questions & Answers
© 2011 Linda Crampton